Israel’s Wise Men
April 7, 2021

When Moses demands that Pharaoh let Yahweh’s people go into the wilderness to celebrate a feast, Pharaoh calls for his magicians, sorcery, and wise men (7:11; wise men is chakamiym). Moses defeats those wise men, and the motif of wisdom goes subterranean for twenty-odd chapters. When it re-emerges, the wise men of Egypt are nowhere to be found. Instead, Yahweh calls on the “wise of heart” (chakmey-leb) to make Aaron’s robes (28:3) and then appoints Bezalel and Oholiab at the head of a company of the wise of heart to whom Yahweh has given wisdom (31:6) through His Spirit of wisdom (31:3).

In the initial prescription for the tabernacle, the references to wisdom are quite limited. After the golden calf, when Exodus begins to describe the actual production of the tabernacle and its furnishings, wisdom (or skill) becomes a major theme. The noun chakmah, “wisdom,” is used five times in chapters 35-36 (35:26, 31, 35; 36:1, 2), and the verb chakam, used as a gerund, appears six times in the same chapters (35:10, 25; 36:1, 2, 4, 8). In 36:1-2, the root is doubled in the phrase “every wise one in whom Yahweh gives wisdom,” Further, the word-group is used at the outset of the description of the tabernacle. After listing the raw materials for the tent (35:4-9), the text introduces the “wise ones” who will keep Yahweh’s commandments by making the tent, its frame, and all the furnishings.

Among the many transitions of the book of Exodus is this transition from wise men to wise men. Pharaoh’s wise men fought Moses and Yahweh to prop up a crumbling empire. After they’re defeated, Yahweh’s wise men, gifted with skill from the God of Wisdom Himself, build Yahweh’s house.

I have examined the structure of the lists in Exodus 35-36 previously, but what follows is a more detailed look at the list of what the wise produce, according to 35:10-19. The list moves from the tabernacle itself - its curtains and boards, to the contents of the Most Holy Place, to the Holy Place, to the court, and ends with the priestly garments. There are 31 Items on the list:

1. Tabernacle

2. Tent

3. Covering

4. Hooks

5. Boards

6. Bars

7. Pillars

8. Sockets

9. Ark and poles

10. Ark cover

11. Screen of the Most Holy Place

12. Table and poles

13. Utensils of table

14. Bread of presence

15. Lampstand

16. Utensils for lampstand

17. Lamps

18. Oil for light

19. Incense altar and poles

20. Anointing oil

21. Fragrant incense

22. Curtain of the Holy Place

23. Bronze altar with grating and poles

24. Utensils

25. Laver and stand

26. Hangings of the court

27. Pillars and sockets

28. Screen for gate

29. Pegs of tabernacle and court

30. Woven garments for Aaron

31. Garments for his sons

There is admittedly a bit of fudging here, as I’ve included the poles with its corresponding item of furniture, the stand along with the laver, and the sockets with the pillars. Still, it’s not an unreasonable way to group these items.

This long list naturally breaks down into five sections: the tabernacle itself, the Most Holy Place, the Holy Place, the court, and the priests. As I’ve noted before, the lists of this part of Exodus follow a creational pattern of forming and filling: First the tabernacle structure is listed, then the items that fill the various sections of the tabernacle. More specifically, the list moves from the formation of a structure (Days 1-3) to the filling of heaven (Most Holy Place), the firmament (Holy Place), and earth (Court), culminating with the “making” of man, Aaron, the new Adam. That is, the list roughly follows the specific contours of Genesis 1.

And, as I’ve also noted before, the remarkable thing is that human beings, not God, are doing the forming and filling. When Yahweh formed the heavens, His eternal Wisdom was at His side as a wise master builder (Proverbs 8). Now He gives that wisdom to Israelites to imitate His work. The Word of Yahweh is still the ultimate creator, since the wise builders make what they make in obedience to the command of Yahweh (35:10). True wisdom and true skill are always obedience wisdom and skill. Yet this creative Word mediates His creative work through men and women.

It’s worth noting too that wisdom in this context has to do with shaping material reality. It’s by no means merely intellectual. The wise know how to design, how to weave and sew, how to carve wood and manipulate metals. They are carpenters, metal-workers, bakers (bread!), and tailors. The wise builders of the new temple, of course, are shaping human stuff, but the Exodus background is still operative: Wise builders of the church know they’re attempting to shape material reality, not merely filling minds with ideas or hearts with passions. A good pastor shepherds his people in the proper uses of their bodies.

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