Amidst all the excitement and drama of the story of the Golden Calf, chapter 31 of Exodus can often be overlooked. Where chapters 32-34 tell the story of the people’s rebellion, Aaron’s mistake, Moses breaking the tablets, God’s punishment, and Moses seeking and finding God’s forgiveness, chapter 31 seems quaint, a quiet ending to the preceding six chapters detailing the instructions for building the Mishkan.
In chapter 31, God tells Moses that he has appointed Bezalel, and his assistant Ohaliav, as the master builders for the Mishkan. “And I will fill him with the spirit of God, with wisdom and understanding and intelligence, and with every form of labor; to think and conceptualize, to work with gold and silver and copper, with stone-cutting and wood-cutting, with every type of labor.” (vv. 2-4) They will make all the items for the Mishkan, which God proceeds to review in summary. That’s the first part of the chapter.
In the second part of this short chapter, God instructs Moses about Shabbat: “Speak to the children of Israel saying, ‘You will keep my Sabbaths, for it is a sign between Me and you for all time, to know that I the Lord make you holy” (v. 13). God goes on to reinforce this message about Shabbat. The chapter then concludes on a climactic, and portentous, note: “And when He had finished speaking with him on Mount Sinai, He gave to Moses the two tablets of testimony, stone tablets written with the finger of God.” (v. 18)
There are a number of important things to point out here. First, as is made even more transparent at the end of Exodus, is the parallel between building the Mishkan and the original six days of creation in Genesis. Just as humans are the last beings created during those first six days, here it is the human, Bezalel (from b’tzelem elokim, in God’s Image, cf. Gen. 1:27), endowed with special capacities to operate on both the level of thought and the level of action, who is mentioned last. Likewise, Shabbat, which is mentioned last in the opening account of Genesis, is mentioned last here: “For in six days God created the heavens and the earth, and on the seventh day God rested and was restored.” (v. 16) Shabbat becomes the means by which the work of making the Mishkan is made meaningful: “On six days shall labor [in building the Mishkan] be done, and the seventh shall be a holy day of rest” (v. 15), just as it is the day on which the work of creation is made meaningful.
These two observations are linked, fused, in the final verse, in which the tablets “written with the finger of God” are given to Moses. God does not create the world here; God creates a form of communication in which human beings, using all their divinely-given powers of thought, imagination, understanding, and action, can attempt to understand the nature of the world, the nature of their own existence, and the nature of God. That language is Torah. Like all language, it is the zone in which we mediate the physical and the metaphysical, the ideal and the material. The work of constructing the Mishkan is the work of life, taking physical material and putting it to useful and holy purposes. The observance of Shabbat is itself an ot, a symbo,l in the dimension of time, which changes our very interactions with the physical world: what was permitted a moment before Shabbat becomes prohibited the next, through our willing participation in making Shabbat real.
These questions, of how we relate to God through the material reality of the creation, receive their most dramatic exposition in the chapters that follow, as the people construct an idol. We are familiar with that story. But in this short chapter just before that moment, we hear an inspiring calling: to work with purpose, to rest with intention, and to allow Torah to be the language in which we explore what is true and meaningful in the world.