Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Thursday, February 16, 2017

building 4: creative fidelity

In Exodus 31 there’s a curious passage in which the Lord describes to Moses the artist, or artisan, or craftsman, whom He has chosen to oversee the building of the Tabernacle: “See, I have called by name Bezalel son of Uri son of Hur, of the tribe of Judah: and I have filled him with divine spirit, with ability, intelligence, and knowledge in every kind of craft, to devise artistic designs, to work in gold, silver, and bronze, in cutting stones for setting, and in carving wood, in every kind of craft.” That’s the NRSV. The ESV has something very similar: “I have filled him with the Spirit of God, with ability and intelligence, with knowledge and all craftsmanship, to devise artistic designs, to work in gold, silver, and bronze, in cutting stones for setting, and in carving wood, to work in every craft.”

Here’s Robert Alter: “And I have filled him with the spirit of God in wisdom and in understanding and in knowledge and in every task, to devise plans, to work in gold and in silver and an bronze, and in stone cutting for settings and in wood carving, to do every task."

And finally, the good old KJV: “And I have filled him with the spirit of God, in wisdom, and in understanding, and in knowledge, and in all manner of workmanship, to devise cunning works, to work in gold, and in silver, and in brass, and in cutting of stones, to set them, and in carving of timber, to work in all manner of workmanship.”

I want here to note two points about this passage, and save a third point for another post.

First, as Alter comments, throughout the Pentateuch “‘wisdom’ and its synonyms suggest both mastery of a craft and something like insight” — we might say, both techne and phronesis.

Second, the words translated as “work,” “craft,” “task,” “worksmanship,” and so on are almost always variants of mela’khah, which, says Alter, is one of the two most common Biblical words for work, the other being ‘avodah. Alter says that the latter “usually implies subservience – in political contexts, it means to be subject or vassal to a superior power, in cultic contexts, divine service — and it also often suggests strenuous physical labor.” He notes that after the Fall Adam is cursed to work (‘avodah) the soil, and the same word is used to describe the labor of the Israelite slaves in Egypt. By contrast, mela’khah typically connotes craft and manual skill. Interestingly, and I think importantly, the closely related noun mala’kh is a messenger or agent — an angel is one kind of mala’kh. But isn't this also “divine service”? It seems that the words mela’khah and ‘avodah are meant to distinguish levels of personal freedom in the exercise of a responsibility: the one who performs ‘avodah has virtually no such freedom, is instead forced to carry out duties mechanically and without initiative or imagination, whereas the one who performs mela’khah can put more of himself or herself into the work. The mala’kh is granted the boon of what we might call creative fidelity in carrying out his or her tasks.

I find myself thinking here of a justly famous passage in Ruskin’s The Stones of Venice about imperfection in work. I’m going to quote a big chunk of it, because it’s profound and wonderful:

But the modern English mind has this much in common with that of the Greek, that it intensely desires, in all things, the utmost completion or perfection compatible with their nature. This is a noble character in the abstract, but becomes ignoble when it causes us to forget the relative dignities of that nature itself, and to prefer the perfectness of the lower nature to the imperfection of the higher; not considering that as, judged by such a rule, all the brute animals would be preferable to man, because more perfect in their functions and kind, and yet are always held inferior to him, so also in the works of man, those which are more perfect in their kind are always inferior to those which are, in their nature, liable to more faults and shortcomings.... And therefore, while in all things that we see, or do, we are to desire perfection, and strive for it, we are nevertheless not to set the meaner thing, in its narrow accomplishment, above the nobler thing, in its mighty progress; not to esteem smooth minuteness above shattered majesty; not to prefer mean victory to honourable defeat; not to lower the level of our aim, that we may the more surely enjoy the complacency of success. But, above all, in our dealings with the souls of other men, we are to take care how we check, by severe requirement or narrow caution, efforts which might otherwise lead to a noble issue; and, still more, how we withhold our admiration from great excellencies, because they are mingled with rough faults. Now, in the make and nature of every man, however rude or simple, whom we employ in manual labour, there are some powers for better things: some tardy imagination, torpid capacity of emotion, tottering steps of thought, there are, even at the worst; and in most cases it is all our own fault that they are tardy or torpid. But they cannot be strengthened, unless we are content to take them in their feebleness, and unless we prize and honour them in their imperfection above the best and most perfect manual skill. And this is what we have to do with all our labourers; to look for the thoughtful part of them, and get that out of them, whatever we lose for it, whatever faults and errors we are obliged to take with it. For the best that is in them cannot manifest itself, but in company with much error. Understand this clearly: You can teach a man to draw a straight line, and to cut one; to strike a curved line, and to carve it ; and to copy and carve any number of given lines or forms, with admirable speed and perfect precision; and you find his work perfect of its kind: but if you ask him to think about any of those forms, to consider if he cannot find any better in his own head, he stops; his execution becomes hesitating; he thinks, and ten to one he thinks wrong; ten to one he makes a mistake in the first touch he gives to his work as a thinking being. But you have made a man of him for all that. He was only a machine before, an animated tool.

Thus Ruskin rejoices when he sees the various small (and sometimes large) flaws in the execution of old Venetian ornament, and grieves when he sees the flawlessness of modern factory work. For the former are the products of mela’khah, the latter products of mere ‘avodah, the work of human beings reduced to the status of “animated tool.”

Equipped with this distinction, I remembered Josipovici’s point about Solomon’s forced labor that I cited in my previous post: “This massive deployment of a labor force to hew and cut stone is more reminiscent of the Israelites in Egypt than of the willing makers of the Tabernacle.” Surely this work is described by the narrator as a kind of ‘avodah?

But no, it turns out; no, it isn’t. What some translations call “forced labor” is hammas, “levy” or “tribute”; and when the actual labor of the workers is mentioned, the words employed are indeed versions of mela’khah, or a third word for work, ha‘ōsim, which is clearly used to refer to skilled labor or craft. The KJV speaks of these people as “those who wrought,” like wheelwrights or cartwrights: highly trained artisans. Which perhaps suggests that even those who were “levied” to work on the Temple were still granted a kind of dignity that differentiates them from those among their ancestors who had been slaves in Egypt: though required by the King to build, they had dignity in their work. They used tools, but they were not themselves mere “animated tools.” There are both kinds and degrees of independence in labor.

One might conclude from this little excursus an important point: what Wendell Berry calls “good work” is often possible in conditions of limited political freedom, perhaps even in certain forms of bondage. Berry:

Good human work honors God's work. Good work uses no thing without respect, both for what it is in itself and for its origin. It uses neither tool nor material that it does not respect and that it does not love. It honors Nature as a great mystery and power, as an indispensable teacher, and as the inescapable judge of all work of human hands. It does not dissociate life and work, or pleasure and work, or love and work, or usefulness and beauty. To work without pleasure or affection, to make a product that is not both useful and beautiful, is to dishonor God, nature, the thing that is made, and whomever it is made for. This is blasphemy: to make shoddy work of the work of God. And such blasphemy is not possible so long as the entire Creation is understood as holy, and so long as the works of God are understood as embodying and so revealing God's spirit.

(If you know the amazing story of William and Ellen Craft — and if you don't you should — you'll remember that his skill as a carpenter, his good work, earned him a degree of personal freedom which in turn enabled his escape from slavery. And his name is Craft, for heaven's sake.) It is often possible to work this way in conditions of bondage, but not always: when the human person is but an “animated tool” in the hands of those who dishonor Creation and its Creator, then good work may be out of reach. This is ‘avodah and conditions still worse. In our work we may count our selves blessed when we have the status of the mala’kh, the one privileged, in carrying out an assigned task, to be creative and free in faithfulness.

We might even say that technology is redeemed when, and only when, it enables this status. We should assess our technologies not only by what they do to the world — whatever it is they explicitly direct their powers towards — but also by what they do to those who employ them: Do they force us into the condition of animated tools, or extend and amplify our proper creativity? And what they do to us they will also and necessarily do to our relations with one another. This is a good deal of what Ivan Illich means when he speaks of "tools for conviviality."


  • I am loving this series of posts. This one brings to mind "Shop as Soulcraft". Keep 'em coming.

  • This line of thinking also seems congruent with what James Scott terms "Gross Human Product," which is the result of asking a different set of questions: "What if we were to ask a different question of institutions and activities than the narrow neoclassical question of how efficient they are in terms of costs (e.g., resources, labor, capital) per unity of a given, specified product? What if we were to ask what kind of people a given activity or institution fostered? Any activity we can imagine, any institution, no matter what its manifest purpose, is also, willy-nilly, transforming people." From Two Cheers for Anarchism, pg. 67.

  • I have no doubt that the distinctions of independence in labor you describe are real. But if 'avodah represents mechanical, uncreative labor, what does that imply about "serving the Lord" (e.g., Ps 100:2)? To 'vd the Lord in the Hebrew Bible is to worship him (Alter's "divine service").

    Maybe the cultic (we might say liturgical) worship of God is rightly described as uncreative labor. It's supposed to be done only as the Master has directed. The priest is not free to innovate. But is he thereby reduced to an "animated tool"? I probably would have said so once . . .

    Great series of posts.

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