Priestly Profiles: Aaronic Priesthood (2)

The idea that clothing does not matter is one of the strange illiteracies of contemporary western society. With a vapid lack of reflection, and with little thought of what we might be losing in the process, we have cut ourselves loose from centuries of culture, and reduced the role of clothing to the merely functional or, at most, to an expression of our own personality (or, in the case of those who festoon themselves with logos and labels, our lack thereof). We congratulate ourselves on our freedom from constraint and convention, but we have purchased that freedom at the cost of being able to communicate, non-verbally, our respect, our decorum and our sense of occasion.

Scripture is replete with examples of the significance of dress. From the fig leaf aprons that proved such an inadequate covering for Adam and Eve to the fine linen of the saints in Revelation 19, we are reminded, again and again, that clothing communicates as well as covers. And perhaps nowhere is this more evident than in the “holy garments … for glory and for beauty” (Exo 28:2) worn by Israel’s high priest. Every stitch of these remarkable garments, described in Exodus 28 and 39, was designed to communicate profound spiritual truth: about Aaron and his priesthood, in the first instance, but, beyond and above that, about the person and priesthood of the Lord Jesus Christ. The Christological aspect of these garments is a study that should commend itself to every believer,[1] but, especially in the context of our present study, we should remember that they also served to tell the Israelites something about the ministry that their high priest carried out on their behalf. Their significance for the Israelites is implicit in the fact that these garments were “to consecrate” Aaron – to set him apart from the rest of the camp. Similarly, while the expression “for glory and for beauty” has been variously understood, both “glory” and “beauty” emphasise the impact of these garments upon the onlooker.

The spiritual significance of these garments is underlined by the spiritual competence required for their construction: “Thou shalt speak unto all that are wise hearted, whom I have filled with the spirit of wisdom, that they may make Aaron’s garments” (Exo 28:3). The implementation of the divine design required something more than natural ability. It is striking that this is the first occasion in Scripture when we read of individuals being “filled with the spirit”; we find similar language used of Bezalel in relation to the construction of the tabernacle in Exodus 35:30-31. In the tabernacle, as in the local assembly, God does not abandon His design to merely human ability. It was spiritual enablement that made master seamstresses and tentmakers from brickmaking slaves.

It is worth stressing again what we have mentioned previously in passing – these garments were intended to consecrate Aaron, to set him apart from everyone else in the camp. As Aaron donned these remarkable garments, piece by piece and layer by layer, he was giving visible expression to his special office as the mediator between God and man. It is difficult for us to grasp just how striking that expression was. Since the invention of the first synthetic dye in 1771, our world has become increasingly polychromatic. Bright garments are the norm, and not the exception. But in the ancient world and especially in the context of the wilderness existence of the Israelites, options were far more limited – you could have any colour you wanted, as long as it was brown. Clothes and tents alike would have been predominantly dun. Amidst the dull sea of the Israelite camp, the white linen curtains that marked the perimeter of the tabernacle must have been a striking sight. And when Aaron left the gate of the tabernacle and moved through the camp, he would have drawn every eye, for it seemed that a piece of the tabernacle had detached itself and was moving amongst the tribes.

There was nothing accidental about that impression. Rather, the high priest’s garments were designed to link Aaron with the sanctuary where he ministered. The same materials and colours – the gold, blue, purple, scarlet and fine linen – that were used in the tabernacle featured again in the garments of the high priest. The radiant colours and the intricacy of the cunningly wrought embroidery proclaimed that this was a man who was at home in the sanctuary. But they also marked Aaron out as a man who revealed the character of God. It is a striking feature of the tabernacle that the finest materials and most elaborate handiwork were positioned where they would be seen by only a very few. Everyone could see the linen curtains, but only the high priest ever got a glimpse – and, amidst the billowing clouds of incense it can only ever have been a glimpse – of the splendour of the holiest of all. By contrast, Aaron’s garments reversed the order of the tabernacle; the fine linen came first, with the most precious garments worn on the outside and most visible to the beholder. There is a moral order here: the white linen garments speak of holiness, and that holiness of character was of fundamental and foundational importance for the ministry of the high priest. But the order of the garments also allowed him to display, outside of the tabernacle, something of the glory of the tabernacle, to present God to man.

Aaron’s garments revealed the character of God. They also served to reveal the mind of God, for in the pouch formed by his breastplate, Aaron carried the Urim and the Thummim: “Thou shalt put in the breastplate of judgment the Urim and the Thummim; and they shall be upon Aaron’s heart, when he goeth in before the Lord: and Aaron shall bear the judgment of the children of Israel upon his heart before the Lord continually” (Exo 28:30). How precisely these “lights and perfections” served to reveal God’s mind has prompted no little conjecture, but it is clear from passages like Numbers 27:21, 1 Samuel 28:6, and Nehemiah 7:65 that this was their purpose.

Aaron’s garments, then, emphasised his link with the sanctuary and with God. They also emphasised his link with the Israelites. On Aaron’s shoulders were onyx stones engraved “with the work of an engraver in stone, like the engravings of a signet,” bearing “the names of the children of Israel” (Exo 28:11). These stones, set in golden ouches, or wrought settings, were “stones of memorial unto the children of Israel: and Aaron shall bear their names before the Lord upon his two shoulders for a memorial” (v12). On Aaron’s breastplate, a further twelve stones were set, arranged in four rows: “And the stones shall be with the names of the children of Israel, twelve, according to their names, like the engravings of a signet; every one with his name shall they be according to the twelve tribes” (v21). Unlike the onyx shoulder stones, these breastplate stones were an assortment of precious gems.[2] They shared with the shoulder stones the purpose of being a memorial: “And Aaron shall bear the names of the children of Israel in the breastplate of judgment upon his heart, when he goeth in unto the holy place, for a memorial before the Lord continually” (v29).

These stones, engraved with the names of the tribes, must have had a very special and precious significance for the Israelites. They were a reminder of the value of the high priest’s ministry on their behalf; their location attested to his strength (the shoulder stones) and his affection (the stones on the breastplate) engaged on their behalf. The flashing stones of the breastplate would also have spoken to them of their value in the eyes of God – and of His appreciation of the variety of their character. But above all, perhaps, their message to the Israelites would have been that there was a man equipped for the sanctuary who bore their names before God and, though there was never any prospect of God’s forgetting about them, those names served as a reminder to God of the people with whom He had entered into covenant relationship.

The application of these truths to our experience is inexpressibly precious; it takes something of an effort of will not to focus upon what these garments tell us about Christ’s ministry on our behalf. The Israelites, of course, knew nothing of that, but, in the garments “for glory and for beauty,” they learned profound lessons about the meaning of priesthood that were relevant for them, as well as for us.

[1] This aspect of the garments is thoroughly explored in Andy McIlree, Garments for Glory: Types and Shadows of Israel’s High Priest, (privately published, 2018).

[2] The identification of these stones is not straightforward. “For all the scholarly recourse to conjectured etymologies and comparative philology, it is virtually impossible to determine precisely what precious stones are referred to in this list. … We can do little more than revel in the gorgeousness of the words, which is surely part of the intended response for the ancient audience” (Robert Alter, The Five Books of Moses. A Translation with Commentary (New York, NY: W.W. Norton, 2004), 475.