Digging Deeper: On the Usefulness of the Aesthetic

I was reading today in Exodus 25 and 26 (the instructions for creating the pieces for the Tabernacle). Honestly, when I read some of these history passages, I tend to rush through the details. It may be history that really happened, but how can the length of cloth measured in cubits have any real meaning for my life?

I was challenged on that thinking recently in a Bible study on the book of John – one of my all-time favorite accounts from the life of Jesus is in John 4, the Samaritan Woman at the Well. The details in that story add depth upon depth to the account, and make it meaningful, and I know this. So as I started a one-year Bible reading plan, I decided to allow the text to speak through details in the “boring” history sections the same way it does in the more “relevant” Gospel accounts and apostolic letters.

Today. Exodus 25 and 26. So many amazing things jumped out of me – all because of hammered gold almond blossoms and cubits and cubits of linen.

  • Artisans were about to be put to work.

I can imagine that while trekking through the desert, there were people who suddenly felt useless. They would have been highly skilled, highly trained, highly valued slaves in Egypt, all because they were able to create with their hands what they saw in their minds. But the ability to shape a single piece of gold into the likeness of any person or thing you can imagine would not do a whole lot to keep your family fed while you wander in the wilderness. Weavers of cloth might be able to keep their families warm, but the satisfaction of creating something beautiful to the eye and pleasing to the hand would be gone. Value had shifted from form to function. Usefulness was determined by who was able to help the community function.

Ephesians 2:10 tells us that God created us for good works, works that He “prepared beforehand” for us. As someone who makes things by hand, I sometimes wonder if I contribute “enough” to the Kingdom. Goodness, as a mom with a full time secular career I wonder that. But here in Exodus, I find people just like me, prepared by upbringing and situation to be in the exact place God needed to fulfill His purpose. Usefulness is not determined by what we do, but by how we do it – cheerfully, obediently, skillfully, and with complete commitment.

  • God provided very detailed instructions – for a temporary dwelling.

The Tabernacle was a tent, and was never meant to be a permanent worship site. Even though it was temporary, God still wanted the best materials set aside. He wanted the top craftspeople. He wanted things done in a way that would make the space beautiful and worthy of His holiness. He wanted it done right.

I’m the kind of person who likes to have all the instructions up front before I start something. (Unfortunately, I usually skim them – it’s that whole “boring detail” thing, and yes, it gets me into trouble sometimes.) I like to plan my course, and have an idea of the end date of whatever the something is. I strongly dislike the feeling of being “kept in the dark” or, even worse, having to play catch up because I didn’t understand what I was supposed to do.

And the Christian life is no different for me – I think that I want detailed instructions. I think I want to know all the variables, and how the pieces fit together, and exactly when things will happen. But you know, just in reading these details about the specifications for the curtains that made up the tent covering… I was overwhelmed. And it isn’t even on me to get that right. Someone else a long time ago took care of that. So while it’s frustrating to not know the bigger purpose, I’m glad to only have my next step in front of me each day.

The Tabernacle was (and this life is) temporary. God has set a finite time for its service – and mine. And yet He wants my life to be beautifully crafted, to His specifications, for His glory. That’s a pretty big thought.

  • The detailed instructions (ultimately) enabled the Israelites to continue to worship God when they wandered through the wilderness, taking the Tabernacle down and putting it up, over and over again, for 40 years (and beyond!!).

The wandering in the wilderness was their punishment for disobedience, rebellion, and a lack of faith. Here’s the thing, though – the instructions were provided that would make worship possible long before the punishment was levied. God saw the offense they would commit and provided a way for the people to stay in communion with Him even as they served out a punishment that kept them from the promised land. And thinking back to the last point – there’s no mention in the text of God explaining the purpose to Moses. Moses knew they weren’t at their destination yet, and for that reason the Tabernacle had to be portable, but even as he took down the instructions and conveyed them to the people, he had no idea of the importance of the method of construction.

How much of the mundane portions of my life are just the construction phase for God’s greater purpose? The weaving phase? The melting and purifying and shaping phase? To the same level that I want instructions, I also want to know and feel that things matter. I want the emotional highs, the overwhelming sense of God’s presence, the joy of doing what He’s called me to do. But not every moment of my life will be like that. God has designed our lives with construction phases. Any artisan knows that the time spent creating is almost as precious as the moment it’s finished or put to use.

  • God wanted to be right in the center of the people – His complaining, disobedient people.

This struck me right at the outset of the reading. The whole purpose for the Tabernacle was so God would have a place in the center of His people for them to worship – not in thunder on a mountain that they feared, but as He met with Moses, face to face, as a man meets with his friend (Exodus 33:11). He wanted the ark containing the Law to be at their center, so they would remember that He had taken them out of Egypt, and He would lead them to the Promised Land.

And He still has that desire today. He wants to be with us. Not to bless us, or do things for us, or orchestrate events in a way that will lead to prosperity. He is near enough that we can find comfort, but He also wants us to remember what He’s done, seek His counsel and His character, and follow His plans. He wants us to join His team, to partner with Him in the work He’s set out for us. I think too often we try to invite God to join our team – we like that He will work things out for our good, but we forget to seek His definition of good.

So as I sum up my musing for today, I take away a few key thoughts:

  • It’s easy to think that my skills don’t matter because they don’t seem as useful as what other people have. That’s when I need to remember that God found a way to use goldsmiths in the desert.
  • Temporary. But still designed and purposed to glorify God.
  • Stop resisting the “construction phase” – it’s part of the plan, too! Just follow the instructions He’s given.
  • Keep God at the center – this isn’t a platitude. Actively remember what He’s done, and look with anticipation for what He wants to do next.

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