When the Israelites finally leave Egypt, they meet with God at the same place God first met with Moses—Mount Sinai (Exodus 3). At Sinai, God invites the entire nation of Israel into a new Eden opportunity where they will live and work as a kingdom of priests in his presence.
He gives them “the pattern,” or instructions, for the tabernacle, a symbolic model of Eden and a place where Heaven and Earth are united as one (Exodus 24:9-11, 25:9). At the center of the pattern for the tabernacle, there are detailed instructions for priestly clothing. The instructions describe a glorious human figure in dazzling white apparel and a crown (Exodus 28). This figure is the high priest who will work in the tabernacle, going in and out of the micro-Eden on behalf of others.
He’s an image of the royal priest we’ve been waiting for—the one patterned after Adam and Eve’s priestly calling. But what’s significant about this priestly clothing? How does the detailing of these garments point toward the future ideal priesthood? Let’s take a look!
Moses and the Shimmering Royal Priests
At a crucial point within the Exodus narrative, Moses ascends Mount Sinai where God calls out to him on the seventh day.
Then Moses went up to the mountain, and the cloud covered the mountain. The glory of Yahweh settled on the mountain of Sinai, and the cloud covered it for six days; and on the seventh day he called to Moses from the midst of the cloud. And to the eyes of the sons of Israel, the appearance of the glory of Yahweh was like a consuming fire on the mountain top. Then Moses entered the midst of the cloud as he went up to the mountain; and Moses was on the mountain for forty days and forty nights.
The language and design of the text is intentional. The author calls back to the story of creation in Genesis 1 as Moses ascends into the cloud of the divine glory that culminates in seventh-day rest! Moses becomes a narrative image of the image of God, resting with God on the high cosmic mountain on the seventh day. In other words, Moses is recreating the Eden-ideal: humanity resting with God on a cosmic mountain-temple (i.e. the garden of Eden).
For forty days and forty nights, God speaks to Moses in seven distinct sections regarding instructions for the tabernacle. And at the center of these instructions is a long speech detailing priestly clothing (Exodus 28:1-43).
We read that the priests’ garments are made of white material accented by gold and jewels, many of which only appear in the Eden narrative and in John’s description of the new Heaven and Earth in the book of Revelation (Genesis 2:12; Revelation 21:19). Priestly clothing is only to be worn when priests are fulfilling their “Adam and Eve” roles inside the micro-Eden of the tabernacle. The clothes are a pattern that recall the Eden narrative and humanity’s ideal role. Priests were to represent the new adam (Hebrew for "humanity")—shimmering, royal, priestly humans who enter into the Eden space through prayer and sacrifices.
The Failure of the Shining Priests
Unfortunately, it isn’t long before this new adam also rebels. While God gives Moses instructions for the priests up on the mountain, Aaron, Israel’s first priest, is already failing in his duties. During those forty days, Aaron creates an idol of Yahweh’s likeness for the Israelites to worship (Exodus 32).
Here, the author of Exodus poses a juxtaposition for the readers. Priests are to fulfill a role of demonstrating God’s own beauty and glory in a micro-Eden, but Israel’s priesthood is full of compromise (Exodus 32-34; Leviticus 10; 1 Samuel 1-4) and has been from the start (Exodus 3-4, 5-11).
At the climax of the story, Moses offers his own life in place of the sinful people, and he calls this an act of “atonement,” (Heb. kipper / כפר), covering for the sins of the people (Exodus 32:31-32). This scene is crucial because we see Moses doing personally what the appointed high priest is supposed to do in the tabernacle.
Although the priesthood of Aaron is compromised and idolatrous from the beginning, here we see Moses providing the true and ultimate portrait of the priestly role—interceding on behalf of rebellious people. But Moses does so by offering his own life in the place of the people. So, there is both failure of the priesthood and hope in what it could still be like in the future.
Later on in the text, Moses encounters the glory of God, and his unveiled face is described as “shining” and “radiant,” emitting beams of light (Heb. qaran, קֶ֫רֶן) (Exodus 34:29). As Moses shines, intercedes on behalf of the people, and offers his life for theirs, we get a glimpse of Moses being what God called him to be, a shining, priestly intercessor.
The Hebrew Bible is clueing us into what’s ahead: the royal priesthood of Aaron is doomed from the start. But there remains hope for a future shining priest who will unleash the blessings of Eden for humanity once more.
Jesus, the Shining Great High Priest
This all leads up to a pinnacle scene in Matthew’s Gospel account, where Jesus appears as a priest shining on a mountain. This scene is known as the transfiguration.
When Jesus is transfigured (Greek, metamorphoō) on the mountain, his face shines and his clothes become “as white as the light” (Matthew 17:2). Jesus’ shining face recalls Moses in Exodus 34:29-35, and the garments white as light recall the shimmering priestly garments in Exodus 28. The fact that the priestly garments are described as shining is significant—it’s part of the uncorrupted image of God, the ideal humanity.
The author of Hebrews describes Jesus as a greater Moses (Hebrews 3:3). And as a greater Moses, Jesus, the shining royal priest, lives to intercede for his people (Hebrews 7:25). And in the greatest act of love, he offered his life as a sacrifice for theirs (Hebrews 7:27).
Future Shining Royal Priests
And now followers of Jesus can, with unveiled faces, behold the glory of the Lord (2 Corinthians 3:18). Followers of Jesus can approach God in confidence and freedom because of the priestly work of Jesus (Hebrews 4:16). By beholding God’s glory, we too can begin to shine like lights (Greek, phōstēres) (Philippians 2:15). We too are transformed (Greek: metamorphoō, 2 Corinthians 3:18).
This was God’s plan all along, even at Mount Sinai when God appeared to the Israelites and invited them to become “a kingdom of priests'' (Exodus 19:6). This invitation echoes back to the creation of Adam and Eve and their ideal roles in the garden of Eden, relating with God on behalf of other people and reflecting his character to others through love, compassion, generosity, and justice. And this same invitation is now extended to all humanity through Jesus (1 Peter 2:9).
In Jesus, one day we will put on our new creation bodies as uncorrupted images (1 Corinthians 15:50-56). And the new Heaven and Earth will reflect the glory of God like the light (Greek, phōstēr) of a jewel (Revelation 21:9b-11). And we will at last be what we were created to be—a shimmering royal kingdom of priests.