The priests’ garments (Ex 29, 32)
Clothes and priesthood
Why do we wear clothes?
It’s a question worth thinking about. Ritual works mainly at the level of the level of subconscious association, so to understand the rituals of the OT we have to ask basic questions we wouldn’t usually bother thinking about.
I think most, if not all, our answers to the question could be broken down into one of two categories:
1. To hide ourselves from cold and shame of nakedness.
2. To project ourselves by expressing our identity
Priests also had a dual role which correspond to this. As mediators they represented God to Israel and Israel to God.
Representing Israel to God - clothes to hide behind
The priests wore linen undergarments to cover their nakedness, particularly when ascending the alter (28:42; cf. 29:26). But that was just the first layer of clothing, in addition there was “a breastpiece, an ephod, a robe, a coat of checker work, a turban, and a sash” (v.4). In any culture that is a lot of clothes, many providing layers between the body and God. These clothes acted as a barrier between God and humanity similar to the curtains of the Tabernacle. The sinful priest was hidden behind layer upon layer of clothing, as the Israelite camp was protected from God‘s direct presence by the curtains of the Tabernacle.
It is no light thing to enter God’s presence, as Nadab and Abihu found later (Lev 10). In Exodus 28 YHWH is clear that if the priests did not wear the specified clothing then they “bear guilt and die” (v.43, c.f. v.35). In a sense the priests’ clothing was their armour shielding them from God’s presence, and it is striking that the ephod had an opening for the head “like a coat of mail” (v.32, ESV footnote).
The breastpiece was the most important piece of this armour. Soldiers wore breastplates to protect their vital organs in battle, and against the wrath of God the priests relied on their breastplate. But, of course, material layers would never protect you against the consuming fire of God’s wrath against sin so the breastpiece of the priests was set with twelve stones engraved with “the names of the sons of Israel… to bring them to regular remembrance before the LORD” (v.29).
When God remembers in the OT there is usually a twofold action. He turns back from judgement, and he turns towards blessing. He encourages Noah that when the clouds of his wrath gather the rainbow will appear he will see it, “remember” his covenant and so restrain from sending another “flood to destroy all flesh” (Gen 9:14-16). Similarly when God’s wrath against the sin of Israel and the priest burns, he will see the names engraved on the breastpiece and remember his covenant with Israel. His anger will be deflected and the priest will live.
But if the priests of Israel were sons of Israel by birth, why did God need reminding of their identity as individuals and as representatives of the nation? Sadly, because despite all its gifts, Israel often acted just like all the other nations. Saved by YHWH out of Egypt, Israel had been adopted by God and should reflect their Father’s character. “Be holy, for I am holy” (Lev 11:44) was the central command Israel had been called to obey, and their identity was indissolubly tied to this. Sin and death had no place in the life of a servant in God’s house. But by worshipping other gods Israel traded its identity as God’s chosen priestly nation set apart for God’s service for the false-security that the allegiance of other gods and nations offered.
Israel needed to be clothed with Israel in order to be able to stand in the presence of God. What Paul said to the Romans, applied as much to Israel in the wilderness who had already scorned their identity several times, “it is not the children of the flesh who are the children of God, but the children of the promise are counted as offspring” (Rom 9:8). To enjoy God’s presence the priests had to be counted as Abraham’s offspring “who is Christ” (Gal 3:16). The OT priests put on the promise of Christ when they dressed in the breastpiece and the shoulder pieces with faith.
To be clothed with the true Israel is to be clothed with holiness. For the Levitical priest’s sacrifice to be acceptable he wore a “plate of pure gold” fastened to the front of his turban engraved with the words “Holy to the LORD” (28:37). The tribe of Levi (like Israel as a whole) did not choose to set themselves aside for YHWH’s service, but were chosen by God who sanctified them for the task (Lev 21:6-8). Only by wearing reminders of God’s election of Israel in the “Holy One of God”, Jesus Christ (Mark 1:24), could the Levitical priests be confident that YHWH would accept the offerings of the people (28:38).
We may worship in a different Tabernacle, but we are also God’s priests seeking to “offer to God acceptable worship“ before our God who is “a consuming fire” (Heb 12:28-29). Instead of the breastpiece, ephod etc, we put on Christ by being baptised into his death when we are counted as “Abraham's offspring, heirs according to promise” (Gal 3:29). In this way we can “draw near to the throne of grace” with confidence (4:15-16) secure in our identity with Christ, the only holy son of Israel.
Representing God to Israel, clothes to express our identity
As well as representing Israel to God in the Tabernacle the priests represented God to Israel outside the sanctuary. Their many duties included teaching the law, answering questions with the Urim and Thummim they were equipped with, and judging uncleanness in particular (Deut 33:10; Ex 28:30, Num 27:21; Lev 10:8-11, Deut 17:9). Appropriately their clothing reflected this office.
The priests’ garments were made of “blue and purple and scarlet yarns and fine twined linen” just like the Tabernacle curtains (26:1-36; 28:5). The square breastpiece worn by the priests suggested the Holy of Holies where YHWH dwelt. The priest in his many layers of rich clothing walked around in a mini-Tabernacle, because he was as God to the people.
The purpose of the priests’ garments as a whole was “for glory and for beauty” (28:2, 40) and “evoked the majesty of God himself” (p. 77, Wenham, 2003). They certainly had that effect on the 2nd century BC author of the Letter of Aristeas who on seeing a priest was “greatly astonished… at the mode of his dress, and the majesty of his appearance … as to make one feel that one had come into the presence of a man who belonged to a different world” (96-99). The majesty of God was never displayed in Brutalist or Fascist art. God’s art didn’t just communicate power or wealth, but also creative beauty and life.
1 Peter reminds us that we have been made “a royal priesthood” for the same horizontal purpose to the rest of humanity as the Levitical priesthood, that we “may proclaim the excellencies of him who called” us (2:9). The appropriate clothing for us is to clothe ourselves with humility and good works which will shine as a light before men and win them to Christ (3:1-5, 5:5; c.f. Matt 5:16). This adornment is our beauty and our glory.
But like the priests’ garments it is God’s clothing we are walking around in. And as the garments for priests before God were the same as the garments for priests before Israel, so our garments before the world are the same garments as those we wear before God. We put on Christ as humans standing before God, but we also put on Christ as God’s ambassadors to the world. It is his character, worked by him in our lives by his Holy Spirit, that we want to put on. A “new self…created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness” (Eph 4:24).
In Christ, we are holy, God-like people who speak the truth, labour, share, build up and forgive others. That is who we are so we shouldn’t hide that light, but take it out of the wardrobe and wear it so that the world will “see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven” (Matt 5:16).