What Do Clothes Have to Do With Sin and Redemption?
Picture with me a doctor, a business woman, or a football player. What all of these people have in common, including the cowboys in the picture above, is a certain type of clothing that identifies their profession. A few months ago I wrote an article entitled “Clothing in Samuel: You are What You Wear,” where I examined the significance of the clothing motif in the books of Samuel. This post continues that investigation by focusing on a particular theme communicated by clothing in Scripture, namely, what clothes have to do with sin and redemption.
In his book Figuring Resurrection, Jeffrey Pulse notes what clothes have to do with sin and redemption. A number of the insights that follow are based on his observations. Pulse points out that clothing is frequently associated with three main concepts: 1)Sin and deception; 2) blood; and 3) redemption. Since the clothing motif in Scripture is widespread, I will focus on the Book of Genesis, and a few passages from the prophets, the Gospels and Pauline letters.
What Clothes Have to Do with Sin and Redemption in Genesis
Adam & Eve (Genesis 2-3)
Clothing, or the lack of it, becomes a major focus at the very beginning of Genesis in the story of Adam and Eve. Perhaps the inspired author considered it important to mention that Adam and Eve were naked, since we normally picture people with clothes on. More significantly, nakedness represents trust and vulnerability in the story. The serpent takes advantage of this vulnerability and the trust between Adam, Eve, and God is shattered as they scramble to cover themselves and hide among the trees in the garden (Gen. 3:7-13). The covering of fig leaves suggests the inadequacy of human beings to deal with their own sin. By the end of the story, God has provided coverings of skin for the couple (Gen. 3:21). Thus, in the first story of Scripture, we find the clothing motif identified with sin (the covering of fig leaves), blood (the killing of animals to provide skins), and redemption (God clothes the couple, as only He can adequately provide a proper covering for them).
Jacob Steals the Blessing (Genesis 27)
I will only briefly mention here the scene where Noah lies uncovered in his tent (Gen. 9:20-27). This story has similarities in language and theme with the Adam and Eve story. However, it is with the story of Jacob, that the clothing motif picks up steam in the Book of Genesis. The story of Jacob and Rebekah stealing the blessing involves the changing of garments (Jacob puts on Esau’s clothes and uses the hair of the goats to cover his skin), and the shedding of blood (goats are slaughtered), all in an effort to deceive blind, old Isaac. There is also the potential of Jacob’s blood being shed by his brother Esau who desires to kill him (Gen. 27:41). Salvation comes to Jacob, however, when Rebekah is informed of Esau’s desire. Jacob is sent to Paddan Aram to spend time with Rebekah’s family (Gen. 27:42-45), until Esau’s anger is assuaged.
The Story of Joseph and His Brothers (Genesis 37-50)
The Coat of Many Colors
Clothing is a very important motif in the Joseph story. In fact, his ups and downs can be traced by the type of apparel he wears. When Joseph is introduced we are informed that his father gave him a special garment (the famous “multi-colored” robe), because he loved him (Gen. 37:3). The garment is actually suggestive of royalty (see the story of David’s daughter Tamar who is the only other person in Scripture said to wear this kind of garment–2 Sam. 13:19). The garment foreshadows Joseph’s royal destiny, but in Genesis 37 it provokes his brothers to a jealous rage. When Joseph is sent on an errand to check on the welfare of his brothers, they strip him of the robe (Gen. 37:23), dip it in blood (Gen. 37:31) and leave it to their father to draw the conclusion that Joseph has been killed (Gen. 37:32-33). Note how clothing continues to communicate the theme of deception and how, once again, clothing is associated with blood. In fact, the motifs of goats and garments recall Jacob’s deception of his father and brother. It seems he is reaping what he has sown, as his own sons now deceive him.
Judah and Tamar (Genesis 38)
Genesis 38 tells us of Judah’s marriage to a Canaanite woman. Judah has three sons by her but two of them die due to their wickedness (Gen. 38:7-10). As a result, Judah is reluctant to give his youngest son to Tamar, the wife of his other two sons. When Tamar realizes that Judah is not going to fulfill his promise to give her his son Shelah, she removes her widow’s clothes and dresses like a prostitute (Gen. 38:13-15). Judah has relations with her and she gives birth to twin sons. Once again, clothing is the source of sin and deception.
Joseph in Potiphar’s House (Genesis 39)
The story returns to Joseph in Genesis 39. In spite of being sold as a slave, Joseph rises quickly in prominence within the household of his master Potiphar. This, we are told, is because, “The Lord was with him” (Gen. 39:2-3). All is well until Mrs. Potiphar propositions the handsome young Joseph (Gen. 39:6-7). One day Joseph foolishly enters the house when no one is there except for Potiphar’s wife. Taking matters into her own hands (quite literally), she grabs Joseph’s garment as she attempts to seduce him. Joseph, however, flees, leaving his garment in her hand. Spurned by her slave, Mrs. Potiphar seeks revenge by using Joseph’s garment against him in a claim of attempted rape (Gen. 39:11-18). Once again, Joseph’s clothing gets him into trouble! Joseph is put in prison, but the story reminds us that God is still with him (Gen. 39:20-23).
From Rags to Riches: Joseph’s Rise (Genesis 40-41)
When no one is able to interpret Pharaoh’s dreams, Pharaoh’s cupbearer recalls Joseph’s ability and Joseph is brought out of prison. As Joseph is preparing to meet Pharaoh, the story pauses to tell us that he changes clothes (Gen. 41:14). This change in clothing is a hopeful sign that things are looking up for Joseph. After his successful interpretation and wise counsel, Joseph is elevated to second in command over all Egypt. This elevation is noted by a further change in clothing and accessories. Joseph is given Pharaoh’s signet ring, a gold chain around his neck, and, of course, a change of garments (Gen. 41:42). The changes of garments in this part of the story signify Joseph’s redemption.
Joseph Saves His Family (Genesis 42-45)
Pharaoh’s dreams, as interpreted by Joseph had predicted a severe famine. When the famine hits, Joseph’s brothers are sent to Egypt looking for food. When the brother’s appear before Joseph, they don’t recognize him (Gen. 42:8). No doubt this was due to his clothing (both royal and Egyptian), and the fact that he spoke through an interpreter (Gen. 42:23). Over a period of time, and after putting his brothers through several severe tests, Joseph finally reveals himself to them (Gen. 45:1-5). Although they fear retribution from Joseph, he reassures his brothers that he means them no harm. Besides sending them home with plenty of provisions and urging them to return with his father so that he can provide for them during the famine, Joseph demonstrates his forgiveness in yet another way. He gives each of his brothers a change of clothes (Gen. 45:22). Although his brothers had stripped him of his clothes many years before, Joseph doesn’t seek revenge, but blesses each brother with a new garment. Of course, the old problem of favoritism is still with the patriarchs as Joseph gives his brother Benjamin 5 changes of clothing along with 300 pieces of silver! But the brothers seem to have overcome the obstacle of jealousy by this time and show no animosity towards Benjamin. Once again, clothing becomes a sign of redemption in the story. Joseph’s gift of clothing to his brothers is a symbol of his forgiveness and a pledge that he will provide for them. Following this motif through Genesis demonstrates that clothes are an important symbol of proclaiming the themes of sin and redemption.
Beged and Bagad: The Relationship Between Clothing and Deception
One of the Hebrew words for clothing is the noun beged. It occurs frequently in Genesis and throughout Scripture (over 200 times). The verbal form of beged is bagad. What is fascinating about the verbal form is that it means “to deceive,” “to act faithlessly,” or “to act treacherously.” It occurs forty-three times in Scripture (NIDOTTE, vol. 1, p. 582). Given the use of clothing to cover up or deceive, it is easy to see a relationship between the noun and the verbal form. While many scholars support this connection, others believe that beged is not related to the verb bagad meaning to act treacherously. They contend that there is another word with the same spelling as bagad that has a different meaning but is never used in Scripture. This may sound confusing, but it can be illustrated by using some examples in English. For example, the word “bear” can be used to say, “I can’t bear that,” or it can be used to say, “Look there’s a bear.” Although the words are spelled the same and pronounced the same, they have no relationship to each other. Many other examples could be adduced in English. I might say, “that sounds fair,” or “I went to the fair.” Again, we have two words that look and are pronounced the same but with totally different meanings. Thus some scholars argue that even though beged is related to bagad, it is a different bagad than the one which means to act treacherously. While we cannot be certain then that beged is related to the verb that means “to deceive” or “act treacherously,” I would still argue there is a connection. Biblical Hebrew is famous for its puns on words. Therefore, in places where beged (clothing) is being used in the context of deception and sin, it would certainly recall the verb bagad which means to deceive. So either beged comes from the verb which means to deceive, or it is at least a pun on that word.
What Clothes Have To Do With Sin and Redemption in the Prophets
I will keep this section brief by noting two passages from Isaiah and one from Zechariah. In a famous passage from Isaiah the prophet says, “But we are all like an unclean thing, and all our righteousnesses are like filthy rags” (Isa. 64:6, NKJV). The word translated “rags” is the word beged. Here Isaiah uses the clothing motif to speak of human sin. The passage is very poignant because it compares human righteousness with God’s glory. In His presence our righteous clothing is nothing but filthy garments. Isaiah’s clothing imagery is not all negative however. Although our garments may be as filthy rags, Isaiah, speaking about God, says that he rejoices because, “He has clothed me with the garments of salvation, He has covered me with the robe of righteousness (Isa. 61:10).
In a scene reminiscent of the Isaiah passages just mentioned, the book of Zechariah pictures the High Priest Jeshua in filthy garments (i.e., garments covered in excrement), but the Angel of the Lord clothes him in clean garments stating, “See I have removed your iniquity from you, and I will clothe you with rich robes” (Zech. 1-5). Once again, clothing is a picture of sin and redemption.
Clothing, Sin and Redemption in the Gospels
My main focus here will be on two passages. One concerning the crucifixion of Jesus and the other his resurrection. But before examining these passages, I would like to inspire you to think of as many examples in the Gospels that involve clothing as you can. Here are a few to get you started. When the Prodigal Son returns, his father clothes him in a robe and puts a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet (Luke 15:22). Jesus tells a parable about a man who comes to a wedding, but because he is not wearing the proper wedding garment, he is cast out (Matt. 22:11-14). Then there is the story of a woman with an issue of blood, who believes she will be healed if she can just touch the hem of Jesus’s garment (Mark 5:25-34). All of these stories use the clothing motif to speak of sin and redemption. However, the clothing motif found in the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus is the most impactful of all.
Part of the cruelty of the cross was not only the physical pain associated with it, but also the shame and humiliation connected with it. Romans crucified their victims naked as a way of further humiliating them. This is, of course, not shown in paintings or in film as it would be too graphic and perhaps considered blasphemous to depict Jesus in this way. But the Romans had no such scruples. The Scripture is clear that Jesus’s clothing was taken from him. Matthew 27:35 records the taking of Jesus’s clothing, which fulfills the prophecy of Ps. 22:18. The shame that Jesus bears on the cross, however, is not his shame. It is ours. The cross brings us full circle from the story of Adam and Eve who, following their sin, realized they were naked and became ashamed. In the cross, the themes of sin, blood, and redemption are united and the clothing motif helps to communicate the truth of what God has accomplished in Jesus’s sacrifice.
Curiously, several stories in the Gospels also mention that the grave clothes of Jesus remained in the tomb. Luke 24:12 states, “But Peter rose and ran to the tomb; stooping and looking in, he saw the linen cloths by themselves; and he went home marveling at what had happened” (ESV). The Gospel of John records the same event: “Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb. He saw the linen cloths lying there, and the face cloth, which had been on Jesus’ head, not lying with the linen cloths but folded up in a place by itself” (John 20:6-7, ESV). Only dead people wear grave clothes, and so the significance of these passages is to point out that Jesus was no longer dead. Jesus the risen Lord no longer needed the apparel of earth, because he had been clothed in an immortal body (cf. 1 Cor. 15:42-57).
Clothing, Sin, and Redemption in the Pauline Epistles
While we could look at other writings of the New Testament, we will conclude this investigation by noting a few examples of the clothing motif in the letters of Paul. Paul, who was heavily influenced by the writings of Isaiah, picks up the idea that the believer has been clothed in God’s righteousness. In Romans 13:14, Paul encourages his readers by saying, “But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires” (ESV). Similarly in Galatians 3:27 Paul writes, “For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ” (ESV). The Christian’s filthy rags have been exchanged for the clothing of God’s righteousness which is described as actually putting on Christ. Paul also speaks about “putting off the old self and putting on the new” (Col. 3:9), and uses the idea of “putting on” various Christian virtues which demonstrate a believer belongs to Christ. In Colossians 3:12-14 Paul exhorts, “Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. And above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony (ESV). Thus the clothing of the believer is more than mere outward attire. In a famous passage, Paul exhorts believers to put on the armor of God in order to withstand the spiritual powers of wickedness (Eph. 6:11-17). In each of these instances Paul’s use of the clothing motif emphasizes the redemption that is ours in Christ and the new nature that He has given us.
Conclusion and Summary
So what do clothes have to do with sin and redemption? Apparently, everything, according to Scripture. Our clothing actually becomes a teaching aid in the story of redemption. Keeping the Scriptural motif in mind, as we put on and take off our clothes we are reminded of a number of important truths. First, our clothing reminds us that we are sinners and there is a need to cover our shame and nakedness. Second, we are also reminded that our ability to clothe ourselves, like Adam and Eve, is inadequate. Third, we can accessorize and cloth ourselves in a way that presents a certain image to the world; an image of ourselves that may be deceptive and not fully accurate. Finally, our sin can only be dealt with by the One who willingly gave up his clothing on the cross, so that we might be clothed in His Righteousness. The clothing that we all desperately need is the armor of God, and the virtues of kindness, humility, and love.
If you’ve made it to the end of this long post, I would love to hear your reflections in the comments below on other passages of Scripture that use the clothing motif to emphasize the message of sin and redemption.