Moses said to all the congregation of the people of Israel, “This is the thing that the Lord has commanded. Take from among you a contribution to the Lord. Whoever is of a generous heart, let him bring the Lord's contribution: gold, silver, and bronze; blue and purple and scarlet yarns and fine twined linen; goats' hair, tanned rams' skins, and goatskins; acacia wood, oil for the light, spices for the anointing oil and for the fragrant incense, and onyx stones and stones for setting, for the ephod and for the breastpiece." (Shemot / Exodus 35:4-9; ESV)
The people of Israel’s forty-year journey through the wilderness prior to their conquest of the Promised Land was quite the time. So much happened, both good and bad. We are privileged to learn from them and their experiences through the Scriptures. No nation has ever encountered God as they had: his power, his protection, his guidance, his ways. When we think of the people themselves, we may tend to do so only in negative terms. Even though God had made himself so dramatically real to them, they often complained and rebelled against him. But that’s not the whole story. There were actually many things they did right as we see here in God’s call for contributions for the Mishkan (English: Tabernacle).
This is a case where God’s directive to the people was not obligatory, but voluntary. It’s not often that God speaks in anything but commands as he does here. Through Moses, God invited the people to give of their possessions items that would be used for the various parts of the Mishkan. As it turned out, not only did the people adequately respond, they gave so much that they were eventually told to stop (see Shemot / Exodus 36:6).
When the request for contributions was made it was directed to those, according to the translation I am using, who were of a generous heart. The Hebrew phrase translated as “generous heart,” is “nadiv livo,” which is often translated as “willing heart.” It could be that this has an implied meaning of “generous heart,” since that is what is normally understood when we speak of willingness when it comes to the giving of things. But there is something more than generosity going on here. Also implied, possibly in the expression itself, but certainly in the context, is the ability to give. God wasn’t asking for general contributions of an unspecified nature. He lists exactly what was required and for what purpose. There were likely a great many people who were not in possession of these items. It didn’t matter if they were generous or not. God was looking for people who were both willing and able to give these items.
This reminds us that we can only give of what we have. An obvious statement, perhaps? Maybe, but we don’t always treat it as such. It’s so easy to compare what we give or don't give, do or don't do, with the contributions of others. God is not looking for us to give what we don’t have. We wouldn’t have what we have unless God didn’t first provide it. He is in no way impressed with our striving to be what we are not by giving what he has not given us.
Elsewhere in the Torah, we are told to “love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might” (Devarim / Deuteronomy 6:5; ESV). This great commandment directs me to love God with my heart, my soul, and my might, not someone else’s. I can’t give to God what I don’t have, nor does he expect me to.
But I can give what I do have, whatever that might be. But I won’t know what that is as long as I am focused on the contributions of others. It’s your heart and your soul that God is calling for you to give with all your might, willingly.