November 14, 2012

God and Aesthetics

Jo Ann Davidson’s piece “God and Aesthetics” is the first of an occasional series of articles that address some of the finer points of human existence and their relation to our great, all-knowing, all-wise, all-endowed, and all-giving God. The series seeks to elaborate on how artistic areas of our lives and talent reflect, and may even more effectively declare, the genius of their Source and Giver. Our hope is that readers find it an intellectually, artistically, and spiritually uplifting exercise. Within that context, we specifically wish to demonstrate our common cause with God’s many gifted agents and representatives, whose conscientious dedication to their craft and Creator qualifies them to uniquely appreciate and critique what we consider to be a highly necessary endeavor, and one, we pray, that will prove highly valuable as well.—Editors.

The first glimpse of God in Scripture comes in the Bible’s opening chapter, in which His artistic skills are manifest during Creation week. His handiwork, including many animals, along with human beings, causes all heavenly beings to rejoice (Job 38:4, 7; Gen. 1; 2). His accomplishments still amaze those who study them—and have been the inspiration of much human artistry ever since.

The Creator notably refers to His artistic skills with a potter’s wheel analogy: “Like clay in the hand of the potter, so are you in my hand, Israel!” (Jer. 18:6; see also Isa. 64:8). What ardent, divine attention and deft skill this implies!

Aesthetics and the Sanctuary
God demonstrates keen interest in artistic work. He commands the building of a lavish portable sanctuary, providing extensive “blueprints” for an opulent structure involving almost every type of artistic skill. Moses is given precise specifications about all the materials involved, urging him to make everything “according to the pattern” he had been shown (Ex. 25:9, 40). God designs it all. Nothing is left to human devising. The Pentateuch dedicates almost 50 chapters to recording these divine directives, more chapters than for any other subject it covers.

The priests’ garments involved considerable aesthetic design. God instructed Moses to make holy garments for Aaron and his sons “for glory and for beauty” (Ex. 28:2, 40, KJV). Everything about the entire sanctuary was divinely designed beauty. Nor can we dismiss it as unnecessary or incidental luxurious embellishment, for the instructions are too extensive:

2012 1532 page20“The light of the lamps upon the candlestick reflected upon the boards plated with gold, at the sides of the building, and upon the sacred furniture, and upon the curtains of beautiful colors with cherubims wrought with threads of gold and silver, which appearance was glorious beyond description. No language can describe the beauty and loveliness, and sacred glory, which these apartments presented. The gold in the sanctuary reflected the colors of the curtains, which appeared like the different colors of the rainbow.”1

In constructing the desert sanctuary, God orchestrates a great number of artistic techniques, calling Bezalel by name (Ex. 35:30) and filling him “with the Spirit of God, with wisdom, with understanding, with knowledge and with all kinds of skills—to make artistic designs for work in gold, silver and bronze, to cut and set stones, to work in wood and to engage in all kinds of artistic crafts” (verses 31-33). Bezalel also receives “the ability to teach” and “skill to do all kinds of work” (verses 34, 35).2

This is remarkable information. God was not to be worshipped in a bare tent. Furnishings were to be of pure gold, delicately carved wood, and precious stones (Ex. 25). Modern Christians may find it tedious reading, but it pleased God not only to instruct the Israelites precisely on sacred architecture and furnishings, but also to record all these details in Scripture. A single, simple sentence reporting the construction would not do. Instead God lingers, twice, on His design particulars. The Creator of the universe, the Author of Scripture, the Divine Designer, clearly places great value on artistic design and lovingly speaks of the resplendent details. The Creator of colors and textures, the Author of all natural beauty, clearly values the artistic dimension. According to Scripture, art is within God’s will.

Aesthetics as Calling
Bezalel’s divine call also indicates the potential sacredness of aesthetic vocation. Mission-admiring Christians must know that artistic occupations can be God-given callings. God calls specific people to be artists. He called Bezalel.

Exodus 35 treats artistic ability as a divine gift rather than innate or mere human accomplishment. God fills Bezalel “with the Spirit” (verse 31). Though he is neither priest, prophet, or preacher, Bezalel the artist is the first person in all Scripture described as being filled with the Holy Spirit. The Spirit of God empowers him “to make artistic designs” (verse 32), suggesting that Bezalel’s works express, in the medium and the language of art, God’s will.

Bezalel is also given “ability” (verse 31, RSV).3 Not everyone is able to carve wood, weave tapestry, or work with precious metals and jewels. This aptitude is God-given, according to Exodus. And such ability is an unavoidable necessity for a genuine artist. Artistic skill is a function of great ability. Bezalel is also “filled . . . with intelligence” (RSV). For great art demands keen and informed thinking.

In addition, God fills Bezalel “with knowledge.” Artists need to know a lot. Bezalel had to know how to weave into tapestry the heavenly cherubim. God then blessed his craftsmanship with the patience of perfection, the pride of finesse. Artistic control of media involves intense commitment to detail, and staying with a project until satisfactorily completed.

Secular theories about artistry sometimes emphasize innate talent. Others accentuate training, technique, or heredity—tending to be reduced and partial. Scripture, by contrast, is comprehensive. Exodus 35 yields a full and inspired perspective on the artistic vocation.

Divine Inspiration and Solomon’s Temple
It is arresting to notice that Solomon’s magnificent Temple is also designed by God. “ ‘All this,’ said David”—in reference to “the [construction] pattern of all that he had by the spirit” (1 Chron. 28:12, KJV)—“ ‘the Lord made me understand in writing by his hand upon me’ ” (verse 19, KJV). Not surprisingly, the text again records myriad aesthetic details (2 Chron. 3:5-7, 16, 17). Ellen White comments that Solomon faithfully carried out “the directions, in constructing the most magnificent building the world ever saw. . . . The temple built for God could not be excelled for richness, beauty, and costly design.4

The Bible as Aesthetic Document
Even a cursory survey of the book of Psalms, Israel’s “church hymnal,” reveals the prominence of singing in Israelite worship. Whenever sanctuary services are recorded, music is evident and impressive: “Four thousand are to praise the Lord with the musical instruments I [David] have provided for that purpose” (1 Chron. 23:5). Later Hezekiah stationed musicians in the Temple, “according to the commandment of David, and of Gad the king’s seer, and Nathan the prophet: for so was the commandment of the Lord by his prophets” (2 Chron. 29:25, KJV). This note of high quality music continues to the Bible’s last book, in which we see it as a feature of heaven itself, as John records, in Revelation 4 and 5, heaven’s poetic praise of worship.

The artistic design of Scripture itself is consistent with this emphasis on high aesthetic quality. The Bible is splendid literary art, whether one considers its minute details or the grand overall structures.5 Biblical writers employ thousands of literary figures to highlight significant issues. These include “envelopes,” or “inclusios,” in which a passage is marked by common or noticeably similar opening and closing elements. Larger macrostructures, called “chiasms,” are remarkably similar to those found in musical literature, such as the ABA or ABCBA forms, of which the second half of a literary unit is a mirror image of the first. Writers employ these throughout Scripture as a means of highlighting a truth or argument. Entire books can be so organized—such as the enigmatic book of Ezekiel. The Pentateuch is a giant chiastic ABCBA structure, with the major themes of Genesis recapitulated in Deuteronomy, those of Exodus in the book of Numbers, and the book of Leviticus at the apex with its central focus on the Day of Atonement.

The Psalter’s five-book division is now seen by some as corresponding with the five Pentateuchal books, acknowledging the Psalter as a carefully ordered hymnbook rather than just a random collection of songs and prayers. One professor who teaches the Hebrew psalms as world literature states that they are like “breathing pure oxygen” compared to other ancient literature.

Poetry is the foremost way divine words, including prophetic rebuke, are expressed. God must care about the way poetic language intensifies language. Almost 40 percent of the Old Testament is couched in poetry. And in the New Testament the apostle Paul, after elaborating on theological issues, is often constrained to break into doxology, a poetic praise (see Rom. 11:36).

Now increasingly appreciated, biblical narratives are also meticulously crafted, carefully woven together in calculated sequences. They are intricately constructed material with a deceptively simple surface texture. Previously denigrated under critical scholarship, any suggestion of primitiveness is now rejected, acknowledging instead a profound art of elegant conciseness. This very aesthetic value amplifies the text’s veracity, for there is no bifurcation between Scripture’s historical accuracy and its literary beauty. The details of its historical accounts, their narrative intertextuality, and the literary structures of various biblical books all reflect the divine Author’s literary skills.

The parable, Jesus’ most characteristic teaching method, is a literary form couched within familiar concerns of common life. Through this art form the divine Artist, designer of both lavish desert sanctuary and the overwhelmingly beautiful Solomon’s Temple, teaches us how He treasures the exquisite lily blossom that His hands also fashioned, for “even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these” (Luke 12:27, RSV).

The evidence in Scripture for aesthetic value is considerable. God is potter, poet, sculptor, composer, musician, liturgist, architect, and author, even a Nazarene carpenter. He commissions artists and artworks and inspires profound literary masterpieces. However, He is not restricted to inanimate materials such as granite or marble. God also remolds forgiven human beings until they reflect something of heaven’s glory. From Genesis to Revelation God takes persons often reckoned worthless and degraded, and re-creates them into something beautiful. God is a master artist!

1 Ellen G. White, The Spirit of Prophecy (Battle Creek, Mich.: SDA Pub. Assn., 1870), vol. 1, p. 274.
2 “The tabernacle was made according to the commandment of God. . . . Neither Moses nor [the] workmen were left to plan the form and workmanship of the building. God himself devised the plan, and gave it to Moses” (ibid., p. 269). See also Ex. 31:1-5.
3 Bible texts credited to RSV are from the Revised Standard Version of the Bible, copyright ©1946, 1952, 1971, by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the U.S.A. Used by permission.
4 Ellen G. White, Spiritual Gifts (Battle Creek, Mich.: SDA Pub. Assn., 1864), vol. 4a, p. 98. (Italics supplied.)
5 For further discussion, see Jo Ann Davidson, Toward a Theology of Beauty: A Biblical Perspective (Lanham, Md.: University Press of America, 2008), chaps. 4-6.

Jo Ann Davidson, lover of God and beauty, teaches theology at the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary. She holds graduate degrees in music and theology. Her writings on aesthetics and God include Toward a Theology of Beauty: A Biblical Perspective (University Press of America, 2008), Glimpses of Our God (Pacific Press, 2011), and “Biblical Narratives: Their Truth and Beauty,” AUSS 49 (2011): 149-158. This article was published November 15, 2012.