Exodus 28 provides details about the garments worn by those called to serve as priests. At the beginning and ending of the chapter (Exod. 28:2, 40), God says the garments are for glory and beauty. This highlights the importance of the priestly service.
Much of the description in this chapter simply emphasizes the glory and beauty of the garments. Some of the details, however, seem to carry special significance.
Like the chapters describing the tabernacle, this chapter also emphasizes the presence of God. Several times the priest is said to enter “before Yahweh” [לִפְנֵי־יְהוָה] (Exod. 28:12, 29, 30, 35, 38). Aaron and his sons are called out of Israel to mediate between God and the nation.
The first piece of priestly clothing described in depth is the ephod (Ex. 28:6-13). Stuart notes the fabric from which the ephod was to be made matched the colors used within the Holy Place and Holy of Holies. He also notes the misuse of an ephod by Gideon. He surmises from these two facts that the ephod was a symbol of God’s presence among his people.
Exodus 28:9-12 speaks of stones with the names of the sons of Israel engraved on them. The priests bears the stones as memorials [זִכָּרֹן] before the Lord.
Thus the high priest is a mediator between God and the people. The ephod symbolizes God’s presence among the people as he moves among them wearing the gold, blue, purple, and scarlet yarns—the colors of God’s dwelling place. The stones on the shoulders of the ephod represent the people being brought into the presence of God. by the priest.
The next article of clothing, the breast-piece (Exod. 28:15-30), also emphasizes God’s presence (לִפְנֵי־יְהוָה occurs 3x in Ex. 28:29-30). The breast-piece also uses stones inscribed with the names of the sons of Israel to bring them before the Lord as a remembrance [זִכָּרֹן] (Exod. 28:29).
The breast-piece further indicates God’s presence with his people because it was used or God to render decisions [מִשְׁפָּט] from God for his people (Exod. 28:15, 30).
Exodus 28:31-35 deals with the priest’s robe. It is not clear if there is significance to the blue, the pomegranate, or the collar aside from the fact that the garments were to be made for glory and beauty. The section climaxes, however, with the need for bells on his robe as Aaron enters the holy place before the Lord so that he does not die. The words “holy place” [הַקֹּדֶשׁ] “before Yahweh” [לִפְנֵי־יְהוָה] and “not die” [וְלא יָמוּת] are key words. When someone comes before the Lord, he enters a holy place because God is holy. But for the gracious provision of God, those who enter are liable to die.
Holiness is a theme that runs throughout the chapter. God identifies the garments of the priest as “holy garments” (Exod. 28:2). The are a necessary part of his consecration to the priesthood [לְקַדְּשׁוֹ] (Exod. 28:3, 41). These are the garments necessary for Aaron to enter the Holy Place (Exod. 28:29, 35, 43).
The emphasis on holiness climaxes in Exodus 28:36-38 which deal with the plate that goes on the front of the high priest’s turban. it reads “Holiness to the Lord” [קדשׁ ליהוה]. Holiness is a key word in this section. Because of the plate Aaron could bear the iniquity of the holy things [הקדשׁים] which the sons of Israel consecrated [יקדושׁו] as holy gifts [מתנת קדשׁיהם]. Aaron does this when he comes before the Lord [לפני יהוה]. The idea seems to be that the plate declared the high priest holy and therefore worthy of bearing the iniquity of the consecrated holy gifts, thus making these offerings acceptable to God.
Verses 39-43 wrap up the instructions about clothing for the priests. Once again, as at the beginning the clothing is said to be for glory and for beauty [לכבוד ולתפארת]. The passage also notes that they should be anointed [משׁח] as part the consecration [לְקַדְּשׁוֹ] for their office.
The passage closes by describing undergarments. It may seem odd to end this list of regulations with undergarments, but if the priests’ nakedness was exposed to God’s holy things, they would die. This likely has connections back to the shame Adam and Eve had over their nakedness after they sinned and the need for clothing. It also highlights the danger in unholy man coming into the presence of God.
In the Fall mankind was thrust from God’s presence. The Tabernacle regulations and these instructions for the priest’s garments show that God’s gracious restoration of his presence to his people is no light matter. Because of his holiness and their uncleanness, the penalty for sin—death—was an ever-present threat.