With Him Oholiab

Several years ago, I stumbled across Exodus 31. I forget why I was even reading it, but something about it captivated me. The general plans for the tabernacle had already been delivered by God, through Moses, starting with an offering to fund the thing in Exodus 25. Exodus 31, then, begins the account of how the Israelites actually executed those plans. And the first thing God did in this execution phase was to appoint a foreman. His name was Bezalel, and he was the perfect guy for the job. Exodus 31:2 tells us that he was the son of Uri, son of Hur, of the tribe of Judah. The tribe of Judah was considered strong and blessed, going all the way back to Genesis 49. There, Judah’s father Jacob laid out a blessing that declared the entire tribe was to be renowned by the rest of Israel, stronger than any who would come after them, a tribe of leaders, blessed in everything they do, and handsome beyond compare. And indeed, while we don’t have a description of Bezalel’s appearance, we do discover in Exodus 31:3 that God had “filled him with God’s Spirit, with wisdom, understanding, and ability in every craft.” It then takes all of verses four and five to list Bezalel’s specific abilities. This guy was renowned by those around him, strong in the eyes of everyone, a natural leader, and clearly blessed with substantial skills and abilities. Not only that, but Bezalel was the grandson of Hur, who, together with Aaron, held up Moses’ arms when Israel fought against Amalek in Exodus 17 and was identified in Exodus 24 to keep things under control while Moses went up the mountain to meet with God. This guy had inherited a legacy of strong leadership! And then, in verse 6, we meet Oholiab:

“I have also selected Oholiab son of Ahisamach, of the tribe of Dan, to be with him.” (HCSB)

Now, at first glance, there is nothing terribly remarkable about this verse. Over the years, though, I have become increasingly convinced that the unremarkable description of Oholiab is, in fact, the most remarkable thing about this guy.

Here’s what I mean by that: while Bezalel’s credentials took up four entire verses, Oholiab, who is supposed to be Bezalel’s right-hand man, merits all of about one third of vs 6. He doesn’t even get a whole verse to himself, a fact which is even more striking when you discover that the rest of verse 6 is committed to the men who would actually be doing the work of constructing the tabernacle, and they are at least described as having wisdom placed within them and skilled to make everything God had planned. Indeed, Oholiab’s only documented credentials are his name and lineage, and some credentials they are! All the way back to Genesis 49, Oholiab’s tribe, Dan, was identified by Jacob as “a snake by the road, a viper beside the path, that bites the horses’ heels so that its rider falls backward.” That is, they were going to be traitors who derailed what the rest of Israel was up to! (In fact, this very thing came to pass in Joshua 19:47! The Danites were originally given an inheritance toward the middle of the promise land, but “when the territory of the Danites slipped out of their control, they went up and fought against Leshem, captured it, and struck it with the sword. So they took possession of it, lived there, and renamed Leshem after their ancestor Dan.” Leshem was, technically speaking, in another tribe’s inheritance!) And Ahisamach doesn’t appear anywhere else in Scripture or history! In stark contrast to Bezalel’s prominent heritage, then, Oholiab’s heritage as a leader is negligible. And when you add that he’s not attributed with even one single skill here in Exodus 31, you begin to wonder what God saw in Oholiab!

The only answer I can come up with for that question is this: potential.

Now, “potential” is a very positive way of saying that something could develop, but underlying that statement is the harsh reality that it is nothing right now. Of course, with God, it’s a little different, I suppose: His omniscience enables Him to see what will be. But Moses, Bezalel, and all the other Israelites didn’t have omniscience. So how do you suppose they reacted when God pointed to this no-name man, from a no-name family, of a treacherous tribe as the assistant on a project as monumental as the construction of the tabernacle?

I suspect more than a few of them wondered what God was up to. Maybe one or two of them vocalized a little doubt about whether or not God knew what He was doing. Perhaps someone even said something to the effect of, “Oholiab? Well, he’s a no-good Danite, and he’s always going to be a no-good Danite!”

I don’t know.

But what I do know is that God chose Oholiab. He made that clear. And I also know that, over the next seven chapters, Oholiab is mentioned four more times. The first of these appearances, in 35:34, he is mentioned as having the ability to teach others. The next time, in 36:1, he’s lumped in together with Bezalel and the skilled workers, and they’re all attributed as having “wisdom and understanding to know how to do all the work of constructing the sanctuary.” A verse later, in 36:2, he was again lumped in with Bezalel and all the others “in whose heart the Lord had placed wisdom” and “whose heart moved him” to get to work. Until finally, in 38:23, we read this: “With [Bezalel] was Oholiab son of Ahisamach, of the tribe of Dan, a gem cutter, a designer, and an embroiderer with blue, purple, and scarlet yarn, and fine linen.”

Do you see what happened? Oholiab went from a mere sidenote in Exodus 31 to a teacher, to a leader, to master craftsman of the order of Bezalel.

For twelve years now, I have been the pastor of a small church. One of the ongoing, compelling needs of our congregation is leadership development. My perennial search for leadership development materials, though, has left me scratching my head. While it would seem that we in the Church have developed plenty of materials to reinforce leadership skills already attained elsewhere, whether from a heritage of leaders, outside training, etc., I have found shockingly few resources intended to help identify those in our congregations who are, like Oholiab, full of potential and then train them into potent leaders like Bezalel.

My question today, then, is simple: how did Oholiab make such a radical transition? Just as importantly, are there Oholiabs lurking in my church (and yours?) who are just waiting for someone to pick them? And if that’s the case, how can I as pastor become more proactive about moving them from “Oholiab son of Ahisamach, of the tribe of Dan” to “Oholiab son of Ahisamach, of the tribe of Dan, a gem cutter, a designer, and an embroiderer with blue, purple, and scarlet yarn, and fine linen”?

How can I play a part in turning Oholiabs into Bezalels?


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