This article will focus on a few selected passages of Holy Writ to show God’s dealing with His people and how the analogy of clothing and exchange of garments is employed by the biblical authors to depict His love and grace. Throughout both testaments the putting on of garments – whether literally or symbolically – has at times redemptive implications. The literal donning of clothes foreshadows redemption and thus typifies this theme.
In this first part of this ‘series’ we will pay special attention to how this theme is developed by the writers of the Old Testament and will then move to the New Testament in Part 2 (hopefully next week).
In Gen 3:21 we are informed that God made “garments of skins” for Adam and Eve and is also involved in the clothing of them. Here we see God being active in covering the shame of our ancestors. They already tried to do such on their own (v.7), but what they did was insufficient. Brueggemann comments that “God does (3:21) for the couple what they cannot do for themselves (3:7). They cannot deal with their shame. But God can, will, and does. To be clothed is to be given life” (quoted in Waltke and Fredricks, 95). From the time of the fall “proper garments are required when coming into the presence of the holy God” (Palmer; Exod 19:10, 14; Ezek 44:17; Matt 22:11–12; Rev 3:18; 7:9, 14.). Adam and Eve can no longer “walk before deity in innocence (2:25)” (Mathews, 254). God has to clothe the couple. In this he shows His “tender care” (Waltke, 95) and His “positive and loving act” (Prouser, 30) is seen to be “salvific in character” (Mathews, 255).
In Ruth 3:9 we read that Ruth approaches Boaz on the threshing floor where she lays down at his feet. When he awakes, he asks who the person to his feet is. Ruth’s answer is “I am your servant Ruth.” Then she remarkably states “Spread the corner of your garment over me, since you are a kinsman-redeemer” (NIV). This covering of a woman with one’s own clothes was a figurative act, “which according to Near Eastern custom signified ‘the establishment of a new relationship and the symbolic declaration of the husband to provide for the sustenance of the future wife’” (Block, 691; quoting Kruger, 86). We will further investigate the theme of marriage (or wedding imagery) in connection to clothing in Ezek 16 and in Rev 19. For now it suffices to say that here in Ruth we observe that wedding imagery and the theme of garments are in close relationship to a redemptive picture.
In Isaiah 61:10 (an obvious passage to this theme) we read: “…he has clothed me with the garments of salvation; he has covered me with the robe of righteousness.” This then is followed via simile with the picture of wedding preparations and the clothing of the priest.
The statement in 61:10 is the culmination of Isaiah’s treatise on “the hope for an era characterized by righteousness” (VanGemeren, 1861). This era will be inaugurated by the Messiah (11:1-9) and will have no end (9:7). The nation’s righteous deeds (and those of the individual) are seen as “polluted garments” (64:6). These garments are removed by God and He clothes them “with the garments of salvation” and the “robe of righteousness.” Earlier God Himself is described as one who puts “on righteousness as a breastplate, and a helmet of salvation on his head” (59:17).
Again it is God who clothes His people. This time He does such with His righteousness and salvation. Isaiah further developed the theme of Gen 3 and ties it more closely to the Messianic rule and its redemptive characteristic.
Isaiah puts the picture of clothing and redemptive analogies in wedding language (61:10; 62) and so does Ezekiel. In Ezek 16 we see the prophet retelling the exodus story in an metaphor of a betrothal (cf. imagery in Ruth 3:9). God speaks, “I spread the corner of my garment over you and covered your nakedness.” The betrothal language is used throughout this chapter. The prophet reports how God clothed Israel in luxurious wedding garments (v. 10) and how He adorned His wife with precious materials (vv. 11-12). He redeemed her out of Egypt and out of her blood. He called her to life (v. 6). He had compassion on her and entered into a covenant relationship with her.
A lot more could be said in regards to Ezekiel, but time and space do not suffice, so let us move on to the prophet Zechariah. We read in ch. 3 that the prophet sees the high priest, Joshua, standing before the angel of the LORD. Satan is also present and he accuses Joshua. Joshua is described as one “clothed with filthy garments” (v. 3) which is symbolic for the sins (cf. Isa 64:6) of the people of Judah whom he represents (it is interesting to observe that the word filthy “probably means stained with human excrement”; Clark, 121).
The angel of the LORD responds not with judgment but with grace. “Remove the filthy garments from him” is his voice of love. He not only removes the filthy garments but clothes him also “with pure vestments” (v. 4). Now Joshua is cleansed and can stand free of any charge before God. Bowling draws from this passage and Isa. 61:10 the appropriate application,
The individual’s own good deeds are filthy rags (Isa 64:6; cf. Joshua in Zech 3:3) which God removes and then clothes his own in salvation and righteousness (Isa 61:10). Then, like Joshua in Zechariah’s vision, men clothed in God’s righteousness can stand before God.(469)
Again we see the human inability to deal with sin (cf. Gen 3:7) and the LORD’s initiative to cleanse His children from their guilt. The phrase “and the angel of the LORD was standing by” (v. 5) is signifying that the angel of the LORD is “approving and directing Joshua’s purging, clothing and crowning on the basis of the fact that God’s righteousness and mercy were being restored” (Barker, 625). This is a picture of God’s final salvation through the Branch (v. 8); i.e., the Messiah.
…to be continued in Part 2_NT.
Barker, Kenneth L. “Zechariah.” In The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: With the New International Version of the Holy Bible. Vol. 7, Daniel and the Minor Prophets. Edited by Frank Ely Gaebelein, et al. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1985.
Block, Daniel I. Judges, Ruth. New American Commentary, 6. Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 1999.
Bowling, Andrew. “לָבֵשׁ (lābēš) Dress, Be Clothed.” In Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament. Edited by R. Laird Harris, et al. Chicago: Moody Press, 1999.
Clark, David J. and Howard Hatton. A Handbook on Zechariah. UBS Handbook Series. New York: United Bible Societies, 2002.
Kruger, P. A. “The Hem of the Garment in Marriage: The Meaning of the Symbolic Gesture in Ruth 3:9 and Ezek 16:8.” In JNSL 12, 1984.
Mathews, Kenneth A. Genesis 1-11:26. New American Commentary, 1A. Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 1996.
Palmer, C. E. “Clothes.” In New Dictionary of Biblical Theology. Edited by T. Desmond Alexander and Brian S. Rosner, electronic ed. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2001.
Prouser, Ora Horn. “Suited to the Throne: The Symbolic Use of Clothing in the David and Saul Narratives,” Journal for the Study of the Old Testament, 71 (S 1996): 27-37.
VanGemeren, Willem A. “Righteousness.” In Baker Encyclopedia of the Bible. Edited by Walter A. Elwell and Barry J. Beitzel. Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1988: 1860-1862.
Waltke, Bruce K. and Cathi J. Fredricks. Genesis: A Commentary. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2001.