Monday, May 31, 2010

A Robe of Righteousness: From Adam to Isaiah

Let thy priests be clothed with righteousness; and let thy saints shout for joy. (Psalms 132:9)
The imagery of a robe of righteousness is one of the more powerful symbols of the Atonement in the Book of Mormon. Yet it is only used twice in that text—once by Nephi and once by his brother Jacob.[1] It is a priestly symbol linked to the Day of Atonement ritual (Leviticus 16) likely influenced by Isaiah, yet at least Jacob's usage seems to also evoke imagery associated with Adam.

Nephi's use of the phrase is found in his Psalm, where he asks, “O Lord, wilt thou redeem my soul?” and “Wilt thou make me that I may shake at the appearance of sin?” (2 Nephi 4:31). In this context of redemption from sin, Nephi pleads, “O Lord, wilt thou encircle me around in the robe of thy righteousness!” (2 Nephi 4:33). Jacob uses the same metaphor in his great sermon on the Atonement:

Wherefore, we shall have a perfect knowledge of all our guilt, and our uncleanness, and our nakedness; and the righteous shall have a perfect knowledge of their enjoyment, and their righteousness, being clothed with purity, yea, even with the robe of righteousness” (2 Nephi 9:14).

A priestly Atonement context here is fairly clear, and I have longed believed that the block of chapters from 6-10 in 2 Nephi are best explained as part of the priestly ritual surrounding the Day of Atonement. However, this passage also seems to include overtones from the Garden of Eden story: Adam and Eve, after partaking of the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil are suddenly aware of their guilt, uncleanness, and nakedness (see Gen 3:6–11) then afterwards clothed by God himself in a holy garment (Gen 3:21; Moses 4:27) prior to him explaining the atonement in terms of animal sacrifice (Moses 5:5-8). In other words, this is Adam as priest. In fact, Jewish legend argues that even before the fall, God made priestly robes of glory for Adam that were just like the robes worn by angels but that these robes were taken from him when he sinned (see Numbers Rabbah 4:6). The venerable John Henry Newman, who left the Church of England to pursue Roman Catholicism, speculated that Adam's awareness of his naked state implied the loss of some other kind of garment first:

Moreover, it may throw light on the meaning of the text to observe, that, whereas we have gained under the Gospel what we lost in Adam, and justification is a reversing of our forfeiture, and a robe of righteousness is what Christ gives, perchance a robe is what Adam lost. If so, what is told us of what he lost, will explain what it is we gain. Now the peculiar gift which Adam lost, is told us in the Book of Genesis; and it certainly seems to have been a supernatural clothing. He was stripped of it by sinning as of a covering, and shrank from the sight of himself.[2]

White linen robes were the clothing of priests and angels. It is what the saints who had overcome would wear on the heavenly throne (Rev 3:4-5; 4:4; 7:9, 13; 15:6; 19:8, 14), just as the Ancient of Days wore a white robe on the heavenly throne (Daniel 7:9). We see this imagery in Job: “I put on righteousness, and it clothed me: my judgment was as a robe and a diadem” (Job 29:14). And a similar metaphor is found in Sirach: “If thou followest righteousness, thou shalt obtain her, and put her on, as a glorious long robe” (Sirach 27:8). But the closest passage to the usage by Nephi and Jacob is found in Isaiah:

I will greatly rejoice in the LORD, my soul shall be joyful in my God; for he hath clothed me with the garments of salvation, he hath covered me with the robe of righteousness, as a bridegroom decketh himself with ornaments, and as a bride adorneth herself with her jewels. (Isaiah 61:10)

The last part of the text here is a little problematic. Alternate versions of 'as a bridegroom decketh himself with ornaments' read “as a bridegroom serving as a priest with a crown,”[3] while the Isaiah Targum has “as the high priest, who is prepared in his garments.”[4] This emphasizes the nature of the metaphor of the covenant relationship between bride and high priest as symbolized by the high priestly robe of righteousness. And this is supported by the context of the entire chapter. Isaiah 61 starts with the anointing of the Lord's servant and his call to release the prisoners and proclaim liberty to the captives (Isa 61:1). It is the day of vengeance (Isa 61:2), or Day of Judgment, and time for the land to be healed (Isa 61:4). Those who are addressed are called priests of Jehovah (Isa 61:6) and participate in the everlasting covenant (Isa 61:8). These are all signs of the jubilee year and the Day of Atonement ritual that begins the jubilee. And this is the text that the Savior chose to read publicly in the synagogue as he began his ministry (Luke 4:16-21).

Further, Isaiah 61 compares well to the story of Adam in Genesis. The consequences of Adam's choice led to captivity to sin and expulsion from paradise into a broken land in need of healing. He was judged yet promised salvation while given holy garments of skin and paired with his bride Eve in exile. In fact, Jewish mythology creates a number of links between Adam and the robe in Isaiah 61. Some of these legends follow Adam's garment through his posterity down to the Levite robes, eventually becoming the robe of righteousness of Isaiah 61:10 that will be worn by the Messiah.[5] The Greek version of an early legend has Eve lamenting to Satan about her lost robes using language very similar to that of Isaiah 61: “And I wept saying, Why have you done this to me. Now I am removed from the righteousness from which I was clothed (The Life of Adam and Eve, 21:2).

The dating of Trito-Isaiah aside, one wonders if Jacob and Nephi are referencing Isaiah 61 here. By their own admission, these brothers are heavily influenced by that great prophet, and Jacob's passage, at the very least, seems to share with Isaiah 61 an allusion to Adam. It's almost as if there were anciently some kind of ritual instruction about atonement and robes that took place in the temple on the Day of Atonement that began with the story of Adam.


1. The robe of righteousness metaphor is also used in several revelations to Joseph Smith, also in a context of exaltation through atonement. See D&C 29:12; 109:76.

2. John Henry Newman, Lectures on Justification (London: J. H. Parker, 1838) 179.

3. Gregory K. Beale, The Book of Revelation: A Commentary on the Greek Text (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 1999) 938.

4. Ibid.

5. Nissan Rubin, Time and Life Cycle in Talmud and Midrash (Brighton, MA: Academic Studies Press, 2008) 42-48.


Joseph Smidt said...

Very interesting. I am impressed with the parallels you point out. It's amazing how often this seems to happen in the scriptures.

Joey Green said...

Thanks for the words of encouragement, Joseph. I believe that there is still a lot of work to be done in exploring the associations the authors of the Book of Mormon made to scripture in the Hebrew Bible.