Garments of Authority and Submission

Veils, robes, and mantles are marks of authority and submission.This Torah portion (Vayeshev, Genesis 37-40) is full of clothes and head coverings.

  • Reuben tore his clothes (Genesis 37:29)
  • Joseph’s brother dipped his robe in blood and presented it to their father (Genesis 37:33)
  • Jacob tore his garments (Genesis 37:34)
  • Tamar removed her widow’s garments and donned a veil (Genesis 38:14-15)
  • Tamar removed her veil and donned widow’s garments (Genesis 38:19)
  • Potiphar’s wife caught Joseph by his garment and used it to frame him (Genesis 39:12-16)
  • Pharaoh’s baker dreamed of three baskets on his head (Genesis 40:16-19)

Garments and coverings of all kinds are prominent throughout Scripture and almost always have a deeper meaning than what can be read only on the surface.

For example, when Moses came down from Mt. Sinai, his face glowed and he wore a veil over his face to hide the glory of it from the Israelites. (Exodus 34:29-35) I was taught that this was a purely pragmatic act, that he had absorbed so much of God’s glory that nobody could stand to look at it, but I think that’s only partly correct.

When Moses was engaged in God’s business–for example, when he spoke the Torah to the assembled Israelites and when he was in the tent communing directly with God–he removed the veil. When he was about more mundane business–for example, judging legal cases and performing administrative duties in the camp–he wore the veil. The key distinction is not whether or not the person in front of him could stand to look at him, but whether or not it was appropriate to display God’s glory directly.

I think it was important that he did not appear to be speaking for God at every waking moment. He wasn’t a replacement god–as much as he must have seemed so both to Pharaoh and Israel–but an emissary for God. He had to hide his face so that the Israelites would not be tempted to worship him or to take every word he spoke as divine law. Removing the veil for Moses in the wilderness was like the Catholic Pope speaking ex cathedra. He removed the veil when he spoke God’s Law because he wanted Israel to see God speaking in the rays of light that shone from his face.

Coverings in Scripture are often emblems of authority and protection: headcoverings, veils, mantles, robes of state, wraps, hangings, bedding, shadows, gold plating…even tree branches and pitch are used in this way.

Headcoverings and mantles are two of the most obvious as well as two sides of the same coin. How the covering is worn or used advertises the bearer’s relationship to the authority.

Worn on the head, they indicate submission to the authority of another, like a military cover. One who is under authority is obligated to obey, but is entitled to protection and provision. To a certain extent, he shares in the power of that authority.

Some examples of coverings representing submission to authority or protection:

  • Ruth covered herself with a corner of Boaz’s tallit as a subtle marriage proposal.
  • Boaz told Ruth to remove her veil–something that should only be done by someone in authority: a husband or father, for instance–so that he could fill it with barley, so that he could provide for her. He was replying in the affirmative to her proposal.
  • Paul argued that a woman who prays or prophecies without a headcovering dishonors her husband.
  • Headcoverings were frequently used to hide shame or sorrow, an expression closely related to submission.
  • The Hebrew word for “pitch” in the story of Noah’s ark literally means “covering.” The same word is also translated “bribe” or “ransom.”
  • After God threatened Abimelech’s life for attempting to take a prophet’s wife as his own, Abimelech told Sarah that Abraham was a covering for her.
  • In the trial of a wife suspected of adultery, the priest removes her headcovering before subjecting her to the ordeal, symbolizing the removal of her husband’s protection.

Worn on the shoulders, coverings represent the authority carried by the wearer. One who carries authority is responsible for its exercise and for the protection and provision of its subjects. The fact that it is worn on the shoulders and not under foot reflects the reality of good leadership: authority must never be worn for its own sake, but for the sake of those beneath it, like Atlas holding the world on his shoulders.

Some examples of coverings representing the bearing of authority:

  • Elijah was a chief prophet and the headmaster of a school. He wore a mantle on his shoulders as a badge of office and passed it on to his successor, Elisha.
  • The High Priest wore an onyx stone bearing the names six of the twelve tribes on each of his shoulders. They represented his right to judge the nation on spiritual matters, while he wore a gold plate with twelve different precious stones over his heart to represent his obligation to judge with love and mercy.
  • Jacob gave Joseph a coat of many colors. Immediately after that, Joseph dreamed that all of Israel would someday bow to him. I don’t think that Jacob meant for Joseph’s coat to represent anything except his affection, but God had other plans. Think of the twelve differently colored stones on the High Priests breastplate. How much do you want to bet that there were exactly twelve different colors on Joseph’s coat?

Noah’s pitch coated his ark to keep out the floods that destroyed the rest of the world, like Yeshua’s blood that separates us from our world and its eventual fate. Likewise, the Hebrew word translated “mercy seat” in Exodus 25:17 referring to the lid of the Ark of the Covenant actually doesn’t have anything to do with seats, although it does imply mercy. It means “lid” or “cover” and comes from the same root as the word translated as “pitch.”

Both coverings protect the contents of a wooden box from something outside. The Ark of the Covenant represents (at least on one level) the heart of a human being. It’s where David said he hid God’s law and where God says he wants to write it in every person. We can’t directly face God in our natural state, but in the Tabernacle God’s presence hovered above the Ark.

The mercy seat represents Yeshua’s role as our High Priest and intermediary with the Father, who sees us through the filter of his son. In this case, Yeshua as our covering takes on almost every aspect symbolized by all the other types of coverings. He shields us from an overwhelming power. He defends us from our adversary. He seals our hearts off from the rest of the world. He commands our obedience as we submit to him.

In Genesis 38, Tamar wore a veil to hide her identity but also to subtly tell Judah that the deaths of his sons weren’t her fault. She was only submitting to Judah’s authority all along. Her very name means “upright.” The real problem was with Judah, his sons, and their mother. Through the entire humiliating ordeal, she remained submitted to authority, and thereby found Judah’s life and power in her hands. She took his staff (a symbol of power and authority) and rings (rings, bracelets, and ear/nose rings are symbols of betrothal and ownership) from him, and returned them in such a way that, had he insisted on prosecuting her, he would have forfeited his own life.

Authority rightly worn with respect to its purpose–whether on head or shoulders–is a conduit for prayers to heaven and good relationships on earth. Discarded or abused, authority is a hindrance to prayers, to love, to life itself.

The Cupbearer’s Choice

Threads in a tapestry, links in a chain, cupbearers in Pharaoh’s court…

God’s plan is always convoluted. He weaves divers threads from the beginning of time knowing precisely where He will bring them together millennia later so that events will converge just so and individuals will be presented with choices that will determine their status in the world to come.

Consider the long chain of events that brought Joseph into power in Egypt. God gave him dreams and caused Jacob to give him a peculiar coat so that his brothers would be jealous and betray him in time to sell him to the Ishmaelite caravan that delivered him to Potiphar who threw him in prison where he met the baker and the cupbearer who told Pharaoh about him so that he could save both Egypt and his own people, all the while laying down patterns that foreshadowed the ministry, betrayal, death, and resurrection of the Messiah who would also save both the world (Egypt) and Israel.

Complex, convoluted, and–in the end–all wrapped up with no loose ends. Not even Hollywood could tie a plot together like God does.

Joseph isn’t the only person for whom God arranged the threads of existence.

Let’s zoom in on Pharaoh’s cupbearer for a moment. Whatever his crime had been, God needed him to be in prison so that he could meet Joseph who could interpret his dream so that he could later tell Pharaoh about it. The plot grows thicker.

Pharaoh restored the chief cupbearer to his position, and he placed the cup in Pharaoh’s hand. (Genesis 40:21)

Read this verse again, paying special attention to the second half. Isn’t that an odd statement? “He placed the cup in Pharaoh’s hand,” as if there was only one cup and it was a one-time event.

Throughout the Scriptures, cups are used to portray what we might call fate. God gives to one person or nation a cup of wrath and to another He gives a cup of blessing.

I will take the cup of salvation. (Psalm 116:13)
and
Take from my hand this cup of the wine of wrath. (Jeremiah 25:15)

So the cup that the chief cupbearer placed into the hand of Pharaoh is not just a cup, but a Cup of either curses or blessings. Whether it was one or the other depended on a series of choices:

  • Would the cupbearer remember Joseph to Pharaoh or not?
  • Would Pharaoh tell Joseph his dream?
  • Would Pharaoh believe Joseph’s interpretation and heed his advice?

If any of these had gone the wrong way, Egypt would have suffered in the coming famine while God would have saved the Hebrews some other way. As it was, the cup was full of blessing until Egypt once again forgot Joseph many years later.

Interestingly, the baker and the cupbearer foreshadow another aspect of the story of Yeshua. One of them (the cupbearer) was released and the other (the baker) condemned during a national holiday (Pharaoh’s birthday). Yeshua was arrested during a national holiday (Passover) and, after His trial, Pilate reminded the people that it was a tradition to release one prisoner every year at this time. They chose to release Barrabas (the cupbearer) and to execute Yeshua (the baker).

It makes me wonder if the cupbearer was actually a murderer and if the baker was innocent.

God’s story-telling mastery is so complete that He has done the same thing for every one of us. You are somebody’s cupbearer, choosing in each moment to deliver the truth about God, His Law, and His Messiah or to withhold that truth. If you behave or speak in such a way as to deny someone God’s Truth, you become partly responsible for the resulting curses in that person’s life, and you have no way of knowing in advance which moments, which choices will have the greatest impact. It’s your responsibility to do right when you are able, to put the cup in Pharaoh’s hand, so to speak. When you have spoken the Truth, when you have shown the love of Messiah in the world by doing good to those around you, then your cup becomes one of blessing to you, and the power to transform the contents of the cup in one way or the other devolves to the next person.

We are all threads in a continuous fabric that stretches from one end of time to the other. God sees the overall pattern and places us where He needs us. We don’t always have a lot of control over the basic circumstances in our lives. We do, however, have control over how we choose to interact with those circumstances. We can be like Joseph, speaking the Truth, doing what’s right, and forgiving those who meant to do us wrong, or we can keep silent, look after ourselves, and resent those who appear to have imprisoned us.

You can choose to drink from a cup of salvation or be forced to drink from a cup of wrath. However the world appears around you, the choice remains yours.

Choose between the cup of Salvation and the cup of Wrath.

A Foreigner in Canaan

Genesis 37:1  And Jacob dwelt in the land wherein his father was a stranger, in the land of Canaan.

David Stern translates this verse, “Ya’akov continued living in the land where his father had lived as a foreigner, the land of Kena’an.”

It was clear in last week’s Torah portion (Vayishlach) that Jacob continued the family tradition of being a stranger in his own land. That was as it should have been. Pagans filled the Land and sought either to assimilate or to destroy the Hebrews. Assimilation into the local, Canaanite culture would have been a disaster. Abraham told Eliezer that Isaac was not to marry a Canaanite woman under any circumstance, and Isaac gave Jacob the same advice. Intermarriage consistently brought more problems than it was worth. Remember Esau and Judah.

You will not be assimilated. Resistance is fundamental.

It is always difficult to live by God’s standards, and doubly so without the support of a like-minded community. It is easy to allow standards to slip, to let a little transgression slide. With no one to hold you accountable without the moral support of Torah-keeping friends and family, it’s as easy as breathing. Yet God’s consistent marker upon his people is that they are visibly different. They do not behave like the world around them. They dress differently. They speak differently. They behave differently. They keep different holy days. They are conspicuous and set apart (the literal meaning of “holy”) by God’s design. We are not called to be seeker friendly, to make citizenship in the Kingdom of God look easy. We are called to occupy a foreign and hostile land until Messiah Yeshua returns and delivers the kingdom he promised. Like Jacob, we must continue living in the land in which we and our fathers have been aliens.

The real question is not how to blend in, but what to do with our conspicuousness. I can say with absolute certainty that I have not found a satisfactory answer to that question in my own life in a way that honors God. Being different without being better is just being odd.

These must be our priorities:

  1. Mercy and service to the fatherless, the widows, the sick, the poor, and imprisoned. There is no higher good deed than doing good to those who cannot repay you.
  2. Justice to all people. Obedience to the letter of the commandment without regard to justice is not obedience to the author of the commandment.
  3. Obedience to God’s commands. You cannot preach forgiveness and repentance if you haven’t repented of your own sins.
  4. Preaching the gospel. Once your own house is in order, you can set about helping others build theirs.