1 “Bezalel and Oholiab and every craftsman in whom the Lord has put skill and intelligence to know how to do any work in the construction of the sanctuary shall work in accordance with all that the Lord has commanded.” 2 And Moses called Bezalel and Oholiab and every craftsman in whose mind the Lord had put skill, everyone whose heart stirred him up to come to do the work. 3 And they received from Moses all the contribution that the people of Israel had brought for doing the work on the sanctuary. They still kept bringing him freewill offerings every morning, 4 so that all the craftsmen who were doing every sort of task on the sanctuary came, each from the task that he was doing, 5 and said to Moses, “The people bring much more than enough for doing the work that the Lord has commanded us to do.” 6 So Moses gave command, and word was proclaimed throughout the camp, “Let no man or woman do anything more for the contribution for the sanctuary.” So the people were restrained from bringing, 7 for the material they had was sufficient to do all the work, and more.
In a May 2015 article in The Atlanticentitled, “The Man Who Couldn’t Stop Giving,” Sam Kean told the story of a man in Brazil who went from being stingy and miserly to being excessively generous. In fact, many believed he became toogenerous! What caused the change? Brain damage from a stroke, apparently. Here is what the article, in part, says:
In the early 1990s, a quiet man named João quit his job running the human-resources department of an insurance company in Rio de Janeiro and began selling french fries from a street cart. The fries quickly proved popular, in part because they were delicious—thin and crisp and golden. Even more enticing, João often served them up for free. All you had to do was ask, and he’d scoop some into a box, no charge. What money he did take in, he frequently gave away to children begging in the street or used to buy them sweets. Day after day, he came home to his wife and son without a single real in his pocket.
In his previous life, João—a chubby man with pointy ears and arched black eyebrows—had been stern and serious, prone to squirreling money away. But after suffering a health crisis in 1990, at age 49, he wanted to live differently. “I saw death from close up,” he would often say. “Now I want to be in high spirits.” And nothing made him happier than giving. To those who didn’t know him well, he must have seemed like the embodiment of selflessness—the Saint Francis of Rio de Janeiro.
What’s most interesting about João’s story, though, is that his new outlook resulted not from a spiritual awakening but from brain damage caused by a stroke. Among other symptoms, he became a chronic insomniac and lost his sex drive; he started forgetting things and had trouble focusing; his movements slowed. And, his neurologist says, he became “pathologically generous”—compulsively driven to give. His carefree attitude toward money led to confrontations with his family, especially his brother-in-law, who co-owned the french-fry cart. But even when his family berated him, and the cart went out of business, and he was reduced to living on his mother’s pension, João refused to stop. Giving simply made him too happy. (João died of kidney failure in 1999. His doctor provided only his first name, to protect the family’s privacy. )
We’ve long known that there’s a clear, consistent link between generosity and happiness: surveys done around the world, of many different societies, have found that giving produces high levels of satisfaction and well-being in the givers. What scientists didn’t have a good grasp of until recently were the neuroscientific roots of this feeling—why we get a boost from giving.
A decade ago, Jordan Grafman, a cognitive neuroscientist at Northwestern University Medical School, investigated this link by putting volunteers in an fMRI machine and asking them to decide whether to donate to certain charities. Grafman and his team gathered data on which brain systems were most active during the process.
They had expected to see heightened activity in people’s frontal lobes, a part of the brain that helps with social reasoning and with weighing different courses of action—just the sorts of talents needed for this task. And the frontal lobes did, in fact, come to life on the fMRI scans. But Grafman was surprised to see the brain’s pleasure and reward circuits rev into high gear as well. “Our first impression,” Grafman says, “was that we might see some activation [in those circuits], just because usually when people give, they feel a little bit better. But we had no idea about the degree.”
Specifically, his team saw the brain’s mesolimbic system light up. This system forms a key part of the brain’s pleasure circuits, an archipelago of structures that stimulate the production of the chemical messenger dopamine, which makes us feel good. Neuroscientists usually associate activity in these circuits—which many other species also have—with hedonistic delights like food and sex. Grafman determined that giving money away excited these circuits even more than receiving money did. What your mother told you, then, is true: it is better to give than to receive. She probably just didn’t realize that, neurologically, giving is roughly on par with eating fudge or getting laid.
If giving feels so good, why don’t people do more of it? (One survey found, for example, that 85 percent of Americans donate less than 2 percent of their income to charity.) Part of the answer lies in the fact that other areas of the brain, like the frontal lobes, suppress the instinct for generosity at times. That sounds miserly of them, and maybe it is. But the frontal lobes help us see the bigger picture, and can alert us to the downsides of giving.
João’s case reveals what happens when the frontal lobes lose the ability to weigh in, allowing warm, fuzzy feelings to run amok. João’s doctor believes that his stroke severely damaged a structure called the medial forebrain bundle, a collection of neuron fibers near the base of the brain. To monitor other regions, the frontal lobes need to receive input from them, and that’s where the medial forebrain bundle comes in. Like an Internet trunk line, it pipes in data from all over the brain, allowing the frontal lobes to suppress, in the service of a larger goal, some of the urges that arise. (Your frontal lobes may, for instance, steer you away from that second slice of chocolate cake if you’re on a diet.) When parts of the bundle in João’s brain got destroyed, his frontal lobes lost the ability to control certain impulses—including, apparently, the impulse to give money away.
“Pathologically generous.” Now there is a phrase! I am intrigued by this neuroscientific examination of generosity. It also makes me think that neuroscientists would likely also diagnose Israel as having had a corporate pathology of generosity on the basis of Exodus 36. In this chapter, the people of Israel literally give too much and have to be told to stop! Was it because their frontal lobes were not doing what they should? Or was it because they had had an overwhelming vision of the goodness and glory of God?
All good things that we have are truly gifts from God.
As we approach Israel’s astonishing generosity, we first note the divine equipping of Bezalel and Oholiab, the leaders of the tabernacle construction project.
1 “Bezalel and Oholiab and every craftsman in whom the Lord has put skill and intelligence to know how to do any work in the construction of the sanctuary shall work in accordance with all that the Lord has commanded.” 2 And Moses called Bezalel and Oholiab and every craftsman in whose mind the Lord had put skill, everyone whose heart stirred him up to come to do the work.
Notice the strong emphasis on God’s enabling of their great work. God put “skill and intelligence to know how to do any work in the construction of the sanctuary” within the workers. Verse 2 tells us that God put skill in the “minds” of the workers. And the stirring of heart mentioned in verse 2 must also be seen as a divine enabling.
I believe that verses 1 and 2 are utterly crucial to our understanding of verses 3-7. I believe that this repeated emphasis on God’s enabling power and God’s divine gifts, both in Exodus 36:1-2 and in Exodus 35:30-35, creates the framework in which and the background against which Israel’s generosity is to be understood. Simply put, I believe that Israel finally came to understand that all good things we have are truly gifts from God! Then they simply acted accordingly.
We think of our external possessions as gifts from God when we think rightly. But so too are our talents, our skills, our intelligence, our abilities, and, in short, everything we have! Everything we have is a gift! Life is a gift!
Why does this form the framework for understanding Israel’s generosity? It is because only when all we have is seen as a gift fromGod are we truly able to give all that we have as a gift to God. Israel, in other words, caught a glimpse of a transformative truth: God was not only with them, He was blessing them in every single way and that above and beyond what they deserved. They were flabbergasted by the staggering kindness and mercy and generosity of God! They were overwhelmed by His grace and His provisions! Thus, they gave.
The significance of this for us rests in the fact that we too must catch this glimpse of the beautiful generosity of God if we are going to live lives of amazing kindness and generosity. We have all drunk in the American conceit that we can make of ourselves what we want. But that is not true. Any success you have, any victories you have, and any skills you have are purely a gift from God. Perhaps you have been good stewards of those gifts. That is wonderful! But they are gifts nonetheless.
Bezalel and Oholiab and the whole crew of workmen are therefore representative of us all. What good we experience and what good fruits we see coming from our labors are all gifts as are our abilities to labor fruitfully in the first place. Open your eyes to the staggering generosity of God and thank Him for His great provision!
Joyful giving is therefore the most natural thing in the world.
What happens when God’s people get a glimpse of God’s lovingkindness? They respond in like turn and give back to Him.
3 And they received from Moses all the contribution that the people of Israel had brought for doing the work on the sanctuary. They still kept bringing him freewill offerings every morning, 4 so that all the craftsmen who were doing every sort of task on the sanctuary came, each from the task that he was doing, 5 and said to Moses, “The people bring much more than enough for doing the work that the Lord has commanded us to do.” 6 So Moses gave command, and word was proclaimed throughout the camp, “Let no man or woman do anything more for the contribution for the sanctuary.” So the people were restrained from bringing, 7 for the material they had was sufficient to do all the work, and more.
Here we see one of the most beautiful pictures in all of scripture. The people are moved to give. In fact, they give so much that they give too much and are forced to stop! Notice the offerings are “freewill” offerings. They are not guilted into doing this. Guilt does not produce this kind of sacrifice. Only gratitude does. Has the world ever seen anything like this? Not very often. Charles Henry Mackintosh, commenting on these verses in 1862, wrote:
A lovely picture this of devotedness to the work of the sanctuary! It needed no effort to move the hearts of the people to give, no earnest appeals, no impressive arguments. Oh, no! their “heartsstirred them up.” This was the true way. The streams of voluntary devotedness flowed from within. “Rulers,” “men,” “women,”—all felt it to be their sweet privilege to give to the Lord, not with a narrow heart or [stingy] hand, but after such a princely fashion that they had “enough, and too much.”
Once again we have a kind of type here. The people who have received a great gift are therefore willing to give all that they have. What, then, of the Church, the body of Christ, a people literally defined by the gift they have been given: the gift of Jesus Christ.
In John 4, Jesus tells the woman at the well that He is a gift from God.
10Jesus answered her, “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.”
In Romans 3:24 Paul says that we “are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.” Three chapters later, in Romans 6:23, Paul famously wrote that “the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
In Romans 5 Paul speaks of salvation in Jesus as a great gift.
15 But the free gift is not like the trespass. For if many died through one man’s trespass, much more have the grace of God and the free gift by the grace of that one man Jesus Christ abounded for many. 16 And the free gift is not like the result of that one man’s sin. For the judgment following one trespass brought condemnation, but the free gift following many trespasses brought justification.
1 Corinthians 12 is a chapter devoted to God’s giving of gifts to His people. In Ephesians 2:8 Paul writes, “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God.”
In Luke 11, we are told that the Holy Spirit is a gift.
13If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!”
The Holy Spirit is also called a gift in Acts 2:38, 10:45, and 11:17.
On and on it goes. The New Testament (not to mention the Old, for which this point is also true!) is filled with references to God giving us gifts, all of them connected to the greatest gift of all: Jesus Christ! If, then, the people of God in Exodus responded to the gift-giving, loving, and life-enabling heart of God with a generosity that literally had to be stopped lest it overflow the work for which it was intended, how should we who have been saved by the blood of the gift that is Jesus Christ act?
Only those who know that they have been given a great gift are willing to give great gifts. This is not a matter of brain damage or dysfunctional frontal lobes. This is not a pathology. This is the overflow of the human heart. For the church, the radical gift of Jesus must translate into the radical giving of Jesus’ people, the Church. And, in truth, whenever Jesus has been rightly seen and grasped, this is what has happened: people have given all that they have and are. You can see this in the lives of the martyrs, the sacrifices of the missionaries, and in countless other acts committed over the last two thousand years.
Philip Ryken has used as an example the great 18th/19thmissionary hero Adoniram Judson. He quotes from the letter that Judson sent to Ann Hasseltine’s father when he wanted to ask for Ann’s hand in marriage. Judson needed Ann’s father and mother to understand what it would mean if they consented for their daughter to marry him, a missionary bound for Burma. Here is what he wrote:
I have now to ask, whether you can consent to part with your daughter early next spring, to see her no more in this world; whether you can consent to her departure, and her subjection to the hardships and sufferings of missionary life; whether you can consent to her exposure to the dangers of the ocean, to the fatal influence of the southern climate of India; to every kind of want and distress; to degradation, insult, persecution, and perhaps a violent death. Can you consent to all this, for the sake of him who left his heavenly home, and died for her and for you; for the sake of perishing, immortal souls; for the sake of Zion, and the glory of God? Can you consent to all this, in hope of soon meeting your daughter in the world of glory, with the crown of righteousness, brightened with the acclamations of praise which shall redound to her Savior from heathens saved, through her means, from eternal woe and despair?
We might wonder how on earth Judson could himself go to such a place and how on earth he could take the woman he loved there as well. Indeed, how did he bring himself to ask her parents such a painful question? He could do so because he knew that he and Ann and her parents all knew the extent of God’s gift to them, that God had given His very Son so that they all could have life.
A shocking gift leads to shocking generosity. The death of Jesus on the cross for lost humanity leads to a willingness to die for Jesus on the part of those who have accepted this great gift. The Christian truly does not measure his or her giving by the giving of his or her neighbor. At least, we should not. Instead, we measure our giving by the giving of God in Jesus Christ…and that changes everything. For the old adage, “You can’t outgive God!” turns out, after all, to be the simple truth. You cannot.
How much should you give to God? Look at the cross and you tell me.
Our God is a giving God.
Jesus is His gift.
Let us give Him our very lives in return.
Charles Henry Mackintosh, Notes on the Book of Exodus. (New York, NY: Loizeaux Brothers, 1862), p.370-371.
Philip Graham Ryken, Exodus. (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2005), p.1098.