In defining Aaron’s role as the high priest for the new nation of Israel, God establishes a very strict dress code (Exodus 28:4-43). God commands Moses:
“These are the garments which they shall make: a breastpiece and an ephod and a robe and a tunic of checkered work, a turban and a sash, and they shall make holy garments for Aaron your brother and his sons, that he may minister as priest to Me.” (Exodus 28:4 NASB)Maxie Dunnam (b. 1934) comments:
The garments were very ornate, of fine linen, intricately embroidered, not to draw attention to the priest, but to the office, the function. Seven pieces of apparel are described. (Dunnam, Exodus (Mastering the Old Testament), 338)Of the cataloged items, the ephod is unquestionably one of the most important. It is meticulously described with explicit instructions as to its construction (Exodus 28:6-14, 39:1-17) .
Ronald E. Clements (b. 1929) prioritizes:
The ephod was the most important item of the clothing of a priest, and was apparently at one time the only substantial item worn (I Samuel 2:28, 14:3, 22:18). It consisted of a loin-cloth fastened by a strap or belt around the hips. It was probably, at a very distant time, the normal item of dress for everybody. (Clements, Exodus (Cambridge Bible Commentary), 181)Victor P. Hamilton (b. 1952) counters:
The ephod is the second most important item of clothing the priest wears after the breastpiece. The reason for describing the ephod before the breastpiece may be because it provides the support for the breastpiece (Umberto Cassuto [1883-1951] 1967: 373). (Hamilton, Exodus: An Exegetical Commentary, 485)Whether ranking first or second in importance, the ephod is highly significant.
The term ephod is a transliteration of the Hebrew ‘êphôd. Though this term is not in popular use most translations leave it untranslated (ASV, ESV, HCSB, KJV, MSG, NASB, NIV, NKJV, NLT, NRSV, RSV) though some Bibles using contemporary language render the garment “priestly vest” (CEV).
The exact meaning of the term has not been determined. Victor P. Hamilton (b. 1952) traces:
We remain uncertain of the origin of the word ’ēpōd. John A. Tvedtnes [b. 1941] (1982) connects the Hebrew word with the Egyptian ifd/y/yfd (“cloth”). Others suggest that the Hebrew word is cognate with Akkadian epattu (“a costly garment’). (Hamilton, Exodus: An Exegetical Commentary, 485)Robert Alter (b. 1935) speculates:
The ephod (the Hebrew root suggests “binding” or “wrapping around”) evidently was a kind of apron, though opinions differ on this. It has a secondary meaning as an oracular device. (Alter, The Five Books of Moses: A Translation with Commentary, 474)The ephod is a distinct item. Douglas K. Stuart (b. 1943) differentiates:
In the divine instructions given to Moses in this chapter, the ephod is distinguished from the breastpiece that was attached to it for the purpose of diving God’s will through Urim and Thummim. The term ephod, however, came to include automatically the notion of “ephod with breastpiece attached” since the two pieces were not used separately, and after the book of Exodus one encounters the term “ephod” rather consistently for the ephod-breastpiece assembly. (Stuart, Exodus (New American Commentary), 606)In spite of the relatively large space devoted to the ephod, it cannot be replicated with any certainty; its exact form and function remain indeterminate. H.L Ellison (1903-1983) acknowledges:
We have no means of giving a definitive meaning to “ephod”, the English being simply a transliteration of the Hebrew. As R. Alan Cole [1923-2003] says, “The extent of our puzzlement is shown by the fact that we do not know whether the ephod was a waistcoat or a kilt, to use modern terms.” (Ellison, Exodus (Daily Study Bible), 152)Cornelis Van Dam (b. 1946) elaborates:
Opinion is divided about where the ephod was worn. One view holds that it was like an apron and worn below the waist (Menahem Haran [b. 1924], 106). The rendering of the Septuagint...and the testimony of Josephus [37-100] (Antiquities of the Jews 3.7.5. §162), however, favor the interpretation that it was worn on the upper part of the body. Such ephodlike garments have been attested in New Kingdom Egypt, indicating some cultural affinity with the Old Testament ephod. (T. Desmond Alexander [b. 1955] and David W. Baker [b. 1950], “Priestly Clothing”, Dictionary of the Old Testament: Pentateuch, A Compendium of Contemporary Biblical Scholarship, 643)Carol Meyers (b. 1942) concedes:
Neither of these priestly vestments can be reconstructed with confidence, but several aspects of each, apart from the other, can be discerned. Although not the first item in the introductory list, the ephod (Exodus 28:6-14) is the first for which directions are given. Perhaps this piece comes at the beginning because of its apparent antiquity in the array of Israelite priestly apparel. In addition to the priestly texts of the Pentateuch, it appears in a handful of deuteronomic texts relating to the premonarchic and early monarchic periods; and an equivalent term appears in other ancient Semitic texts. These sources contain such disparate information, however, that it is very difficult to understand what an ephod looked like or how it was used. Scholars have struggled with the ephod problem since antiquity. The appearance and use of the ephod clearly varied over the millennium or more represented by all these sources. What is constant is that the ephod always related to ritual matters – sometimes as a ritual garment, sometimes as a divinatory device, and sometimes as both. In Exodus and other priestly texts, its detail and its association with the breastpiece make it likely that it was worn by the priest and used for oracular purposes. (Meyers, Exodus (New Cambridge Bible Commentary), 242)The term’s inconsistent use within the Bible further muddies the waters. Brevard S. Childs (1923-2007) reports:
It remains a question whether the description of the ephod is consistent throughout the entire Old Testament. In the earlier period, especially in the Micah stories (Judges 17:1-13), the ephod is associated with ‘house gods’ in a manner which is no longer fully clear (cf. also I Samuel 2:18; II Samuel 6:14, 20). However, in Exodus the ephod is part of the priestly clothing, being a type of apron of different colors on which the breastpiece was attached. Cf. the depiction by Kurt Galling [1900-1987], Exodus, p. 141. The other critical literature is cited by Julian Morgenstern [1881-1976]...pp. 114ff., the more recent by Rudolf Smend [1851-1913], Biblisch-historisches Handwörterbuch, col. 420 and Roland De Vaux [1903-1971], Ancient Israel: Its Life and Instructions, p. 544. (Childs, The Book of Exodus: A Critical, Theological Commentary (Old Testament Library), 527)Randall C. Bailey (b. 1951) conjectures:
The term “ephod” seems to imply two different kinds of cultic objects. Often in connection with the teraphim as well as images, the ephod at times was regarded as idolatrous (Judges 17:3-5, 18:14, 17-20; for the teraphim see I Samuel15:23; II Kings 23:24). Gideon created an ephod by which Israel “prostituted themselves by worshiping it there and it became a snare to Gideon and his family” (Judges 8:24). Goliath’s sword was kept “wrapped in cloth behind the ephod” (I Samuel 21:9). The ephod could be worn or carried (I Samuel 2:18, 28, 14:3, 22:18...II Samuel 6:14; I Chronicles 15:27). Its use to ascertain the divine will (I Samuel 23:9-11) seems to have produced the phrase “breastpiece of decision” (משפט חשו, hōšen mišpat, Exodus 28:15, 29). Such varied uses are difficult to reconcile. (Bailey, Exodus (The College Press NIV Commentary), 305)Victor P. Hamilton (b. 1952) suggests:
Subsequent references to this ephod may or may not be referring to the high priest’s golden ephod (see Philip R. Davies [b. 1945] 1975: especially 84-85). For example, the ephod Gideon “set up” (Judges 8:27) seems to be a statue or an upright object rather than a garment (also see Judges 18:18), “the statue/carved image of the ephod [pesel hā’‘ēpôd]”. And how do young Samuel (I Samuel 2:18) and dancing David (II Samuel 6:14) get away with wearing something that only the high priest is to wear? Maybe there is more than one kind of ephod. Or maybe all ephod references are to the same phenomenon, but a phenomenon that has different manifestations throughout Israel’s history. (Hamilton, Exodus: An Exegetical Commentary, 486)Despite the uncertainty, at the very least a rough sketch of the garment can be reconstructed. Victor P. Hamilton (b. 1952) characterizes:
The ephod is shaped liked an apron encircling the body and covers the loins (maybe from waist to thigh). It is kept in position on the body by means of two shoulder pieces (Exodus 28:7) and a fastening band (Exodus 28:8). Gold is its most dominant material and color. This is indicated by Exodus 28:6, which lists gold before it lists any fabrics. (Hamilton, Exodus: An Exegetical Commentary, 485)Terry W. Eddinger (b. 1964) envisions:
An ornate, sleeveless outer garment worn by the Israelite high priest. Exodus 28:6-10 describes the ephod as a garment made of fine, twisted linen decorated with gold, blue, purple, and scarlet material. Two shoulder pieces and a woven belt made of the same material complete the outfit. Affixed to the shoulder pieces were two onyx stones inscribed with the names of the sons of Israel. A breastplate made of the same materials and decorated with 12 precious stones, symbolizing the 12 tribes, was attached by golden rings to the front of the ephod (Exodus 28:15-28). A pocket in the breastplate stored the Urim and Thummim, the lots of divination. (David Noel Freedman [1922-2008], “Ephod”, Eerdmans Dictionary of the Bible, 415)Walter C. Kaiser, Jr. (b. 1933) delineates:
The ephod probably was a high priestly waistcoat woven of blue, purple, scarlet, and white linen thread—all entwined with gold thread. Instead of having sleeves or being joined at the sides, it was hung from the shoulders by straps on each of which one onyx stone was mounted on top of a golden clasp, with the names of the six younger sons of Israel engraved on one stone and the six elder sons engraved on the other stone (Exodus 28:9-10). The Septuagint makes the onyx “emeralds,” while Josephus [37-100] (Antiquities of the Jews 3.165 [7.5]) makes them “sardonyx,” the best variety of onyx...A “waistband” (Exodus 28:8) made of the same material and style as the ephod held the front and back of the ephod to the priest’s body. It had no significance of its own. (Tremper Longman III [b. 1952] and David E. Garland [b. 1947], Genesis ~Leviticus (Expositor’s Bible Commentary), 527)There are parallels to the ephod in other cultures of the period. Bruce Wells (b. 1968) addresses:
This description [Exodus 28:6] portrays the ephod as a rather expensive piece of clothing. A similar garment appears to be mentioned in Old Assyrian texts (the term is epattu) and in a few documents from Ugarit (ipd in Ugaritic). There is some hint that these garments were also costly though the evidence is inconclusive. Based on the biblical account, the ephod was like an apron that wrapped around the body from the waist down. Depictions of similar garments on figures that appear to be royal and/or divine have been preserved in artistic representations from New Kingdom Egypt. These garments include shoulder straps, fastened to the main piece by gems in similar fashion to the priestly ephod. Their purpose is unclear, as is any connection to their Israelite counterpart. (John H. Walton [b. 1952], Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy (Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary), 253)Due to these similarities some critical scholars have speculated that the ephod’s origins lay outside of Israel. William T. Miller (b. 1941) informs:
The ephod was apparently a vestlike garment that had in the past been used to decorate idols; in various places in the Old Testament, its use was prohibited. William H.C. Propp [b. 1957] suggests that P deliberately uses it in the legitimate cult, rather than avoid mentioning the existence of the garment altogether. (Miller, The Book of Exodus: Question by Question, 311)Regardless of its origins, the ephod’s design carries considerable meaning within the context of Israel and later Christianity. Maxie Dunnam (b. 1934) observes:
The ephod (Exodus 28:6-14) included all the colors which have come to symbolize the characteristics of the person of Christ: gold—purity and power; blue—spiritual/divine; purple—sovereign king; scarlet—sacrifice. (Dunnam, Exodus (Mastering the Old Testament), 338)The attire directly correlates to the high priest’s role. Peter Enns (b. 1961) connects:
We are not told here what its purpose is, but other biblical texts indicate that it is a means of finding God’s will (I Samuel 23:9-11, 30:7-8). The high priest functions not only in a sacrificial role but also as a conduit for God’s revelation to the people. (Enns, Exodus (The NIV Application Commentary), 530)Of special significance is the inclusion of the names of the twelve tribes of Israel into the garment (Exodus 28:9-10). Carol Meyers (b. 1942) recognizes:
Two of the items, the ephod and breatspiece, are highly specialized, appearing almost exclusively in priestly contexts and probably having a specific role in ritual practice. Although very different in their construction, these two items share certain features. For one thing, their importance is signaled by the fact that directions for making them are far more extensive than for other pieces of priestly garb. Another feature is that they are linked structurally with rings and cords. Perhaps most striking is that they are both to be adorned with gemstones engraved for “remembrance” (Exodus 28:12, 19) with the names of the Israelite tribes. This feature has commemorative symbolic value, bringing all Israel into the tabernacle with Aaron as he carries out the rituals thought to help secure the well-being of the people or adjudicate their conflicts. (Meyers, Exodus (New Cambridge Bible Commentary), 241)J. Gerald Janzen (b. 1932) interprets:
The fact that God instructs these tribal names to be placed on the ephod shows that God intends to remember. But the fact that God instructs the priests to bear these names on their shoulders shows that God calls the priests (and through them the whole people of God) to participate with God in the act of intercessory remembrance. Thus already, in the symbolism of the ephod, we see the two-sided character of intercession as something we do and something God does in and through us (Romans 8:26-27). (Janzen, Exodus (Westminster Bible Companion), 207–08)The high priest is adorned in ornate attire intended to convey dignity, not of the man but of his position and task. As is often the case with fashion choices, the high priest’s clothing makes a statement before he ever opens his mouth.
What items of clothing are you familiar with which maintain their name from their language of origin? How is the high priest’s wardrobe befitting of his function? What items of clothing are unique to a particular profession? Whose work attire is most identifiable? Does clothing always make a statement? What, if anything, do your clothes say about you?
The high priest obviously stands out. His attire sets him apart, even from other clergy. This pays dividends for all involved. Philip Graham Ryken (b. 1966) appraises:
The grandeur of these garments was important not only for the high priest but also for the nation of Israel. Whenever the priest performed his sacred duties, he represented God’s people. He did not act for himself alone, but for all the people before God. What he wore, therefore, was as important to them as it was to him. (Ryken, Exodus: Saved for God's Glory (Preaching the Word), 871)The high priest is especially set apart. Thomas B. Dozeman (b. 1952) discusses:
About ritual clothing, John E. Vollmer [b. 1945] states: “Special clothes are used to transform the priest into a ritual celebrant,” who is “capable of bridging the gap between the physical world and the world of the spirits.” Moreover, ritual clothing is shaped by theology, a view of ordination, and liturgical practice. The more the clergy is seen as a priesthood, according to Deborah H. Kraak, the greater will be the visual distinction in clothing between the religious leaders and the laity. This is certainly the case with the priestly vestments in Exodus 28:4-43. The clothing of Aaron as the high priest is the most distinctive, because it signifies his holy status. Most of the sacred vestments focus on the high priest, including the ephod, the breastplate, the Urim and Thummim, the robe, and the turban (Exodus 28:6-38). The vestments of the general priesthood also separate them from the laity, but in a less distinctive way. (Dozeman, Exodus (Eerdmans Critical Commentary), 642)The high priest’s garb serves as a constant reminder to himself and everyone else that he has been consecrated by God for a special task. Every time he dons the ephod he renews his role as an intercessor between the sacred and the profane.
Why would a priest dress differently from parishioners? How is the pope, for instance, benefitted by his unique ensemble? Should clergy and laity dress differently? Since Jesus had to be identified by a traitorous kiss (Matthew 26:48-49; Mark 14:44-45; Luke 22:47-48), he obviously did not stand out; is this a model contemporary Christian ministers should follow when dressing? Is there a greater gap between laity and clergy in denominations whose ministers are governed by a specific dress code? At your place of worship, do clergy dress differently from the parishioners? How important is a minister’s wardrobe?
“Fashion is a language that creates itself in clothes to interpret reality.” - Karl Lagerfeld (b. 1933), renowned fashion designer