Aaron, the brother of Moses, and his four sons (Nadab, Abihu, Eleazar, and Ithamar) were YHWH’s choice for serving as priests in Israel, with Aaron being appointed as the first high priest. Garments were to be made for Aaron that were more impressive than those of his sons. These garments “for glory [splendor or dignity] and for beauty” (especially beautiful attire) included items that the other priests did not wear — a sleeveless blue (or blueish purple) mantle, an ephod, a sash for the ephod, a breastpiece, and a turban to which a gold plate was fastened and on which the words “Holy to YHWH” were engraved. (28:1, 2, 4, 31, 36, 37)
Persons who were divinely endowed “with the spirit of wisdom” or who possessed the skill to do the work were the ones designated to make the holy garments in which Aaron, as a man sanctified or set apart, would serve YHWH in priestly capacity. These individuals also were to make holy garments for his four sons. These garments were worn while serving YHWH at his holy tabernacle and, therefore, were holy. The Israelites would provide the skilled workers with the gold, the blue (or blueish purple) yarn or cloth, purple (or red purple) yarn or cloth, scarlet material, and fine twisted linen which they needed to accomplish their assigned tasks. (28:3, 5)
Both Aaron and his sons were required to wear linen drawers or shorts to prevent any exposure of their private parts while serving at the tabernacle. These drawers were to cover the private parts and reach down to the thighs. Exposure of their private parts while serving at the tabernacle and at the altar would have constituted a defilement of the holy place and an affront to YHWH (the ultimate “Holy One”) at his representative place of dwelling, and this transgression would have merited death. (28:42, 43)
Over the drawers, Aaron and his sons wore linen robes that were tied around their bodies with linen sashes. Most likely each linen robe had been left in the natural state of its off-white color, for there is no mention of the cloth as having been dyed. The Exodus account does not describe the robe, but Josephus (Antiquities, III, vii, 2, 4) did include details. He wrote that the robe reached down to the feet and had sleeves that fitted closely around the arms. According to the Talmud (Yoma, 72b) the “sleeves reached as far as the palm of the hand.” The linen sash was embroidered with blue (or blueish purple), purple (or reddish purple), and scarlet yarn. (28:39, 40; 39:27, 29) Josephus (Antiquities, III, vii, 2) wrote that the sash was embroidered with flowers, had a width of “four fingers” and was “girded to the breast a little above the elbows.”
Above the long linen robe, Aaron was to wear the blue (or blueish purple) “mantle of the ephod” when entering the sanctuary to carry out his official duties. So that he could pull it over his head, the mantle had an opening at the top with a binding of woven work that would prevent it from tearing. This mantle doubtless had no sleeves. Josephus stated that the garment was “parted where the hands were to come out.” On the hem of the mantel were alternating gold bells and pomegranates made from blue (or bluish purple), purple (or reddish purple), and scarlet yarn. Josephus described this part of the attire as reaching down to the feet, and he wrote that the fringes between the bells were “like pomegranates” in color. (Antiquities, III, vii, 4) Targum Jonathan says that there were 71 bells (but 70 for chapter 39). The purpose of the bells was so that Aaron could be heard when entering the sanctuary before the “face of YHWH,” or when coming into his presence in his representative place of dwelling, and also upon leaving the sanctuary. It appears that the bells served to make an announcement so that it would be acceptable for Aaron to be in the sanctuary and, therefore, would not die as an unauthorized person. (28:31-35)
Above the blue (or blueish purple) mantle, Aaron was to wear an ephod consisting of two pieces and made from gold, blue (or blueish purple), purple (or reddish purple) and scarlet yarns and fine twisted linen. Initially, the gold was hammered into sheets and then cut into threads that could be used for beautifying the ephod along with the yarns of different colors. (39:2, 3) Josephus described the ephod as short in length and as having sleeves. (Antiquities, III, vii, 5) The ephod was designed to accommodate a breastpiece with four rows of precious and semiprecious stones that were placed in gold settings. This breastpiece was attached with gold chains from rings at the top right and left corners of the breastpiece to the gold settings of the two gem stones positioned at the top of the right and left shoulder pieces of the ephod. Two blue (or bluish purple) cords that were passed through two gold rings at the bottom corners of the breastpiece held it securely to the ephod. The ephod was tied around the body with a sash. This sash was made from the same materials as the ephod. (28:6-28; see the Notes section.)
Each one of the two gem stones on the shoulder pieces was engraved with the names of six “sons of Israel” or Jacob in birth order, with the names of the oldest “sons of Israel” on one stone and the names of the youngest sons on the other stone. This may have served to indicate that the high priest bore the responsibility for all the tribes of Israel in matters of worship and in making known YHWH’s will and purpose to his people. Based on the way the sons are listed in Genesis 29:32-30:34 and 35:16-18, the six oldest sons were Reuben, Simeon, Levi, Judah, Dan, and Naphtali; and the six youngest sons were Gad, Asher, Isaachar, Zebulun, Joseph, and Benjamin. The Hebrew word for the gem stone (shóham) on the two shoulder pieces has often been translated “onyx.” Indicative of the uncertainty about this rendering is the inconsistent manner in which the Hebrew word is translated in the Septuagint. (berýllion [beryl], ónyx, prásinos [“light green” stone], sárdion [sardius], smáragdos [“bright green” stone, probably emerald], and soóm [possibly carnelian]). (28:9-14; see the Notes section.)
The material for the breastpiece was to have a length of a cubit (18 inches; c. 44 centimeters) and the width of a span (9 inches; c. 22 centimeters). It was then to be folded in half to form a square of equal sides, with the folded portion forming a pocket into which the Urim and Thummim were to be placed. The Urim and Thummim may have been lots by means of which YHWH’s answer to inquiries was disclosed. Therefore, the breastpiece was also called the “breastpiece of judgment.” Aaron, as the high priest, was to “bear the names of the sons of Israel in the breastpiece of judgment upon his heart before YHWH continually.” This seems to indicate that he should highly value the divine judgment and recognize that all the people of Israel should faithfully conduct themselves in harmony therewith. Apparently to inquire of YHWH, the high priest would stand in front of the curtain that separated the Holy from the Most Holy, and YHWH’s answer to questions for guidance would be revealed by means of the Urim and Thummim. In the Septuagint, the rendering for Urim and Thummim is “revelation” and “truth.” (28:15, 16, 29, 30)
On the breastpiece, four rows of each of the three gem stones in the respective row was engraved with the name of one of the “sons of Israel.” Likely the gem stones were positioned in the order they are named in the Exodus account (from right to left as would be the case when reading Hebrew). Targum Jonathan is specific in listing the name engraved on each stone according to the birth order that appears to be indicated in the Genesis account (Reuben, Simeon, Levi [the first row]; Judah, Dan, Naphtali [the second row]; Gad, Asher, Issachar [the third row], and Zebulun, Joseph, and Benjamin [the fourth row]). Positive identification of all twelve precious or semiprecious stones is not possible. Some of the renderings of the Hebrew words and the Greek words in the Septuagint are conjectural. The following are renderings of the Hebrew and Greek words for the respective rows: ruby (possibly [a red stone]), topaz, and emerald [sardius (a red stone), topaz, emerald (LXX)]), first row; torquoise or garnet (possibly), sapphire, and diamond (possibly [a very hard stone]) [carbuncle, sapphire, jasper (LXX)], second row; amber (perhaps), agate, and amethyst (perhaps) [ligurion, agate, and amethyst (LXX)], third row; beryl (possibly), onyx (possibly), and jasper [chrysolite, beryl, and onyx (LXX)], fourth row. The precious and semiprecious stones engraved with the names of the sons of Israel were on the breastpiece that the high priest wore over his heart, suggesting that he was to have heartfelt love, concern, and care for all the people of the tribes of Israel. His service for them included helping them to remain devoted to YHWH as a people obedient to his commands. (28:17-21, 29)
The linen turban of Aaron differed from the headdresses that were made for his sons. On the front of his turban only and attached to it with a blue (or blueish purple) cord was the gold plate with the engraved inscription, “Holy to YHWH.” This gold plate with its inscription served to make the offerings of the people of Israel acceptable to YHWH, for Aaron, as high priest, would be taking upon himself any guilt the people incurred respecting their holy offerings and holy gifts. (28:36-40; 29:6; 39:30) Josephus (Antiquities, III, vii, 3) described the turban as having been made of “thick swathes,” with the linen material being “doubled round many times and sewn together.” This headdress was covered with a “piece of fine linen” that extended from the upper part “down to the forehead,” hiding the “seams of the swathes.”
After the skilled weavers and other expert workers had finished making the attire for Aaron and his sons, Moses was to clothe them with the new garments and to anoint, fully empower or ordain (literally,“fill their hand”), and sanctify them (or set them apart) to serve YHWH as priests. (28:41)
Josephus wrote that the breastpiece was part of the ephod and fitted into the space that had been left empty in the middle of the breast section. According to him, the arrangement of gold rings and gold chains served to secure the breastpiece with its twelve gem stones from falling out of its place. (Antiquities, III, vii, 5)
According to Josephus (Antiquities, III, vii, 5), the gem stone with the six names of the oldest sons was on the right shoulder and the gem stone with the names of the youngest sons on the left shoulder. (28:9)
Eight of the precious and semiprecious stones mentioned in Revelation 21:19 and 20 are the same ones the Septuagint lists for the high priest’s breastpiece. They are sardius (sárdion), topaz (topázion), emerald (smáragdos), sapphire (sáppheiros but a different spelling in Revelation [sápphiros]), jasper (íaspis), amethyst (améthystos), chrysolite (chrysólithos), and beryl (berýllion, which is the diminutive form of the term appearing in Revelation [béryllos]). (Exodus 28:17-20; 36:17-20)
Shortly before the Israelites left Egypt, they obtained gold and silver from the Egyptians, and it must have been at this time that they also acquired precious and semiprecious stones. In view of the extensive trade in which the Egyptians engaged, many of the people doubtless owned gem stones.
In Rahlfs’ printed text of the Septuagint, the words of verses 23 through 28 concerning the breastpiece are missing.