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Bible Commentaries
Exodus 28

Dr. Constable's Expository NotesConstable's Expository Notes

Verses 20-43

6. The investiture of the priests 27:20-28:43

Here begins the revelation of those things that related to the Israelites’ relationship with God (Exodus 27:20 to Exodus 30:38). The preceding section (Exodus 25:10 to Exodus 27:19) emphasized the revelation of the things that revealed God’s character. The priesthood is the primary revelation in this new section.

"The approach to the Holy One, both within the biblical tradition and outside it, has always included some kind of mediatorial ministry, for it is inherent in any kind of ’high religion’ that an otherwise unbridgeable chasm exist between ineffable deity and finite mankind.

"In earliest times, of course, Yahweh met directly with His creation, which in turn communicated with Him in word and act. With the passing of time and the rise of patriarchal familial and clan structures, the father of the household functioned also as its priest, the minister who stood between the family and its God. Finally-and even before the covenant at Sinai-there had developed some kind of order of priests, as Exodus 19:22 expressly declares." [Note: Merrill, "A Theology . . .," pp. 49-50.]

The responsibilities of the priests in Israel fell into four primary categories.

1. They were responsible to maintain the holy place of the tabernacle. This included burning incense each morning and evening, trimming and refilling the lamps each evening, and replacing the showbread each Sabbath.

2. They also maintained the tabernacle courtyard. This involved offering sacrifices each morning and evening and blessing the congregation after the daily sacrifice. It also meant keeping the fire on the brazen altar burning always, and periodically removing its ashes.

3. They were responsible to inspect and appraise people and sacrifices. These included lepers, wives accused of adultery, and things dedicated to the sanctuary.

4. Finally, they were to teach and counsel the people. They were to communicate the Mosaic Law to the congregation and decide difficult cases of law (cf. Leviticus 11-27).

Verses 1-5

The priests 28:1-5

Aaron had been functioning as a priest (Heb. cohen; Exodus 4:16). Now Moses officially appointed him and his sons to this office. God apparently specified Aaron because he was the brother of Moses whom God had already designated as the covenant mediator. [Note: Merrill, "A Theology . . .," p. 50.] Before the sinful priests could approach their holy God, they had to cover their uncleanness symbolically with holy clothes. The priests had to wear these garments when they served in the tabernacle ritual, but they could not wear them at other times (Exodus 35:19; Leviticus 16:4; Leviticus 16:23-24). The fact that the workmen who made these garments needed to be wise and skillful (Exodus 28:3) indicates the importance that God placed on their construction.

Aaron’s priesthood prefigured that of Jesus Christ (Hebrews 5:5; Hebrews 7:26; Hebrews 9:11).

Verses 6-14

The ephod 28:6-14

The ephod (a transliteration of the Hebrew word) was the most important and outermost garment of the high priest. It was an apron-like piece of clothing that fit over his robe (Exodus 28:31-35).

"The duty of the high priest was to enter into the presence of God and make atonement for the people as their mediator. To show that as mediator he brought the nation to God, the names of the twelve tribes were engraved upon precious stones on the shoulders of the ephod. The precious stones, with their richness and brilliancy, formed the most suitable earthly substratum to represent the glory into which Israel was to be transformed as the possession of Jehovah (xix. 5); whilst the colours and material of the ephod, answering to the colours and texture of the hangings of the sanctuary, indicated the service performed in the sanctuary by the person clothed with the ephod, and the gold with which the coloured fabric was worked, the glory of that service." [Note: Keil and Delitzsch, 2:195.]

Josephus wrote that the names of Jacob’s six oldest sons were on the stone on the right shoulder, and the names of his six youngest sons were on the stone on the left. [Note: Josephus, 3:7:5.]

Verses 15-30

The breastplate 28:15-30

The breastplate was a pocket of material of the same fabric as the ephod. Twelve precious stones were fastened to the front of it, and two objects, the Urim and Thummim, which were probably stones also, lay within it.

The 12 jewels represented the 12 tribes. Each one was unique. God later called the Israelites His jewels (Malachi 3:17). The high priest carried the tribes on his heart (Exodus 28:30) as well as on his shoulders. The heart refers to the seat of feelings and affections in the Old Testament.

"The purpose of the breastpiece was ’for making decisions’ (Exodus 28:15). The Urim and Thummim, deposited in the pouch, were sacred lots used as the ’means of making decisions’ (Exodus 28:30). The word ’Urim’ begins with the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet and ’Thummim’ begins with the last letter, so the lots were probably restricted to giving either positive or negative responses to questions asked of them. Strengthening that likelihood is the fact that the phrase ’Urim and Thummim’ is best translated into English as ’curses and perfections,’ meaning that if ’Urim’ dominated when the lots were cast the answer would be no but if ’Thummim’ dominated the answer would be yes." [Note: Youngblood, p. 127.]

Verses 31-35

The robe 28:31-35

The high priest also wore this garment. It was his basic garment over which he put the ephod. It covered him completely so his natural nakedness did not appear (cf. Genesis 3:21).

God may have intended the pomegranates and bells on the hem of the robe (Exodus 28:33-34) to remind the Israelites of God’s commandments. The pomegranate was probably a symbol of the spiritually nourishing quality of God’s Word (cf. Proverbs 25:11; Psalms 19:8-11; Psalms 119:25; Psalms 119:43; Psalms 119:50; Deuteronomy 8:3; Proverbs 9:8; Ecclesiastes 12:9-11; Ecclesiastes 12:13). The bell was evidently a symbol of the sounding or proclamation of God’s Word through testimony. [Note: See Keil and Delitzsch, 2:202-203.] Some interpreters have felt pomegranates and bells represented fruitfulness and joy. Others have seen them as representing the fruits and gifts of God’s Spirit. [Note: Sailhamer, The Pentateuch . . ., p. 306, recorded several other possible explanations of these decorations.]

"A popular Jewish interpretation of Exodus 28:35 taught that one end of a long rope should be tied to the high priest’s ankle before he entered the Holy Place. Since his slightest movement would cause the bells to tinkle, the people outside would assume that all was well as long as they could hear them. But if the bells fell silent for a time, the people outside would naturally assume that their priest had either fainted or died. They would then tug on the end of the rope to pull him out, making it unnecessary for unauthorized persons to enter the Holy Place in order to remove his body." [Note: Youngblood, p. 128.]

Verses 36-38

The gold plate 28:36-38

A plaque of pure gold was attached to the front of the high priest’s turban. It bore the engraved words, "Holy to the LORD."

"Through this inscription, which was fastened upon his head-dress of brilliant white, the earthly reflection of holiness, he was crowned as the sanctified of the Lord (Ps. cvi. 16), and endowed with the power to exterminate the sin which clung to the holy offerings of the people on account of the unholiness of their nature, so that the gifts of the nation became well-pleasing to the Lord, and the good pleasure of God was manifested to the nation." [Note: Keil and Delitzsch, 2:204.]

"It was necessary also that he should be a holy man. . . . It was as though they said: ’We are conscious that our representative may fail in personal holiness, but on that golden plate of purest metal we have placed our ideal, the high-water mark, which we desire our priest should attain.’" [Note: Meyer, p. 359.]

"’Set apart for Yahweh’ refers not alone, indeed not even primarily to ’Aaron’ and his successors, as Exodus 28:38 makes plain. It is Israel that is ’set apart for Yahweh,’ ’Aaron’ of course among Israel and representing Israel . . ." [Note: Durham, p. 388.]

The tunic, turban, and sash 28:39

These items completed the high priest’s wardrobe. The tunic was an undergarment, the turban covered his head, and the sash served as a belt.

Verses 40-43

The garments of the lesser priests 28:40-43

The clothing described in these verses appears to be the garments the priests other than the high priest wore. All the priests ministered barefoot out of reverence for the holiness of God (cf. Exodus 3:5; Joshua 5:15).

"This prescription for undergarments alludes to and reminds one of the clothing which God made for Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden to cover their nakedness (Genesis 3:21)." [Note: Sailhamer, The Pentateuch . . ., p. 306.]

"The essential point of the priestly vestments is the central point of all the instructions concerning the media of worship: Yahweh is present, and Israel must respond to that Presence, be guided in that response, and be reminded constantly in worship as in life of the reality of the Presence and of the need for response." [Note: Durham, p. 389.]

"There is much that can be derived from this chapter to form principles of spiritual leadership; but the overall point can be worded this way: Those whom God selects to minister to the congregation through intercessory prayer, divine counsel, and sacrificial worship, must always represent the holiness of Yahweh in their activities and demeanor." [Note: The NET Bible note on 28:43.]

Bibliographical Information
Constable, Thomas. DD. "Commentary on Exodus 28". "Dr. Constable's Expository Notes". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/dcc/exodus-28.html. 2012.
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