Bezalel Ben Uri and the Impotence of Foreign Deities
Bezalel’s Special Attributes
In Parashat Vayakhel, we encounter one of the Torah’s most enigmatic characters: Bezalel, the artisan and architect who oversees the building of the Tabernacle. Our portion describes Bezalel as filled with divine spirit (ruach elohim), and endowed with wisdom (chochmah), discernment or technical know-how (tevunah) and with knowledge of every kind of work (u’v’da’at u’vchol melachah). The product that Bezalel makes further highlights his special characteristics. As the constructor of the Tabernacle, a dwelling place for Yhwh, Bezalel builds a house that is unique from all other human-built houses. Scholars stress the superlative nature of the Book of Exodus’s description of him: Bezalel has “the gift of originality” and he possesses “all the requisite qualities [of wisdom, discernment and knowledge] in supernatural measure.”
There is indeed something “supernatural” about Bezalel, and the unique and surpassing description of this character provokes compelling questions: Who is Bezalel? Why does Exodus describe him in this manner? And what is his relationship with God?
Human Creativity in the Bible
Within the Bible, creativity is frequently a realm in which God is in conflict with humans. In biblical texts, humans are denied originality. Knowledge that is generated independently by the human mind, and not installed there by God, “must be at best wrong, at worst possibly antagonistic to God.” The Bible also expresses suspicion regarding human artisanship, particularly metalworking, which often leads to the construction of idols. Bezalel, designated as both a metal worker (Exod. 36:32) and as a thinker “of thoughts or plans” (Exod. 36:35) would seem to embody the “creative tensions” that concern the writers of the Bible. And yet, the description of Bezalel in Vayakhel is not infused with tension; rather, he is presented as an elevated, masterful artisan, skilled in a variety of creative processes, and capable of instructing others.
Yhwh’s Relationship with Bezalel
The absence of tension between God and this particular artisan highlights the special character of their relationship, which is further indicated by the opening verse of the description. As Moses states (35:30) to the Israelites: “See, Yhwh has called by name Bezalel, the son of Uri.”
The description of Bezalel in this week’s portion is a repetition of a previous depiction of Bezalel given by God to Moses. There (Exodus 31: 1- 5), the first person account lends a greater sense of intimacy to the relationship between Yhwh and Bezalel. God declares to Moses (Exod. 31:2), “I have called, by name, Bezalel.” God “calls” someone “by name” in only two other verses in the Bible: when God proclaims God’s own name (in Exod. 33:19) and also when God “calls” Israel “by name” (Isa. 43:1). In each of these contexts, the phrase indicates a distinctive relationship with the individual (Bezalel) or the people (Israel) that God is calling.
The meaning of Bezalel ben Uri’s name –“In the shadow of El, the son of my light”–lends credence to the notion of a special relationship between God and Bezalel. Furthermore, Moses’/God’s declaration (Exod. 35:30/Exod. 31:2) that God has “filled” Bezalel with the “breath/wind/spirit of God” (ruach elohim) places this artisan in a select category of biblical personages upon whom the “spirit/breath/wind of God” comes, including, Joseph, Saul, Ezekiel and Daniel.
The description in Vayakhel, when taken together with the meaning of the name Bezalel, suggests, as Mark S. Smith has written, “an unusual intimacy between God and this otherwise shadowy figure.”
Explaining Bezalel’s Unique Abilities
Since the early centuries of the Common Era, commentators have noted Bezalel’s unique qualities and have raised questions as to his identity. This is clearly reflected, for example, in the later exegetical collection of midrashic collection on the book of Exodus, Shemot Rabbah (40:2), describes Bezalel as having been chosen by God at the beginning of time.
Removing the Supernatural Description
Perhaps out of concern that the superlative nature of the description in Exodus was motivating comparisons between Bezalel and Greco-Roman gods, Josephus, in his Antiquities (1st Century, CE), took pains to recast Bezalel’s commissioning by God and removes God’s calling (kara) of Bezalel:
“[Moses] appointed construction supervisors for the works…their names…were these: Basaelos, son of Ouri of the tribe of Ioudas, grandson of Mariamme the sister of the general and Elibazos, son of Isamachos, of the tribe of Dan (Antiquities 3.104-5).”
Whereas in the Bible, God chooses the architects for the building, in the Antiquities (3.104) Moses selects the architects “in accordance with the instruction of God,” thereby transforming Bezalel from a uniquely gifted craftsman to a humanly chosen member of a team of architects. Perhaps he did so out of concern that the superlative nature of the description in Exodus motivated comparisons between Bezalel and Greco-Roman gods.
Bezalel the Master Sage
The medieval commentator, Abraham ibn Ezra (1089–1164) (Exod. 31:3), notes that Bezalel,
had great skill, knew all sorts of hidden mysteries…and understood mathematics, biology, physics, and metaphysics far beyond anyone else of his generation.
According to ibn Ezra, Bezalal was simply a master scholar.
Bezalel the Ancestor of Artisans
The Protestant 20th Century German scholar Martin Noth, in A History of Pentateuchal Traditions, explains the illustrious description of Bezalel by positing that Bezalel was an ancestor of a distinguished family living during the Second Temple Period. Similarly, Ronald E. Clements suggests that Bezalel and Oholiab are ancestors of artisan guilds.
The Israelite Kothar
Reading Exodus’ description of Bezalel from a somewhat more historical-critical orientation than that of his predecessors, the early Jewish 20th century scholar Umberto (Rabbi Moshe David) Cassuto, in his commentary to the Book of Exodus, emphasized the similarities between Bezalel’s attributes and descriptions of the Ugaritic, artisan deity Kothar-wa-Ḫasis. In the Ba(al and Anat cycle, Yamm (the god of the sea) commissions Kothar-wa-Ḫasis to build him a palace. When Ba(al and Anat defeat Yamm, however, Kothar-wa-Ḫasis ends up building the palace for Ba(al. Cassuto sees Bezalal as an alternative to Kothar-wa-Ḫasis, and he interprets the biblical material as a critique of Canaanite legends and polytheism.[15
The parallels between Bezalel and Kothar wa-Ḫasis should not be taken lightly. Scholars have observed striking similarities between the portrayal of Bezalel and the descriptions of this Ugaritic deity, which are found in the Ugaritic creation myth, the Ba(al and Anat Cycle. Like Bezalel, Kothar–wa-Ḫasis’s skill set encompasses all crafts and he, like, Bezalel, builds a house for a deity, the Canaanite god of creation, Ba(al – Hadad.
Additionally, epithets for Kothar-wa-Ḫasis are analogous to elements of the description of Bezalel. The Ugaritic deity is known as the “Wise One” (Ḫss) (corresponding to chochmah); Kothar wa-Hasis is called “the deft one” (Ugaritic: ḫrš yd) a name that corresponds to Bezalel’s being able to carve or craft (cheresh) stone, wood, or metal.
The Impotence of Foreign Deities
Most Jews (and non-Jews, for that matter) consider the Torah to be a monotheistic text created by a monotheistic people. Scholars, however, have concluded that a four-level divine hierarchy existed in Syria-Palestine from the middle of the second millennium B.C.E. to the middle of the first millennium B.C.E: the period during which much of the Bible was created. This fourfold hierarchy comprised authoritative deities, active deities, artisan deities, and messenger deities, and reflected a four-fold human hierarchy that included the aristocracy, royal servants, skilled craftsmen and slaves.
We find traces of this monarchical polytheism or henotheism (the worship of one god without denying the existence of other gods) in biblical texts, and the description of Bezalel gives us a glimpse of this religious milieu: the same terms that describe the Ugaritic artisan deity are utilized to describe, in the Bible, not a artisan deity, but an artisan.
The writers of the Torah (and the Bible as a whole) endeavored “to make the case” for Yhwh as the most powerful god in an existing, divine hierarchy. Only in its latest texts (for example the Book of Isaiah, Chapters 40 – 66) does the Bible assert the sole existence of one supreme deity.
Umberto Cassuto was most likely correct when he wrote that, “The qualities attributed by the Canaanites [to Kothar wa-Ḫasis]…are here ascribed” to a human being endowed by God: Bezalel. By attributing to a human artisan what were considered by non-Israelites to be divine traits, the writers of Exodus convey an implicit message of foreign deities’ impotence.
The Bezalel account is only one part of a literary process that, overtime, elevated Yhwh to the top of a prevalent, divine hierarchy. If we look beyond the Torah we see that the same trinity of attributes (wisdom, discernment, and technical skill) given by God to Bezalel to build the Tabernacle, is utilized by Yhwh to construct the world. As we read in the Book of Proverbs (3:19 – 20): “Yhwh founded the earth by wisdom (chochmah); He established the heavens by understanding (tevunah); By His knowledge (da’at) the depths burst apart.” Elsewhere, in the Book of Isaiah, God declares: “I created the smith to fan the fire and produce the tools.”
The Bible asserts that Yhwh is the source of human creativity. Yhwh, and no other deity, “endows” — or in the language of the Torah portion “fills” — humans with wisdom, discernment, and technical skill. So too, the Bible asserts, Yhwh is the sole artisan deity and Yhwh’s masterpiece, is the world.
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February 18, 2014
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Rabbi Jeremy S. Morrison has been a rabbi at Temple Israel of Boston since 2001, when he was ordained at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, N.Y. Jeremy was the founding director of the Riverway Project. Morrison is a writing his dissertation on the use of craftsmanship metaphors in the Bible at Brandeis University’s.
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