“Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image…” (Exodus 20:6). I was just a newborn Christian when I first ran across this verse, and it really shocked me. I loved to draw and paint; my mother was an artist who drew and also sculpted things in wood. This verse made it sound like we were guilty of making forbidden images!
My pastor was reassuring; the verse wasn’t saying what it sounded like. I had to combine it with the next verse before I would get the full command. That was the start of a quest to know what the Bible teaches about art. Over many years since, I have discovered many verses that deal with various aspects of art.
The Source of Art
Secular artists have always observed that art is universal; all societies in every kind of economic or political situation, in all time periods, have produced art. Humanists have correctly observed that art is integral to human nature, but they haven’t known why. God’s Word tells us God is the original creator (Genesis 1:1), the one of whom the word “creator” is truly descriptive. He created out of nothing not only the objects that exist, but even the materials out of which they are made. Psalm 8:3-4 describes the creation of the heavens as “the work of thy fingers”–mere small motor skills for God!
Not only does God create, but He also reflects upon, evaluates, and enjoys what He has made (Genesis 1:31). After each day of creation, God reflected on what He had made and evaluated it as good. At the end of the process, He declares it all to be very good. God made the beauties of creation because He enjoyed them (Psalm 104:30-31, Genesis 2:9). He made a beautiful place for us to live in and gave us the power to share His enjoyment of its beauty.
Visual beauty is not only a means of creative expression and enjoyment, but also a universal means of communication. Psalm 19:1-6 describes nature as a language without words that has “gone out to all the earth.” God expects us to understand that visual communication and holds us accountable for that message. In Romans 1:19-20, He declares that mankind knows the Truth and refuses to obey it. Our lack of response to that visual message is enough to condemn us.
Man as an Artist
Since God has created us and made us to reflect Him (Genesis 1:26-27), we are also capable of aesthetic creation, reflection, self-evaluation, and visual communication. We get some indication of the importance of aesthetics in human nature when we reflect that the success of Satan’s temptation of Eve was due to her aesthetic nature (Genesis 3:6). Because man has an innate aesthetic aspect to his nature, God gives specific directions regarding it. That is why we have a specific command not to make objects that will be worshipped. In the secular societies of the Old Testament, artists were very important to idolatrous worship; they created the gods. That was not what God wanted artists to do with the gift of artistic ability.
The gift of art is specifically displayed in a young man named Bezaleel. He had grown up and learned his trade during the years of slavery in Egypt. There could hardly have been a better place for artistic training in a variety of arts and crafts. God used that unpleasant circumstance to prepare His servant for a ministry. When the Israelites left Egypt and were free for the first time in their lives, they needed a new place of worship for a new kind of worship. God called Bezaleel and “filled him with the spirit of God, in wisdom, and in understanding, and in knowledge, and in all manner of workmanship” (Exodus 31:1-3).
In addition to the important work he was doing, Bezaleel and his assistant Aholiab were given the ability to teach others (Exodus 35:34). Many skilled hands were needed to help if the work were to be finished. Two men alone could not produce everything needed, but they could teach others who would do the work under their supervision. The beautiful furnishings, curtains, accessories, and uniforms specified by God were made for “glory and for beauty” (Exodus 28:2). God had shown Moses the design (Exodus 25:40); and by filling the artists with His Spirit, God guaranteed that the artwork produced would truly represent Him——not the ideas of man.
Once the Tabernacle was finished and the Glory of God occupied it, the holy objects inside were not to be seen again by man. God’s original plan was for them to be wrapped in the curtains whenever the Tabernacle was moved (Numbers 4:5ff). Though the Israelites could not see them, they were still a testimony. The increasing separation of the Holy Places from the people testifies of God’s holiness. The Tabernacle showed His willingness to identify with His people–to be a tent-dwelling pilgrim like they were (Exodus 25:8). The sacrifices graphically demonstrated the repugnance of sin (Leviticus 4:2-3).
The important role that the Tabernacle was to play in teaching the Israelites about God was dependent upon its form and beauty. As He always does, God permitted men to share in the ministry of that teaching. Like all gifts that God gives, the gift of art is to be developed and then used for His glory.
Caldecott, W. Shaw. “Tabernacle.” International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, 1939 ed.
Schaeffer, Francis. Art and the Bible. Downers Grove,IL: Inter-Varsity Press, 1973.
Veith, Gene Edward. The Gift of Art. Downers Grove,IL: Inter-Varsity Press, 1983.
Wolterstorff, Nicholas. Art in Action. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1980.