February 02, 2007

Exodus 28-29: Clothes make the man

Today's reading is Exodus 28-29 (read it in the KJV or NIV)

Today's passage covers very specific instructions for the construction of priestly garments for Aaron and his sons (namely: the ephod, breastplate, robe, mitre, tunic, girdle, and breeches), and the ceremony involved in consecrating them as priests.

If you watch many movies, you may occasionally see an "armouring up" scene. This may be literally a scene where a warrior puts on his armour in preparation for battle, it may be James Bond putting on his suit for the final poker game in high-stakes espionage, or it may be the romantic female lead getting dressed up to seduce the romantic male lead. General, these scenes come just before the final conflict of the movie. They tend to show a series of close-ups in which the protagonist puts on each piece of clothing, especially if this involves small adjustments: buttoning buttons, tying up laces, straightening ties, etc. Often the scenes are shot in slow-motion. And, once each individual piece is in place, there is the final reveal of the character in full regalia (whatever that might be), ready to take on the world.

It is not a coincidence that so many movies contain scenes of this nature. Clothes have special significance, especially clothes used only for specific purposes. Uniforms, whether defined strictly or more loosely to include things like "a little black dress," give signals to both the wearer and the onlookers. They say, "I am prepared for something. I am ready. I am special." To the wearer, the special clothing signals a change in their state of mind. To the watchers, they demonstrate that the wearer is in a special class, designated for a special task not given to the general populace.

It is therefore interesting to see what types of clothing Aaron, as high priest of the Israelites, was instructed to wear. Like the description of the tabernacle, described in the last essay, the instructions for Aaraon's clothes are detailed and precise. They include materials, colours, decorative elements, and patterns. Nothing is left unsaid.

As a brief summary, Aaron's clothing as high priest include:

  1. Linen breeches (underwear). Ex. 28:42

  2. A woven linen tunic. Ex. 28:39

  3. A blue linen robe, with a woven collar, and decorated with blue, purple, and scarlet pomegranates around the hem alternated with gold bells. Ex. 28:31-35

  4. A linen ephod (an apronlike garment), in gold, blue, purple, and scarlet, fastened at the shoulders with two onyx stones, each bearing the name of 6 of the 12 sons of Jacob (ie: the 12 tribes). Ex. 28:6-14

  5. A square linen breastplate, also in gold, blue, purple, and scarlet, bearing 12 precious stones each engraved with the name of one of the sons of Jacob, and attached to the ephod by golden chains and blue cord running through six golden rings on its sides. Ex. 28:15-30

  6. An embroidered linen sash or girdle to tie the ephod. Ex. 28:39

  7. A linen turban (or "mitre"), with a golden plate reading "HOLY TO THE LORD" (NIV) attached to the front with blue cord. Ex. 28:36-38

At a glance, we see that the materials used in Aaron's garments are very expensive. The fourteen gemstones used in these garments, the dyes, the gold, and even the materials were all highly costly in the ancient Mediterranean. This is not surprising. As high priest, Aaron had arguably the most important position among the Hebrews after Moses. Costly materials would be expected for a man in his position.

More important is that his clothes symbolize his connection with the entire community of Israelites. Aaron wears the names of all the Israelite tribes not once, but twice: first, on the onyx stones on his shoulders, and second on the gemstones on his breastplate. In fact, Ex. 28:12 reads, in part: "...and Aaron shall bear their names before the LORD upon his two shoulders for a memorial." (KJV) By wearing the names of the Israelite tribes when he goes before God, Aaron is symbolically representing the entire people. Though only the high priest may stand before the ark of the covenant, he nonetheless represents all the Hebrews when he does so.

Another interesting feature of the clothing is the plate attached to the front of his turban (or "mitre"). The instructions say that Aaron must never remove it. Ex. 28:38 reads as follows in the NIV: "It will be on Aaron's forehead, and he will bear the guilt involved in the sacred gifts the Israelites consecrate, whatever their gifts may be. It will be on Aaron's forehead continually so that they will be acceptable to the LORD."

Let us pause for a moment to consider this passage. In a situation strikingly similar to the New Testament, Aaron bears all the guilt of the Hebrews' sacrificial offerings, so that these offerings may be accepted by God. Aaron, high priest of the Israelites and presumably the purest member of their community, must bear the guilt of their offerings before God. The parallels to Jesus -- equally pure and equally guilt-bearing -- are evident.

One more note about the clothing before passing on to more dramatic parts of the narrative (I hope): Ex. 29 is a description of the consecration ceremony for Aaron and his sons. The first part of the ceremony involves dressing them in the priestly garments, as we might expect. (Ex. 29:5-9) Later in the ceremony, they -- both men and clothing -- are consecrated by being sprinkled with blood. (Ex. 29:21) Given that these clothes are supposed to pass through the generations of priests (Ex. 29:29-30), we have to wonder about this first official wearing. As most people find out at one point or another, blood stains are notoriously difficult to remove from clothing. Are Aaron and his sons supposed to wear perpetually blood-stained clothing, or did the Hebrews' have miracle stain remover in the desert, along with all the other paraphernalia they brought out of Egypt? We may never know.

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