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Bezalel and Oholiab
A great commission
After YHWH had given Moses his design brief for the Tabernacle he also instructed him that he wanted two craftsmen named Bezalel and Oholiab to do the work.
The Tabernacle was not just to be a functional space, but also a work of great beauty and artistry. The God who created the beauty of a stunning sunset was going to dwell with his people in a place which would reflect that same creativity and craftsmanship. For Bezalel and Oholiab this was the greatest commission they had ever received and they must have felt immensely privileged by the opportunity to exercise their gifts to such a great purpose.
But this was also an honour for all the people of Israel. Bezalel of Judah and Oholiab of Dan were representatives of what would be most Southern and Northern tribes in the promised land. They led a team of craftsmen who were no doubt drawn from all the tribes (35:34), and relied on the materials which were contributed by the whole people (36:3-7).
God had graciously spoken his covenantal word and the people would now respond.
... but how could Israel ever provide an appropriate response to the grace they had received? How could a nomadic group of runaway slaves construct the dwelling place of the Lord of the universe?
YHWH's grace is overflowing. He not only graciously spoke and acted to save, but he also graciously provided the response demanded. The people were so moved to make great gifts of precious metals, textiles and wood to build the sanctuary that they had to be held back from giving more than was required (36:6), but all that they gave was what they had been given by God. He had worked wonders in Egypt so that they had left Egypt wealthy rather than not empty handed (3:21-22; 11:2-3). Bezalel and Oholiab were filled with the Spirit of God so that they also had the skills and knowledge to complete their task, and everyone involved in the work received the ability that they had as a gift from YHWH (31:3-6; 35:30-35).
Exodus can frustrate us with the almost exact repetition of God's instructions (25-31) in the account of the construction (35-40). God said "You shall make an altar on which to burn incense; you shall make it of acacia wood. But this repetition hammers home the obedience of the people, and the creative power of God’s word. He said “let there be a Tabernacle” and there was a Tabernacle.
The Tabernacle was the obedient work of Bezalel, Oholiab and all of Israel to their glory, but it was God’s work too.
God’s starter home
But even with God’s enabling there is no getting away from the fact that this was a mere tent. As King David later recognised, it was incongruous that the kings of the ancient world lived in houses of cedar when the “ark of God dwells in a tent” (2 Sam 7:2). So soon enough another Judahite would be leading the construction of a dwelling place for YHWH, massively exceeding the first in grandeur and beauty.
However, even this was not sufficient for YHWH. When Solomon’s great temple had been destroyed, God looked forward to his dream home whose glory was “greater than the former” (Haggai 2:9). Each sanctuary of God may have extended its boundaries further and further but still we must wonder what kind of house could humans ever build for God (Isaiah 66:1; Acts 17:24)?
God’s master plan
Indeed, God’s dream home had never been a tent. He had looked forward a day when the whole cosmos would be filled with his presence. The first tabernacle/temple was the Garden of Eden, the bounds of which Adam and Eve were to extend until they filled the whole earth (Gen 1:28) and the symbolism of much of the Tabernacle and Temple looked back to this garden. It’s not coincidental that in the tabernacle instructions to Moses are structured around 7 occurrences of “YHWH said” (25:1, 30:11, 17, 22, 34, 31:1, 12), where the sixth introduces instructions about personnel and the seventh introduces the Sabbath. A garden full of fruitful life which was worked and kept by humanity was God’s dream home (Gen 2:15; the Heb for ‘work‘ and ‘keep‘ normally referring to priestly activity in the OT).
But as well as looking back the Tabernacle looked forward. The old creation was now lost and just a residual memory of all temple-builders in the world, but entering the Tabernacle people could also see the future New Creation. Isaiah 66 admits that humanity could never build a house sufficient for him (v.1), but looks forward to a day when all the world will come to the house of YHWH (2:2; 66:20) and the only way all these people will fit is if the temple/Jerusalem/Zion is actually a “new heavens and the new earth” which only God can make (v.22). And that is exactly what John sees in Revelation 21 when he is given a vision of a city shaped as a cube, like the Holy of Holies, corresponding to the new heavens and new earth which comes from God. A sanctuary where everyone, including Gentiles, will be priests and worship in the presence of God.
God’s new Tabernacle creator
Humanity (pre-fall) could have completed God’s creation mandate (Gen 1:28) to extend the bounds of the garden-temple to encompass the whole world, but they cannot re-create the cosmos. And re-creation is what is required. It would not be enough for Christians to pick up the creation mandate again because the raw-material has been corrupted. So while we can reduce poverty, we need another to make poverty history. “God’s inability to dwell in any structure on earth not only refers to the Creator’s transcendence but plausibly includes reference to the necessity for purification and re-creation” (p.138, Beale, The Temple and the Church‘s Mission). The whole creation needs to be devoted to destruction, before being brought back to life again. Only then would it be a fit Tabernacle/temple for God to dwell in.
Only God could do this and yet the task was rightly humanity’s.
The good news is that the Tabernacle has been destroyed and rebuilt, by man.
The Word of God through whom all things were made, came to complete the commission given to Adam. The Word who spoke light into being and the Tabernacle into existence, became what he had created. The Holy Spirit empowered this man, as he had empowered Bezalel and Oholiab, to do what no man could ever do (John 1:32). Again God had not only given the command, but provided the response - and this time to the uttermost.
This man built the new tabernacle, the New Creation, by becoming the old, corrupted tabernacle due for demolition; he “tabernacled among us” (lit. 1:14). His body was the temple (2:21), and humanity who had been in the business of demolition since Adam, destroyed it just as he predicted they would from the very beginning of his ministry (2:19).
Instructed by the Father and for the love of his creation, he lay down his life, knowing that by the power of the Spirit he would take it up again (John 20:17-18; Rom 8:11). The temple of his body was destroyed but he raised it up in three days (John 2:19-23). The New Creation came into being on Easter Sunday 2000 years ago, as the firstfruits of Christ’s body was lifted from the grave (1 Cor 15; 2 Cor 5:2).
This New Creation is breaking into the lives of people, as they become part of Christ’s body, the temple of the Holy Spirit (e.g. 1 Cor 3:16; 2 Cor 5:17; Eph 2:21-22; 4:12). The work has been completed and our great commission is to proclaim that to the ends of the earth, encouraging people to participate in the death and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ (Matt 28:18-20). In this way we will build up the temple of God in our generation, accompanied by Christ and empowered by his Spirit as God’s co-workers.
It may not always be pretty. The first Christian martyr Stephen was stoned for preaching this message. He taught that the old temple was to be destroyed (Acts 6:14) and this angered the Jews. They were wedded to this creation and the sin it was mired in, but Stephen saw the Tabernacle and Temple as pointing to something greater. He reminded them “the Most High does not dwell in houses made by hands” (Acts 7:48) and he paid for it with his life. But as he died he saw the future New Creation hidden in heaven. As Moses had seen the heavenly pattern from which to build the first Tabernacle (Acts 7:44; Heb 8:5) when Stephen died he saw “the heavens opened, and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God” (Acts 7:56).
That is the vision we need to see in the glorious Tabernacle built by Bezalel and Oholiab so we can follow their example of intelligent, skilled and creative obedience to our Great Commission.