As they took their blades and cut the gnarled wood of the thorny acacia tree (also called “shittim wood”, see Exodus 25:10-22 and Exodus 37:1-9), the men who had gone out into the desert in the cool of the early morning sighed in relief.
Their search for wood that was usable was a long and arduous one. They had already spent days searching for acacia bushes with wood that was sufficient for their need. Bezalel, the craftsman that God had instructed Moses to appoint as the artisan in charge (see Exodus 31:1-11), seemed impossible to satisfy. At times, he and his assistant, Oholiab, could hear the workmen grumbling. Bezalel would shake his head, bemused by their impatience, but was adamant that the wood that they needed had to be just right: strong, yet flexible enough to yield to his hand as he worked with it; mature enough to actually be large enough to use, yet free of blemish and corruption.
The reason, of course, that it was so difficult to find what he was looking for was that this was the Sinai Desert. The only wood that could grow here was the acacia bush and it was dead more often than not from the terrible thirst that lay upon the land even in the wadis (rain gulleys) that offered the barest of shelter from the sun’s blazing rays. Someone had suggested sarcastically that if they needed wood so badly, it might be easier to return to Egypt and get the wood there from the Nile River valley.
Bezalel was glad that Moses had not heard that comment. After the golden calf incident and the tragic events that followed (see Exodus 32), Moses’ heart seemed already to have been nearly broken. No, Bezalel knew what he was doing. Besides, Bezalel reminded them, whatever they used had to be harvested and given freely by those whose hearts were in it (from Exodus 25:2). And after they had searched carefully, taking their time so that their offering would be pleasing to the God who had delivered them from their slavery in Egypt, they found just what they were looking for.
After they had scrutinized the wood that they were going to use for the assignments that God had given them, some of the assistants simply shook their heads. “Perhaps,” said one who had good intentions, “it would have been better to use cedar or oak… almost any other kind of wood would be easier to use. We could trade for it with the Edomites, our brothers.”
“No,” replied Bezalel, “the Lord told Moses that we were to use acacia.” And then he smiled. He realized that he perhaps didn’t know all the reasons that acacia was chosen by the Lord, but he knew that the acacia bush could teach them much.
As they began to craft the wood, they painstakingly stripped the coarse and thorny bark from the acacia limbs. Bezalel and Oholiab scratched their arms and cut their hands so much that their hands seemed always to be bleeding. Sometimes the wood would prove unwilling to comply and so would splinter and crack. At other times they discovered hidden blemishes that compromised the wood’s integrity. But in the end, they were able to craft the wood into the necessary shapes and piece them together until they had completed the chest that God had told them He desired. The ugly, stubborn acacia wood was transformed into a new thing. When they then began to overlay the wood with gold, Bezalel’s assistants began to get excited. He and Oholiab smiled at their enthusiasm, and reminded them what it had cost them to accomplish the job as they held up their scarred hands.
Finally, the chest was complete and the lid, with two beautiful figures ornamenting its surface, was placed atop it. There was an ominous feeling that they were in the presence of the holy, and they were overcome with awe and felt so profoundly humbled that the Holy One had used them and their talents for His glory. “Indeed,” said Bezalel, “it was for this reason that we have been given such talent.” His assistants gazed at the Ark of the Covenant and gave praise to God.
Bezalel then remarked to the men standing around him, “I think that we are like the acacia bush. Our God could have chosen any other ‘tree’ in the world, yet he chose one with thorns and obstinate branches. Though our thorns prick the flesh of His mercy and His compassion bleeds sorrow as we strive against Him, He forbears our waywardness.”
Oholiab, moved to tears, answered, “Yes, He has brought us out of the dry places of sin and given us new life and new purpose that we could never have known had He allowed us to remain in the arid places of our bondage to Egypt… and, more importantly, our bondage to our own selfish ways.”
“Ah, and see what else He has done,” smiled Bezalel. “He has covered us with the glory of His love and presence. Like the gold on the acacia wood, the Lord’s divine calling overlays our people with a beauty that is not native to us.” The men gathered around him could only agree. Bezalel led them in a song of thanksgiving and then led them into the next project that the Lord had given them.
“Take care, brothers, lest there be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart, leading you to fall away from the living God. But exhort one another every day, as long as it is called ‘today,’ that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin…. Now may the God of peace Who brought again from the dead our Lord Jesus, the great Shepherd of the sheep, by the blood of the eternal covenant, equip you with everything good that you may do His will, working in us that which is pleasing in His sight, through Jesus Christ, to Whom be glory forever and ever. Amen.” (Hebrews 3:12-13, 13:20-21 ESV)
(Thom Mollohan and his family have ministered in southern Ohio the past 24 years, is the author of Led by Grace, The Fairy Tale Parables, Crimson Harvest, and A Heart at Home with God. He blogs at “unfurledsails.wordpress.com”. Pastor Thom leads Pathway Community Church and may be reached for comments or questions by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.)