LEVITICUS 8: LEVITES AREN'T PEOPLE WHO WEAR LEVIS!
This close up depicts the "Diadem," the head piece worn by the high priest. Exodus 28:36-38 says, "You shall make a rosette of pure gold, and engrave on it, like the engraving of a signet, “Holy to the Lord.” You shall fasten it on the turban with a blue cord; it shall be on the front of the turban. It shall be on Aaron’s forehead, and Aaron shall take on himself any guilt incurred in the holy offering that the Israelites consecrate as their sacred donations; it shall always be on his forehead, in order that they may find favor before the Lord."
If you'd asked me in high school what a Levite was, I'd have guessed it was someone like me who wore Levis jeans.
I have three brothers, and I am the youngest. I also rank lowest on the dressing scale. My two older brothers often generously give me hand-me-down clothes and shoes, even in my forties. Subtle attempts to improve my appearance.
The Christian church I grew up in does not dress in vestments of any kind. Preachers have always been expected to wear ties, and these days they don’t even wear ties but many, including myself, dress informally in jeans and pull-over shirts. On a recent glance at two side by side online videos of successive weeks preaching at our church, I realized I’d worn the same shirt two weeks in a row, a wardrobe sin in rich America. In poorer nations, having one shirt and wearing it repeatedly is no wardrobe sin.
Scot McKnight, who I call one of my “Theologians in My Pocket,” one of those folks I look to for wisdom in biblical and theological matters, wrote about the difference between ministers in “skinny jeans” and those in “dress slacks.” McKnight says you can nearly predict a preacher’s theology by what he wears. Skinny jeans guys weight their sermons with social justice. Guys in slacks and ties weight their sermons with personal salvation. The contrast and comparisons are interesting and funny, but you can read more in McKnight’s book, Kingdom Conspiracy.
I have a few friends who are Methodist, Catholic, Anglican and wear the vestments of the Christian calendar. While I didn’t grow up experiencing these vestments, I think I get this in the way that Martin Sheen on The West Wing told his staff about the importance of the office of the presidency. The reason he wanted to be called “Mr. President,” even by his close staff, was not because he was a demagogue but because he respected the office and wanted others to respect the office as well.
In some ways, I think the vestments say something about God, not something about the person who wears them. The person is saying, “God is more important than my suit and tie, more than my cool clothes and tattoos. I’m submitting to the vestments of the Church.”
Likewise, the vestments of the priests in the world of Leviticus were not simply for looks. Exodus 28:2 says these sacred garments will give Aaron and his sons “dignity and honor.” Moses is the outfitter for this ultimate task of going before the Lord. He orders the following items of ordination brought to the Tent of Meeting: the garments, anointing oil, a bull for the sin offering, two rams—one for a burnt offering, another for an ordination offering, and a basket containing unleavened bread.
The vestments of Israel were a way for the Levites to remember God is the one who clothes them, further reminding themselves and those who see them, how God brought the twelve tribes of Israel out of Egypt.
AARON AND SONS CLOTHIERS
Chapter 8 describes the ordination process the priests pass through before entering the Tent of Meeting, the special attire for service, and the unique way they are ritually prepared to enter. Throughout this chapter, the importance of divine command and human execution is repeated seven times (8:4, 9, 13, 17, 21, 29, 36). Moses is given the task of clothing (8:7) and anointing Aaron (8:10-12). Special clothing shows movement from ordinary to priestly status and Aaron’s unique clothes show his high priest status.
First, Moses washes Aaron and his sons with water (8:6) as a way of purifying them to do rituals in God’s service. The text doesn’t specify whether the priests were immersed in water to bathe or whether water was poured on them. Moses likely used the bronze basin that was at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting (Ex 38:8) to ritually pour water on the heads and bodies of the men.
Moses then clothes Aaron (8:7; cf. Ex 28). Underwear first, likely cloth wrapped from waist to thighs were put on, then a tunic—an ankle-length long-sleeved dress—would be worn next to the skin.
Moses then put on Aaron a purple, scarlet and blue robe with gold embroidering and bells on the hem so they would be heard when Aaron entered the Holy of Holies, and would not die. Once again our cultural distance from the world of Leviticus prompts irrelevant questions: What’s with the bells? Does Yahweh not like being snuck up on?
The ephod was a flat rectangular piece that was tied with its own cords then again secured with a sash around the waist. On top of this was tied from its four corners the breastplate that contained the urim and thummim.
What were the urim and thummin? Nobody today is sure, but they may have been pieces of wood or bone used to make decisions. The modern day equivalent is to use a coin, heads or tails, for making a fair random choice when two parties are involved and need what we would call a fair and random decision but those in the Levitical world would likely consider the will of God in the matter.
Knowing what we know, let’s not make assumptions that wise discernment was replaced with random judgments. It wasn’t as if priests were deciding the fate of someone who sinned by flipping a coin: heads you get expelled from the community, tails you stay! Some scholars believe these words and their corresponding objects meant guilty and not guilty, but they could have been used as a deciding vote when an impasse had been reached in a matter.
Finally, Moses placed the turban on Aaron’s head and a special medallion—the diadem or crown—on top of and pressed into the folds of the turban.
PUTTING IT ALL TOGETHER
We now have in the world of Leviticus a sacred place: the tabernacle. We have sacred priests: Aaron, his sons, and the Levites. Finally we have sacred rituals to perform in the presence of and as a means of honoring and continuing the presence of God in the community of Israel. So these special garments indicate a sacred status of the priests to do God’s commands in the Tabernacle.
While a privilege, standing in the presence of Holy God is fearful for Israel, just as it would be fearful for us. Moses issues a dire warning for Aaron and his sons to stay at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting for seven days as part of their ordination. Why? He tells them, “so you will not die; for that is what I have been commanded” (8:35, NIV).
During the ordination, Moses wipes blood on the right earlobe, thumb, and big toe of Aaron, and repeats this for Aaron’s sons. This is another preparation for service to God in the tabernacle. They have been touched by and protected by the atoning blood, one more ritual that validates that they are set apart for priestly service.
As we reflect on the special garments prescribed for Aaron to wear, do we have a place in our experience to help you empathize with the importance of this new priestly status? We who commercialize and trivialize and fashion-ize clothing—can we know the power and significance of being clothed in sacred vestments?
Consider the importance of clothing and anointing of Aaron and his sons as preparation for a holy vocation—and a dangerous one: going before the Lord God Almighty on behalf of the people, into God’s presence. You’d want some special clothing, too.
Greg Taylor preaches for The Journey. Greg's wife, Jill, teaches math at Broken Arrow High School and Tulsa Community College. Greg and Jill have three adult children, Ashley, Anna, and Jacob. Greg is the author of many books, including his latest co-authored with Randy Harris, Daring Faith: Meeting Jesus in the Book of John.