In the Shadow of God: The Mishkan’s “Constructive” Theology

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Ranana Dine

In Parashat Ki Tissa God tells Moses that Betzalel has been explicitly called by name for the sacred task of designing what will be God’s home among the Israelites, and this divinely chosen architect is described as a highly skilled craftsman, an artist, able to design works in all sorts of materials. What I find most curious and inspiring about Betzalel is his description as being “endowed” with “divine spirit,” gifted with ruah Elokim (Exodus 31:1-5).

Something about Betzalel’s work is godly, it requires more than talent or ingenuity or creativity—a spark of the divine is necessary. As an artist, I enjoy thinking of Betzalel working away, using his divinely tinted paintbrush, loom, hammer, and chisel to build God’s dwelling place. It is the invocation of divinity, however, that also inspires my questions. As a student of Christian and Jewish theology, the mention of “divine spirit” in the description of Betzalel, and in the work of constructing the Mishkan more broadly, opens up a space for questions about the connections between God and godliness, artistic creation, and the Mishkan (and later Beit ha-Mikdash). What can the building of the Mishkan, and the calling of Betzalel teach us about being godly, being filled with ruah Elokim?

It is possible to try to answer these questions by turning to traditional Jewish sources. But before doing that I want to show how Christians, and particularly English Christians living during the tumultuous Protestant Reformation, understood these passages and the purpose of the beauty of the Mishkan and Beit ha-Mikdash. It is my contention that the theological import and message of the Jewish texts becomes clearer and more salient when presented next to Christian understandings. And the Christian tradition, particularly during the Reformation, and particularly in England, has a long history of struggling with the role of beauty, craftsmanship, and decoration within theological discourse.[i]

For English theologians in this period the Mishkan and Beit ha-Mikdash were central to debates about the role of physical beauty in the church—should a church be beautiful? Should it include visual art? Jewish sources are less explicit about these kinds of physical concerns, and focus more on the meaning behind the divine nature of the Mishkan’s construction, a fact that becomes clearer and more insightful when shown against the light thrown by the church’s theological works.

In the sixteenth century, England underwent a number of religious upheavals, moving under Henry the VIII from being a Catholic country to a Protestant, and then swinging back and forth between variations of Protestant and Catholic worship and belief for the next century. One major debate in all of these religious reformations was the role of elaborate ritualistic worship in the church—the use of rich vestments and altars, the legality of images and music. The Mishkan and the Beit ha-Mikdash were seen as biblical precedent for highly ritualistic, and aesthetically beautiful, worship, but depending on the scholar these spaces could be imagined as sites of idolatry or as spaces of godliness. English theologians were interested in the Mishkan and Beit ha-Mikdash as templates for Christian worship, whether for good or for ill, and so their discussion tends to focus on the human aspect of the Mishkan and Beit ha-Mikdash’s construction and the worship that occurred within. What did the description of the Mishkan or the pomp of the Beit ha-Mikdash signify for humanity?

William Tyndale[ii] (1494-1536) was one of the first English reformers, and he was eventually executed for his views. He vehemently opposed using the Mishkan and Beit ha-Mikdash as examples for the church. In a 1532 response to a work by the Catholic theologian and statesman Sir Thomas More, Tyndale launched an attack on ornate church ritual, construing it as “Jewish,” and arguing that in truth, the “Jewish Temple” led directly to idolatrous worship. Tyndale was so concerned about the role the Mishkan and Beit ha-Mikdash played in leading to idolatry that he went so far as to dedicate an entire paragraph to describing the superfluity of Temple worship. Quoting both the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament, Tyndale argues “concerning the temple, Isaiah says in his last chapter, ‘What house will you build for me, or in what place shall I rest? Heaven is my seat, and the earth my footstool.’ As who should say, ‘I am too great for any place that you can make,’ and (as Stephen says, Acts 7, and Paul, Acts 17) ‘I dwell not in a temple made with hands.’”[iii]

Although the biblical text, which Tyndale knew quite well, might have invoked the “divine spirit” when describing the construction of the original Mishkan, the physical Temple held no true godliness—it was a space that led to idol worship and false belief. Interestingly, the translators of the 1560 Geneva Bible, the next significant English Bible translation after Tyndale’s, took a different stance on the Mishkan and Beit Ha-Mikdash. Although they still did not think the Mishkan should be a physical precedent for the English church, the translators interpreted the passages regarding the priestly vestments as a positive example of obedience to the detailed laws that “the Lorde had expressly commanded.”[iv]

These early arguments set the stage for the dynamic use of the “Jewish Temple” in the work of Richard Hooker (1554-1600), one of the most significant theologians for the development of the Church of England; his most famous work, Of the Laws of the Ecclesiastical Polity, set out to describe the theology and worship of the English Church and its connection to the state.[v] Hooker defended the invocation of the Mishkan and Beit ha-Mikdash as a model for the English church against more radical Protestants, who like Tyndale, wished to imagine these dwelling places of God as sites of idolatry.

For example, Hooker argued that although his more radical critics might “have against the fashion of our churches, as being framed according to the pattern of the Jewish temple,” this is “a fault no less grievous, if so be it were true, than if some king should build his mansion-house by the model of Salomon’s palace.”[vi] For Hooker the biblical passages describing the Mishkan “as beautiful, gorgeous, and rich, as art could make” demonstrated the correctness of worshipping God with some level of pomp and majesty.[vii]

Although some contemporary Christians wished to read the passages as “figurative,” for Hooker they demonstrated certain truths about humanity, beauty, and God.[viii] The ability to create visually stunning buildings and objects is a human skill and should be used to exalt God: if God gave humanity the ability to build cathedrals than these skills should be used to testify to God’s greatness. Indeed the human ability to create beauty and build spaces like the Mishkan has “a natural conveniency” that allows worshipers to “give unto God a testimony of our cheerful affection;” man-made splendor serves “to the world for a witness of his almightiness.”[ix] Finally, Hooker asks rhetorically, “Besides, were it not also strange, if God should have made such store of glorious creatures on earth, and leave them all to be consumed in secular vanity, allowing none but the baser sort to be employed in his own service?”[x]

Beauty for Hooker is a human quality—humanity can create it (thanks in no small part to God) and so should use it in divine service. Accordingly, artistry and fine craftsmanship are helpful for worshippers. It is human nature to find beauty inspiring, and although God can be worshipped anywhere—in Hooker’s rhetoric from “Moses in the midst of the sea, Job on the dunghill, Ezechias in bed, Jeremy in mire, Jonas in the whale, Daniel in the den, the children in the furnace, the thief on the cross, Peter and Paul in prison”—it is better for humanity to worship when inspired by man-made beauty.[xi] And so, Hooker makes the following declaration:

That the very majesty and holiness of the place, where God is worshipped, hath in regard of us great virtue, force, and efficacy, for that it serveth as a sensible help to stir up devotion, and in that respect no doubt bettereth even our holiest and best actions in this kind. As therefore we every where exhort all men to worship God, even so for performance of this service by the people of God assembled, we think not any place so good as the church, neither any exhortation so fit as that of David, “O worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness.”[xii]

The craftsmanship and visual splendor of the Mishkan, and so too of the contemporary church, are meant to inspire the best in human nature. It is “in regard of us,” rather than God, that beautiful spaces like the Mishkan is necessary and good for faith. Wondrous spaces inspire people to look up to the heavens and worship God “in the beauty of holiness.” It is not the Mishkan and the spaces inspired by it themselves here that are necessarily godly, but rather the way they affect worshipers’ minds and souls, and lead to better contemplation of the divine.

These Christian sources present a variety of attitudes towards the beauty of the Mishkan and Beit ha-Mikdash, but all stress the human response to these buildings. A lesson in biblical obedience can be learned from the Israelites enthusiastic construction in the dessert; the divine command to build a mikdash for God’s presence is instructive of the human need for beauty to inspire true worship. English theologians in this period are worried about the physical church—passionately arguing about whether churches should have images and whether priests should wear vestments.

During this period the law went back and forth regarding the permissibility of visual elements in worship like altars, vestments, and rood screens, so these debates were of real practical significance; a fact which helps explain the focus here on practical lessons for human worshipers. These interpretations, however, downplay the way God’s spirit can be read as at work in the Mishkan’s construction and what that might mean about God, and God’s connection with the people. Having seen the human focus of these Christian readings, we can now look back at how the rabbis interpreted the commands to construct the Mishkan and the calling of Betzalel, and see how they learned as much about God’s nature as about humanity’s.

For the rabbis the Mishkan reflects God’s own creation of the world and other aspects of divinity—the command to the Israelites to construct the building is part of raising up the people as partners in divine creation. The rabbis are less concerned with how the Mishkan may operate as a physical template for synagogues, and so turn instead to the more supernatural aspects of these passages. Although synagogue architecture historically has been inspired by the biblical dwelling places of God, Jews, likely due to historical and economic realities, could often not construct grand permanent structures, and generally had a less visually ornate service, potentially leading the rabbis to focus more on the metaphorical meaning of these passages.[xiii]

The divine nature of the Miskhan’s construction is even hidden in the name of Betzalel, which translates to the “shadow of God.” In Bamidbar Rabbah 15:10 the rabbis tell how Moses could not craft the menorah despite God showing him how to do it numerous times. Finally, God tells him to get Betzalel who constructs it “immediately.” Moses exclaims “For me, how many times did the Holy One Who is Blessed show me and I struggled to make it, but for you, who never saw it, you make it from your thoughts! Betzalel, you were standing in the shadow of God [b’tzel el] when the Holy One Who is Blessed showed me how to make it.” Betzalel’s ability to construct the utensils for the Mishkan is a divine supernatural gift, coming from God’s own reflection; simple human ingenuity, even by someone as holy as Moses, could not build the menorah, instead it was a sacred task requiring God’s spirit, God’s shadow.

Nehama Leibowitz and other commentators have drawn parallels between the text of the parshiot of the Mishkan and the first creation narrative in Bereshit. In particular many of the verbs, such as “Va-Yar” “saw,” “Va-Yevarekh” “blessed,” “Ve-Yekhulu” “completed,” and “Va-Ya’as” “made,” are repeated in the two texts, making it appear as though the construction of the Mishkan requires the same actions as God’s creation of the world.[xiv] Aggadic texts directly connect God’s creation of the world to the Mishkan: Bereshit Rabbah 3:9 goes so far as to say that “it is as if on that day” of the setting up of the Mishkan that God had created the world. The Midrash Tanhuma in Pekudei 2:3 also ruminates on the connections between the creation of the world and the construction of Mishkan, linking the activities of each day of creation to the crafting of different aspects of God’s dwelling place:

Rabbi Jacob the son of Issi asked: Why does it say; I love the habitation of Thy house, and the place where Thy glory dwelleth? Because the Tabernacle is equal to the creation of the world itself. How is that so? Concerning the first day, it is written: In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth (Genesis 1:1), and it is written elsewhere: Who stretched out the heavens like a curtain (Psalms 104:2), and concerning the Tabernacle it is written: And thou shalt make curtains of goats’ hair (Exodus 26:7). About the second day of creation it states: Let there be a firmament and divide between them, and let it divide the waters from the waters (Genesis 1:6). About the Tabernacle it is written: And the veil shall divide between you (Exodus 26:33) With regard to the third day it states: Let the waters under the heavens be gathered (Genesis 1:9). With reference to the Tabernacle it is written: Thou shalt also make a laver of brass … and thou shalt put water therein (Exodus 30:18).

These links between God’s creation of the world and the tasks of constructing the Mishkan make the project of building and beautifying the structure part of a larger divine project. Only God could create the world, the activities God undertook to bring the world into existence are therefore godly and divine. So too the Israelites’ sewing of curtains and molding of brass were godly acts, reminiscent of God’s creation. The Israelites’ chiseling and hammering and weaving was a type of imitatio dei—the Mishkan was “equal to the creation of the world itself” and in building it the Jews were acting like God, the creator of the world.

One further clue to the close links between God’s creation and constructing the Mishkan comes right before Moses reports to the people the commands regarding the Mishkan and the calling of Betzalel. Before reporting the details of the Mishkan’s instruction manual, Moses tells the people to keep Shabbat: “On six days work may be done, but on the seventh day you shall have a Shabbat of complete rest, holy to the Lord; whoever does any work on it shall be put to death,” (Exodus 35:2).

The sages (Shabbat 49b) famously link the actions required for constructing the Mishkan to the categories of melakhah, forbidden creative work, that must be rested from on Shabbat: “One is only liable for performing a labor to which there was a corresponding labor in the Tabernacle. They sowed in order to grow dyes for the Tabernacle, and therefore you may not sow on Shabbat. They reaped, and therefore you may not reap on Shabbat.” Shabbat is meant to serve as a memorial for the completion of creation and God’s decision to stop working on the seventh day. Thus every week when we abstain from sowing and reaping, writing and cooking, since these were the activities required to construct the Mishkan, we are imitating God, who also rested from a parallel creation.

We can read these parshiot, and the associated midrashim about Betzalel and the Mishkan’s construction, as a chance to see how artistic creation—designing, construction, crafting—can be part of divine work, part of godly creation, perhaps even require a bit of Ruah Elokim. By weaving or chiseling we too can participate in a type of creation, although we lack the divine command today to build a dwelling place for God. And when we stop these activities to enjoy the sacred rest of Shabbat, we continue as well in this divine (non-)creation participation. For Jewish theology, the beauty of the Mishkan and Beit ha-Mikdash is godly in its essence, containing the traces of the human-divine partnership in ongoing creation.

Although the passages about the Mishkan can meaningfully be understood as a lesson in obedience or human nature’s tendency to be inspired by beauty, they also contain vital insights into our relationship with God. Rabbinic interpretations, less concerned about physical buildings and Reformation politics, focus on God’s role within the construction of the Mishkan and how God offers the Jews a partnership in creation when commanding them to build a sanctuary for divine dwelling. And perhaps, today, when we engage in building a shul, designing an aron, or even just creating sukkah decorations, we follow in the footsteps of Betzalel—being inspired by splendor, harkening to God’s commands—and also continuing the partnership with divine creation through creativity and beauty.


[i] For theological discussion of art in Reformation England, see Margaret Aston, Broken Idols of the English Reformation (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015); and Margaret Aston, England’s Iconoclasts: Laws against Images (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1988); Eamon Duffy, The Stripping of the Altars: Traditional Religion in England, 1400-1580 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2005). For work on the Reformation more broadly see William Dyrness, Reformed Theology and Visual Culture: The Protestant Imagination from Calvin to Edwards (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004); and Sergiusz Michalski, Reformation and the Visual Arts: The Protestant Image Question in Western and Eastern Europe (London: Routledge, 1993).

[ii] Today Tyndale is most well known for his translation of the Bible into English, a precursor to later English Bibles like the King James.

[iii] William Tyndale, “An Answer to Sir Thomas More’s Dialogue,” in From Icons to Idols, ed. David J. Davis (Eugene, Oregon: Pickwick Publications, 2016), 34

[iv] George Moore, quoting the Geneva Bible editors, “The ‘ornament of the Law’: Vestments and the Translation of Judaism in the Geneva Bible.” Prose Studies 37 (September 2, 2015): 170.

[v] For more on Hooker and the role of the Temple in English theology in the seventeenth century see Achsah Guibbory, Christian Identity, Jews, and Israel in Seventeenth-Century England (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010).

[vi] Richard Hooker, The Works of That Learned and Judicious Divine Mr. Richard Hooker with an Account of His Life and Death by Isaac Walton, ed. John Keble (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1888), 5.14.1.

[vii] Ibid., 5.14.4.

[viii] Ibid., 5.15.4.

[ix] Ibid.

[x] Ibid.

[xi] Ibid., 5.16.2.


[xiii] For some background on the religious meaning of synagogue architecture see Lee Shai Weissbach. “Buildings Fraught with Meaning: An Introduction to a Special Issue on Synagogue Architecture in Context,” Jewish History 25 (2011): 1-11.

[xiv] Nehama Leibowitz, New Studies in Shemot (Exodus), vol. II (Jerusalem: World Zionist Organization, 1986), 479-86.

Ranana Dine is a PhD student at the University of Chicago, focusing in religious ethics. She is also a research assistant in medical ethics at the University of Chicago hospital and the managing editor of IMAGES: A Journal of Jewish Art and Culture. She studied theology and medical humanities as a graduate student at the University of Cambridge, and majored in art and religion at Williams College. She has studied at the Drisha Institute and Mechon Hadar.