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The Priestly garments - discussion

The Old Testament background

Exodus 28 describes the garments to be worn by the high priest. This page attempts to analyse the words used and speculates on some parallels.

Vocabulary used

The first list of garments is found in Exodus 28:4-42, and consists of the following items. It should be borne in mind that in most cases no real description of the items is given, and the uses do not entirely clarify their exact appearance. The author(s) were apparently referring to items well-known to them and their culture, and so felt no need to elaborate.
Breastpiece or sacred pouch (v4)
chôshen (Strong's 2833). Perhaps derived from a root suggesting to contain or to sparkle, this was made of the same material as the ephod, a span square in dimensions with 12 jewels set in 4 rows representing the 12 tribes. It was fastened to gold rings on the ephod by gold chains to the shoulders and a blue ribbon to the lower part. Also called the pouch of judgement, presumably because of its association with the Urim and Thumim. The word occurs only in Exodus 25-39 and Leviticus 8.
Ephod (v6)
’ephôwd (Strong's 646). No known derivation, perhaps linked either with Assyrian pid/piddu or a shortened variation of robe of approach to God, or perhaps of foreign derivation. The word has a wide Old Testament usage, predominantly in a religious context. Samuel as temple-servant and David as worshipper wore one, probably a plain one made of white linen. The high priestly ephod was of gold, blue, purple, and scarlet yarn, and linen. It is referred to in connection with consulting divine will. An ephod of gold was made by Gideon (Jdg. 8:27). The word is also used of idols, perhaps referring to a gold covering. The descriptions are not sufficient to know if a waistcoat-style or kilt-style garment is intended, but most modern writers prefer the latter.
Robe (v31)
me‘îyl (Strong's 4598, related to 4603 mâ‘al, to cover up). A common exterior garment worn by men and women of rank as well as the high priest. The priestly one was to be of blue cloth.
Woven Tunic (v39)
ketoneth (Strong's 3801), the principal ordinary garment of men and women, the priestly one to be made of fine linen.
Turban (v39)
mitsnepheth (Strong's 4701, related to 6801 tsânaph, to wind or wrap together). It was to be made of fine linen. The word is used of the high priestly garment numerous times in Exodus and Leviticus, and as a sign of royalty in Ezekiel 21. According to a Talmudic tradition, 8 yards of cloth were used for this.
Girdle, sash or belt (v39)
’abnet (Strong's 73). Of uncertain derivative, perhaps Egyptian? The word is used of the high priestly garment, which was to be embroidered, and of priests in general, numerous times through Exodus and Leviticus, and of a high official in Isaiah.
Undergarments, breeches or shorts (v42)
mikneçayim (Strong's 4370, related to 3664 kânaç, to collect, gather, enfold or wrap). This word is only found in the dual form shown (the singular being maknaç). The exact meaning is unknown, as shown by the variety of variations offered by translators. The immediate context indicates a linen garment used as a covering for the body, extending from the waist to the thigh - translations breeches or shorts are suggested by use of the dual, but this is not certain.

Some parallels

A possible parallel with the chôshen is a rectangular gold breast adornment set with jewels worn by a Bronze Age Byblos king. The parallel is weak and relies on breastpiece being an appropriate translation.

The fact that there are seven items in the list is probably symbolically significant, though the symbolism is not elaborated elsewhere within the Old Testament. Isaiah 59:17 alludes to Yahweh putting on garments before exacting justice, but these have a more military aspect (like Ephesians 6:14ff) and there is no obvious correlation with the priestly attire.

Textual information about other priestly or divine clothing is scarce. The Sumerian myth "The Descent of Inanna into the Nether World", and the later Akkadian version with Ishtar as the main figure, both have the goddess wearing seven items, which she has to surrender one by one during seven stages of her descent. However, for the most part these are items of jewellery or adornment rather than clothing. The items, in order of surrender, are:

1The shugurra crown of the plain on her headThe great crown on her head
2The measuring rod/line in her handPendants from her ears
3Small stones of lapis lazuli round her neckChains around her neck
4Sparkling stones on her breastOrnaments on her breast
5A gold ring on her handBirthstones on her hips
6A breastplate on her breastClasps around her hands and feet
7A pala-garment, "the garment of ladyship"A breechcloth for her body

Of these, one might perhaps match the crown (1) with the priestly turban, the sparkling stones/ornaments (4) on the breast with the priestly chôshen, Ishtar's birthstones on her hips (5) with the priestly girdle, and the goddess' breechcloth (7) with the priestly undergarments intended for modesty. However, the parallels are weak, and there remain several elements for which there is no correspondence.

Another possible parallel arises in the Ugaritic Baal cycle, in part of which Ashirat is described waiting for El on the sea-shore. She has five items listed, though with some of the later ones it is not clear whether separate garments are meant, or the same ones are being referred to several times by poetic parallelism. The items are:

  1. A distaff in her hand
  2. A spindle-whorl in her right hand
  3. A robe, the covering of her body
  4. A loincloth
  5. A folded robe

The first two items are seen as emblems of womanhood, and the items of clothing are not portrayed in any way as unusual, so again the parallel is weak. Arguably all it shows is that the combination of underwear, lower layer and outer layer of clothing was as common then as now.

In short, there is insufficient evidence both inside and outside the Old Testament to know if the priestly garments described in Exodus 28 and subsequent chapters were typical of the era or not.

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