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Shemot/Exodus 28:29 And Aharon shall bear the names of the Children of Israel on the ornament of justice over his heart when he comes into the sanctuary, as a constant reminder before the L-rd.
After describing the details of its construction, the Torah goes on to tell us howHaShem wanted the breast-piece of the Kohen Gadol's official regalia to be used. Although it contained costly precious stones, with rings and chains of gold, and was tied to the front of the ephod that the High Priest wore, the breast-piece had no significance of its own without HaShem declaring its function and purpose. According to this text, those were two-fold: to carry the names of Children of Israel into the sanctuary, and to be a reminder before HaShem. Mechanically, some commentators suggest it had the form of a decorated pouch, with the stones set on the front outside face, since the Urim and Thumim, were to be inserted into it. The Ralbag adds to the biblical construction details, by telling us that above the stones were written the names of the patriarchs and below the stones the words, "the tribes of the L-rd", "so that "Aharon should be thinking of all twelve together, not each one separately."
The noun comes from the unused Hebrew root , which is used in Arabic to mean "to be beautiful, to adorn" (Davidson), so although universally translated as 'breast-piece' or 'breastplate', more properly is should be 'ornament'. Its meaning is difficult to verify, since it is used only in this specific context, both in the instructions for and accounting of the building and consecration of the Tabernacle in Shemot 25,28-29, 35 and 39. It also appears just once in the narrative account of Moshe dressing Aharon for his inauguration as Kohen Gadol in Vayikra 8:8. TheSeptuagint, our earliest external witness to the text, here (and usually) translates it as , 'oracle' or 'speaking-place', only once (Shemot 28:4) as , 'breastplate'.
The first thing the text tells us that Aharon carries the names of the Children of Israel before him whenever he goes into , the Holy Place, the sanctuary. Umberto Cassuto explains, "this is one of the functions of the pouch: the priest will come before the L-rd as the representative of Israel with the names of those he represents engraven for remembrance on the pouch that he wears on his heart."1 Aharon does not serve on his own account - albeit that during the Yom Kippur ritual he does have to offer a sacrifice for his own sin and for those of his family - he serves as a representative of the people, of the Children of Israel as a whole. On the breast-piece are mounted twelve precious stones, "engraved like seals, each with its name, for the twelve tribes" (Shemot 28:21, NJPS). Each name represents all the people in that tribe, even though their thousands of individual names are not present, and the twelve together represent the whole people. The prophet Isaiah records that G-d has a more intimate relationship with those who follow Him with all their hearts: "I have engraved you on the palms of my hands, your walls are always before me" (Isaiah 49:16, CJB). No longer brought in and out by the High Priest, our names are written on His hands so that we are always before Him, always in His presence. Yeshua has taken us there in a new and permanent way: "Yeshua has entered, not into holy places made with hands, which are copies of the true things, but into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of G-d on our behalf" (Hebrews 9:24, ESV).
The second thing we learn is that Aharon wears the breast-piece - and therefore the names of the Children of Israel - over his heart when he enters the sanctuary. Instead of seeing Aharon, when G-d looks at the figure entering His presence, He sees the High Priest and the names of the Children of Israel. Aharon's heart is not only not seen, but is also not important, for he serves on behalf of the people. He has offered a sacrifice for himself, to make atonement so that the office of High Priest not be defiled by the current office-holder's sins, but Aharon himself is only present as one of the names contained in the tribe of Levi on the front of the breast-piece. Like the Speaker in the House of Commons, who may not speak or vote in any of the business of the House nor ask questions on the floor of the House and, regardless of his political affiliation, is to be strictly neutral as a member neither of Her Majesty's Government nor Her Majesty's Loyal Opposition, while on duty Aharon ceases to exist - there is only the High Priest. In the same way, Yeshua serves as our representative in heaven, in the eternal presence of the Ancient of Days; He is "forerunner on our behalf, having become a high priest forever after the order of Melchizedek" (Hebrews 6:20, ESV).
The third thing that HaShem says - in the last phrase of the verse - is that the purpose of the breast-piece is to be "a constant reminder before the L-rd." Who is reminding whom of what? Thomas Dozeman sates that "the function of the breastplate, like that of the ephod, is to be a memorial for Yahweh."2 TheSforno suggests this is so that "G-d may remember their merits and be mindful of their children that there be peace in their merit." Bearing in mind the recorded behaviour of our people both in the wilderness generation and those since - the Bible does not pull its punches in its description of the way the Jewish people conducted themselves - it is as well that HaShem sent Yeshua and did not rely upon the merits of the fathers! Rav Sha'ul mourns for them, saying, "For I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Messiah for the sake of my brothers, my kinsmen according to the flesh" (Romans 9:3, ESV). In spite of their irrevocable gifting and calling - "the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises ... the patriarchs, and ... the Messiah who is G-d over all" (vv. 4-5, ESV) - he confesses that "not all who are descended from Israel belong to Israel" (v. 6, ESV); many in Israel "did not pursue it by faith" (v. 32, ESV) and so "were broken off because of their unbelief" (11:20, ESV). No, instead the breast-piece is a constant reminder to the L-rd of His people and His covenant relationship with them and of His promise to dwell in their midst. Walter Brueggemann puts it this way: "As the ephod is to bring all of Israel into the presence of G-d, so the breastplate, filled with all the names, brings the purpose of G-d fully into the company of Israel."3
So Yeshua, fulfilling all the roles of the High Priest for us, "a great high priest who has passed through the heavens" (Hebrews 4:14, ESV), bears our names - those from the tribes of Israel and those from the nations - into the presence of G-d and makes intercession for us. Unlike Aharon, "in every respect [He] has been tempted as we are, yet without sin" (v. 15, ESV). He knows our weaknesses and so can "deal gently with the ignorant and wayward" (5:2. ESV). We have nothing to worry about; we can just ride the gravy train home and leave all the details to Him, right? No, not right! Let's go back to the question of the names and listen to Yeshua teaching His disciples as He sends them out to minister in His name around the Galil: "So everyone who acknowledges Me before men, I also will acknowledge before My Father who is in heaven, but whoever denies Me before men, I also will deny before My Father who is in heaven" (Matthew 10:32-33, ESV). Here's a strong connection between the role of the High Priest and Yeshua. The High Priest didn't represent the whole world, just the tribes of Israel, those whose names were on the breast-piece. In the same way, Yeshua doesn't speak for the whole world or even for those doing miracles in His name, He speaks for those who acknowledge Him before men. Notice that this has nothing to do with the way that they behave, their level of holiness or the number of good deeds they have done; it is solely on the basis of their confession before mankind: do they or do they not acknowledge Yeshua as their L-rd?
We too, when we intercede in a priestly way - for our families, our children, our spouses, our work colleagues, our neighbourhood, our nation - can take the names of those we love or pray for into the presence of G-d and remind Him that they too depend on Him and need Him in their lives. We must confess our faults first, so that our role as priest is not defiled by sin, then covering our hearts with the names and needs of others, we can press in and pray for our Father's grace and mercy on their behalf. This is powerful, liberating and effective prayer, offered in the name of Yeshua and by the power of the Spirit to reach and find favour at the throne of Grace!
1. - Umberto Cassuto, A Commentary on the Book of Exodus, (Jerusalem, Magnes Press, 1983), page 378.
2. - Thomas B. Dozeman, Exodus, Eerdmans Critical Commentaries, (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmanns, 2009), page 646.
3. - Walter Brueggemann, "Exodus," in The New Interpreter's Bible Commentary Vol I, edited by Leander E. Keck, (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2015), page 457.
Further Study: Romans 10:9-10; Revelation 3:5
Application: Are your intercessory prayers stuck in the doldrums or failing to make much headway? Take hold of your breast-piece - Yeshua - and with Him over your heart, press in to touch the heart of G-d today!
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© Jonathan Allen, 2019
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