After a couple of days almost entirely taken up with details of how the Israelites should worship and how their priests should be set apart, in today’s chapters we’ve got too much going on to cover properly in one post!
The first person ‘filled with divine spirit’
First we have a paragraph which probably belongs with the last couple of days. We’ve heard about the tabernacle, about Aaron and the other priests who are to be set apart for God’s service. But now we hear about who’ll actually make the beautiful things of God. God has filled with his spirit two inspired craftsmen/artists, Bezalel and Oholiab. Bezalel in particular is the first person to be described as ‘filled with divine spirit’. Before we get to any prophets, we have a craftsman who is inspired by God with outstanding skill, and who is called to put God’s instructions, given to Moses, into practice.
Perhaps we need to be reminded that artistic and creative gifts are indeed from God – and are best used in his service. Not just for making and decorating places of worship, but for adding beauty and meaning to our lives and our world.
What gift has God given to you as a creative person? If you’re not sure, try different things until you find the one that makes sense for you!
But be careful what you make…
Unfortunately, Aaron gets creative in the wrong way while Moses is up the mountain speaking with God. Now I do have some sympathy with him and with the Israelites. After all, they’d escaped from Egypt by the strength of God, and they wanted to honour him – and they wanted some assurance that he was with them. As far as they knew, Moses wouldn’t be coming down from the mountain again, and without their leader they fell back to the ideas of religion they’d been used to in Egypt. There, every god was worshipped as an image. And when they got Aaron to make the golden calf, it’s clear that they weren’t breaking the first commandment (you shall have no other gods) but the second (you shall not make images of the LORD). The bull-calf was presumably meant to represent the strength of the LORD and to honour him.
But God was not pleased. The second commandment was there for a reason – to keep the Israelites from exactly this kind of mistake. There’s a long-running debate about the ‘objectification’ of people, especially of women, in the media and above all in all forms of pornography. The understanding we’ve come to is that when we represent people as means to an end, and as ‘objects’ to be thought of and fantasised over without the need for relationship to them as persons, we distort our ideas of people themselves and of how we relate to one another. When God revealed his Name to Moses back in chapter 3, I wrote that he didn’t really give a ‘name’ at all. He gave two things. The statement ‘I AM WHO I AM’ (in other words, he stated his essential existence) and a statement of relationship ‘The God of your fathers’.
To take another idea – I’ve got used to phrases around ‘I didn’t know that was a thing’ – the idea of ‘being a thing’ suggesting a concrete, physical or at least very clearly defined and bounded existence. God is not a thing. God simply is. Or IS. A statue, even made of the most precious metal and representing strength, is ‘a thing’. And so it is not God.
And this matters, because the nature of what we worship defines the limit of our vision of God and of reality. I’m sure that God could cope with us having a wrong idea of him. But Israel couldn’t, and have a hope to be the people God wanted them to be. We can’t cope with having an idea of God that is less than his reality, if we want to raise our vision of what is possible not just for God but for us.
The punishment of Israel
That’s why, perhaps, the punishment of Israel in these chapters is so terrible. The fate of the nation – and because this is the nation that will give birth to Jesus, the fate of the world – is in the balance. Like Abraham arguing with God for the people of Sodom, Moses argues with God and this time God changes his mind – the nation is given a second chance, but only after terrible – and to me distressing – punishment.
I don’t believe that there can ever again be justification for this kind of religious violence. Jesus has come, and the absolute need for a whole nation to be holy no longer applies in the same way. But we should surely apply to ourselves the standards of holiness which were expected of Israel back then. We should be sure that we are worshipping the true and only God, not some lesser image of him. I’m not going to link to online copies of ‘The Screwtape Letters’ by CS Lewis, because I think they’re breaking copyright – but if you have a copy, read chapter 4.
The less the thing we worship, the less we will become.
Approaching the true God is not a ‘safe’ business. On the mountain, Moses is permitted only a glimpse of God as he passes by. When Moses comes out of God’s presence, even the fading light of his face dazzles the people.
Yet through Jesus – through his taking on himself all of the ideas of sacrifice we’ve just thought about – we can approach this God. He becomes the one true image of God, to contemplate whom raises our vision rather than lowering it. Yet still we should approach with caution.
After all that…
If anyone has read all the above, please let me know! As a bit of light relief, I found this…