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The Importance of the Process of Building the Tabernacle -- Exodus 25 and 31

When God Gives Us a Command, He Also Gives Us an Ability


Bible Study Ideas and Commentary for Exodus 25 and 31

This is a great lesson about stewardship. God had enabled the Jews to “plunder” the Egyptians on their way out; now He asks them to voluntarily give back some of that to build His Tabernacle. He also gave the skills necessary for such a complex task. Do we use all of our resources and talents to advance His cause on earth?

They are to make a sanctuary for me so that I may dwell among them. (25:8)

[This post began life as a printed supplement to help small group leaders with their Bible study. It has been updated to work as a blog post.]


Getting Started: Things to Think About

Charitable Giving. We’re talking about the Tabernacle today. God could have built it Himself, but He let the people build it. He could have compelled them to give what was necessary, but He let them donate voluntarily. Charitable giving is still the backbone of services in our country today, filling in the gaps the government cannot (or will not, saving money for other things). Ask your group why Americans give to charitable causes. Before you get too excited, here are some statistics: in 2016, Americans gave $390 billion to charitable causes (2.1% of GDP). 72% of that came from individuals/families. 32% went to religious organizations.


It’s tougher to isolate “tithes”—here’s what I can say: 45% of Americans donated to a religious organization, giving 1.8% of their reported income. Not too impressive. But American individual giving apparently doubles the giving of the next-most generous country in the world, New Zealand (with Canada right behind).


This is the 3rd year in a row America has set a giving record, even counting for inflation. From 1976-2013, giving dropped below 2% of GDP. 2008 and 2009 actually saw decreases in overall giving. We’re back, but most of the giving is not religious in nature. 15% of the giving went to education, 12% to human services, 10% to foundations, and so on. Ask your group what they think drives Americans’ decisions of where and how much to give.


The Incomplete Assembly Kit. I notice that every assembly-required kit I get from Walmart comes with a piece of paper that says, “If something is missing, do not return to the store, call us first.” Here’s an idea: just include everything I need to put this thing together!! Is there anything more frustrating than finding out you don’t have everything you need to do a project? Ask your group to share a story of (1) the most inconvenient time they realized they were short a supply, or (2) the most embarrassing time they realized they didn’t have the right skill to put something together. It matters a whole lot that God went out of His way to give the people the skills and materials they needed to build this Tabernacle (they had to give, of course). God didn’t want them doing the same thing they were doing in Egypt, so He helped them out. Today, how does God help churches get things done through people?


Your Bible Study Group. Your leader guide starts off with this question set—what skills and abilities are needed for your group to function well? What financial resources do you need? I think that’s also a great way to get your group thinking. If there is something you feel called to do but don’t think you can, talk about it with your group. My guess is that God has put the skills and resources at your fingertips without you knowing it.


This Week's Big Idea: The Tabernacle

There are lots of pictures out there on the internet of what people think the Tabernacle looked like (I tend to capitalize that word when referring to “the” Tabernacle). They’re all pretty similar. You can see from the drawing below that the Tabernacle was pretty small compared with the various Temples (the big one is Ezekiel’s “third” Temple). What matters is that the layout is pretty consistent. Your leader guide wants you to relate this layout to Jesus, so here you go:


It starts with the wall. The wall is there to protect us in our sinful condition from God’s all-consuming holiness. But there is a gate—the gate symbolizes that God has made a way for us to be able to come into His presence. In the old world, that way was the altar (animal sacrifice) and laver (ritual cleansing). An animal paid the price for the worshiper’s sin, and with the price paid, the worshiper then washed himself clean before going into the Holy Place of the temple proper. Both of those pointed to Jesus, the perfect once-for-all sacrifice that paid for our sin and cleansed us of our sin. In the inner temple, there was a lampstand (menorah) and a table with the bread of presence and a small altar for incense, and a curtain isolating the Most Holy Place where the Ark of the Covenant was kept in God’s presence. The lampstand symbolized God’s presence, and the bread symbolized God’s provision. They kept 12 cakes on the table at all times, saying that God provided for all Israelites. The incense apparently represented the prayers of the people, although that was not made clear to the Jews. I think it was also about setting a thick atmosphere that could not be ignored or taken lightly (for their protection). Of course, we find out that Jesus is the Light of the World, the Bread from Heaven, and the One who intercedes for us before the Father. The Ark was a tangible representation of God’s presence, a role Jesus took over.



Aside: The Tools of the Trade

I found this really interesting. The Hebrews had to build the tools they needed to construct the Tabernacle from the available natural resources (they had poor trading relationships with the nearby peoples). They also may not have had exactly the right skills and experience from their time in Egypt to build something like the Tabernacle. God had to give them the knowledge for all of this. Seeing these primitive tools should make the Tabernacle that much more impressive. The lower pictures are of chisels and a mallet. The top picture is of an adze, which is a tool still used today for shaping wood.


Aside: The Ark of the Covenant

We don’t know what happened to the Ark, and we don’t know exactly what it looked like. No sense wasting a lot of time talking about the unknown! It contained the tablets of the Ten Commandments, a jar of manna, and Aaron’s staff. On the lid were two cherubim, some kind of angel, whose wings covered the “mercy seat” where God said He would meet with the Israelites (and where the once-a-year atonement for sin was made). It’s important to point out that God made it clear the ark did not represent Him—they were not to worship the ark. It represented a space where God would meet them. And yes, the Jews blew it.


Our Context in Exodus

Exodus contains a few chapters of laws following the Ten Commandments, but then there’s a huge section (chapters 25-31) detailing this special tent where God would meet with His people. There are very elaborate instructions that the people were to follow exactly. There are 5 names for this tent in Exodus: (1) “sanctuary”, meaning a place that was holy; (2) “tabernacle”, meaning a dwelling place; (3) “tent”, emphasizing that this structure was temporary and portable; (4) “tent of meeting”, which referred to the inner tent (called the “temple”) and defined the purpose of the structure; (5) “tabernacle of the testimony”, which specifically meant the tablets of the Ten Commandments. So—in those few words, we are given the nature and purpose of this structure. And note that the Tabernacle was the center place of Israelite worship for 500 years. This section of Exodus also includes instructions for the garments for the priests, as well as the ritual necessary for consecrating them to God’s service.

 

Part 1: The Offering (Exodus 25:1-7)

The Lord spoke to Moses: “Tell the Israelites to take an offering for me. You are to take my offering from everyone who is willing to give. This is the offering you are to receive from them: gold, silver, and bronze; blue, purple, and scarlet yarn; fine linen and goat hair; ram skins dyed red and fine leather; acacia wood; oil for the light; spices for the anointing oil and for the fragrant incense; and onyx along with other gemstones for mounting on the ephod and breastpiece.

There are a couple of easy/key points to make here: (1) God gave the Israelites the privilege of making a voluntary offering; (2) God had previously given them this offering during their miraculous escape from Egypt. Now we see why God “plundered” the Egyptians—not to give the Jews vain goods, but to give them supplies needed for the Tabernacle. You know how when Christians talk about tithing, we say, “Everything belongs to God; He lets us keep 90% of it”? That’s the literal truth here. The Hebrews had been slaves. When God rescued them from Egypt, He did so in such a way that the Egyptians sent them with fancy clothes and valuables. They did nothing to earn those valuables. And now God was allowing them to contribute what they would to building His dwelling place. Can you imagine the gall and audacity of thinking to keep any of that stuff for themselves while wandering around in a desert?? Then make the obligatory application: “Don’t we do that today with our lives, talents, and money? Can any of us say that we have something valuable that didn’t come from God (when the air we breathe is something He created)?” When you put it in those terms, this offering only make sense.


Some comments about the list. These were all the items needed to build the Tabernacle. The colors would have been approximate (all coming from natural dyes; shellfish produced a range of blues and mollusks produced a range of purples; the most interesting one was “scarlet” which comes from a tiny female insect that lives in the kermes oak tree). Ancient Egyptian linen had a high thread count even by today’s standards. Coarse and tough goat hair would make a strong outer tent covering; they would have been covered with the waterproof ram skins. We don’t know what the word for “fine leather” means; some speculate a marine animal.



The oil, spices, and gemstones were not for the Tabernacle itself but the priests and their work. I am out of space to discuss the ephod here.


Aside: Acacia Wood

Acacia wood is a “thing” today. You can find sites that sell it for tables, flooring, shelving, and more. Why? For two basic reasons that God wanted the Hebrews to use it in their construction: it is absolutely beautiful, and for whatever reason wood-eating insects don’t like it.


Someone also said that it is so dense that it resists rot and decay. Most importantly for the Hebrews, Acacia is one of the few species of trees that grows in the Sinai and Arabian regions, and it is also about the largest. Can we call it a coincidence that God put a uniquely perfect tree for the construction of the Tabernacle is the location that the Hebrews needed it? Of course not.


Acacia is actually most commonly found in Australia and central Africa, which is why we have access to it in the western world (“shittim” in Arabia, “wattle” in Australia). Apparently the Hebrews harvested so much acacia wood building the Tabernacle that it became scarce and thus extremely valuable.


The ark, the table of showbread, the bronze altar frame, the incense altar, and all of the curtain frames were made out of acacia wood

 

Part 2: The Purpose (Exodus 25:8-9)

They are to make a sanctuary for me so that I may dwell among them. You must make it according to all that I show you—the pattern of the tabernacle as well as the pattern of all its furnishings.

God made it clear why they were to be so precise in this construction: He would dwell there. Doesn’t the purpose make a difference in how you go about your work? It does for me. When I build a chicken coop or duck lean-to, I use scrap wood. When I’m doing work in the living room, I try to be a lot more careful. If I were building a house for God, it would have to be something else! It would be a “sanctuary”—a holy place, and as the Bible Project video so helpfully described, everything in it reminds us of the very first sanctuary, the Garden of Eden. The word “pattern” is also a big deal; the author of Hebrews used an equivalent word to explain that the Tabernacle was a “copy” of heavenly things (Heb 8:5). He did not mean the physical structure! There is no sin in heaven that needs to be dealt with at an altar. Rather, it all points to the Lamb of God, who has enabled us to be in heaven at all. That’s a great reason to worship with all our hearts this week!

 

Part 3: The Leaders (Exodus 31:1-6)

The Lord also spoke to Moses: “Look, I have appointed by name Bezalel son of Uri, son of Hur, of the tribe of Judah. I have filled him with God’s Spirit, with wisdom, understanding, and ability in every craft to design artistic works in gold, silver, and bronze, to cut gemstones for mounting, and to carve wood for work in every craft. I have also selected Oholiab son of Ahisamach, of the tribe of Dan, to be with him. I have put wisdom in the heart of every skilled artisan in order to make all that I have commanded you.

Now we get to the payoff the Lifeway writers were aiming for. God had given the Israelites a monumental task, but He also gave them the skills and materials necessary. God took care of them! On the back page, I say a little bit about the difference between a spiritual gift and a natural ability. I think what God did here was unique—He identified by name the people who would receive this supernatural knowledge (i.e. this is not an open-to-all gift). And this need should only make sense. The Hebrews were slaves; Egyptians weren’t going to allow them anywhere near a gemstone to learn how to shape it. But here is a big takeaway from this revelation: the wisdom of the Spirit of God is more than spiritual—it is also natural. When we become a Christian, the Spirit of God fills us. He enables us to learn more about God, God’s purposes for humanity, and God’s plan of salvation. But there is a very “practical” side effect to such knowledge: it’s how He designed the universe and humanity to work. When we tap into our relationship with God, we become more of what we were meant to be. In other words, if God designed us to be a craftsman, then when the Spirit helps us clean out all of the junk in our hearts and minds, we can become a “better” craftsman.


God’s calling for humans is not just to spiritual matters. God does not just call preachers and evangelists. God’s first command to Adam and Eve was to fill the earth and subdue it. Those are natural tasks requiring natural skills. This little exchange with Bezalel and Oholiab proves that God has just as much to say over our abilities to build safe structures, be forward thinking in planning, and use wise labor practices. I would say that God does not need to grant these things as “spiritual gifts” today because we have access to schools and training. However, ask your group if, when they were working on some big project, they had some sort of “nudge” telling them “do it this way”. That’s happened to me before. I have to think it was the Spirit of God helping me do my work better. I know this has happened to foremen who noticed a safety hazard that everybody else had missed.


Your main points: (1) the Tabernacle points us to Jesus—Jesus has enabled us to live forever with God. (2) Everything we have comes from God, so we should use it all for His glory and purposes in our world. Your main applications: (1) Don’t take for granted the privilege of being with God. Worship Him with joy today! (2) Are you using your resources, money, and talents to serve God? If you have time, ask your group to brainstorm ways that God could use the gifts and abilities that people in your group have. Maybe they hadn’t realized how useful their abilities are! Share stories of how good *you* felt when you had a chance to use a skill or life experience to help the church, the community, or a neighbor. Remind your group that we don’t have a Tabernacle now because we don’t need it—everywhere we go is in God’s presence!


Aside: Who Is Bezalel?

It’s amazing how little we know about this guy. I can imagine God telling Moses, “I have appointed Bezalel to the work,” and Moses running out to Joshua, “Who’s Bezalel?!” We know that he was of Judah and the great-grandson of Caleb (1 Chr 2:20). If Caleb was the same spy of Numbers 13, that would mean Bezalel was incomprehensibly young. It might have been a different Caleb. In other words, Bezalel was “just a guy”—potentially a respected craftsman already, but he had no special family or political ties to this position of importance.

 

Closing Thoughts: Spiritual Gifts vs. God-given Skills

Ask your group if they have taken a Spiritual Gifts Inventory. There are lots online for free (usually those sites play up the miraculous gifts, so they need to take them with a grain of salt), and every Christian should be aware of their personal tendencies—perhaps those tendencies are reflections of God’s spiritual gifts to them. Anyway, on about half of those inventories, you will find a category called “craftsmanship” which always ties directly to our passage this week and Bezalel in particular. It is clear in our passage that God gave Bezalel a special, supernatural gift of craftsmanship. But nowhere else in the Bible is anyone said to receive such a gift, and that is why many spiritual gift inventories do not include craftsmanship as an ongoing gift available today. Instead, those authors say that God has given people today natural proclivities and talents that they can choose to develop for His glory or not (like in music, art, woodworking, etc.).


We all know that some people are more gifted at things like art than others. Some people are better athletes than others. Better singers than others. Are those superior physical and mental abilities spiritual gifts? Of course not—one does not have to be a Christian to be an excellent singer. A “spiritual gift” is by definition something God bestows on Christians that will supernaturally help them serve Him and His church on earth. Bezalel needed knowledge and skill to build the Tabernacle—knowledge and skill that did not exist among the Jews at the time! If God did not give Bezalel that knowledge, the Tabernacle would not have been built!


Don’t we potentially need those “gifts” today? Well, no. Christianity is not supposed to be focused on buildings at all. The church is the people, not the building. Consequently, I do not believe “craftsmanship” is a spiritual gift today. Rather, it is a natural ability that Christians can (and should) choose to use in God’s service.

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