Bezalel and the Beauty of God’s Temple
Editor's Note: This post is adapted from The Imagination of God: Art, Creativity and Truth in the Bible by Brian Godawa. Brian serves as an advisory board member at Stage & Story.
Philosophy and theology have traditionally been constructed from three components: metaphysics (reality), epistemology (knowledge) and ethics (morality). But I think another ancient formula (from Plato) gets it more right: the Good, the True and the Beautiful. Aesthetics (the study of beauty) is as necessary to our theology as truth and goodness. Yet all too often, it is relegated to a supplemental or optional elective in the curriculum of our faith.
God considers beauty to be an integral part of our relationship with him. The artist is no mere hobbyist but rather a tool in the hand of God for accomplishing that purpose. A closer look at Scripture about the making of the first tabernacle for the worship of God helped to illuminate this importance for me:
Then Moses said to the sons of Israel, “See, the Lord has called by name Bezalel the son of Uri, the son of Hur, of the tribe of Judah. And He has filled him with the Spirit of God, in wisdom, in understanding and in knowledge and in all craftsmanship; to make designs for working in gold and in silver and in bronze, and in the cutting of stones for settings and in the carving of wood, so as to perform in every inventive work. He also has put in his heart to teach, both he and Oholiab, the son of Ahisamach, of the tribe of Dan. He has filled them with skill to perform every work of an engraver and of a designer and of an embroiderer, in blue and in purple and in scarlet material, and in fine linen, and of a weaver, as performers of every work and makers of designs.”
“Now Bezalel and Oholiab, and every skillful person in whom the Lord has put skill and understanding to know how to perform all the work in the construction of the sanctuary, shall perform in accordance with all that the Lord has commanded.” Then Moses called Bezalel and Oholiab and every skillful person in whom the Lord had put skill, everyone whose heart stirred him, to come to the work to perform it. (Ex 35:30—36:2)
It is not insignificant that this is the very first passage in the Bible in which God fills a person with his Spirit; and that person was an artist. It was not mere skill that was required to build this beautiful edifice. It would take an artist to fulfill that blueprint from God. We’re also told God filled Bezalel with wisdom, understanding, knowledge and artistic craftsmanship. The exact same traits God grants to prophets (Num 24:16), priests (1 Sam 2:35), and kings (1 Kings 5:12), yet here he puts it all into an artist. And this wasn’t an isolated incident. Later, another artist by the name of Hiram is described as being filled with “wisdom, understanding and skill” (1 Kings 7:14), and Huram-abi is yet another artisan called a “skilled man, endowed with understanding” (2 Chron 2:13). Artists have a high calling from God.
The tabernacle (and by extension, later, the temple) was the heart of the Jewish religion, the very place of God’s presence in their midst (2 Chron 5:13-6:2). It was the means through which they received atonement for sins. It was the symbolic center of the universe. So God did not take art lightly. But it is important to note here that God did not give every detail of the design, weaving, embroidery and engraving. God left many of the details to the artisans themselves. And he used an internal calling to draw the artists. Art was a holy calling to God, but it was a subjectively experienced one (“everyone whose heart stirred him”).
Lastly, art is not merely a calling, but creativity is shown in Scripture to be a gift from God. The Lord is described as “putting skill” into the artisans and “filling them with skill.” To God, art is not a mere personal fancy, or a side hobby to the real calling in life, like “preaching the Gospel” or some other “spiritualized” sacred thing. No, art is a spiritual calling just as much as prophet, priest or king.
So by way of summary, this passage points up several important aspects of the value of art and artists to God:
God fills artists with his Spirit.
God values art highly.
God values artists highly.
Art is a calling from God.
Creativity is a gift of God.
Suspicion of Images
Even a cursory look at the visual detail that God dictated to Moses for the tabernacle illustrates that imagery is valuable to God; he commands it as part of the holiest of activities—worship. Unfortunately, many Evangelicals and Protestants have adopted a suspicion of imagery in their own worship.
Part of that suspicion of imagery comes from a misinterpretation of the Second Commandment prohibiting the worship of images.
You shall not make for yourself an idol, or any likeness of what is in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the water under the earth. You shall not worship them or serve them; for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God. (Ex 20:4-5)
Some Christians expand the command against worshiping images into a broader suspicion of all images, as if God himself is telling us to avoid imagery in worship because images are manipulative and dangerous, and lead to idolatry.
This is a shameful distortion of Scripture that creates an unbiblical Christian culture. “To use in worship” is not the same thing as “to worship.” Five chapters after God tells the Israelites not to make likenesses of things in heaven or on earth to worship them, he commands the Israelites to make likenesses of things in heaven and on earth to use in their worship of God! God directs artists to make images of angels on the Ark of the Covenant (Ex 25:18). He has them craft almond trees and blossoms on the Holy Place instruments (Ex 25:31). He tells them to make pomegranates on the hems of the high priest (Ex 28:33), along with stones on his breastplate that function as symbolic references to the twelve tribes (Ex 28:25). Later, when God has Solomon build the temple, he adds even more visual images of things in heaven and on earth: huge statues of angels in the Most Holy Place, the location of the very presence of God (1 Kings 6:23-27); an altar imaged as a molten sea on the back of a dozen oxen with a rim like a lily flower (2 Chron 3—4); angels, palm trees and flowers carved and engraved all over the place (1 Kings 6:35); and multitudes of beautiful materials, precious metals, precious stones, rare woods, exotic colorful linens and other architectural visuals (2 Chron 3—4). At the very heart of the covenant worship of God was beautiful sensate imagery.
To all this visual imagery, add loud music (1 Chron 23:5), hundreds of singers singing their theology through psalms (1 Chron 25:6-7) and myriads of dancers (Ps 150), and you have an image-rich experience of God. It now makes more sense what the psalmist meant when he wrote:
One thing I have asked from the Lord, that I shall seek: That I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, To behold the beauty of the Lord And to meditate in His temple. (Ps 27:4, emphasis added)
God’s truth and beauty were reflected in the beautiful imagery of the temple. And the use of such manifold images in worshiping God was not inherently suspicious or idolatrous. Only the use of images as objects themselves of veneration would fit that category. Let us Christian artists press on toward a worshipful use of our imagination in concrete artistic expression, one that uses beauty to embody God’s truth as his tabernacle and temple once did, for we are now his temple on earth!
So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord. In him you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit. (Ephesians 2:19–22)
 As explained later in this book, when God establishes his covenant, he calls it “establishing the heavens and the earth” (Is 51:15-16), and when the temple, as emblem of that covenant, is destroyed in Jeremiah’s time, it is described in terms of the universe returning to the original “darkness and void” of Genesis 1:2 (Jer 4:23 -27).
Brian Godawa is an award-winning Hollywood screenwriter (To End All Wars), a controversial movie and culture blogger (www.Godawa.com), an internationally known teacher on faith, worldviews and storytelling (Hollywood Worldviews), an Amazon best-selling author of Biblical fiction (Chronicles of the Nephilim), and provocative theology (God Against the gods). His obsession with God, movies and worldviews, results in theological storytelling that blows your mind while inspiring your soul. And he’s not exaggerating.