Welcome to my ROLLED SCROLL study, where I follow cultural and literary images found in the Bible in an attempt to unearth God’s meaning in His pattern of usage.
I spent three muggy summer months in Japan when I was twenty, during which time a generous host family outfitted me in a traditional ensemble: navy-and-white cotton yukata robe, brilliant yellow obi sash, wooden geta sandals in the lucky colour red. My round eyes and wild blonde perm notwithstanding, I felt very Japanese! I’d been initiated into the culture by identifying with that ancient emblem, the national costume. Of course, long before countries divided into geographical entities—at the dawn of civilization, in the “age of innocence”—apparel wasn’t even an issue.
History: The Old Testament relates the history of clothing beginning in the Garden of Eden, when Adam and Eve traded in their nudity for a suit of fig leaves they vainly hoped would cover their shame from succumbing to the lies of chaos and death brought by Satan (disguised as a snake; Gen. 3:1-10). But before God turned them out of the Garden of communion with Him, He provided a covering of animal skins in the first biblical bloodletting—the genesis of the sacrificial system of substitutionary sin atonement (Gen. 3:20-24).
Value: The next biblical scene shows Abraham, through his servant, negotiating for Isaac’s wife with a dowry of jewellery and garments (Gen 24:52-53). High economic value was placed on raiment as gifts, trade items, and plunder taken in war (Judg. 17:10; 2 Chron. 9:24; Josh. 22:8; 1 Sam. 27:9). One’s outfit was a mark of one’s status: widows could be distinguished from prostitutes; lepers shredded their clothes to warn others of their disease; kings and courtiers were dressed for success; penitents and mourners wore sackcloth—dark, coarse goat’s hair also used to make grain sacks (Gen. 38:14-19; Lev. 13:45; Gen. 41:42; 2 Sam. 3:31).
Religion: Clothing took on the religious significance of purity and consecration when God prescribed fine linen from turban to breeches for the priests, with gold embroidery decorating the high priest’s extravagant and bejewelled outfit (Exod. 28:2-5; Exod. 29:21; Lev. 19:19). This pristine attire was splattered with blood during temple offerings, showing the defilement of sin (Lam. 4:14). Tearing of one’s own clothes was a synonym for grief, as when the prophet Ezra learned of the sin of Israel’s intermarriage; tearing off another’s clothing showed subjugation, as when conquered kings were stripped of their vestments and their authority (Ezra 9:3; Job 12:17-19; Job 19:9).
God’s provision for His people extended to their wardrobes: during Israel’s forty years in the wilderness, the wanderers’ apparel and even footwear miraculously didn’t deteriorate (Deut. 8:4; Deut. 29:5). The most-used fabrics for the outer mantle and inner tunic worn both men and women in Bible times were wool, linen, and cotton (and possibly silk)—although flax and fleece were never woven together unless for priests (Deut. 22:11). One’s cloak, used to carry goods, was not to be loaned out or taken, as it doubled as a blanket at night (Exod. 12:34; Exod. 22: 25-26; Deut. 24:13).
God’s character: The OT uses the metaphor to explain God’s character as Creator and Judge. He clothes the heavens with blackness and wraps up the waters in a garment, and attires the fields in lilies for a more stunning effect than the glory of Solomon’s wardrobe (Isa. 50:3; Prov. 30:4; see also Luke 12:27-28). The clouds are the garments of the sea, and the sea in turn dresses the deep, and Leviathan wears his skin like a raincoat that no human can remove (Job 38:9; Ps. 104:6; Job 41:13). Yet someday the heavens and earth will wear out, and God will roll them up like a mantle and change the clothing of creation (Ps. 102:25-26; Isa. 50:9; Isa. 51:6-8; Heb. 1:12). For now, God robes Himself with honour and majesty; He wraps Himself in light as a garment, and in the armoury of righteousness, salvation, vengeance, and zeal (Ps. 104:1-2; Isa. 59:17). In vivid messianic prophecy, Isaiah described the coming of the Lord in priest-like robes splattered blood-red from treading the winepress of judgment (Isa. 63:1-3). And yet, again with the imagery of dressing, God expressed joy that Jerusalem would be brought out of exile and rebuilt:
Awake, awake, put on your strength, O Zion; put on your beautiful garments, O Jerusalem, the holy city. (Isa. 52:1 ESV)
Bible stories: The lives of some of the most colourful biblical characters feature clothing:
- Jacob, vying for Esau’s inheritance of blessing by tricking their blind father, put on his brother’s clothes and bound goatskin onto his hands and neck to mimic the scent and feel of his hairy twin (Gen. 27: 15-27).
- Joseph’s ornate tunic signifying his special status in the family was stripped from him when he was sold into slavery; he displayed his moral integrity when he ran from his master’s wife, leaving his outer cloak in the seductress’s hand as evidence of his supposed attack; then rising to political prominence he donned robes of fine linen and presented gifts of clothing when reunited to his estranged family (Gen. 37:3-23; Gen. 39:12-18; Gen. 41:42; Gen. 45:22)
- Mighty Samson needed thirty outfits to pay off a wager from his riddle of the lion and the bees (Judg. 14:10-19).
- Widowed Ruth wore her finest when meeting Boaz on the threshing floor, where she asked him to cover her with the edge of his garment in a ceremony indicating his redeeming protection and provision; he sent her home carrying her cloak filled with barley (Ruth 3:1-3ff).
- Hannah made a linen frock every year to take up to her son, Samuel, serving since boyhood in the temple in Jerusalem (1 Sam. 2:19).
- Elisha—crying out and tearing his own clothes as Elijah was borne by a whirlwind to Heaven—picked up from the ground where it was dropped his predecessor’s mantle of authority and power (2 Kings 2:11-14).
- Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego survived Nebuchadnezzar’s fiery furnace without a hair of their heads singed or the smell of smoke clinging to their cloaks (Dan. 3:19-27).
- Lovely Queen Esther donned royal robes before entering the presence of the king of Persia to prevent the genocide of God’s people (Esther 5:1-3ff).
- Jonah, freshly vomited from the fish, proclaimed God’s message demanding repentance and saw all of Nineveh—from the king down to the donkeys—garbed in sackcloth (Jonah 3:5-8).
Faithfulness: The image of clothing can relate to faithfulness(or lack of it). At times God’s people wore the whore’s gown of apostasy, but upon repentance they were dressed in robes of righteousness and salvation (Ezek. 16:16; Isa. 61:10). In beautiful matrimonial language that reminds us of the foregoing story of Ruth, as well as the future Wedding Feast of the Lamb, God described His covenant with Jerusalem:
When I passed by you again and saw you, behold, you were at the age for love, and I spread the corner of my garment over you and covered your nakedness; I made my vow to you and entered into a covenant with you, declares the Lord God, and you became mine. Then I bathed you with water and washed off your blood from you and anointed you with oil. I clothed you also with embroidered cloth and shod you with fine leather. I wrapped you in fine linen and covered you with silk. (Ezek. 16:8-10 ESV)
Prophecy: As the Old Testament draws to a close, we’re left with ringing prophecies (some yet to be fulfilled). Daniel pictured the Ancient of Days taking His seat on a flaming throne in vesture as white as snow (Dan. 7:9). Hosea spoke of God in judgment against unfaithful Israel as a husband taking back his wool and his flax to expose his adulterous wife’s nakedness and uncover her lewdness in the sight of her lovers (Hosea 2:9-10). Joel talked about the Day of the Lord bringing the mourning of a bride for the groom of her youth, dressed in sackcloth rather than nuptial robes, and of the sorrowing Jewish priests putting on sackcloth to lament the cessation of temple sacrifices (Joel 1:8-13).
We see from an OT survey how images of clothing illustrate God’s character as Creator, Provider, and Judge, relating to the Fall of mankind into sin, God’s care for Israel physically through daily supply and spiritually through priestly blood sacrifice, and His promises to one day bring His people back to Himself again.
To be continued . . .
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These short literary articles tied to the Bible explore what God might have been saying in His pattern of usage for each symbol. English rendition of the original Hebrew, Aramaic, or Greek varies with translations (e.g., “scroll” is sometimes interchangeable with “book”); however, the quality and underlying meaning of the selected emblem remain consistent across versions. Sketches are by Lorenda Harder. I recommend the website of Dr. Grant C. Richison for thorough expository Bible study: www.versebyversecommentary.com.