Builder of the Tabernacle, Avenger of Hur

Builder of the Tabernacle, Avenger of Hur

Bezalel, the builder of the tabernacle in the wilderness is given an exalted place in the Torah narrative. God ‘calls him by name’, a unique distinction afforded to nobody else in the Bible. Not only that, but he is filled with ‘the spirit of God, with wisdom, understanding and knowledge’ (Ex 35,31). These qualities (the initial letters of which spell Habad in Hebrew) are, according to the book of Proverbs, the very tools that the Almighty used to create the universe.

Wisdom, understanding and knowledge are all intellectual qualities. Wisdom, according to the Midrash, means insight into the depths of Torah, Understanding is when one appreciates the logic and purpose of the laws while Knowledge is the accumulation of facts through learning. But as far as Bezalel, the builder of the tabernacle is concerned, these qualities are all technical; they all help him to construct the Tabernacle according to its design. None of them appear to give him the creative powers that any good artist requires, even when constructing according to plan.

Bezalel’s creative ability comes from the other quality bestowed upon him, the spirit of God. This is the same spirit that ‘hovered over the face of the waters’ in the creation narrative in Genesis.

Bezalel was given the skills and creativity to be both an artist and a master builder. On a human level he was empowered to imitate the divine creation of the universe. His building of the tabernacle is in some way comparable to the world’s creation.

But the Midrash is not content with treating Bezalel as merely imitating God. It sees something else in the description of Bezalel, indicating that he is more than just a highly skilled artist and builder. The Torah tells us that he was the grandson of Hur, a minor character in the Torah narrative but one with great midrashic potential.

After crossing the Red Sea the Israelites were attacked by the tribe of Amalek. While Joshua led the counter attack, Moses climbed to the top of a nearby hill, accompanied by Aaron and Hur. This is the first mention of Hur in the Bible. From the hilltop Moses spurred the Israelites to victory by holding his hands heavenward; when his arms grew tired Aaron and Hur supported them.

Hur is mentioned briefly once more, when Moses ascended Sinai to receive the Ten Commandments. He told the people that he was leaving Aaron and Hur in charge, to resolve any quarrels that might break out while he was away.

That is all we hear of Hur. Having appeared to be third in command of the wandering Israelites, we never hear of him again. All we are told subsequently (other than a rather confusing genealogy in the Book of Chronicles) is that he was Bezalel’s grandfather. The Midrash claims that he was Miriam’s son, but there is little textual support for that.

The Torah doesn’t tell us what happened to Hur, but the rabbis of the Midrash do. They assume that he was killed trying to prevent the Israelites from building the Golden Calf. This would explain why Aaron participated in the offence; he saw what had happened to Hur and he was afraid for his own life.  

The building of the Tabernacle was the antithesis of the construction of the Golden Calf. The Tabernacle was sacred, commanded by God and built according to a complex plan. In striking contrast the Golden Calf was profane, idolatrous and, according to Aaron, it emerged unbidden from the furnace.

Echoing the creation of the world, the Tabernacle was the final act in the rehabilitation of the Israelites after their grave offence. The privilege of construction the Tabernacle was awarded to the grandson of the man who had died in his attempt to stop the offence from being committed.

The genius of the Midrash is that it reaches this conclusion almost exclusively from hints and gaps in the text. There is no textual evidence that Hur was killed when the Golden Calf was made, but the idea is not inconsistent with the narrative. That the Tabernacle was the antithesis of the Golden Calf is apparent from the narrative. But it is only because the Midrash draws our attention to the language used to describe its construction, that we are really able to fully appreciate the connection between the two events, and the possible significance of the choice of Bezalel as the builder.

© 2020 Harry Freedman Books