by Lisa Smith
The story of the Tabernacle seems dry in comparison to everything else going on in the book of Exodus. Burning bushes, parting seas, clouds of fire and smoke, a golden calf – all seem more engaging than chapter after chapter of lists, details, and instructions.
But this (not so little) story is the heritage of all artists and makers. It is the God-ordained prototype for co-creation in the world. In this story, makers were tasked with building nothing less than a dwelling place for the Spirit of God. They are a forgotten priesthood of sorts whose prayers were physical acts of making, offered up to God for the good of the people.
Unfortunately for generations of artists and makers, this significant story of calling has often been obscured by translation. “Wise-heart” is made up of the two Hebrew words: “Hāk-māh” (Wisdom) and “Lêb” (heart). Throughout the Bible, the phrase pops up to describe skill or deep wisdom about something (as in; “to know by heart.”) In Exodus 35:10 the wise-heartedness corresponds to artistic and crafts work. So, it is translated most accurately as “highly skilled artisans, or artists.”
Yet, many more contemporary translations simply use the word “skilled.”
“All who are skilled among you are to come and make everything the Lord has commanded…” Exodus 35:10 (NIV)
Which is technically correct but does nothing to help us uncover the significance of the artistic calling. It also fails to include the implication of the kind of art making that is required. The story of the golden calf comes just before the account of the Tabernacle, making it easy to contrast the hearts (and skill) of both sets of creators. It is clear that idol making and Tabernacle making differ greatly.
By calling those who are “wise-hearted,” God is requiring more than technical skill. The craft of the wise-hearted one is connected to a deeper maturity. In ancient traditions the heart was not considered the emotional center of the body; rather it was the seat of deeper wisdom. For these wise-hearted ones, craft and faithfulness were intertwined. And this gift of faith-filled artistry was given to them in order that they would have the taste and sensibility to create the Tabernacle aesthetic as designed by God.
It’s difficult to read eleven chapters of intricate instruction on everything from decoration and fashion to perfume and bread making and miss that aesthetics matter to God. And so, God determined that the task of making the Invisible Presence visible in order that the Israelites could live in embodied closeness with Him was not a task for a political leader, priest or administrator. It was a task that required a particular skill and training. Furthermore, it required a particular sensibility because the aesthetic function of the Tabernacle would be integral to the practical functions; it would be the means by which God made His presence known; formed and disciplined His people.
These were artists called by God to serve as artists – because the aesthetics mattered.
Too often, in my experience, artists feel (are treated) like misfits in the Church. Too many are confused about the validity and value of their work and sensibilities. And this is a problem because, their biblical calling as wise-hearted ones is no less applicable and urgent for our time. To make the invisible presence of God visible in our midst takes skill, artistry, taste and faithfulness. It is a calling given with as much purpose, intentionality and weight as that of any great leader, warrior or administrator in the Bible.
Exodus 35:10 is an invitation: “Let all who are wise-hearted come.” It is a call as active and real today as it was thousands of years ago. Artists are invited to come at God’s behest to co-create the environments and cultures that will (re)shape us for the future. Perhaps now is a moment for artists of faith to reclaim and find strength in their heritage as Wise-Hearted Ones.
Rev. Lisa Cole Smith is an actor, director, and pastor in the Washington, DC area. She is the founder of Convergence: A Creative Community of Faith and is currently finishing a grant project from the Louisville Institute to create training and spiritual formation resources for artists as culture makers.