The Garments of the Priesthood, and Their Significance
Exodus 28:2
And you shall make holy garments for Aaron your brother for glory and for beauty.

In almost every modern nation there are some remnants of the ancient custom of representing office by garments of peculiar material, shape, and colour. History registers the decline of the custom, but not its birth and growth; for it was as powerful as ever in the earliest age which has transmitted to us its records. In the time of Moses, both kings and priests in every country were clothed in a garb not only distinctive but emblematic. In interpreting the significance conveyed by the garments of the Levitical priesthood, it will be convenient to treat first of the four pieces worn by priests of ordinary rank, and then of those peculiar to their chief. Is there, then, no significance in the fact that this official costume consisted of four pieces? As four limits the colours of the tapestry, the ingredients of the incense, the spices of the holy anointing oil, the composite parts of the cherubs, we conclude that the same signature of the kingdom of God was designedly impressed on the official costume of those who were elected to draw near to Jehovah. This judgment is confirmed by the recurrence of four as the number of pieces additional to the dress of the ordinary priests which the head of the order was required to wear in the performance of official duty. The numerical signature of the Tabernacle was thus impressed on the official garments of its priesthood. The garments of the priests of ordinary rank were all of pure white except the girdle. The drawers, the coat, and the bonnet were of shesh, bleached, but not dyed. White raiment was emblematic of ethical purity. It was "the righteousness of the saints." As worn by the priest, it signified that those who were admitted to intimacy with the Holy One of Israel must be pure in heart and life. The material also contributed something to the significance of the dress. The garments must all be of linen; and in the vision of Ezekiel the directions given for the official raiment of the priests add to the requirement of linen the express prohibition of anything woollen. The reason of the requirement lies, doubtless, in the greater cleanliness possible in a warm climate to one whose garments are exclusively of this material. Not only was the costume of a priest significant in its material, colour, and number of pieces, but each of the four garments of which it was composed contributed an element peculiar to itself. The coat, or tunic, was first in importance, as it was in size. Reaching from the neck to the ankles, it was merely coincident, as a covering of the person, with the whole costume; so that the other three garments were supplements to this, rather than its equals. Its import, as might be expected, is also nearly the same as that of the whole dress. As the entire costume of four pieces, by means of its material and its dominant colour, was suggestive of holiness, so was the coat in particular, as it invested the person from the neck to the ankles with linen white and shining as light. Moreover, this garment was woven in one piece to represent, by this sort of integrity, moral wholeness or holiness. The tunic of the priest was also woven so as to exhibit checks like the pattern called damask; for such is the meaning of the descriptive adjective which the English translators incorrectly regarded as equivalent to "broidered." The coat was therefore covered throughout with four-sided figures of small size. Bahr thinks that these were symbols of like import with the precious stones in the breastplate of the high priest; as if every member of the sacerdotal family bore on his person visible signs that as a priest he was the representative of the tribes of Israel, these symbols designedly having, in the case of the subordinate priests, only a reflection of the glory and beauty of those which distinguished the head of the order. A girdle of some kind was in ancient times, as it is even now, essential to the completeness of an oriental costume; and, by means of diversity in material, size, shape, and ornamentation, was easily made a badge of office. The girdle of the Hebrew priest seems to have been, more than any other article of his attire, an official badge. According to the traditional law of the Hebrews, the priest must remove his girdle when he ceased to officiate, but might, if more convenient, continue to wear the other official garments through the day. How the girdle of the priest symbolized his office as an attache of the Tabernacle, is evident when we consider its peculiar ornamentation. Like the other garments it was of white linen; but, unlike them, it was interwoven with threads of blue, purple, and crimson. The four colours of the Tabernacle signified that the wearer belonged to the institution. This badge of office certified that he had a right to enter the habitation where these significant colours were dominant. The Arab wears on his head a cap similar to the Turkish fez, which he calls a tarbush. The Bedouin spreads over it a handkerchief folded so that three of the four corners hang down on the back and shoulders, and binds it in place with a twisted rope of goat's hair or camel's hair, reaching around his head. The Syrian Arab, if he wishes any addition to his tarbush, ties a handkerchief over it, or winds around it a shawl of wool, silk, or cotton, so as to form a turban. The oriental turban has exhibited both in modern times and in the remotest antiquity, a great variety of form, material, and colour. By means of this diversity it has served to distinguish between men of different nations, and of different classes in the same nation. As an ancient Assyrian king was distinguished by a head-dress of a peculiar shape and ornamentation, as a descendant of Mohammed is known by the colour of his turban, so the dignity of the Hebrew priest, as an attendant on Jehovah in His holy habitation, was symbolized by a turban peculiar to his order in its material, its colour, and perhaps its shape. The priests must wear drawers while officiating, to cover their nakedness; and neglect to do so was to be punished with death, even if no exposure of the person resulted. The covering was therefore symbolic. It was a removal from the significant tableau in which the priest was engaged, of those parts of his person which, as excretory, were especially representative of defilement. The significance of the costume of the Hebrew priest cannot be fully seen by one who overlooks the fact that it left his feet uncovered. An oriental does not wear a shoe or sandal for protection from cold, but from filth, and lays aside at least the outermost covering of his feet when he enters a house, because he will not need such protection in such a place, and because his shoe might bring filth into the house. The costume of the high priest consisted of the four pieces worn by his subordinates, and of four others peculiar to him as the head of the order. Over the tunic he wore the robe of the ephod, the significance of which resulted from its blue colour and the ornamental fringe which hung from its border at the bottom. To understand the meaning of this fringe see Numbers 15:38, 89. The ornaments were intended to remind the wearer of the commandments of Jehovah, and were connected with his garment, whatever its colour, by a cord or ribbon of blue, to signify the heavenly origin of that which he was to keep in remembrance. But this fringe, in the case of the high priest, consisted of tassels in the shape of pomegranates, alternated with little golden bells. If, as seems probable, the pomegranates symbolized the law in its totality as including every specific requirement, it is at least a plausible conjecture that the bells with which they alternated signified that the high priest, or rather the covenant people whom he represented, were not only to remember the commandments of Jehovah, but by obeying to proclaim them. So far as they remembered and obeyed it, the Word of the Lord sounded out from them. The specifications for the ephod make its shoulder-pieces so prominent that the Greek and Latin versions give it names in those languages which characterize it as a shoulder-garment. But the shoulder as the seat of strength was, in the early times, when the strongest ruled, the seat of authority, and the most appropriate position for an emblem of government. We infer, then, that the ephod was a symbol of rank; and from the materials of which it was made, that it invested the wearer as a badge of royalty. This garment was provided for the high priest as the representative of the holy nation, that the jewels on its shoulders, and the threads of beaten gold woven into it throughout, might signify that they were kings as well as priests. The breastplate of judgment was closely connected in significance with the ephod, indicating that the wearer was a ruler endowed with wisdom for the decision of important questions relating to the public welfare. He wore it on his heart because the heart was regarded as the seat of wisdom. The head-dress of the high priest was distinguished from that of his subordinates not only by its shape, but by its plate of gold bearing the inscription, "Holiness to Jehovah." This plate, peculiar to him as the head of the priesthood, and of the nation as a kingdom of priests, was another badge of rank, and equivalent in meaning to a crown. The inscription, peculiarly important from its position on the forehead, proclaimed that the high priest, through his election, his physical faultlessness, his separation from common life, his investment with the robes of office, and his consecration, was so holy that he might not only approach Jehovah, but could take away the sins of his people (ver. 38). Their iniquity was taken away, and they were accounted holy because their representative was holy.

(E. E. Atwater.)

Parallel Verses
KJV: And thou shalt make holy garments for Aaron thy brother for glory and for beauty.

WEB: You shall make holy garments for Aaron your brother, for glory and for beauty.

The Priests' Garments
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