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Retro-fitting Ancient Priestly Garments of Grace


Christians are quick to stitch together interpretations regarding priestly garments designed and described for the most part in the Old Testament. It is a time-tested tradition woven together with the help of New Testament priestly imagery especially from the book of Hebrews. But the New Testament has little interest in the attire the new high priest (Jesus) wears; the Old Testament cares a lot about priestly garments and the details surrounding them.

So, what if we were to begin where priestly garments began? I mean really ask about how priestly clothing was understood originally in what was known as the Hebrew Bible. By this I mean to follow the threads of basic exegetical practice and ask the three big questions many put to biblical passages: 1) What DID these words mean to the people who first heard them? 2) What, then, DO these words mean to us today? 3) (the more devotional question) How do these words MOVE or change us?

This process might lead us to some startling questions … and even more surprising discoveries. In the spirit of the exegetical enterprise, where would questions like these take us:

  • Is there anything in pre-Christian cultures which might provide insights into the significance of priestly garments?
  • Does information from early Israelite or any other contemporary culture help us understand what these garments must have signified to those who first encountered them?
  •  How can archaeology help us here? Or anthropology?
  • What makes sacred, priestly clothing important? Special? Holy? What is “holiness”?
  • Why the level of detail in the descriptions of priestly attire?
  • What dimensions of grace become apparent through understanding original context, that is, long before Christianity?
  • What added dimensions of grace become apparent through a Christian understanding?

I don’t intend in what follows to answer all of these intriguing questions, but hope to retro-fit our conceptions of priestly attire into the world of ancient Israel in its context, and see what we might learn in the process.

Entering the world of ancient Israel and its neighbors is like mounting a journey to a foreign country, as Jon Dybdahl notes in a volume chapter on the cultural background of the Old Testament.[1] This was an Eastern culture, with much more serious attention given to ritual than in the West, a world of superstitious fears and anxiety. This was a culture from long ago, prior to our modern understandings of how nature works. This was a world of God or the gods.

Rudolf Otto in his seminal book, The Idea of the Holy,[2] argues that ancient societies were characterized by a sense of mysterium tremendum, the mysterious forces which surrounded the lives of peoples in antiquity. Powers lurked behind everything from illness to weather patterns, from bug infestations to military incursions. God or the gods was/were at work behind the scenes, responsible for good days and bad, for bountiful harvests as well as blight and mildew. Everything happened because of divine forces.

While the ancient Israelites could love and trust and believe in God, they had to be careful. When God appears, as is typical throughout the Bible, the people step back, uncertain, fearful, worried that they might even die.

To address these fears, God chose to meet the people where they were (to build a sanctuary so that God could “tent” among them), to provide security and structure in place of chaos. To bring about order for their lives, God gave ancient Israel torah. Celebrated in the Hebrew Bible, torah, or the law, was seen as a generous, gracious divine gift, a blessing intended to bring well-being into a world of uncertainty. And, for reasons moderns may not understand or appreciate, the more laws the better (Psalm 19: 7-10 – desired more than fine gold!) and the greater the detail the better. This way, there was no mistaking what the people needed to do, no room for error in following the saving rituals. Not a part of our world, it was central to theirs. For them, ritual was redemptive, because through the ceremonies and rituals, the ancients came into the presence of God, came to know what God expected of them.

In this ancient world, in this foreign context, precise stipulations about how to worship were matters of life and death. Holiness, or separation, was important. One needed to be careful. Holiness was potent, quasi-material, contagious. According to Ezekiel, the priests were to put off their sacred garments before leaving the temple, “lest they communicate holiness to the people with their garments” (44:25; 42:14). They were to wear linen undergarments to avoid sweating which, like all bodily emissions, was a source of uncleanness (Ezek 44:18), a source of danger. While strange to us in the modern world, this was part and parcel of ancient cultures, cultures into which priests were called to provide certainty and security in order to calm the fears of ancient worshipers.

If this reconstruction of ancient Israelite culture is accurate to any degree, how might we understand holy priestly attire, described most completely in Exodus 28 and 39? What would the priest’s clothing signify, especially that of the high priest? Given the detailed descriptions, we should sense importance, pay attention. Here are the major items of priestly clothing:

  • Undergarments of linen – for priests and the high priest. These were made of fine linen for coolness in order to avoid sweating, a bodily emission which would render the priest ritually unclean and therefore unfit to perform the ceremonies of forgiveness and grace.
  • Robes – these were likewise made of fine linen, simple but elegant.
  • Ephod (for the high priest) – a garment made of wool and linen (interestingly a combination forbidden to others in Leviticus 19:19 and Deuteronomy 22:11) and of many colors, interwoven throughout with golden threads. The ephod served as an outer garment for the high priest and, not unlike similar garments used in Mesopotamia and Egypt, especially those strongly infused with a golden hue, symbolized and helped secure God’s presence. In a world of unease, no place was better than close to God.
  • Breastpiece – another brightly colored cloth garment of wool and linen, like the ephod, with twelve stones set into it, representing the twelve tribes of Israel. These names were worn over the heart of the high priest and, accompanied by the bells on the ephod, were presented to God to be remembered favorably by God.
  • Urim and Thummim – stones of inquiry to God. Mysterious in their origin and exact function, Urim and Thummim appear for the most part in the Bible only up to the time of King David. Like the casting of lots, use of Urim and Thummim to find guilt or innocence and to inquire of God seemed a fairly natural if rare thing to do. In any case, they represented a channel by which to access God under pressing circumstances.
  • Turban and golden plate – head wear labeled, “Holy to the Lord.” However this is to be understood, the plate and turban signaled acceptance before God.

Thus, in a context far removed from most of us, God chose to meet ancient Israel where they were, to enter their world, to pitch God’s tent where people pitch theirs, to signal divine presence, to communicate redemptively to fearful human beings through a system designed to provide well-being, security, safety, salvation. We may not understand all of this entirely, but then they may not understand some of the significance we place on it either. The important thing: God meets people where they are in order to exhibit grace and generosity.

[1] Jon Dybdahl. Cultural Background and World View of the Old Testament. Introducing the Bible, Volume 1: The Old Testament and Intertestamental Literature, eds. Douglas R. Clark and John C. Brunt (Lanham: University Press of America, 1997), pp. 63-70.

[2] Rudolf Otto. The Idea of the Holy. (London: Oxford, 1923). 

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