What’s In a Name?

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote a post about Oholiab, who first appears in the Bible in Exodus 31. I have been fascinated by this guy for several years. But it wasn’t until just recently that I finally decided that I must do a study on this guy. You see, one of the ongoing needs in the small church that I pastor is leadership development. Now, I’m not just talking refining a few people that are already great leaders. I’m not talking about taking someone who has been honed by heritage or profession and simply straightening their edge so they’re sharp for church work. I mean, we need to be able to identify someone with latent leadership potential, to start breaking that potential free, to refine it until it shines, and finally to polish it until it is something fantastic. And I think Oholiab may contain at least some of the keys to doing just exactly that.

As I press on with a real study of Oholiab, there are a few questions that I want to answer. In no particular order, I want to know the following:

  • Was Oholiab, in fact, the leader I think he was?
  • If Oholiab was the leader I think he was, then how was it that God and Moses recognized him as a latent leader?
  • What was the program to move Oholiab from a guy with no skills, talents, etc., in Exodus 31; to the teacher in Exodus 35; to the master craftsman in chapter 38?
  • How long did it take to move Oholiab from zero to hero, so to speak?

Since, I suppose, any leadership case study of Oholiab would be a moot point if he was not an actual leader, I think it probably wise to explore whether or not I’m wasting my time before I actually do waste too much time.

So let’s see if we can figure out whether or not Oholiab was the leader I think he was. But how shall we do that? I think there are two primary ways to determine Oholiab’s importance in the scope of the tabernacle construction project and maybe even history as a whole. The first method is to understand whose names were included in Scripture and why. And the second is to explore what God meant when He said Oholiab would be with Bezalel.

Let’s start with the matter of Oholiab’s name. The name Oholiab (or Aholiab, depending on your translation) means “tent of my father” (Strong’s). It appears five times in Scripture, all of which are in Exodus and refer to this same guy, the son of Ahisamach of the tribe of Dan. That’s great, but how significant is this?

Wikipedia has compiled a list of approximately 2600 names which appear in the Bible. Another source I found pegged the number of people mentioned by name at just over 3200. Let’s be generous (and mathematically simple) and raise that to 5,000. If 5,000 people were mentioned by name in Scriptures, and there are more than 7.125 billion people today, then if all the people mentioned in Scriptures lived today, your chances of being one of them would be one in 1.45 million. To put that into a little bit of context, you would be a little less than 10 times more likely to be in the Bible than to have flown in space. But on the other hand, if you are a US resident, you are more than twice as likely to be struck by lightning this year and more than 483 times as likely to be struck by lightning at some point in your entire life.

And when you consider that most of the people in the Bible died over two thousand years ago, you begin to understand that the chances of any one person being included, by name, in the Bible are not all that great.

Simple probabilities, though, don’t necessarily equate to significance. So we need to keep digging a bit farther, to consider why some people were named in Scriptures but others’ names are left out. We’ll call this Luke’s and Paul’s Principle of Name Dropping. Why? Well, because Luke (i.e., the author of the gospel of Luke and Acts) and the apostle Paul were masters at dropping names. This fact is probably best illustrated in the book of Romans. The book of Romans was actually a letter written by St. Paul the apostle to the Christian church at Rome. This is significant because Paul had, until that point, not yet been to Rome. In fact, no apostle had. So he had no personal credibility with the believers there. And that lack of credibility would be problematic because the book of Romans includes 15 chapters of heavy theological instruction and aims to build a foundation for Paul to use the church there as a springboard for a future mission into Europe. What would make you pay attention to the cryptic ramblings of some stranger? What would make you want to contribute to the ministry of some unknown guy to a bunch of unknown people in some far-off, unknown land? The answer is surprisingly familiar: references. Whenever you fill out a job application, you are expected to give a list of people who will be able to tell the prospective employer about your character and work ethic, among other things. If these references endorse you, then it’s a pretty good chance you’ll get the job. If not, well… you get the point. But what good does a list of references do if there is no way for the employer to find them? In Romans 16, Paul provides a list of references in the form of greetings. Basically, starting in vs 3, he says, “Say ‘hi’ to…” and then lists off a whole bunch of people that the believers at Rome would know. People who also knew Paul. People who would vouch for his credentials as an apostle. There are 26 people named, with a handful of others lumped in for good measure.

So Luke’s and Paul’s Principle of Name Dropping is simply this: only people who would be recognized by one of the Bible’s original readers as having some significance were mentioned by name in the Bible.

And then there is this: we all recognize the twelve apostles as significant figures. These are the guys who followed Jesus and led the church from its beginnings. We might even be able to name a few of them: Peter, Andrew, James, John, Philip Bartholomew, Matthew, Thomas, James son of Alphaeus, Simon the Zealot, Judas son of James, and Judas Iscariot. Of course, Judas Iscariot committed suicide after betraying Jesus, and Thomas was the one who doubted the resurrection. The first half of Acts essentially follows Peter. James is mentioned in Acs 12 as having been killed by Herod. John shows up a few times (e.g., 1, 2, 3 John; Revelation). But what of Matthew? That guy wrote the New Testament’s opening gospel, but all the Bible tells us about him is (a) how he was called (Matthew 9; Mark 2); (b) that he was chosen as one of the twelve (Matthew 10; Mark 3; Luke 6); and (c) that he was in the upstairs room prior to Pentecost (Acts 1). James son of Alphaeus, Simon the Zealot, and Judas son of James? They made the list. And my personal favorite is Matthias. That poor guy shows up in Acts 1, where he is chosen by lot as Judas Iscariot’s replacement, but he is never mentioned by name in the Bible again.

Oholiab’s name appears in the Bible more times than three – possibly four – of the thirteen men called apostles through Acts 1: Thaddaeus (aka, Judas the son of James, appears 4 times), Simon the Zealot (apears 4 times, each in a list of the apostles), Matthias (appears 2 times, both in Acts 1), and quite possibly James the son of Alphaeus (i.e., he’s mentioned 4 times by this name, but some scholars identify him with James the Less, who appears 3 times, for a total of 7).

That, in my book, is a pretty compelling argument for significance.

But it still doesn’t confirm that Oholiab was a leader. I mean, Achan is mentioned by name 6 times, but while his role may have been significant, he was certainly not a leader.

To verify that Oholiab was a leader, we need to take a look at the role that God designed for Oholiab to fill. That role is described in Exodus 31 in a single word: with. According to Strong’s, the proper translation is “nearness,” but it is translated by the HCSB 79 different ways because it is used with such broad implications. I mean, what does it mean to be with someone, such as Oholiab was with Bezalel? In this case, I think we can boil it down to two main points.

The first of these is that Oholiab was supposed to be in physical proximity to Bezalel. And indeed, as we go through the next few chapters, we find that, almost every time Bezalel shows up, Oholiab is close behind. For instance, Bezalel is introduced in 31:2, Oholiab in 31:6. Four verses. In 35:30, Moses introduces Bezalel to the people, and in vs 34, he introduces Oholiab. Four verses. In both 36:1 and 36:2, the two are mentioned in a single breath, working together. In 36:8; 37:1; and again in 38:1, Bezalel alone is attributed with doing the work, but it’s pretty clear that there are others working alongside him; he’s just the guy that gets the spotlight. And then, as the project heads toward a conclusion, we see in 38:22 that Bezalel made everything God commanded, and in 38:23, that Oholiab was with him the whole way. I think this is a literal thing: as a faithful assistant, Oholiab shadowed Bezalel everywhere he went. In the process, he was looking over Bezalel’s shoulder, seeing what Bezalel was doing, listening to what Bezalel was saying, studying how Bezalel was acting and reacting. In short, Oholiab was Bezalel’s disciple. Just as Jesus’ disciples followed Him, day in and day out, for three years, Oholiab followed Bezalel wherever he went, whatever he did. Oholiab was with Bezalel.

And the second point of the word with, which I believe pertinent to our discussion is that Oholiab was supposed to be on the same page as Bezalel. They were allies, working toward the same objectives, looking off the same plans and proceeding with the same values. I imagine that this became easier over time: as Oholiab got to know Bezalel, his preferences and styles, there came a day when one of the skilled workmen came with a question, and Oholiab didn’t need to ask Bezalel. He know how Bezalel would answer, so he just gave the instruction himself. Perhaps it was about the shade of red the sea cow skins should be dyed. Then someone else asked if the gold plating for the ark was smooth enough. Oholiab didn’t need to consult Bezalel: it wasn’t perfect yet. So he picked up the tools and showed the worker how to make it as smooth as Bezalel had made another sheet just like it the day before. Soon, fewer and fewer questions were actually making it to Bezalel; Oholiab was fielding more and more. Until, by the time the tabernacle was finished, Oholiab could hold his own with his mentor in three of the four major talents with which Bezalel was attributed in Exodus 31. He could do that because he was committed to the same objective, by the same plan, with the same methods, and at the same quality as Bezalel. Oholiab was with Bezalel.

And I don’t think it’s coincidence that this is how Oholiab was described in chapter 31 when we meet him, and in chapter 38, when Oholiab fades back into the mists of history. Even then, though, when Bezalel appears one more time in 39:2, we read of how he fashioned an ephod, but thin in 39:3, it describes how they did the work.

But “with” isn’t the only word used to describe Oholiab’s function. In 35:34, when Moses was introducing him to the people, he attributed both Bezalel and Oholiab with the ability to teach others. What is teaching if not a form of leading?

All this to say this: I think it’s pretty fair, based on the evidence, to say that Oholiab was, in fact, a leader, at least by the time all was said and done. He wasn’t the head honcho, for sure. Thus, Bezalel gets the spotlight. But you know what? For every leader who gets the spotlight, there must be dozens, maybe even hundreds, who don’t. And if Oholiab really was the leader I think he was, he probably didn’t need or even want the spotlight anyway. Real leaders rarely do because the spotlight only blinds them.

So I will continue my study of this guy. My next question: just how latent were Oholiab’s leadership skills, and how did God (and Moses) recognize him?

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