Arts programs are often the first ones to get cut when budgets are tight and artists are often not paid very well. Just by looking at the world, the arts don’t seem to be all that important.
But are the arts important? And an even scarier question from my own spiritual journey: are the arts important to God?
This article shares what I have come to believe in my own life. I look forward to having an open discussion with you about these ideas in the comments below!
Bezalel was a real person. He lived at the time of Moses and was part of the gigantic exodus of the nation of Israel: thousands and thousands of people who left their slavery in Egypt to find their “Promised Land.”
Bezalel was an artist—a very gifted artist. I don’t know what he did as a slave in Egypt, but he was described as someone who was trained as a designer, a builder, a wood worker, and a jewelry maker. He knew how to turn imaginative designs into practical installations: his abilities make me think of a design director or even a theatrical producer.His part of the story begins when Moses is alone on the top of Mount Sinai. During this time, God gave instructions to Moses, as leader of the people, telling him how to cross the desert to what is described as “a land of milk and honey,” a new safe home. Surprisingly, a large part of these instructions involved God commissioning Bezalel to create an enormous arts project.
He was told to design and build a special portable container they called the “Ark of the Covenant” which would be used to carry the stone tablets inscribed with the Ten Commandments that God had given Moses on the mountain. The Ark was about 5 feet by 2 feet by 2 feet in size, constructed of acacia wood with two beautiful sculpted angels on top—all of which was covered in hammered gold. In addition, there were to be a vast assortment of other artistically made objects surrounding the Ark.
Bezalel must have felt somewhat overwhelmed by the size of this project and the personal responsibility placed upon him as an artist. But God did an amazing thing: He filled Bezalel with “the Spirit of God.” Here’s how it is described in the Bible in the Book of Exodus.
“Then the Lord said to Moses, ‘See, I have chosen Bezalel . . . and have filled him with the Spirit of God, with the skill, ability and knowledge in all kinds of crafts—to make artistic designs for work in gold, silver and bronze, to cut and set stones, to work in wood, and to engage in all kinds of craftsmanship.'”Exodus 31:1-5
In addition, God gave Bezalel a team of artists and builders to work with. God continues:
“Moreover, I have appointed Oholiab . . . to help [Bezalel]. Also I have given skill to all the craftsmen to make everything I have commanded you: the tent of meeting, the ark of the testimony with the covenant law with the atonement cover on it, and all the other furnishings of the tent . . . They are to make them just as I commanded you.”Exodus 31:6-11
I don’t know what was going on in the minds of Bezalel and his team after they were told by Moses that they were to design and build all of these things. Their minds must have been filled with many honest questions. And some of those questions are still in the minds of artists today.
The first question must have been why. “Why would God want us to create all of these artistic things? Wouldn’t it make more sense to make swords and spears to defend ourselves?” A high percentage of what God has described for Bezalel to build has no utilitarian function—it does not have any practical functional value. To build a wooden container, a chest, to carry the Ten Commandments makes practical sense. To spend the time and money to sculpt two beautiful angels covered with gold to ride on the cover of the Ark is decorative and beautiful, but not really necessary. But somehow this seems to be very important: there are six long chapters of instructions in the Book of Exodus which detail the design of these artworks. Did Bezalel wonder, What we’re being asked to create is supposed to look beautiful, but what is that worth when we’re attacked by enemy armies or we need to find food?
The first question must have been why. “Why would God want us to create all of these artistic things? Wouldn’t it make more sense to make swords and spears to defend ourselves?”
A high percentage of what God has described for Bezalel to build has no utilitarian function—it does not have any practical functional value. To build a wooden container, a chest, to carry the Ten Commandments makes practical sense. To spend the time and money to sculpt two beautiful angels covered with gold to ride on the cover of the Ark is decorative and beautiful, but not really necessary. But somehow this seems to be very important: there are six long chapters of instructions in the Book of Exodus which detail the design of these artworks. Did Bezalel wonder, What we’re being asked to create is supposed to look beautiful, but what is that worth when we’re attacked by enemy armies or we need to find food?
Another “why” question in their minds had to be “Why spend time making art when what we actually need are directions on how to get to the Promised Land?” And at a personal level: “Why me? I’m just an artist. Why would God involve an imperfect human being like me in such an amazing project?”
Here’s another big question: what does being ‘filled with God’s Spirit’ mean, anyway?
This is the first time in the Bible that God directly describes someone as being filled with His Spirit: “I have filled him [Bezalel] with the Spirit of God” (Exodus 31:3). Artists: Don’t get a big head about this, but please take note, because this is a very important fact. Although we know that the Spirit of God was present in many individuals in Scripture from Creation on, the very first time in the whole Bible that God says He has filled someone with His Spirit, that person is an artist.
But what’s the big deal about art anyway? Why does God care about art?
On Mount Sinai, God goes into a detailed, elaborate description of the priestly garments that Bezalel will eventually make. God begins by saying to Moses:
“Have Aaron your brother brought to you from among the Israelites, along with his sons, so they may serve me as priests. Make sacred garments for your brother Aaron, to give him dignity and honor.”Exodus 28:1-2
Did you catch what God says? “Make sacred garments for your brother Aaron, to give him dignity and honor.” This descriptive phrase is translated in other Bible versions as “beauty and glory.” In the New Testament of the Bible, the writer of the book of Hebrews points out that what Bezalel and his team built was “a copy and shadow of what is in heaven.” This is why God emphasized to Moses, “make everything according to the pattern shown to you on the mountain.” During Jesus’ ministry on earth, He often said that He came to “proclaim that the Kingdom of God had come to earth.”
This simple statement is crucially important if we are to understand why God cares about the arts. Allow me to paraphrase God’s response: “When Aaron puts on the special sacred garments, people will see some of My dignity and My honor, even My beauty and My glory.” The writer of Hebrews says that people looking at this artistic garment could actually see something of heaven—something of God Himself. Remember, this isn’t happening because Aaron is such a great person; he’s an imperfect human, just like you and me.
The word glory has several different definitions, one of which refers to the actual presence of God. God wants to surround men and women, even clothe them, with some of His glory—the beauty and wonder of heaven. Although God can reveal Himself to us in many ways, it is clear that He chooses art as one often surprising way of doing this.
Can this still happen today? Yes, it can! As God reveals Himself through the arts, it explains something that almost everyone has already personally experienced. I would guess most everyone reading this has seen a film in a movie theater, or maybe attended a dance performance, or heard a song that elicited a sudden flood of deep emotion. Most often this reaction bypasses our brain and surprises us with its gut-level power.
We don’t understand this emotional surge, because it’s our heart, not our brain, that reacts so strongly. I believe that these experiences are often our reaction to perceiving something that is so truthful and beautiful that our hearts jump! At that very moment, God can be showing something of Himself to us, something of His Kingdom of Heaven, and our emotions leap with joy and amazement.
Why does God involve humans like us in the process of making these artistic works that can show His glory? The simple answer is repeated many times in the Bible: God wants to dwell with us. He wants us to lead lives that are deeply connected to His dignity and honor and beauty. If we are willing to give our work, our relationships, even our mistakes to Him, the God of love will live with us in the very middle of our lives. And the example God uses in describing this amazing blessing to Moses is applied to a bunch of artists. And the examples of the offerings that God suggests sound like a list of art supplies.
Are the arts important to God? I honestly don’t understand all of the reasons why, but the answer is clearly yes! God wants to talk to us about Himself and His love, and some of the tools that He chooses to use are the arts.
THE REST OF THE STORY
The story of Moses is not quite over.
Before Moses could get down the mountain to tell the nation of Israel the good news about God’s plan to get them to the Promised Land, a golden calf was hauled into the picture. Aaron, Moses’ older brother, had been left in charge of the people while Moses was talking to God on the mountaintop. The people became scared and belligerent, calling for new leadership. All they could see was lightning at the top of the mountain and they assumed that Moses was dead since he had been gone for more than a month. Aaron appeased them by making a golden calf, an idol like they had seen during their slavery in Egypt. The people began to worship this idol which they believed would now lead them.
When Moses finally returned, and found people dancing around and offering food and praying to the calf, he was furious. Moses destroyed the calf and took some very strong measures to restore order to the people.
What did the nation of Israel learn from this traumatic event? It’s a lesson we are still learning today. The golden calf was probably beautiful, but it was merely a piece of metal. It could not walk, it could not talk, it could not heal—it was a “dead” piece of art. The calf was the complete opposite of what God was explaining to Moses on the mountain. God was describing art that could contain His Spirit, and when God’s Spirit is present there is freedom and healing and mercy and love. What would people look to: dead art or living art? The battle between the dead art of the world and the living art that God wants to fill with His glory began in Bezalel’s time and continues today.
The good news at the conclusion of the story was that Bezalel and his team did what God had instructed them to do. At the end of the Exodus story God’s glory is seen by everyone as a pillar of cloud during the day and a pillar of fire at night. The pillar led the nation across the desert to the Promised Land, just as God had said He would do. God dwelt with them in the art works they constructed, especially the Ark of the Covenant, and Moses was able to continue to speak with the Lord there.
God chose the arts to be a big part of His plan for Israel to get to the Promised Land. At the end of the Exodus story, Bezalel’s team finished building what God told them to do. And God did just what He said He would: His glory descended upon the Tabernacle as a cloud that could be physically seen.
Are the arts important to God?
You bet! God Himself is an artist and can somehow show people His glory through our art when we give it away.
I would encourage you now to take just a few minutes to think about how God can use you to show His glory through your art. Here’s a short piece of music to play while you think:
God indwelling our art can be terrifying. How could it ever be good enough for this to happen? You can read more here: How Do I Move from Fear to Stability?
Photo credits: Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash; Flickr; Simone Secci on Unsplash; Dan Farrell on Unsplash; Pixabay; Spencer Imbrock on Unsplash