How did the special garments worn by the High Priest symbolise his role?
Not many of us have to wear special robes to conduct our daily business. Some of us have overalls or uniforms, but to wear garments which have mystical significance falls only to a few. In this article Margaret reflects on Adam as Servant, High Priest, and Teacher. She shows how the High Priestly robes in the Old Testament “weave the wisdom of heaven into the fabric of the creation”, and challenges us to hear the song of the angels amid the noise of the everyday world.
Behold my servant whom I uphold
My chosen in whom my soul delights;
I have put my Spirit on him,
He will bring forth justice to the nations. (Isaiah 42:1).
Isaiah often speaks of a mysterious Servant, and Jesus recognised these sayings as prophecies of himself. At the Last Supper he said: ‘I am among you as one who serves’ (Luke 22:27). He heard a version of these words at his baptism, when the heavens were opened and he heard the voice: ‘You are my beloved Son; in you I am well pleased’, (Luke 3:22). The first Christians found in Isaiah’s Servant poems many prophecies of Jesus.
The first Servant was Adam. He was put into the Garden of Eden ’to serve it and preserve it’, words that are usually translated ‘to till it and to keep it’, (Genesis 2:15). These words have two meanings, and we need to look at both: first, Adam was to tend the garden and care for it; second – the other meaning of the words – he had to lead its worship and preserve the teachings about it.
In Jewish tradition, Adam the Servant was the first high priest. He was the high priest of all creation, set over it, yes, but not as a ruler in the way we now use that word. Psalm 8 shows how ‘the son of Adam’ was to rule:
First, he must look at the mighty wonders of creation, and ask how the LORD can have such as special role for a mere human being:
When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers,
the moon and the stars, which you have set in place,
what are human beings that you are mindful of them,
mortals that you care for them? (Psalm 8:3-4 NRSV)
Then he can look at the great responsibility given to him, and the key word here also has two meanings:
Yet you have made them a little lower than God,
and crowned them with glory and honour.
You have given them dominion over the works of your hands;
you have put all things under their feet, (Psalm 8:5-6. NRSV).
‘You have given them dominion’ also means ‘You have made them teachers of wise sayings’. King Solomon was remembered as a teacher of wise sayings, (1 Kings 4:29-34).
Adam is the Servant, the High Priest and the Teacher.
The High Priest was anointed and dressed in special garments that symbolised his role. One of these was the ephod, which symbolised a yoke of service. It was a short coat, secured with golden cords and with two huge precious stones set in its shoulders, (Exodus 28:5-30). The fabric of the ephod was specially woven from fours colours – red, blue, purple and white – just like the veil of the temple.
The four colours represented the four elements from which, as they believed in those days, the creation was made: red was fire, blue was air, purple was water – because, they said, purple dye came from sea shell – and white was the earth because it was linen thread spun from flax that grew in the earth. The four elements woven together represented the fabric of creation. Just as the veil of the temple screened the Holy of Holies, so the very stuff of creation screened the glory of God.
The ephod fabric was woven from the same four colours, but it was interwoven with gold thread, (Exodus 39:2-5). Gold was a symbol of the divine wisdom, the uncreated light represented by the Holy of Holies [see article 4 of this series]. The one who wore the ephod had to give wise teaching by weaving the wisdom of heaven into the fabric of the creation. The ephod was the yoke, the sign of the Servant.
Isaiah described the Anointed One, the Messiah, wearing this yoke of service and wise teaching:
‘For to us a child is born, to us a son is given; and the government will be upon his shoulder,
And his name will be called “Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace”’ (Isaiah 9:6).
As many Christians sing during the Advent season,
Hail to the LORD’s Anointed,
Great David’s greater son!
Hail, in the time appointed,
His reign on earth begun!
He comes to break oppression,
To set the captive free,
To take away transgression,
And rule in equity.
He comes with rescue speedy
To those who suffer wrong,
To help the poor and needy,
And bid the weak be strong,
To give them songs for sighing,
Their darkness turn to light,
Whose souls condemned and dying,
Were precious in his sight.
He shall come down like showers
Upon the fruitful earth,
And love, joy, hope, like flowers,
Spring in his path to birth;
Before him on the mountains
Shall peace the herald go;
And righteousness, in fountains
From hill to valley flow.
The “Life of Adam” – a legend from the early Christian centuries, quoted in an Easter homily by Pope Benedict – says that Adam and Eve lost their garments of glory when they left Eden and they could no longer hear the song of the angels. But they never forgot what they had lost. As the Christmas carol “It came upon a midnight clear” says to us,
O hush the noise, ye men of strife,
And hear the angels sing
The Hebrew storytellers expressed a profound truth when they wrote of the human longing for a better world than the one we have made for ourselves. After choosing their own way, Adam and Eve tried to hide, but there was and is nowhere to hide. And the LORD God still calls out: ‘Adam, where are you?’- the most important question of our times.
Someone once wrote that God’s question to Adam, “Where are you?” was one that the whole of the rest of the Bible sought to answer. It has a similar pointedness to Jesus’ question to his disciples, “But who do you say that I am?”
The poignant question in Genesis indicates that, through sin, Adam had not only lost his home in Paradise, but had lost the very basis and reason for his life. No longer can he fulfill his roles of being servant, teacher and priest – or at least, can only fulfill them in a very imperfect way.
The wholesale abandonment of belief in God that has gone hand-in-hand with the West’s industrial and technological development has left modern men and women rootless and without foundation. God’s question to Adam – “Where are you?” – is, in a very real sense, a question to us too.
Perhaps we might spend a little time at the start of our day meditating on the question, “How might I weave the wisdom of heaven into the fabric of the creation around me?”
God be in my head,
And in my understanding;
God be in mine eyes,
And in my looking;
God be in my mouth,
And in my speaking;
God be in my heart,
And in my thinking;
God be at mine end,
And at my departing.
Sir Henry Walford Davies
Image: Breastplate on the front of the central Sephardic synagogue in Ramat Gan, Dr. Avishai Teicher, Source: Wikimedia Commons