Monday 3 September 2018

Clothing in the Bible

There’s an enjoyable article by Nancy Guthrie, posted on the Crossway website – ‘10 Things You Should Know about the Garden of Eden’. It’s related to her forthcoming book, Even Better than Eden: Nine Ways the Bible’s Story Changes Everything about Your Story (Wheaton: Crossway, 2018), which looks like it will be a helpful run through of some lesser-worked biblical themes.

Back to the article, her fifth point on Eden is this: ‘Adam and Eve were naked, not yet robed in royal splendor.’

She comments:

‘When we read in Genesis 2 that Adam and Eve were naked in Eden, it may initially seem to us to be a good or neutral thing. But Moses’ original readers would have recognized that something was lacking. These were royal representatives of the great king. And royal representatives in Scripture are always dressed in royal robes (think of Joseph’s coat of many colors, Jonathan’s robe given to David, the robe and ring given to the prodigal son). The report of their nakedness indicated a need for royal clothing which would have been given to them had they faithfully exercised dominion. But instead of being further clothed, Adam and Eve lost the original glory that covered them. This is what made their nakedness before God so unbearable that they sought to cover themselves up with fig leaves.’

From what I understand, this is an unusual interpretation of the nakedness and subsequent clothing of our first parents, but it’s a view I’ve been increasingly persuaded by (largely through reading some of G.K. Beale’s works and and a 2006 Westminster Theological Journal article by William N. Wilder).

This is a reading of Genesis which says that the man and woman’s nakedness in Genesis 2 points to the need for clothing, which (it would be understood) would have been bestowed on them at some point in their fulfilling the role of filling and ruling and subduing to which they were called. It’s a view which recognises that, in an ancient Near Eastern context, clothing indicated an inheritance, a change in status – particularly associated with priests and kings, who were clothed as a sign of their new status of authority.

Adam and Eve, of course, grasp for reward in the wrong way at the wrong time. Then they ineptly try to provide clothing for themselves, but – even in declaring judgment on them – God graciously reclothes them to symbolise their future inheritance as rulers of the earth, a downpayment of a greater clothing to come – but garments of skin rather than garments of light (the Hebrew for ‘skin’ is almost indistinguishable from the word for ‘light’, suggesting to some a pun in the original text).

There’s much that follows in Scripture about the removing of old clothes and the putting on of new clothes – Joseph in Genesis 41, Eliakim in Isaiah 22, Daniel in Daniel 5, Joshua the High Priest in Zechariah 3, where it represents forgiveness of sin, several places in Isaiah (52:1-2; 61:3, 10) where the image describes the restoration of the people from exile. And, once again, all in a cultural context which understood a change from one set of clothes to a more glorious set of clothes as representing a change of relationship and status – which we see so beautifully expressed in Jesus’ parable of the lad who comes back home asking to be one of his father’s servants and is reinstated as a son.

And so we come to several passages in Paul which use the imagery of clothing – Romans 13, 1 Corinthians 15, Galatians 3, Ephesians 4, Colossians 3, and elsewhere too.

In these places, the point seems to be – echoing Genesis – that believers in Jesus have discarded the clothes of the old Adam and have been clothed with the attire of the new Adam. We have ‘put on the new self’, Paul explains in Colossians 3:10, ‘which is being renewed in knowledge in the image of its Creator’. As Christians, we are being remade in the image of Christ, restored under Christ’s Lordship to bring glory to Christ in all we do.

But then, having laid out what we might call our positional reality in Christ, our new status, Paul goes on to say in verse 12: ‘Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience’ – putting on those clothes which are appropriate for our new life in Christ.

And what of our final hope? We get a glimpse in Revelation 7:9, 13-17...

‘After this I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands...

‘Then one of the elders asked me, “These in white robes – who are they, and where did they come from?”

‘I answered, “Sir, you know.”

‘And he said, “These are they who have come out of the great tribulation; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.”’

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