Why Did Israel’s Priests Wear Underwear?

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Objection 3: If the priests had to wear underwear, we do too.

In the Book of Exodus, we read a curious set of instructions that God gave to the nation of Israel: priests could not climb stairs or ladders to get to the burning altar:

And you shall not go up by steps to my altar, that your nakedness be not exposed on it. ‭

Exodus‬ ‭20:26‬

Later, this requirement was changed, so that priests on duty were required to wear underwear:

You shall make for them linen undergarments to cover their naked flesh. They shall reach from the hips to the thighs.

Exodus‬ ‭28:42‬

Why did Israel’s priests wear underwear?

Biblical scholars agree that garments worn by everyone in those days were incredibly loose and easily blown aside. In order to set them apart for service, special undergarments were appointed during this time of worship. The people, of course, would still wear none.

But why such oddly specific requirements?

The answer is that God’s priests were required to be different from the pagan cultures around them. Those false religions included (and often required) sexual displays or intercourse as a key component of god or goddess worship. Not so, for Israel.

Was it the nudity… or the sex?

Given that priests were required to wear underwear while on duty, we may conclude that they did not do so while off duty. In fact, they might wear nothing.

Adjusting our lenses for historical norms reminds us that simple nudity was commonplace and underwear was novel.

Fresco in an ancient Jewish synagogue depicting Pharoah's Daughter when she finds Moses during her bath in the Nile River.  Moses would later bathe the Israeli priesthood. Fresco in an ancient Jewish synagogue depicting Pharoah's Daughter when she finds Moses during her bath in the Nile River. Why did God require those priests to wear underwear?
Fresco in an ancient Jewish synagogue depicting Pharoah’s Daughter when she finds Moses during her bath in the Nile River.

In fact, during a public ceremony before the men became priests, they appeared fully nude and unashamed before the entire nation of Israel. This fact runs in “stark” contrast to the idea that their nudity was offensive to God!

In Leviticus chapter eight, Moses gathers all of Israel together to introduce the newly designed priestly garments. As part of the public ceremony, he bathes the priests with water, one by one.

Their bodies having been purified, Moses then dresses them in their full uniforms, including the undergarments. Finally, he anoints them with oil.

It can also be inferred that those priestly garments are a metaphor prophesying Jesus, our High Priest. 

As you were baptized into Christ, [you] have put on Christ.

Galatians 3:27

In Colossians, Paul reminds us that we

have put off the old self with its practices, and we have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator.

Colossians 3:9-10

Now that we have “put on” the Lord Jesus, we are fully clothed at all times in His Righteousness. Under the law, Israel’s priests had to wear underwear, but Jesus has fulfilled the law.

Our earthly garments? Completely decorative!


Garments made for a specific time and task do not extend out a requirement for all times and peoples.

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