Ancient Israelite clothing and jewelry (Isaiah 3)

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Illustration: Israelite clothing

Since climatic conditions of Israel have made it difficult for ancient textile fragments to survive, knowledge of ancient dress comes primarily from textual and iconographic sources (i.e. from ancient documents and pictures). Egyptian funerary wall paintings at Beni-Hasan, dating to patriarchal times, picture a caravan of Semitic peoples dressed in brightly coloured, woven garments. These appear to have been made of a single cloth wrapped around the body and fastened over one shoulder, leaving the other bare. Toggle pins of bone, ivory or bronze, which held the cloth in place like modern safety pins, have been located at various sites.

Tunics, with or without sleeves, are mentioned in Scripture as the principal garments of both men and women (Genesis 37:3, 2 Samuel 13:18). These were typically ankle length and drawn up when working (2 Kings 4:29). The rare textile remains are mostly of linen, with some of wool, but very few are comprised of both wool and linen threads (cf. Leviticus 19:19). The Black Obelisk )ninth century B.C.), which visually records the Assyrian king Shalmaneser III receiving tribute from Israel, pictures king Jehu in such a short-sleeved, ankle-length robe with fringes along the bottom. The sash wrapped around his waist was of special significance for high ranking officials (Isaiah 22:21). Israelite tribute-bearers are shown garbed in tasseled mantles, a type of garment pictured regularly in Assyrian reliefs depicting Semitic peoples. Their shoes were upturned  at the toes and appear to have covered the entire foot, although the Bible mentions leather sandals as the more common footwear (Genesis 14:23, Deuteronomy 25:9).

As inner garments, men wore a linen waistcloth with a leather belt from which valuables could be hung, such as a knife or a signet seal (2 Kings 1:8, Jeremiah 13:1). The Lachish reliefs (701 B.C.) picture Israelite captives in such loincloths, with a wide fabric belt around their waist whose fringed, vertical edge was passed over the belt to hang between the knees. Undergarments, mentioned only in association with priesthood, were designed to cover the body from the loins to the thighs when the priests were engaged in sanctuary ministry (Exodus 28:42-43, Ezekiel 44:18). Cloaks with hoods, which could be pulled over the head or used to carry loads, were the typical outer garments of both men and women (Ruth 3:15, 1 Kings 19:13). Linen headdresses, twisted as turbans, were common for men, wealthy women, bridegrooms and priests (Exodus 28:40, Isaiah 3:20, 61:10).

At least for the wealthy, women’s clothing was typically made of finer materials and perhaps richer colours than that of men (2 Samuel 1:24, Proverbs 31:22). Featured with the attire of the upper class were gauze garments, long veils, headbands and gold embroidery (Isaiah 3:18-23, 47:2). Women wore their hair long, with a head covering that reached down their back. An ivory from Megiddo pictures a woman with a long, fringed dress and shoulder-length head veil. In terms of Jewelry items, hammered gold or silver was fashioned into arm bracelets, necklaces, earring, noes rings and finger rings (Genesis 24:22, 30, Esther 3:10, Isaiah 3:18-21, Ezekiel 16:11-12). The most common earring design of ancient Israel was the “lunate”, an ovoid loop resembling a crescent moon. Along with other ornaments, two sets of five solid gold bangles each, dating to the Middle Bronze Age, have been recovered from Tell el-Ajjul, comparable  to the ten-shekel weight of Rebekah’s bridal bracelets (Genesis 24:22).

Clothing and Jewelry distinguished between ethnic groups (Numbers 15:38-40) and signalled social status within the community itself. Mourners (2 Samuel 14:2), lepers (Leviticus 13:45) and prisoners (2 Kings 25:29) also were sometimes identified by their dress. The garb of royalty and the affluent was most likely distinguished by profuse ornamentation (Psalm 45:8-9, Ezekiel 26:16). Since Jewelry served to confer dignity and authority, in addition to its use as personal adornment, the articles mentioned in the catalogue of Isaiah 3:18-23 may reflect the finery of wealth.

For a discussion of clothing in the New Testament era, see Dress and fashion in the Greco-Roman world under James 2.


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