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Clothing speaks

· ​Symbols in the Bible ·

Dressing themselves is a daily necessity for human beings. This fact is so obvious that we don’t think about it much.And yet there is no one, man or woman, who has never wondered: “How shall I dress tomorrow? What shall I wear?”. We do so thinking of what the weather will be like or of the commitments and meetings that await us.

“The Expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Earthly Paradise” (Sant’Angelo in Formis, 1070)

Clothes serve to protect human beings’ bodies and at the same time their integrity and dignity. Our way of dressing also speaks of our identity, both individual and collective. With the clothes we wear we communicate our belonging to a social or religious group and also the role we have taken on. We may even perceive the frame of mind and sense the feelings or temperament of a person from the clothes he or she is wearing and there is no doubt that the way we dress reflects the context and culture in which we live.Nevertheless we should bear in mind too that clothing may also mask deception or danger: indeed with clothing we not only express our identity but can also conceal it. In short, from these simple observations it may be deduced that clothing is and remains indisputably an element with a vast interpretative spectrum.

In the Bible there are various episodes in which the attire plays a significant role. Over and above its practical use linked to daily routine, we often find texts in which it acquires a symbolic and metaphorical dimension.

The first appearance of the verb “to clothe” in the Bible is worthy of note: it has God as subject (Gen 3:21). The narrative of the man and the woman and of their disobedience to the Creator (Gen 2-3) is constructed around the reason for their nakedness and for their being clothed. When the woman is presented by the Lord to Adam he speaks for the first time, saying: “This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called Woman, because she was taken out of Man”. The man recognizes in the woman that helpmate who stands before him, the helpmate who is equal to him: that is, they recognize each in the other.The garden entrusted to their care, with all the trees whose fruits are good to eat, is proof of the gift which comes before the commandment not to eat the fruit of one of the trees.

At this point in the narrative, before the couple disobeys, the man and the woman are naked and are not ashamed (2:25).It is only after taking and eating the fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil that they become aware of their nakedness and seek to cover it, sewing fig leaves together to make themselves aprons (3:7). However the account ends with the remark “The Lord God made the man and his wife garments of skins, and clothed them” (3:21). This ending is highly evocative and indicates the inadequacy of human creatures to reconstruct their original condition: the man and his wife are unable to do so alone. Indeed, the fear caused by their recognition of their nakedness marks their relationship with the Lord (3:10).By contrast, the garments that the Creator gives to his creatures in the new state in which they find themselves after their disobedience are a symbol of the fact that God takes human beings and their freedom seriously.They become a sign of unconditional divine love and of God’s attentive care. In this way God ennobles the dignity of human beings.

Clothes are also used as a symbol of God’s love in the way he makes himself special to the people of Israel. The Prophet Ezekiel makes use of this image in a very beautiful parable (Ezek 16) which expresses Israel’s faith in the divine election as a founding moment of its existence.The relationship between the Lord and Jerusalem is evoked by the metaphors of the daughter and the wife.Jerusalem is like a baby girl abandoned on the very day of her birth: she is exposed to the risk of death, but the Lord’s compassionate gaze enables her to live and what the Lord does for her permits her to grow to maturity (16:1-7). This is a kind of adoption. From v. 8, a new phase in the relationship is described.The Lord passes by her for the second time, when she is young and at the age for love. He spreads his skirt over her to cover her nakedness and enters into a covenant with the young girl who in this way becomes his (16:8).In this text, as in others of the ancient Middle East, dress has a specific function of a legal character: the skirt in fact serves to identify the “owner”, and the gesture evokes his involvement in a relationship with the other. Thus the woman comes under the protection of her husband (of the Lord) and becomes exclusively his.

The prophet gradually develops the metaphor of dress, listing the precious fabrics of which he has the young woman’s raiment made.Clad in multi-coloured materials, swathed with the most exquisite cloth, shod in the finest leather and adorned with gold and silver jewels placed on the different parts of her body, she becomes ever more beautiful and worthy of being queen.Everything points to an unconditional and excessive love which gives beyond measure to the beloved, recognizing her dignity. It is a superabundant love, further emphasized by a second mention of the precious fabrics used for her attire (cf. 16:10-13). It was not her beauty that attracted the Lord’s attention and awakened his love but – on the contrary – it was his love that made her a woman of perfect beauty (16:14).

Artemisia Gentileschi, “Judith and Her Maidservant” (1618-1619)

However, in the Bible every gift received becomes a test, because a gift is truly such when it is received with gratitude and responsibly managed.This also happens for the woman-Jerusalem. The story of this relationship is thus marked by a turning point: instead of putting her trust in the Lord of gifts, the woman avails herself of her own beauty and starts to play the harlot.The metaphor of nuptials and of prostitution had been used previously in the Book of the Prophet Hosea (Hos 1-3), in which the faithless woman thinks that her gifts have been procured for her by her lovers and not by her husband (Hos 2:7). In the parable of Ezekiel the situation is more serious because the raiment she has received from the Lord is used for idolatry, as a gift of the woman to all her lovers (Ezek 16:33-34). How could all this have come about? In the story of Jerusalem memory is lacking, a memory of youth, that is, of her founding moment (16:22).

The motif of clothing/nakedness also continues to be present in the continuation of the account where the divine punishment is described. There, it is the lovers of Jerusalem themselves who will strip her of her clothes, leaving her naked (16:39). Yet in spite of the woman’s betrayal, the Lord does not forget his covenant stipulated in the days of her youth; and the last word addressed to her is a word of forgiveness and of an everlasting covenant (16:60).In this way she will know her Lord.

In speaking of clothing in Scripture it would be impossible not to recall a few great female figures, such as Tamar, Ruth, Esther and Judith. If these Old Testament stories are read in a Christian perspective and with an ethical evaluation they certainly appear problematic. Let us therefore try to enter into these accounts to reinterpret them from a different angle: these courageous women, in order to redeem their situation or that of their people, change their clothes, thus exposing themselves to risk.

In the Book of Genesis we are told of a woman who is not resigned to her state of widowhood and her change of clothes is part of the plan she devises to obtain a son. The sequence of events of Tamar (Gen 38) forms part of the great cycle on the “descendance of Jacob”, that is, Joseph and his brothers (Gen 37-50) and this is a significant fact, given that in this cycle precisely Joseph’s robe acts as the protagonist and is the pretext for the beginning of the action. Here affection and the privileged condition of the characters is depicted by their attire. Their attire can also represent their power. In Chapter 38, after the deaths of her two husbands (Judah’s sons) Tamar is sent home to her father to live as a widow.Indeed Judah refuses to give his third son to her as husband. After a long time has passed while Judah has made no change in his decision, he goes to the feast for the shearing of the flock; he too is already a widower and on his way he is seduced by the beauty of a harlot.Judah fails to recognize beneath her veil his daughter-in-law Tamar, who has discarded her widow’s robes, pretending to be a prostitute, and he goes in to her. Only when he is confronted by the news of Tamar’s pregnancy does Judah have to face the truth, recognizing not only the pledge he had left her but also Tamar’s righteousness: “She is more righteous than me” (Gen 38:26).Of what does Tamar’s righteousness consist, hard for our mentality to identify? She exposes herself to humiliation in order to observe the Lord’s command “to be fruitful” and to preserve the lineage of the family. And it is from her descendance, through her son Perez [also Pharez or Phares], that King David was to be born (Ruth 4:12, 18-22).

The Book of Judith also recounts another event of the “overturning of destinies” but this time it does not involve only one person but a whole city. Judith, left a widow after her husband’s death, has worn the garments of her widowhood for three years and four months and in addition she has girded herself with sackcloth; she spends the days on the roof-top terrace of her house in prayer and fasting (Jud 8:4-6).But it so happens that her city, Bethulia, is besieged by Nebuchadnezzar’s powerful army; the people are so discouraged that they decide to give themselves up to the enemy. Except that they leave God five days of time should he wish to intervene.

In this situation of great danger Judith opposes the discouragement and despair of her people, deciding to expose herself to risk by changing her “lifestyle”.She goes down from the terrace into the house where she usually stays only on Sabbaths and feast days; she takes off the sackcloth and her widow’s garments and puts on her best clothes and jewels (10, 2-4). Dressing oneself in this way in a situation of danger means trusting in victory: Judith has addressed her prayer to God and her clothes become a symbol of her deep trust in him. However this trust does not remain inert and passive; changing her clothes is only the first step on the way towards a plan of liberation from the enemy.

Judith’s apparel and jewels make her beauty and charm stand out even more (8:7; 10:4), qualities which – together with her wisdom and shrewdness – will become the weapons for her victory. Having gone down to the enemy’s camp she meets the general, Holofernes, she praises his wisdom and the skill of his genius and succeeds in convincing her adversaries that she has fled to help them take the city.With her beauty she wins over the general who, eager to possess her, invites her to a banquet. After the dinner Judith, arrayed in her best clothes and in every other sort of female finery (12:15), makes the most of Holofernes’ drunkenness to cut off his head and thus win the victory for her people.

Judith is a woman of great faith and courage, with a readiness to change her own lifestyle and to take risks. At a symbolic level we might say that in changing her clothes she turns the destiny of her people upside down.In this way the childless widow restored the life of her people who were living without hope; and we may imagine the inhabitants of Bethulia singing together with Judith: “You have loosed my sackcloth and girded me with gladness” (Ps 30:12).

At the end of this brief review of biblical texts in which clothing plays a significant role and having appreciated the symbolic value of the garment given to human beings by the Lord as an expression of his love and care, let us recall that in the Bible the human body itself is in some way considered a garment which God has made for men and women. Thus together with the Psalmist we can proclaim: “For you did form my inward parts, you did knit me together in my mother’s womb […]. My frame was not hidden from you, when I was being made in secret, intricately wrought in the depths of the earth” (Ps 139, 13-15; cf. also Job 10:11).

Iveta Strenková

The author

Iveta Strenková is a religious of the Congregatio Jesu. She obtained a degree in theology at the Theological Faculty of Comenius University, Bratislava.She continued her studies at the Pontifical Gregorian University where she gained a doctorate in biblical theology with a thesis on the Book of the Prophet Nahum. From 2013 to 2018 she was Director of the Office of the Catholic Biblical Apostolate of Slovakia (Bibelwerk). She is currently Director of the Mary Ward Spiritual Centre and is working in the group of Slovakian biblicists on Commentaries on The Old Testament, in particular on the Psalms and on the Book of Nahum.

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