Can one accurately observe and make conclusions about another person based on what that person wears? Can dress indicate anything about a person? Seeing a garment or two, can an observer draw an accurate conclusion?
Generally speaking, yes.
We see uniforms at a store or restaurant to know who works at the establishment and who does not. We see a lady in a fine white gown at a wedding and know she’s the bride. We see another woman in a white dress at the same wedding and know she’s the one who could use a little cultural awareness. Finally, we see the guy at the wedding in shorts and know who’s thinking about video games right now.
Right there in the pages of Scripture, God included a wardrobe prescription for Aaron, the first high priest of the people of Israel and all who would follow in his vocation after him. Precious ink and precious papyrus in those days, and the details of the high priest’s clothes get a whole chapter to themselves. One might think Moses would explain how exactly he received God’s communication (Was it audible? Is God a bass? What accent does he use anyway?), but no. Instead, we read an account of the priestly attire.
Can we understand anything about the Old Testament priests or God by knowing something about how they dressed? And let’s be real: doesn’t this feel just a little like reading into things?
As an appreciator of John Calvin, I tend to desire more brevity and clarity and less novelty.
So what can we know from this text (other than the instructions for how a high priest would dress himself)?
Note five things:
1. Exodus 28:1 speaks of the priesthood as connected to family. We might move right past such a thing as people overly familiar with the sort of hereditary nature of so many vocations. Of course, the priesthood moved from father to son. However, the familial connections would grow important later in the Old Testament and ultimately in the New. The hereditary nature of the priesthood often hurt Israel more than anything. A man became priest because of his connection to his father, regardless of his fear of the Lord (or the lack of it). 1 Samuel 2 explains the corruption of the priesthood due to this factor. The taking of the high priesthood by Jesus will overturn this.
2. Exodus 28:4 shows the purpose of the priesthood proved service to God himself. Though he would have an exalted status among the people due to his proximity to God, the high priest acted as a servant above all. He related to God as one who did the explicit bidding of God, sometimes in life-or-death ways.
3. Exodus 28:12 and 21 reveal the importance of representing all of God’s people before him. No tribe suffered exclusion. If a tribe acted with disloyalty, as they sometimes did, the priest still bore their name into God’s presence to make atonement for them. After the fissure of the northern tribes from those in the south, the high priest’s clothes showed him and any who saw him that the people’s division ran afoul of God’s desire. God did not put the names of Israel’s sons on his primary earthly servant because he did not desire to love them.
4. As noted in #2, Exodus 28:35 and 43, the high priest had a dangerous job. Differing opinions exist on why the high priest might die in his duties, but Exodus 28 does not make those reasons explicit. Speculation on reasons for the high priest’s death while serving in his priestly role do not need specification here. Suffice to say, the high priest would die if God struck him down. He approached his job with the same sort of fearful vigilance of a good firearms instructor. The wrong thing meant terminated life.
5. Exodus 28:42 recalls the immediate consequence of eating from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil in Genesis 3:7. The nakedness of the priests still needed covering before God. Had Adam not taken the fruit of the tree, nakedness would need no cover. Had he not, one can reason no sacrifices would exist at all, so the explicit reminder to ensure the high priest wore undergarments points to the whole system of worship which exists due to man’s separation from God.
To take these observations and distill them into one thing, we find this: the people of God approached him on his own terms, not their own.
We stand and live at a distance from these people worshipping at the tabernacle with the help of the priests. A radical discontinuity exists between us and them: Christ Jesus fulfilled the sacrificial system, and it no longer has bearing on us. At this point, to seek sacrifice in the way of the people of Exodus, we would prove our lack of knowledge of Christ. God stands as the point of continuity between us and these ancient people.
We still approach God on his own terms. We do not work our way to him. We do not perform good works to outweigh our bad ones. We cannot have enough piety or prostrate ourselves low enough to merit an audience with him. He has set the gate, and Christ himself serves as the door. We enter into the presence of God through the Son, Jesus. He acted and acts as our priest, the one inviting us into God’s presence. We possess no right to demand God let us in any other way.