What Did a Priest Wear?
Following YHWH’s description to Moses on how to build the Tabernacle and its many accoutrements (Exod 25–27), the text turns to the priests themselves. It starts with the special outfit of the high priest, which includes an ephod with lapis lazuli stones, a jeweled breastpiece, a robe with golden bells and pomegranates hanging from its hem, a headdress with a golden frontlet, and a fringed (or checkered) tunic.
In contrast, the clothing of the regular priests was much simpler:
שמות כח:מ וְלִבְנֵי אַהֲרֹן תַּעֲשֶׂה כֻתֳּנֹת וְעָשִׂיתָ לָהֶם אַבְנֵטִים וּמִגְבָּעוֹת תַּעֲשֶׂה לָהֶם לְכָבוֹד וּלְתִפְאָרֶת.
Exod 28:40 And for Aaron’s sons also you shall make tunics, and make sashes for them, and make turbans for them, for dignity and adornment.
The text continues with a summary command for Moses to ritually prepare the priests to minister to YHWH:
שמות כח:מא וְהִלְבַּשְׁתָּ אֹתָם אֶת אַהֲרֹן אָחִיךָ וְאֶת בָּנָיו אִתּוֹ וּמָשַׁחְתָּ אֹתָם וּמִלֵּאתָ אֶת יָדָם וְקִדַּשְׁתָּ אֹתָם וְכִהֲנוּ לִי.
Exod 28:41 Put these on your brother Aaron and on his sons as well; anoint them, and ordain them and consecrate them to serve Me as priests.
Although YHWH has already concluded the discussion of clothing, by telling Moses to dress Aaron and his sons, YHWH adds one further instruction about an additional piece of clothing, applicable to high priests and regular priests alike, namely, an undergarment:
שמות כח:מב וַעֲשֵׂה לָהֶם מִכְנְסֵי בָד לְכַסּוֹת בְּשַׂר עֶרְוָה מִמָּתְנַיִם וְעַד יְרֵכַיִם יִהְיוּ.
Exod 28:42 You shall also make for them linen breeches to cover their nakedness; they shall extend from the hips to the thighs.
These breeches reach only until the thighs, i.e., underpants. They are meant to prevent accidental exposure of the priest’s genitalia, which would be a capital offense:
שמות כח:מג וְהָיוּ עַל אַהֲרֹן וְעַל בָּנָיו בְּבֹאָם אֶל אֹהֶל מוֹעֵד אוֹ בְגִשְׁתָּם אֶל הַמִּזְבֵּחַ לְשָׁרֵת בַּקֹּדֶשׁ וְלֹא יִשְׂאוּ עָוֹן וָמֵתוּ חֻקַּת עוֹלָם לוֹ וּלְזַרְעוֹ אַחֲרָיו.
Exod 28:43 They shall be worn by Aaron and his sons when they enter the Tent of Meeting or when they approach the altar to officiate in the sanctuary, so that they do not incur punishment and die. It shall be a law for all time for him and for his offspring to come.
The flow of the text suggests that this concern was not part of the original text, but a later scribe’s addition. After the underpants instruction, the text continues where it left off:
A later redactor, concerned about accidental genital exposure, then added the command to make underwear for the priests, to avoid this problem, and added it between these two verses.
Ezekiel’s Priestly Laws
Ezekiel’s laws of the Temple also express concern over the possibility of a priest’s exposing himself. The book of Ezekiel ends with a legal section that lays out the laws that will be applicable in the future Temple (chs. 40–48); this includes the priestly dress code. Here too, the concern about exposure is a later insertion (indented):
יחזקאל מד:יז וְהָיָה בְּבוֹאָם אֶל שַׁעֲרֵי הֶחָצֵר הַפְּנִימִית בִּגְדֵי פִשְׁתִּים יִלְבָּשׁוּ וְלֹא יַעֲלֶה עֲלֵיהֶם צֶמֶר בְּשָׁרְתָם בְּשַׁעֲרֵי הֶחָצֵר הַפְּנִימִית וָבָיְתָה.
Ezek 44:17 And when they enter the gates of the inner court, they shall wear linen vestments: they shall have nothing woolen upon them when they minister inside the gates of the inner court.
מד:יח פַּאֲרֵי פִשְׁתִּים יִהְיוּ עַל רֹאשָׁם וּמִכְנְסֵי פִשְׁתִּים יִהְיוּ עַל מָתְנֵיהֶם לֹא יַחְגְּרוּ בַּיָּזַע.
44:18 They shall have linen turbans on their heads and linen breeches on their loins; they shall not gird themselves with anything that causes sweat.
מד:יט וּבְצֵאתָם אֶל הֶחָצֵר הַחִיצוֹנָה אֶל הֶחָצֵר הַחִיצוֹנָה אֶל הָעָם יִפְשְׁטוּ אֶת בִּגְדֵיהֶם אֲשֶׁר הֵמָּה מְשָׁרְתִם בָּם וְהִנִּיחוּ אוֹתָם בְּלִשְׁכֹת הַקֹּדֶשׁ וְלָבְשׁוּ בְּגָדִים אֲחֵרִים וְלֹא יְקַדְּשׁוּ אֶת הָעָם בְּבִגְדֵיהֶם.
44:19 When they go out to the outer court—the outer court where the people are—they shall remove the vestments in which they minister and shall deposit them in the sacred chambers; they shall put on other garments, lest they make the people consecrated by [contact with] their vestments.
Verse 19, with its instructions about exiting, follows verse 17 directly, which concerns entering: Priests shall put on linen clothing when entering the inner court of the sanctuary (v. 17) and change when leaving it (v. 19). The change of clothing likely marks between the holy sphere and the profane. Verse 18 disrupts this connection, introducing a specific dress code, turban and underwear, and noting that the latter should not cause the priest to sweat (perhaps related to the injunction against wool in the previous verse).
Adjustment of the Altar’s Architecture
A third text concerned with accidental priestly exposure appears in Exodus immediately following the revelation of the Decalogue, in a series of laws related to worship of YHWH (Exod 20:22–26). Verses 22–23 deal with the prohibition against making graven images, while the remaining verses concern the altar. The first law (v. 24) enjoins that the altar should optimally be made of earth. The next law (v. 25) clarifies that if the altar is made out of stone, they must not be cut, but should remain in their natural state. The final verse then turns to a detail in how priests should access the altar:
שׁמות כ:כו וְלֹא תַעֲלֶה בְמַעֲלֹת עַל מִזְבְּחִי אֲשֶׁר לֹא תִגָּלֶה עֶרְוָתְךָ עָלָיו.
Exod 20:26 Do not ascend My altar by steps, that your nakedness may not be exposed upon it.
According to this legislation, priests do not wear underpants; that is why the altar must be accessed by a ramp instead of stairs, since otherwise their genitals risk being exposed. The medieval commentator (R. Solomon Yitzhaki, 1040–1105), following the Mekhilta, explains the logic of the command, while also noting the contradiction between Exodus 20 and 28:
אשר לא תגלה ערותך – שעל ידי המעלות אתה צריך להרחיב פסיעותיך, אף על פי שאינו גילוי ערוה ממש, שהרי כתוב (שמות כח:מב): "ועשה להם מכנסי בד", מכל מקום הרחבת הפסיעות קרוב לגילוי ערוה הוא, ואתה נוהג בם מנהג בזיון.
“That your nakedness may not be exposed upon it”—because of the stairs, you will be forced to take large steps. Even though this would not really expose nakedness, for it is written (Exod 28:42) “make for them linen breeches,” nevertheless, walking with expanded steps is like exposing one’s nakedness, and you would be treating them (=the stones of the altar) with disregard.
As a traditional commentator, Rashi had no choice but to reconcile this passage with Exodus 28, but his apologetic approach highlights the problem: Both of these texts are bothered by the possibility that the priest will accidentally expose his genitals, but each has a different solution.
Exodus 20, belonging to the Covenant Code/Collection suggests that as long as the priest walks up a ramp, he can keep his feet close together and avoid offering a glimpse of what is underneath his tunic, while the Priestly texts Exodus 28 and Ezekiel 44 solve the same problem by mandating that priests wear underpants. This is likely why Ezekiel’s altar does not have a ramp but מַעֲלֹת, “stairs” (Ezek 43:17), exactly what Exodus 20:26 forbids!
When did nudity become a concern? The book of Samuel records a debate between King David and his wife Michal, daughter of the previous king, Saul, about the appropriateness of inadvertent exposure.
Exposure in the Course of David’s Cultic Dance: 2 Samuel 6
The story begins (2 Sam 6:2) when David wishes to bring the ark of the covenant from Kiryat-yearim to Jerusalem. His first attempt fails when the ark falters on its wagon, and a man named Uzza grabs hold of it to keep it from falling and is struck down dead. David then leaves the ark in the home of a local Gittite named Obed-Edom. David tries again, and this time, tries to show extra reverence and excitement:
שמואל ב ו:יג וַיְהִי כִּי צָעֲדוּ נֹשְׂאֵי אֲרוֹן יְ־הוָה שִׁשָּׁה צְעָדִים וַיִּזְבַּח שׁוֹר וּמְרִיא. ו:יד וְדָוִד מְכַרְכֵּר בְּכָל עֹז לִפְנֵי יְ־הוָה וְדָוִד חָגוּר אֵפוֹד בָּד. ו:טו וְדָוִד וְכָל בֵּית יִשְׂרָאֵל מַעֲלִים אֶת אֲרוֹן יְ־הוָה בִּתְרוּעָה וּבְקוֹל שׁוֹפָר.
2 Sam 6:13 When the bearers of the ark of YHWH had moved forward six paces, he sacrificed an ox and a fatling. 6:14 David whirled with all his might before YHWH; David was girt with a linen ephod. 6:15 Thus David and all the House of Israel brought up the ark of YHWH with shouts and with blasts of the horn.
The ark enters Jerusalem without any trouble, but Michal, who witnesses the spectacle, is unhappy:
שׁמואל ב ו:טז וְהָיָה אֲרוֹן יְ־הוָה בָּא עִיר דָּוִד וּמִיכַל בַּת שָׁאוּל נִשְׁקְפָה בְּעַד הַחַלּוֹן וַתֵּרֶא אֶת הַמֶּלֶךְ דָּוִד מְפַזֵּז וּמְכַרְכֵּר לִפְנֵי יְ־הוָה וַתִּבֶז לוֹ בְּלִבָּהּ.
2 Sam 6:16 As the ark of YHWH entered the City of David, Michal daughter of Saul looked out of the window and saw King David leaping and whirling before YHWH; and she despised him for it.
The root כ.ר.ר, translated above as “whirling,” refers to being round, and thus here means to “turn,” “twist,” or “roll.” According to Swiss Bible scholar and historian Othmar Keel, the unique combination with מפזז (“leaping”) has the meaning “to turn cartwheels.” As David is wearing only a linen ephod, this acrobatic type of dancing would inevitably expose his genitals.
Ancient Near Eastern Cultic Dancing and Nudity
Such acrobatic dancing in a cultic context has analogies in the ancient Near East. Some scarabs from the Middle Bronze Age Levant show figures, probably worshippers, dancing vigorously, about to turn a cartwheel (Fig. 1), and a cylinder seal found near Ugarit from approximately the same time that shows a dancer in the midst of a cartwheel (Fig. 2).
Fig. 2, Othmar Keel, “Davids ‘Tanz’ vor der Lade,” BiKi 51 (1996): 11–14 [p. 12; fig. 13 courtesy of author]
A Hittite document (KBO 10:23, IV 7–14) bears witness to the same practice in the context of the KI.LAM festival, the annual three-days “gatehouse” feast in Hattuša:
And they dance, dressed in skins of leopards. […] And the dancers, it can be ten or more, follow the cart. One of them is naked. And the dancer turns once.
Scholars debate the exact nature of this “turning.” Some assume that this naked dancer turns around to the king, although this raises the question of why he must be naked to do so. Other scholars suggest that he turns a cartwheel, which seems more likely. As the leopard skin the other dancers wore might have limited the dancer’s mobility, his nakedness enables him to move acrobatically.
This ancient Near Eastern artistic and written evidence supports Keel’s interpretation of 2 Samuel 6:16, as a type of acrobatic dancing.
Michal’s Objection and Punishment
When David arrives home, Michal unloads her disgust at his behavior upon him:
שמואל ב ו:כ וַיָּשָׁב דָּוִד לְבָרֵךְ אֶת בֵּיתוֹ וַתֵּצֵא מִיכַל בַּת שָׁאוּל לִקְרַאת דָּוִד וַתֹּאמֶר מַה נִּכְבַּד הַיּוֹם מֶלֶךְ יִשְׂרָאֵל אֲשֶׁר נִגְלָה הַיּוֹם לְעֵינֵי אַמְהוֹת עֲבָדָיו כְּהִגָּלוֹת נִגְלוֹת אַחַד הָרֵקִים.
1 Sam 6:20 David went home to greet his household. And Michal daughter of Saul came out to meet David and said, “Didn't the king of Israel do himself honor today—exposing himself today in the sight of the slavegirls of his subjects, as one of the riffraff might expose himself!”
Michal, herself the daughter of a king, argues that David’s behavior, exposing himself before common women, lacks royal dignity. David, in turn, rebukes Michal:
שׁמואל ב ו:כא וַיֹּאמֶר דָּוִד אֶל מִיכַל לִפְנֵי יְ־הוָה אֲשֶׁר בָּחַר בִּי מֵאָבִיךְ וּמִכָּל־בֵּיתוֹ לְצַוֹּת אֹתִי נָגִיד עַל עַם יְ־הוָה עַל יִשְׂרָאֵל וְשִׂחַקְתִּי לִפְנֵי יְ־הוָה. ו:כב וּנְקַלֹּתִי עוֹד מִזֹּאת וְהָיִיתִי שָׁפָל בְּעֵינָי וְעִם הָאֲמָהוֹת אֲשֶׁר אָמַרְתְּ עִמָּם אִכָּבֵדָה.
2 Sam 6:21 David said to Michal: “It was before YHWH who chose me instead of your father and all his family and appointed me ruler over YHWH’s people Israel! I will dance before YHWH 6:22 and dishonor myself even more, and be low in my own esteem; but among the slavegirls that you speak of I will be honored.”
He stresses that his action was directed toward YHWH. He thus did not humble himself as a king before his subordinates, but as a priest before YHWH—which constitutes a perfectly appropriate behavior. By emphasizing his election by YHWH, “who chose me instead of your father and all his family,” David stresses his competence in cultic affairs: As the chosen one, he knows best what the right way is to worship YHWH.
While Michal’s perception fits with what we saw in Exodus and Ezekiel, Samuel actually sides with David, as is clear from the story’s postscript: As a punishment for her despising David, Michal remains childless until the day of her death.
שמואל ב ו:כג וּלְמִיכַל בַּת שָׁאוּל לֹא הָיָה לָהּ יָלֶד עַד יוֹם מוֹתָהּ.
2 Sam 6:23 Michal daughter of Saul had no children to her dying day.
This text helps us better understand the “underwear redactions,” as well as the rule against stairs for the altar. Apparently, the author of this story sees cultic dancing involving nudity as a form of praise to YHWH. The debasing of the dancer does not disrespect YHWH but emphasizes YHWH’s greatness in comparison with the debased dancer. Such a view flies in the face of the later Priestly laws, which is why in the Chronicler’s retelling, the story is changed.
Chronicles and David’s Good Clean Dance
The book of Chronicles is a fourth century BCE text that often reworks its sources so that they agree with the Torah legislation, which it assumes was normative from the time of Moses. Here, as is often the case, the Chronicler reworks his source to bring the story in line with the opinio communis, the prevailing mores:
דברי הימים א טו:כז וְדָוִיד מְכֻרְבָּל בִּמְעִיל בּוּץ וְכָל הַלְוִיִּם הַנֹּשְׂאִים אֶת הָאָרוֹן וְהַמְשֹׁרְרִים וּכְנַנְיָה הַשַּׂר הַמַּשָּׂא הַמְשֹׁרְרִים וְעַל דָּוִיד אֵפוֹד בָּד.
1 Chron 15:27 Now David was wrapped in robes of fine linen, as were all the Levites who were carrying the ark, and the singers and Chenaniah, officer of song of the singers, and David [also] wore a linen ephod.
He replaces the word מכרכר “whirling” with the graphically similar מכרבל, “wrapped,” adding that David was wearing a robe of byssos (במעיל בוץ). This replacement eliminates David’s offensive way of dancing, and also adjusts his clothing to the (high) priestly dress code: the term מעיל is also mentioned in Exodus 28:4, 34 as a part of the (high) priest’s vestments. This allows David’s linen ephod to function as a second layer; he may not be wearing underwear, but he is dressed modestly, in layers.
The Chronicler further changes the description of the dancing:
דברי הימים א טו:כח וְכָל יִשְׂרָאֵל מַעֲלִים אֶת אֲרוֹן בְּרִית יְ־הוָה בִּתְרוּעָה וּבְקוֹל שׁוֹפָר וּבַחֲצֹצְרוֹת וּבִמְצִלְתָּיִם מַשְׁמִעִים בִּנְבָלִים וְכִנֹּרוֹת. טו:כט וַיְהִי אֲרוֹן בְּרִית יְ־הוָה בָּא עַד עִיר דָּוִיד וּמִיכַל בַּת שָׁאוּל נִשְׁקְפָה בְּעַד הַחַלּוֹן וַתֵּרֶא אֶת הַמֶּלֶךְ דָּוִיד מְרַקֵּד וּמְשַׂחֵק וַתִּבֶז לוֹ בְּלִבָּהּ.
1 Chron 15:28 All Israel brought up the ark of the covenant of YHWH with shouts and with blasts of the horn, with trumpets and cymbals, playing on harps and lyres. 15:29 As the ark of the covenant of YHWH arrived at the City of David, Michal daughter of Saul looked out of the window and saw King David leaping and laughing, and she despised him for it.
The Chronicler replaces מכרכר “whirling” and מפזז “leaping” with the much tamer pair מְרַקֵּד וּמְשַׂחֵק, i.e., a tamer term for (male) dancing, from the root ר.ק.ד, plus the term mesacheq, which means something like laughing or playing.
In short, this retelling has eliminated any hint of David exposing himself in this version, making Michal’s contempt for David inexplicable. In the Chronicler’s version, the righteous David certainly did not violate any cultic norms, and did not expose himself in the presence of the ark.
An Evolving View on Cultic Nudity
The attitude toward priests unintentionally exposing themselves during cultic service changed over time. In earlier times, this was not universally understood to be a cultic violation. Indeed, the story about David in Samuel presents it as something that could be positive, an expression of humility before the divine. Over time, however, exposure of genitals came to be seen as an insult to the deity.
Exodus 20 tries to minimize the problem by forbidding the use of stairs to access the altar, while the Priestly editors of Exodus 28 and Ezekiel 44 solved the problem in a more modern way, by requiring priests to wear underwear when serving in the Temple. A wholistic reading of the Torah, like that of the rabbis, solves the problem by creating a redundancy: a ramp led up to the altar and the priests wore breeches.
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Dr. Sarah Schulz is Senior Lecturer at the University of Erlangen-Nuremberg. She received her PhD and her Habilitation in Old Testament Studies/Hebrew Bible from the University of Erlangen-Nuremberg. She is the author of Die Anhänge zum Richterbuch. Eine kompositionsgeschichtliche Analyse von Ri 17–21 (DeGruyter 2016) and the co-editor of Debating Authority. Concepts of Leadership in the Pentateuch and the Former Prophets (DeGruyter 2018); Transforming Authority. Concepts of Leadership in Prophehtic and Chronistic Literature (DeGruyter 2021) [both with Katharina Pyschny]; and Clothing and Nudity in the Hebrew Bible (T&T Clark 2019) [with Christoph Berner, Manuel Schäfer, Martin Schott, and Martina Weingärtner]. In 2016 she was awarded the Hanns-Lilje-Preis of the Akademie der Wissenschaften zu Göttingen.
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