A Theology of Work and Art (Exodus 25-40)

Exodus 31:1-6 Then the Lord said to Moses, “See, I have chosen Bezalel son of Uri, son of Hur, of the tribe of Judah, and I have filled him with the Spirit of God, with skill, ability and knowledge in all kinds of crafts– to make artistic designs for work in gold, silver and bronze, to cut and set stones, to work in wood, and to engage in all kinds of craftsmanship. Moreover I have appointed Oholiab, son of Ahisamach, of the tribe of Dan, to help him. Also I have given skill to all the craftsmen to make everything I have commanded you.

Almost the entire last half of the book of Exodus is dedicated to the minute detail God gives to Moses for the construction of the Tabernacle, including the Ark of the Covenant, altars, tables, lampstands, courtyard, garments for the priests, basins, oil and incense. This description takes up six chapters on its own. Then there is an incident involving a little idol worship for a few chapters to which we shall return and then five final chapters describing again in detail the Tabernacle as it is constructed. For fans of John Grisham this reading is excruciating in its detail and repetition.

Ellen Davis has a wonderful section of her book Scripture, Culture and Agriculture discussing this portion of Exodus and its import for a theology of work and art. I do not have the book with me here, but recall that the choosing of Bezalel, his helper, Oholiab, and other craftsmen to the task of constructing the Tabernacle points out the importance and role of both work and art in the Israelite community, and therefore the Christian community. Both artists and the working class have marginal places within the modern North American church. On the one hand artistic expression seems superfluous and unnecessary (notice the contrast of megachurch buildings designed primarily for their function with the incredible architecture of gothic cathedrals). On the other hand, the working class fills pews as merely warm bodies there to be told what to believe by the authorities from the pulpit. If that last sentence sounds shocking, think about how often you have heard a plumber or construction worker exegeting Scripture for the congregation.

Sandwiched between exquisite descriptions of instructions and construction of the Tabernacle is the infamous Golden Calf incident. It’s important to remember that the people did not just pull the idea of worshiping a golden calf out of thin air. There were other nations that practiced some religion that worshiped a god in this form (I can’t recall if this was the baals of Canaanite religion or something else). Like many of the various religions of the time this had a lot to do with fertility. The gods represented forces that were beyond their control and that they could only hope to placate, if not manipulate, for their own survival. While Moses receives intricate details about constructing the dwelling place of God, the people become restless. They ask Aaron to make them “gods who will go before us” (32:1) and Moses’ right hand man obliges saying, “Take off the gold earrings that your wives, your sons and your daughters are wearing and bring them to me” (32:2). This is a direct contrast to the previous instructions to Moses about the people’s offering for the construction of the Tabernacle,

The Lord said to Moses, “Tell the Israelites to bring me an offering. You are to receive the offering from each man whose heart prompts him to give. These are the offerings you are to receive from them: gold, silver, bronze; blue, purple and scarlet yarn and fine linen; goat hair; ram skins dyed red and hides of sea cows; acacia wood; olive oil for the light; spices for the anointing oil and for the fragrant incense; and onyx stones and other gems to be mounted on the ephod and breastpiece.” (25:1-8)

Two things stand out to me: 1) the offerings here are given freely as each’s “heart prompts him to give” and 2) there is more opportunity for people to contribute with the many different materials needed for construction. I’m not sure how many former Egyptian slaves would have had gold earrings (unless perhaps this was a symbol of their bondage). Aaron’s request is simple and direct and does not require the cooperation of the whole community, whereas the instructions Moses received seem to require an enormous amount of cooperation, particularly for people who are supposed to be wandering through the wilderness. So, it seems that this episode of the Golden Calf is meant to stand as a contrast to the instructions and construction of the Tabernacle. One requires the contributions, “skill, ability and knowledge” of the whole community, in particular craftsmen, artisans and manual laborers, while the other requires only one man taking the material wealth of the community and making “an idol cast in the shape of a calf, fashioning it with a tool” (32:4), a blunt description compared to the intricacy of the Tabernacle. In short, the idol is a short cut. It is an attempt to find the easy way out when patience runs out.

Industrial agriculture is our golden calf, not the Tabernacle. It has turned work that many have described as an art into an idol that we can manipulate through petroleum sacrifices and placate with burnt offerings of glyphosate and transgenic seeds. It is the easy way out. We must recover the kind of love of work and art that spends such detail on the construction of a Tabernacle and remember that it is for the presence of God. I am reminded of some lines from Wendell Berry’s poem The Contrariness of the Mad Farmer,

I have planted by the stars in defiance of the experts and tilled somewhat by incantation and by singing and reaped as I knew by luck and heaven’s favor in spite of the best advice.

The truth is that a theology of work and art stands in intimate relationship with the subject of our labor and does not make of it an object. When industrial agriculture reduces our relationship with the earth to percentages of N-P-K, it objectifies the Creator that called it good. Work and art are more than functional acts that produce products to be consumed and thrown away. Rather they produce relationships with the Creator and all of God’s creatures, human and non-human, plant and animal, that produce life.

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