Notes on Modesty

Written by Frank Jamerson.

I.“Also for Adam and his wife the Lord God made tunics of skin, and clothed them” (Gen. 3:21).

In recent years some have begun arguing that this is God’s standard for modest apparel. They quote Gesenius’ Hebrew Lexicon which defines the tunic as “generally with sleeves, coming down to the knees, rarely to the ankles,” and contend that the garment must come at least to the knees. They do not bind the opinion of those who say it means “to the ankles,” nor that it must have sleeves.

A. I do not know Hebrew, but since hearing this argument, I talked with two brethren who are students of the language (Dan King and Marty Pickup), and both of them said that the Hebrew word does not give the length of the garment God made for Adam. It is assumption to say that God made the tunic for modesty purposes (for a husband and wife). “Some scholars think the implication was that they needed better protection from the weather and environment. I do not know, and on this point I do not care because our opinions and inferences are no basis for a law” (Jere Frost, Gospel Truths, March, 1999, p. 10).

B. Scholars who give definitions give them from Biblical periods from which we have evidence. The Hebrew word is a general word, much like our word “dress.” If I said that my grandmother purchased a dress from Sears-Roebuck - how long was it? Likely it was to the ankle and had long sleeves, but you could not prove it from the word “dress.”

C. Jere Frost commented: “I readily confess that I do not know much about the Garden of Eden garment. My brethren who would bind it seem to know a great deal about it. I am ready to be convinced. We know a good deal about tunics of some centuries later. But how the tunic in Eden compared to a Hebrew, Arab, Greek, or Roman tunic made hundreds upon hundreds of years later compared to it, I do not know. Appeal was made to Gesenius in particular and to scholarship in general for a description of the garment, which description thereafter they make our standard. I respect scholarship and am happy to hear what scholars have to say, so let’s take a look together at what they say about the Hebrew word for the Garden garment (kethoneth) and its Greek equivalent (chiton).

“...(A) tunic, an inner garment next the skin (Levit. 16:4); also worn by women (Cant. 5:3; 2 Sam. 13:18); generally with sleeves coming down to the knees, rarely to the ancles” (Gesenius, page 420).

“ The three normal body garments, the ones most mentioned in the Scriptures...kethoneth (GR. Chiton), a long-sleeved tunic worn over the sadhin, likewise a shirt with sleeves” (International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, page. 876). Commenting on Jesus’ statement in Mt. 5:40, the author said,  “Here the ‘coat’ (Heb. Kethoneth) was the ordinary ‘inner garment’ worn by the Jew of the day, in which he did the work of the day (see Mt. 24:18; Mk. 13:16). It resembled the Roman ‘tunic,’ corresponding most nearly to our ‘long shirt,’ reaching below the knees always, and, in case it was designed for dress occasions, reaching almost to the ground” (p. 877).

 “Men’s tunics were normally short and coloured; women’s tunics were ankle-length and blue, with embroidered edges to the V-neck...” (Manners and Customs of Bible Times, by Gower, pages 12,14).

“We learn from the above that the kethoneth was a tunic. It reached ‘below the knees


always.’ The woman’s reached the ankles. It was long-sleeved...If it is wrong and sinful for

any part of a woman’s thigh to show because the garment went to the knee, then it is wrong for any part of the knee to show because it reached ‘below the knee always.’ It is also wrong and sinful for a biceps or elbow to show because the kethoneth was long sleeved” (Gospel Truths, March, 1999, pg. 10,11). The fact is that we do not know the length of the garment God made for Adam and Eve.

D. “I suspect that one reason many are arguing this (to the knee) is because it fits nicely with what they already practice...But this presses the meaning of the Hebrew term more than is legitimate, making the word appear to say more than it really does.  The Hebrew word is not that specific” (Notes from Marty Pickup). I might add that, for the same reason,  in other cultures or times, brethren would have contended that proper dress must go to the ankles and have sleeves. (In fact, about 45 years ago, I knew a preacher who believed that women should not wear sleeveless garments, but he was not contentious about it.)

II. The law of Moses described the priest’s dress as, “And you shall make for them linen trousers to cover their nakedness; they shall reach from the waist to the thighs” (Ex. 28:42).

            A. The I.S.B.E. defines “breeches” (trousers, drawers) as “a garment, extending from the waist to or just below the knee or to the ankle, and covering each leg separately” (p. 518).

B. “The word yarek, translated ‘thigh’ is also translated “loin, side, or base” (New Brown-Driver-Briggs-Gesenius, 437; Theological Wordbook of the OT. 1, 916). So the word is not as absolute and specific a term as people are trying to make it. The alternate translations of yarek and the clear connection of this word with the area of the genitals argues against the supposition that the priestly breeches came all the way to the knee. It suggests that they actually ended further up the leg, at mid-thigh” (Notes from Marty Pickup). (It is translated “loin” in Gen. 46:26; Ex. 1:5; “side” in Ex. 26:22,23,27; 36:27,28,32; Lev. 1:11; Num. 3:29,35; 2 Kgs. 16:14; and “thigh” twenty-one times - some of them - Gen. 32:25; Ps. 45:3; Song of Sol. 3:8; 7:1.) The text says “to the thighs” - not “to the bottom” or “to the top” of the thighs.

III. The argument is being made that we can bring over Old Testament teaching without bringing it over as law.

A. We can certainly learn God’s attitude toward obedience and disobedience by looking at His treatment of people in the Old Testament (1 Sam. 15:22; 1 Cor. 10:6,11). Does this mean that we should bring over “principles” from the Old Law and teach them as the law of Christ?

B. The O.T. taught tithing (Lev. 27:30), and those who disobeyed were robbing God (Mal. 3:8). Should we bring over the “principle” of tithing in order not to rob God?

C. The O.T. taught that nakedness was a shame (Gen. 3:10,11; Ex. 32:25). If we could determine from the O.T. the exact length of garments, should we bring that over as God’s law today?


IV. The argument is being made that if you cannot say exactly what is modest, you cannot say anything is immodest.

A. The law forbad work on the Sabbath day (Ex. 20:8,9), but exactly when was an action work? The Pharisees had the solutions: if you were a teacher, you could not read; if you were a tailor, you could not have a needle on you; if you were a scribe, you could not write; if your house was burning, you could not ask anyone to put it out, nor forbid him to do so...etc.,etc. After all, if you don’t know exactly when an action is work, you cannot say anything is work.

B. The N.T. teaches us to give “as prospered” (1 Cor. 16:1,2). Exactly what percentage does that demand? If you cannot say exactly what percentage a Christian must give, can you say anything is wrong?

C. In Corinth men who had “long hair” were condemned (1 Cor. 11:14). Exactly how long would that have to be? And exactly how “short” could a woman’s hair be before it was shameful? If you cannot say exactly how long or short, does that mean that you cannot say anything was too long or short?

D. The N.T. mentions gluttony (Mt. 11:19; Lk. 7:34). Is it sinful to harm the body by over-eating? If so, exactly which bite made it gluttonous? If you cannot say which bite made it gluttony, does that mean that you cannot say anything is gluttonous?

E. The N.T. teaches modesty:

“In like manner also, that the women adorn themselves in modest apparel, with propriety and moderation, NOT with braided hair or gold or pearls or costly clothing, BUT which is proper for women professing godliness, with good works” (1 Tim. 2:9,10).

“Do NOT let your beauty be that outward adorning of arranging the hair, of wearing gold, or of putting on fine apparel; BUT let it be the hidden person of a gentile and quiet spirit, which is very precious in the sight of God” (1 Pet. 3:3,4).

1. The “not...but” idiom puts the emphasis on the things following the “but” (cp. Jn. 6:27; 1 Cor. 1:17). He is not saying that braiding the hair, wearing gold or pearls or fine apparel are wrong, but that something else is superior.

2. Some argue that the “fine apparel” was revealing, therefore sinful, but this does not fit the context. Fine apparel is in the same category as wearing gold or pearls, or arranging the hair, and none are wrong unless abused.

3. Both texts teach against emphasizing the hair, gold, pearls or apparel. Exactly how much time can a woman spend on her hair, or how much gold and pearls can she wear, or how much can she spend on her apparel? If you cannot set an exact time or amount, does that mean that you cannot say anything is too much?

4. A person could certainly be immodest by wearing a garment too short, too low or too tight, but exactly how long, high or tight must it be? If you cannot tell exactly how much slack must be in the cloth, does that mean that you cannot say anything is too tight?

5. Does this sound like “exactly when is an action work”? It does to me, and it seems to me to be from the same fallacious thinking.



Concerning drawing specific lines for modesty, Jere Frost wrote: “Well, someone asks, ‘how long do you think it should be?’ I must confess that in terms of inches, I do not know. And I also

readily acknowledge that everybody draws the line somewhere. But no one can draw the line for everyone else. My great-grandmother may have thought an exposed calf was risque (and in her culture it may have been). But her opinion, or yours or mine, is not someone else’s standard...

“Ostentation and lasciviousness are explicitly prohibited. We can teach these principles without fear of successful contradiction, and do it in the full confidence that the teaching is right and true. We can preach that women (and men) should wear modest clothing as it relates to sexuality and being sensually suggestive. But there is no application as to style or length of apparel. The principle is clear and plain. It is powerful and reasonable. It will commend itself to the conscience of a God-fearing woman. But arbitrariness and man-made laws are just that - human opinion and man-made laws. Even if they are respected and followed, they do not constitute the divine will and must forever be a tradition. It is the very essence of what produces a creed and party. The devotees thereof may think of themselves as those who practice holiness, and thus critically reflect on those who do not share their judgment. The sad truth is that they have simply been impressed by their own traditions”(Jere Frost, Gospel Truths, Dec., 1998, p. 7). Amen!  

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