Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers
And the LORD spake unto Moses, saying,XXXI.
THE APPOINTMENT OF BEZALEEL AND AHOLIAB.
(1-11) The instructions needed for the making of the tabernacle, its furniture, and the priests’ dresses, were now complete. Moses was sufficiently informed, by what he had heard and seen, both as to the “Tent of Meeting” itself, and as to all its appurtenances and paraphernalia. But Moses was not himself an artist. Among the branches of knowledge comprised in his Egyptian education the skill of the artistic constructor had not been included. (See Excursus B. at the end of the Book.) It was therefore necessary that the manual work of carrying out the instructions given him should be entrusted to others. We might have expected that it would have been left to Moses to select the individuals from among the thousands of artificers who had accompanied him out of Egypt. But God saw fit to mark the importance of the work by taking the direct appointment of the persons to be employed upon Himself. He knew what was in man. He knew to whom he had given the highest artistic power, and who at the same time that they possessed it would work in the most religious spirit. He accordingly named two persons, Bezaleel and Aholiab, as those to whom the superintendence of the whole business should be given. Bezaleel was to be leader and chief, Aholiab assistant. Bezaleel’s task was to be general, Aholiab’s, apparently, special (Exodus 38:23). Both, however, were to receive the special assistance of God’s Holy Spirit for the due execution of their respective tasks (Exodus 31:3-6), and both, as chosen instruments of God, and faithful workers in His service, had their names equally commemorated in His Holy Book, and were thus upheld as examples to future ages.
See, I have called by name Bezaleel the son of Uri, the son of Hur, of the tribe of Judah:(2) I have called by name.—It is a high honour to be called of God by name. He thus calls only those whom He appoints to some great work, as Moses (Exodus 3:4; Exodus 33:12), Samuel (1Samuel 3:10), and Cyrus (Isaiah 45:3-4).
Bezaleel the son of Uri, the son of Hur.—Hur, the grandfather of Bezaleel, is generally supposed to be identical with the Hur who supported Moses’s hands (Exodus 17:12), and was left joint regent with Aaron when Moses went up into Mount Sinai (Exodus 24:14). There is, however, no evidence of this beyond the identity of the name.
And I have filled him with the spirit of God, in wisdom, and in understanding, and in knowledge, and in all manner of workmanship,(3-4) I have filled him with the spirit of God . . . to devise cunning works.—“Every good gift and every perfect gift (intellectual power no less than others) is from above, and cometh down from the Father of lights” (James 1:17). Artistic ability is a Divine gift, a very precious gift, best employed in God’s direct service, and always to be employed in subordination to His will, as an improving, elevating, and refining—not as a corrupting—influence.
In wisdom, and in understanding, and in knowledge.—By “wisdom” is probably meant the power to invent and originate artistic forms; by “understanding,” the ability to appreciate artistic suggestions received from others; by “knowledge,” acquaintance with the methods and processes of art. Bezaleel was to possess all these gifts.
In all manner of workmanship.—He was also to possess that wonderful dexterity of hand on which the power of artistic execution mainly depends.
To devise cunning works, to work in gold, and in silver, and in brass,(4-5) Cunning works . . . in gold, and in silver, and in brass, and in cutting of stones
. . .—It is a characteristic of early art that it eschews specialism, and it is as nearly universal as possible. Theodore of Samos (ab. B.C. 600-560) was an architect, a worker in bronze, and an engraver of hard stones. Michael Angelo was an architect, painter, and sculptor. Giotto was the same, and also a worker in mosaic. It is some time before, in each particular people or country, the imitative arts become separated, and each artist aspires to eminence in one branch only. (Comp. the multiform artistic powers ascribed to Hiram of Tyre in chap. 214.)
In cutting of stones, to set them—i.e., in gem-engraving. This branch of art was needed for engraving the names of the tribes upon the two onyxes of the ephod (Exodus 28:9), and upon the twelve precious stones of the breastplate (Exodus 28:17-18). It was an art very early practised both in Chaldæa and in Egypt. (See Note 2 on Exodus 28:8.)
In carving of timber.—Rather, cutting of timber. The woodwork of the sanctuary was not “carved,” but plain.
And I, behold, I have given with him Aholiab, the son of Ahisamach, of the tribe of Dan: and in the hearts of all that are wise hearted I have put wisdom, that they may make all that I have commanded thee;(6) Aholiab, the son of Ahisamach.—It has been observed above (see the first Note on the chapter) that Bezaleel’s work was general, Aholiab’s, special. Our version, indeed, styles the latter “an engraver, and a cunning workman, and an embroiderer” (Exodus 38:23), from which it might be supposed that, like Bezaleel, he cultivated various branches of art. In the original, however, nothing is said of engraving, and the true meaning seems to be that Aholiab had the charge of the textile fabrics needed for the sanctuary, and directed both the weaving and the embroidery, but did not intermeddle in other matters. (See Note on Exodus 38:23).
Of the tribe of Dan.—The tribe of Dan is among the most undistinguished; but it produced two great artists—Aholiab, the skilful maker of the textile fabrics of the tabernacle, and Hiram, the master workman employed in the ornamentation of Solomon’s temple (2Chronicles 2:14).
All that are wise hearted.—On the expression “wise hearted,” see Note 1 on Exodus 28:3.
The tabernacle of the congregation, and the ark of the testimony, and the mercy seat that is thereupon, and all the furniture of the tabernacle,(7-11) The enumeration of the holy objects follows the order of the instructions given concerning them (Exodus 25-30), except that the tabernacle itself is placed first, and the altar of incense mentioned in its natural position, together with the table of shewbread and the golden candlestick (Exodus 31:8).
And the cloths of service, and the holy garments for Aaron the priest, and the garments of his sons, to minister in the priest's office,(10) The cloths of service.—Modern critics generally suppose the state robes of the high priest to be meant (Keil, Knobel, De Wette, Kalisch, Cook); but the Rabbinical interpreters understand the cloths in which the ark and other vessels of the sanctuary were wrapped when the camp was moved from place to place (see Numbers 4:6-13). These, like the cloths here spoken of (Exodus 39:1), were to be of blue, and purple, and scarlet; and it would be natural to distinguish them from the “holy garments,” as is done both here and also in Exodus 35:19; Exodus 39:1; Exodus 39:41. They had, however, not been previously mentioned in the directions. Perhaps the true explanation is, that under the words “cloths of service” (bigdey sĕrâd, or bigdeh hassĕrâd) are included both the garments of Aaron and also those of his sons, the two later clauses of the verse being exegetical of the first clause. In that case, we should translate: The robes of service, both the holy garments for Aaron the priest, and also the garments of his sons. Exodus 39:41 is decidedly favourable to this interpretation.
(12-17) The worship of the tabernacle was so closely connected with Sabbatical observance (Leviticus 19:30), that no surprise can be felt at a recurrence to the subject in the present place. It was not only that there might be a danger of zealous men breaking the Sabbatical rest in their eagerness to hasten forward the work of construction now required of them. The re-enactment of the Law might serve to check this tendency if it existed; but clearly the present passage is not specially directed to so narrow an object. It is altogether general in its aim and teaching. It re-enacts the law of the Sabbath (1) under a new sanction; and (2) with new light in its intention and value. Hitherto the Sabbath had been, in the main, a positive enactment intended to test obedience (Exodus 16:4); now it was elevated into a sacramental sign between God and His people (Exodus 31:13). Having become such a sign, it required to be guarded by a new sanction, and this was done by assigning the death-penalty to any infraction of the law of Sabbath observance (Exodus 31:14-15).
Speak thou also unto the children of Israel, saying, Verily my sabbaths ye shall keep: for it is a sign between me and you throughout your generations; that ye may know that I am the LORD that doth sanctify you.(13) It is a sign between me and you.—Circumcision had been given as a covenant sign to Abraham and his descendants (Genesis 17:9-13); but its adoption by many of the heathen nations had rendered it no longer a distinguishing mark by which God’s people could be certainly known from others. Thus a new “sign” was needed. The observance of one day in seven as a day of holy rest became henceforth the distinguishing sign, and proved effectual. It was not likely to be adopted, and in point of fact was not adopted, by any of the heathen. We find it in the latest time of the Jewish nation still regarded as the special mark and badge of a Jew (Juv. Sat. vi. 159, 14:96; Mart. Epig. 4:4, 50:7, &c.).
Ye shall keep the sabbath therefore; for it is holy unto you: every one that defileth it shall surely be put to death: for whosoever doeth any work therein, that soul shall be cut off from among his people.(14) Every one that defileth it shall surely be put to death.—This is a new enactment, and must be regarded in conjunction with the new dignity attached to Sabbath observance by its having become the special covenant sign between God and His people. The Sabbath-breaker now threw himself out of covenant with God, and not only so, but did what in him lay to throw the whole people out of covenant. His guilt was therefore great, and the assignment to it of the death-penalty is in no way surprising; rather, it is in accordance with the general spirit of the code (see Exodus 21:16-17; Exodus 21:29; Exodus 22:18-20, &c.). When the occasion arose, there was no hesitation in carrying the law out (Numbers 15:32-35).
Cut off.—Or, separated, set apart from. His act at once cast him out from the number of God’s people, made him an outlaw, ipso facto excommunicated him.
Six days may work be done; but in the seventh is the sabbath of rest, holy to the LORD: whosoever doeth any work in the sabbath day, he shall surely be put to death.(15) Six days.—Comp. Exodus 20:9.
The sabbath of rest.—Rather, a sabbath of rest, or a complete rest. The repetition (sabbath sabbâthôn) gives an idea of completeness.
It is a sign between me and the children of Israel for ever: for in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, and on the seventh day he rested, and was refreshed.(17) For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth.—Whatever other grounds there were for Sabbath observance, this idea always lay at its root. Man was through it to be made like unto his Maker—to have from time to time a rest from his labours, as God had had (Genesis 2:2-3)—and thereby to realise the blessedness of that final rest which he may be sure “remaineth for the people of God.”
(18) The termination and crown of the entire conference which Moses had held with God on Mount Sinai for forty days and forty nights (Exodus 24:18) was the committal to his hands of the two tables of testimony which had been promised before the ascent into the mount was made (Exodus 24:12), and which were pre-supposed in the entire arrangement of the sanctuary. The Court pre-supposed the tabernacle; the outer chamber of the tabernacle, or holy place, was a mere vestibule to the inner chamber, or holy of holies: the inner chamber was a receptacle for the ark; and the ark was a chest or coffer constructed to contain the Two Tables. The entire design having been laid down, it was a first step towards the carrying out of the design to put into the hands of Moses that treasure with a view to which all the directions concerning the tabernacle had been given.
Written with the finger of God.—Comp. Exodus 24:12, where God speaks of “commandments which He has written.” We must understand that the tables were inscribed by some supernatural process, and not by any human hand. The exact nature of the supernatural process is not revealed to us.