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Shemot/Exodus 28:15 And you shall make a breastplate of judgement, the work of a craftsman
This verse contains two similar sounding words: and . The origin of the first - the breastplate - is etymologically unclear. Although the word is used quite a number of times, there is no root verb used in the Hebrew Scriptures, so its precise meaning is tricky. Nahum Sarna suggests that "it may be related to an Arabic word khasuna, 'to be excellent, beautiful'; another possibility is to connect the word with the Hebrew word khosen, 'store, treasure', hence a receptacle." The second, a Qal particple, is from the root - to think, purpose or intend - and Davidson proposes: "deviser, artificer, especially a weaver in figures of various colours, a damask-weaver". In his translation of the Torah, Richard Elliott Friedman says, "a breastplate of judgement, designer's work", making the connection to fashion or fabric design, a deliberate piece of artistic creativity. The breastplate is not only to be carefully made and assembled, it is to have unusual beauty and perhaps even exploding in a riot of colour and texture to provide the setting for the fantastic array of precious stones representing the tribes of Israel.
In the Midrash (Vayikra Rabbah 10:6), Rabbi Simeon tells us that the priestly garments have a measure of atoning power in the same way as the sacrifices; ordinary priests in four matters, the high priest in eight. For example, the breeches atoned for unchaste behaviour - literally, "the uncovering of nakedness" - because Moshe is told, "You shall make for them linen undergarments to cover their naked flesh" (Shemot 28:42, ESV) - and the ephod atoned for idolatry, since Hosea said, "without ephod or teraphim" (Hosea 3:4, NRSV). In a similar vein, the breastplate was said to atone for those who perverted justice, in particular neglect of the civil laws. This is why it is called the breastplate of judgement.
Rashi explains that the word can have three meanings: "the words of the claims of the litigants, the verdict itself and the execution of the punishment, be it death, lashes or money." Here the breast-plate, which holds the Urim and Thumim, is said to prove the truth or not of the witnesses in court cases where there is dispute or suspicion of deliberate deception. Don Abravanel adds that the breastplate was called the "breastplate of decision" because "when asked a question, the High Priest could use it to give a terse yes-or-no answer". Sarna supports this by asserting that the breast-plate is "a device for determining the divine will - 'The lot is cast into the lap, But its every decision is from the L-RD' (Proverbs 16:33, NASB)".
Throughout history, in all nations and languages, the administration of justice has always been accompanied by pomp and ceremony. Everyone in the court rises when the judge enters and remains standing until the judge has seated themselves; the judge may wear a robe or wig, is referred to as 'My lord' or 'Your Honour' and may often be given the title, "The Honourable Judge ...". Barristers too wear gowns and wigs and there is an elaborate protocol both for addressing the bench, each other, the jury and the witnesses. This undeniably makes the process of law difficult for non-legal professionals to understand, but also serves to preserve the solemnity and seriousness of what is taking place. Deceiving the court - known as perjury, telling lies when under oath - and refusing to accept the court's authority - known as contempt of court - are both classed as criminal offences for which severe fines or even imprisonment can be imposed. Justice must not only be done, it must be seen to be done and anything that interferes with or impairs that process is vigorously punished.
The prophet Isaiah also uses another word translated word 'breastplate' - sometimes thought to be body-armour - and makes a slightly different connection: "And He put on righteousness like a breastplate, and a helmet of salvation on His head; and He put on garments of vengeance for clothing, and wrapped Himself with zeal as a mantle" (Isaiah 5:17, NASB). This picture visualises the L-rd Himself putting on armour - with a breastplate of , righteousness - before repaying the nations for their lack of righteousness, justice and truth - all qualities mentioned by Rashi's comment above. The breastplate of righteousness also appears as one of the components of the armour of G-d in Rav Sha'ul's letter to the Ephesians: "Stand firm therefore, having girded your loins with truth, and having put on the breastplate of righteousness" (Ephesians 6:14, NASB), where it is connected again with truth. Here the believers are being equipped for spiritual warfare against the principalities and powers of wickedness in the heavenly realms, so that having done everything, they can still stand and emerge victorious.
The last mention of the word 'breastplate' in the Bible is in another of Rav Sha'ul's letters: "But since we are of the day, let us be sober, having put on the breastplate of faith and love, and as a helmet, the hope of salvation" (1 Thessalonians 5:8, NASB). This time, however, while the helmet of salvation remains the same, the breastplate is now of faith and love, giving us more information about what righteousness looks like. Justice and righteousness must both be based on faith and love; we "speak the truth in love" (Ephesians 4:15, NASB), love "does not rejoice in unrighteousness but rejoices with the truth" (1 Corinthians 13:6, NASB). Allowing injustice to prevail or favouring rich or poor in court shows no real love, either to the favoured or to the unfavoured - justice has not been done. As the Torah insists: "You shall not distort justice; you shall not be partial, and you shall not take a bribe, for a bribe blinds the eyes of the wise and perverts the words of the righteous. Justice, and only justice, you shall pursue, that you may live and possess the land which the L-RD your G-d is giving you" (D'varim 16:19-20, NASB).
The High Priest wore the breastplate on the front of his garments when he entered before the L-rd, whenever he was serving in his official capacity as High Priest. As he ministered, the skillfully designed and crafted breastplate, carrying the tokens of the twelve tribes of Israel, pronounced his righteousness before him. The colours of blue, purple and scarlet yarn, twisted with the white linen, made a startling design that would catch the eye to frame the cut and sparkling jewels. Containing the Urim and Thumim to unambiguously know G-d's will, the breastplate enabled the High Priest to impartially and perfectly administer justice among the people. Whenever anyone looked at the High Priest, they saw the symbols of G-d's righteousness.
Rav Sha'ul tells us that by G-d's doing, we "are united with the Messiah Yeshua. He has become wisdom for us from God, and righteousness and holiness and redemption as well!" (1 Corinthians 1:30, CJB). When we are "in Christ", His righteousness is upon us. We are urged to "clothe yourselves with the Lord Yeshua the Messiah; and don't waste your time thinking about how to provide for the sinful desires of your old nature" (Romans 13:14, CJB). Like a breastplate, we carry the name of Yeshua into battle so that, having done all, we can resist the attacks of the enemy and stand firm in Him. Yeshua is that brilliantly crafted design, the eye-catching splash of dazzling colour in an otherwise drab world washed out and faded by the perpetual presence of sin. It is Yeshua in us who draws people to the Father as they see His treasure, the finely cut sparkling jewels in these vessels of clay (2 Corinthians 4:7). Our Father in heaven is the master designer and craftsman who, by His Spirit, builds the image of His Son in our hearts, transforming us to be like Yeshua the High Priest of Israel.
Further Study: James 2:1-6
Application: Do you have Yeshua emblazoned on your breastplate? Are you going into battle with Him as your armour and defence? Check in at the armoury today and make sure you have the right tools for the job!
© Jonathan Allen, 2012
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