Christians, by and large, don’t know what to do with art. At best, we see art as trivial or irrelevant. The art we make has such a bad reputation, in fact, that Dr. Gregory Thornbury, president of King’s College in NYC, once said, “Christian is the greatest of all nouns but the lamest of all adjectives.”
Indeed, Christians have art problems, yet the Scriptures have plenty to say about art and how we should understand it as the people of God. In the book of Exodus specifically, the same God who draws His people out of Egypt and gives them the Law is the same God who designs a plan for artists to create a tabernacle where He will dwell with His people.
While Exodus is significant for a vast amount of reasons, one that often gets overlooked is what this book says about art. In the creation of the tabernacle and the priestly garments, Exodus shows us four essential things about art.
1. God is an artist. We can look all around us and see God’s handiwork as an artist. From mountains and beaches and forests to the animals of the earth and sea to humanity, creation reflects the glory of the Creator (Ps. 19:1). And in the book of Exodus, God Himself functions as an artist, establishing particular instructions on how to build the temple and design the priestly garments. Full of symbolic meaning and physical beauty, these artistic details and designs don’t come from the mind of Moses or Aaron or anyone else, but they come directly from the triune God of the Bible (Ex. 25). If the God we love and serve is an artist, then surely art isn’t lesser or pointless.
2. God cares about art. It’s possible to overly spiritualize the art we see in Exodus, explaining away how every detail only exists for symbolistic purposes or reflects elements of nature. That said, God could have accomplished many of the same things without employing aesthetic beauty—art. Even more, God isn’t simply interested in creating art that mimics creation; He’s also interested in innovation. As we see with the skirts of the priestly garments (Ex. 28), God commands that the pomegranates be blue and purple and scarlet, which of course are not natural colors of the fruit. This means God isn’t just for art that symbolizes something spiritual or religious or reflects something in the natural world, but He is for beauty, creativity and imagination—He is for art.
God uniquely wires men and women as artists, and, in giving them His Spirit, He uses them for His purposes—to create art that reflects and brings Him glory.
3. God creates and cares for artists. In Exodus, we see that the Bible itself recognizes artists in the persons of Bezalel, his assistant Oholiab and the individuals they train up in craftsmanship (Ex. 31, 35). In these passages, we learn that God specifically gives specific people artistic skills and talents. In other words, the idea of an artist isn’t foreign or unknown to God—it’s not a “secular” or worldly concept; it’s a divine gifting and vocation. As He did with Bezalel, God uniquely wires men and women as artists, and, in giving them His Spirit, He uses them for His purposes—to create art that reflects and brings Him glory. Given this understanding, artists should be affirmed and encouraged that they have been created with a purpose and what they are doing is sacred and meaningful.
4. Art is powerful. When God gives His people the Law (Ex. 20), the third commandment is to “not make for yourself a carved image.” God recognizes the allure and beauty of art—in the form of idols—and warns us to not worship these creations over the Creator. He knows that art can form and shape us, both positively and negatively—again, it is powerful. We also shouldn’t take it lightly that God chooses and uses art as the conduit through which He dwells with His people in the tabernacle. Whether it’s the ability of art to captivate and capture our heart or the decision to reveal Himself through it, God understands the significance of art—so much so that He dwells with His people in the midst of it.
Sure, the book of Exodus is more than a manifesto for Christians and the arts, as the tabernacle and priestly garments boast meaning beyond aesthetics, but it’s certainly not less. If we pay close attention to the Scriptures, specifically Exodus, we will see a God who, an artist Himself, is completely committed to art and artists—and that can do us some good given our art problems to date.