Clothing in Samuel: You Are What You Wear
We will definitely be airing some dirty laundry in this post as we look at the clothing motif in the Books of Samuel. In daily life, clothes tell us something about the person wearing them. We might learn about their social class, or what part of the world they’re from. Formal and casual attire also communicate certain messages. One blogger writes, “On a larger scale, fashion is important because it represents our history and helps to tell the story of the world” (Why Is Fashion Important?). “Clothing, whether worn for a special occasion or not, did always convey a message, sometimes consciously and sometimes subconsciously, especially regarding social status, as there was clothing specific to gender, age, marital status, wealth, rank, modesty, place of origin, or occupation” (Barbosa, M. (2020). Women’s Fashion in the Old Testament World. In The Baker Illustrated Bible Background Commentary, p. 74).
Hebrew Words for Clothing in Samuel
There are six Hebrew words used a total of thirty-nine times to describe a person’s attire. The words and their meaning are as follows:
- Beged is the most common word for clothing in the OT, and the most frequently occurring word in 1&2 Samuel. It occurs twelve times in eleven passages (1 Sam. 19:13, 24; 27:9; 28:8; 2 Sam. 1:2; 3:31; 13:31 [2x]; 14:2; 19:25; 20:8, 12 ) and is usually translated as “garment” or “clothing.” It has a broad range of meaning and refers to clothing in general.
- An ephod is mentioned ten times in nine passages (1 Sam. 2:18, 28; 14:3; 21:9; 22:18; 23:6, 9; 30:7 [2x]; 2 Sam. 6:14). An Ephod is an item of priestly apparel. It is especially associated with the High Priest, but is worn by others as well. In spite of the detailed description of it in Exodus 28 and 39, “a clear picture of what it looked like is difficult to obtain” (Meyers, C., Ephod (Object). In The Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary, Vol. 2, p. 550). Both Samuel and David are said to wear “a linen ephod” (1 Sam. 2:18; 2 Sam. 6:14). The ephod was used to seek answers from God, so at times, it is pictured as being carried, rather than worn (e.g., 1 Sam. 23.6).
- Meʿîl means “robe” and is found eight times in seven passages in Samuel (1 Sam. 2:19; 15:27; 18:4; 24:5, 12 [2x]); 28:14; 2 Sam. 13:18). It is an outer garment generally worn by people of rank. It is especially associated with Samuel and Saul, although it is worn by other people of high status.
- Maḏ occurs five times in five passages and is always connected with military or governmental attire in Samuel (1 Sam. 4:12; 17:38, 39; 18:4; 2 Sam. 10:4).
- Lābaš is normally used as a verb in Samuel (4 times) and refers to “putting on” a piece of clothing. However, on one occasion it is translated as a noun referring to Joab’s military outfit (2 Sam. 20:8).
- Keṯōneṯ passîm is an expression only found four times in Scripture. In each instance it refers to a type of garment that suggests royalty. It appears in the Joseph story as the “coat of many colors,” (Gen. 37:3, 23), and is found in 2 Samuel 13:18-19 describing the garment that Tamar, the daughter of David, was wearing. The word keṯōneṯ by itself is more common in Scripture (e.g., Gen. 3:21; Job 30:18) and is used to describe Hushai’s garment in 2 Samuel 15:32 which he has torn as a sign of grief. For more on biblical clothing click the link here.
Meanings Conveyed by Clothing in Samuel
Having surveyed the passages in Samuel that mention clothing, I have concluded that there are five primary meanings. These meanings include status, mourning, deception, shame, and death.
Kings, priests, soldiers, aristocrats, and peasants all have distinctive outfits befitting their social and political rank. This is true of all societies and this feature is evident in Samuel as well. For example, all eight mentions of the robe (meʿîl) are connected with royal figures and political leaders. Hannah’s bringing the young Samuel a new robe each year (1 Sam. 2:19) foreshadows his destiny as Israel’s leader. The connection between the robe and leadership is made explicit in the story of Saul’s rejection. When Samuel turns to leave after telling Saul that God has rejected him as king, Saul grabs Samuel’s robe and it tears. Samuel sees this as a sign and responds, “The Lord has torn the kingdom of Israel from you this day and has given it to a neighbor of yours, who is better than you” (1 Sam. 15:28). Samuel is so closely identified with his robe that when Saul visits the medium of Endor and asks her to call up Samuel, he recognizes him immediately by the woman’s description. She states, “An old man is coming up, and he is wrapped in a robe.” Then the text tells us, “And Saul knew that it was Samuel” (1 Sam. 28:14).
Saul’s robe represents his kingship. When David cuts off a piece of Saul’s robe, David is convicted. “Then David arose and stealthily cut off a corner of Saul’s robe. And afterward David’s heart struck him, because he had cut off a corner of Saul’s robe (1 Sam. 24:4-5). Cutting off a slice of Saul’s robe is similar to defacing his kingship. Similarly, Jonathan’s gift of his robe and weaponry to David is a symbolic way of surrendering the kingship to him (1 Sam. 18:4).
Besides his robe, Samuel wears a linen ephod which indicates his priestly status (1 Sam. 2:18). Somewhat surprisingly, David is also said to wear a linen ephod when he brings the ark of the covenant into Jerusalem, thus suggesting some kind of priestly status on his part (2 Sam. 6:14).
What one did to one’s clothing, or the kind of clothing worn was a common way of expressing grief in the ancient world. For example, following a defeat in battle at the hands of the Philistines, a messenger arrives at Shiloh with torn clothes to deliver the news to Eli (1 Sam. 4:12). Similarly, after being raped by her brother Amnon, Tamar tears the royal robe she is wearing as a sign of grief and outrage (2 Sam. 13:19). David goes a step farther following the murder of Abner when he tells Joab and his men to not only tear their clothes but to put on sackcloth (2 Sam. 3:31). To demonstrate his grief of David’s flight from Jerusalem during Absalom’s revolt, Mephibosheth does not take care of his feet, trim his beard, or wash his clothes (2 Sam. 19:24). Finally, in an act of deception, Joab tells a wise woman to pretend to be in mourning by putting on garments of mourning (2 Sam. 14:2).
Our last example above regarding the wise woman illustrates how clothing can be used in Samuel to deceive. The wise woman pretends to be mourning over a lost son so that she might gain the ear and sympathy of the king. Michal, the daughter of Saul seeks to protect David by deceiving her father’s soldiers into thinking he is sick. She does this by laying an image in a bed and covering it with goat’s hair and clothes, giving David time to escape (1 Sam. 19:11-16). Saul also uses clothing to deceive the medium at Endor. Saul does not want to be recognized so that the medium will do his bidding in calling up Samuel. In the larger story, however, Saul’s removal of his royal apparel and putting on “other garments” (1 Sam. 28:8), is a symbolic way of suggesting that Saul is losing the kingship. Joab uses his military attire to deceive Amasa (2 Sam. 20:8), but this story also has another dynamic that we will examine below.
In the Bible, being unclothed is considered shameful. Only Adam and Eve in their pristine state before the Fall, could be naked and unashamed (Gen. 2:25). Not only did certain kinds of clothing denote honor and wealth, all clothing hid one’s shame (e.g., Ezek. 16:8, 36-37). Thus to be found in one’s “birthday suit,” was considered humiliating. Saul is twice pictured in 1 Samuel in a compromised situation. In his pursuit of David, Saul comes to Samuel in Ramah and is seized by the Spirit of God. There he lies down all day naked and prophesies (1 Sam. 19:23-24). In other words, in his murderous rage, the Spirit renders him powerless and vulnerable, to the point of shaming him by removing his kingly garments. One might muse that Saul is performing his own version of the “Emperor’s New Clothes!” Saul is found in an even more humiliating and vulnerable position when he goes into a cave to relieve himself (1 Sam. 24:3-7). The Hebrew uses the euphemistic phrase, “to cover his feet.” In other words, Saul drops his robe around his feet in order to take care of important business. David and his men are hiding in the cave, but David refuses to harm Saul. When Saul leaves the cave, David produces the part of the robe he had cut off in order to demonstrate his innocence to Saul (1 Sam. 24:11).
On another occasion after David himself has become king, he sends ambassadors to pay his respects to the deceased Nahash, king of Ammon, Nahash’s son Hanun humiliates the men by cutting their garments off at the buttocks (2 Sam. 10:4). This insult precipitates a war between Israel and Ammon. We should also mention that Tamar’s tearing of her royal garment not only communicates mourning (as noted above) but shame as well.
When garments are associated with death, it is usually in reference to those who are mourning the deceased (2 Sam. 3:31; 14:2). However, there is one passage in 2 Samuel that dwells on the military attire of Joab in anticipation of his murder of Amasa (2 Sam. 20:8). One could literally say that Joab “was dressed to kill!” On the other hand, the expression “cloak and dagger” seems apropos as well. This passage also fits under the theme of dressing to deceive noted above. Commentators are unsure of the exact manner in which Joab perpetrates this deception, but in the end, Amasa gets the point! As Amasa lies wallowing in his blood, the troops stand still in shock. But when Amasa is unceremoniously dragged off of the highway and covered with a garment, the mission continues (2 Sam. 20:12). This time a garment plays the part of concealing the horrible crime committed by Joab and acts as Amasa’s death shroud.
Conclusion: If the Shoe Fits
While some motifs, such as tallness, or dead dog (see posts here and here), have one main point to make, the motif of clothing is varied. For the most part, one could say that the clothing motif is “worse for wear” in Samuel. Although the message of status is mostly positive, the other usages of this motif are quite negative. Context is the all-important guide when it comes to understanding what is being communicated by the clothing motif. Therefore the message(s) of this motif is not a “one size fits all,” but rather an “If the shoe fits, wear it.” In particular, the clothing motif in Samuel contributes to the main themes of honor and shame (e.g., 1 Sam. 2:30) and how appearances can be deceiving (1 Sam. 16:7).
For a more in-depth look at 1&2 Samuel see:
Family Portraits: Character Studies in 1 and 2 Samuel. Available at the following sites: Amazon USA / UK, and WestBow Press as well as other internet outlets.