As I noted in my introductory post for this series, I’m not going to be interacting highly with some of the primary and secondary sources on the theological significance of beauty. I’m mainly concerned with sustaining a right appropriation of the use of Scripture and the exercise of its authority. Since I have always tried to pursue a sound understanding of the relationship between Christ and culture, which by the way is a relationship that does in fact exist, I have inevitably encountered numerous discussions on the role of art in the world for both Christians and non-Christians. Moreover, when the issue of art arises, it is often followed by the reference of Exodus 28:2-3 as biblical support for making “something”–in this case “holy garments”–simply for the sake of beauty. However, after sifting through this text for a prolonged time and at an indepth level, I’ve come to be wary of feeling completely comfortable in citing this verse as a proof-text thereby justifying any kind of art that suceeds in exubing some sort of “beautiful” quality. It seems that there may be a possiblity for misreading the text which would allow it to become authoritative and permissive in the artistic community no more than it would be incorrect to assume that God’s mandate for his people to wear “holy garments” still stands. However, I do believe that Ex 28:2-3 has some major biblical-theological contributions with respect to its application in the art world; we just need to narrow those down some before we take off slinging this text around anytime someone opposes the importance and necessity for Christians to appreciate and be engaged in the arts.
So what does God mean when he tells Moses to have Aaron’s priestly garments made “for glory and beauty”? Well, the best way to determine the meaning of this phrase is by examining the purpose of the garments themselves. As we will see later in Ex 28:3, the “holy garments” were a necessary prerequisite for Aaron to be a priest before God. They had a role in his consecration, preparing him to enter into the Lord’s service in the tabernacle on behalf of the people of Israel. Aaron’s entire wardrobe was specifically articulated by God throughout the rest of Ex 28, culminating in his instruction for adorning his sons with “sashes and caps” also to be made “for glory and beauty” (Ex 28:40).
The extravagance of their garments was intended to symbolize a number of different things, but most obviously, the vestments pointed towards the glory and beauty of God. Yet, this was accomplished through observing the many layers in which God’s design of both the tabernacle and the priest’s robes alluded not merely to God himself, but also to his creative handiwork. Thus, just as the OT tabernacle was symbolic of both the earth, the heavens (i.e. stars, cosmic bodies), and the invisible heavenly dwelling-place of God, so also the priest’s robes were symbolic of these things since they were crafted with much the same colors and stones as the tabernacle itself. Furthermore, the tabernacle would have caused the Israelites to be reminiscent of a pre-Fall time where the entire universe was God’s cosmic temple. For example, just as the tabernacle consisted of three main courts, so also creation in a pre-Fall existence would have included earth, the heavens, and then the Garden of Eden, an inner sanctuary (e.g. the Holy of Holies). Likewise, in a very intricate fashion, the priestly garments were designed in three-layered parts which corresponded to the blueprint of the tabernacle.
There is so much material to mine with respect to the purpose and meaning behind the tabernacle, and more specifically in our discussion, the Aaronic vestments; however, to avoid the bottomless pit which I feel I’m about to step into, I want to transition back into glancing at the theological implications of the priest’s robes and their relationship to beauty and how we should look at applying this verse today.
First, we must pay careful attention in the text to who the speaker is, namely, God. It is God who says that the garments are to be “for glory and beauty”. In fact, not only does he command Moses to have these vestments made in that manner, but he even equips certain people with the level of skill and craftmanship needed to accurately and satisfactorily perform this duty (Ex 28:3; see also Ex 31 & 38). God had a special purpose in mind when he declared that Aaron’s “holy garment” were to be so majestic in appearance. As mentioned above, the most obvious reason was for them to reflect God’s own glory and beauty insofar as the priesthood was ministering in God’s service. By bearing upon themselves “holy garments” made for the purpose of “glory and beauty” that were handcrafted by those whom God had filled with a “spirit of skill,” the Aaronic priesthood, especially the glorious vestments of the chief priest, appear to be “an embodiment, enactment, and representative of the purity and holiness of Yahweh’s self (Brueggeman, Theology of the OT, 665).”
Therefore, the creation of “holy garments” in Ex 28:2 “for glory and beauty” had to do with explicit symbolism ordained by God that would clothe his chosen priesthood with a wardrobe which served not only as a reminder for his people of his creation of the cosmos, but even more so, it would represent the holiness and glory of the God whom they were serving and worshiping. There is much more to say on this part of the robe’s theological significance, but bringing the discussion back to how we should apply the verse in today’s world, I think we should be careful using it as a proof-text for any kind of art that is beautiful, even though it is done by someone who bears the imago dei.
In this case, the artwork involved in making the garments “for glory and beauty” was not just beauty for beauty’s sake; but instead, as designated by God, the extravagant nature of the priestly vestments were meant to intentionally serve the Hebrews in pointing them in particular to the very nature and wonder of the God who was going to dwell among them. Aaron’s “holy garments” had a very unique and divinely-appointed purpose. Thus, it is hard for me to enlist Ex 28:2-3 in an apologetic discussion on art in general. A painting or song lyric that is beautiful to the eyes or ears, yet fails to explicitly point the observer or listener to the God from whom all of its admirable qualites are derived is not the same type of creative activity that God tells Moses to oversee in Exodus 28.
On the other hand, Ex 28:2-3 does not in any way speak out against art in general or Christian art per se insofar as the priest’s garments were also meant to reflect the beauty of God’s creation. This point, whether knowingly or not, testifies to the reality of a Creator. Furthermore, this is so often clearly manifested when a person made in the image of God applies his or her own skill to a certain task whether it be art proper (e.g. paintings, sculptures, music), or say when my friend Bret does something really incredible with welding, or maybe when my friend Will, who is a landscaper, turns a regular yard into a something that looks like it ought to have a permanent place in a botanical garden. But, all in all, if a Christian artist wants to use Ex 28:2-3 as biblical support for his creative activity, then the fruit of his labors ought to, in a very intentional and specific manner, be constructed in order to point the onlookers not just to an unknown Designer or abstract ultimate reality, but rather to the God of the Bible. I would even go so far as to say that if one wanted to rightly set oneself within the artistic framework of Ex 28:2, the art should be clearly gospel-centered, but that’s for another post.