In 1969, when pieces of the Brooklyn Bridge started showing signs of wear, a young man, Francis P. Valentine was sent to the carpentry shop of the New York Department of Transportation to find the original blueprints. When he arrived, he realized no one had been through the stores of drawings in decades, so he began to sort through the drawers looking for the specific plans. It’s a wonder the drawings were still there at all. It had been over 85 years since the Brooklyn Bridge had opened, and over 40 years since Washington Roebling, the bridge’s foreman, chief architect, and engineer had passed away.
There’s another reason Valentine was lucky to find the drawing; nobody thought much of the papers stuffed in hundreds of drawers around the carpentry shop. Many had rifled through the old plans and no one had found much use for them, except the possibility that a part might need to be repaired in the future. Since almost every piece of the bridge had been invented for that very purpose, it was better to hang on to the drawings just in case.
What Valentine found stunned the world. Over the next few years, he returned to the shop almost weekly and began organizing the blueprints, over 10,000 drawings in all. They were cleaned, restored, and collated and eventually put on display at the Whitney Museum of Modern Art downtown. The collection is one of the single greatest displays of engineering and architectural mastery in the modern world. The drawings are excruciatingly detailed, down to the bricks, beams, and rivets.
What’s amazing is the level of detail, even the level of devotion to the problem. Unlike today when many drawings are simulated on computers and stored somewhere on a hard drive never to be seen again, these drawings were done by hand and intended to be used for years into the future. Washington Roebling and the others who took the time to painstakingly sketch the thousands of original pieces poured themselves into the drawings and the descriptions, knowing master craftsmen would come along and bring their drawings to life.
David McCullough, one of America’s great storytellers noticed something about the way these drawings show the character of their creators: “It is the incredible care and concentration you feel in even the least of the drawings, the pride, the obvious love—love for materials, love for elegance in design, love of mathematics, of line, of light and shadow, of majestic scale, and, yes, love of drawing—this passion in combination with an overriding insistence on order, on quality, that we of this very different century must inevitably stand in awe before. You feel what these people felt for their work and you can’t help but be drawn to them.” (Brave Companions, 123).
Precision reveals love. Their tremendous amount of care displays their absolute fascination with their craft, and their commitment to share the beauties of order, proportion, design, and function with the world. The artists' passions can be seen in their work.
I’m inclined to think that all art conveys something similar, and the more intricate the plans and the more detailed the undertaking, the more obvious the grandeur of the mind behind the blueprints appears to be. There’s so much beauty in complexity and specificity brought to order, unified around a singular purpose.
What a marvel the ancient tabernacle would have been. All art is reminiscent of God’s creation, his creatures imitating his work, bearing his image. Of course, God’s attributes can be seen in the things he has made, but they can also be seen in the things he commanded his people to make. The intricate details of the desert tabernacle, down to the clasps and vestments and pomegranates, display the glory of God, and the hand-stitched veil with cherubim sewn into its folds displays his handiwork. Has there ever been a greater calling that Bezalel and Oholiab received, to take the blueprints from God and construct the minutia of God’s house?
Of course, as we read it now, the long lists of specifications in Exodus and Leviticus seem much more mundane than the plans for the Brooklyn Bridge. But our admiration for every modern marvel should point us to the source of every creative endeavor. It was God who gave us a love for design and proportion, and those desires are best satisfied in the things he has made. We’re all distant descendants of Tubal-Cain, and of Noah, the first master craftsmen.
The specifications for the temple, the priestly garments, and the tabernacle can seem like drudgery when you remove them from their intended place in human experience. People pore through Leonardo Da Vinci’s journals to this day in awe of his creativity and breadth, but seldom give God’s designs the time they require to become captivating.
For a long time, the grand triumphs of architecture were built out of love for God. Town cathedrals took generations to build and towered above the city skyline. These people were imitating what they saw in their Bibles. They were building something even greater than the tabernacle because something even greater had come.
A further encouragement to us is that we get to take part in what God is building; “As you come to him, a living stone rejected by men but in the sight of God chosen and precious, you yourselves like living stones are being built up as a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 2:4-5). Even in the moments that it seems like God is not building anything very spectacular in our lives, the blueprints in the Old Testament remind us of his care and attention to detail.
Slow down in these sections of the Bible and really imagine what the text is describing. These verses are charged with the grandeur and creativity of God. Imagine reading David McCullough’s quotes about the parts in the Old Testament that are tough to get through. Even the tedious parts teach us something marvelous about God.
Cole Feix is the founder of So We Speak and a regular writer. Follow him on Twitter, @cfeix7.