Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion
n his highly engaging look at clothing and identity
in the Bible, Dr. Norman Cohen presents the Bible
as a mirror, reflecting back to us our own personalities,
ambivalences, struggles, and potential for growth.
As the Israelites prepared to engage the Philistines in
battle, Goliath, the Philistine champion, stepped forward
and challenged them to send out a man to fight him.
David, who was a mere lad and had only come to the
battlefield to check on his brothers, volunteered to take
on the giant from Gath (1 Samuel 17:1–37). Saul clothed
David in his own armor, placing a helmet and breastplate
on him and girding him with his sword. As the king, Saul
had the strongest suit of armor of any of the Israelites.
However, as one could imagine, under the weight of the
armor, David was unable to walk, let alone fight. He tried
vainly but simply could not and had to remove the king’s
armor (1 Samuel 17:38–39).
Scholars who study the nature of clothing and appear-
ance vis-à-vis a person’s identity speak of both role
embracement and role distance. Role embracement refers to a close link
between a particular role and the individual’s identity. The role is likely to
be integrated into one’s self-concept. On the other hand, role distance
relates to a lack of inner identification with a particular role. Often, in both
these instances, how the person feels wearing particular clothing that signi-
fies the role is crucial. This is especially the case in contexts that are novel
to the person, when new and different garments are worn. In these cases,
self-awareness is usually heightened.¹ The case of David attempting to wear
Saul’s armor makes these concepts very clear.
Saul’s armor, in Hebrew called
was custom made for him, and he
was head and shoulders taller than anyone in the Israelite camp. The term
and the more frequent
means “measure,” underscoring that
they were tailored to Saul’s measurements.²
however, also means
characteristics” or “qualities,” indicating that the garments represented who
Saul was, his essential nature.
In this interpretive light, David
took off the garments, refusing
to assume Saul’s identity.³ He
had to be his own person if he
were to defeat Goliath and
ensure the survival of God’s
covenanted people. This was
a clear anticipation that David
would eventually replace Saul
as king and establish his own
monarchy. David simply could
not assume Saul’s identity.
But many individuals do at-
tempt to embrace the identity
and role of others, sometimes
to their own detriment. They
assume the appearance of
others and, in so doing, are
essentially changed. Changing clothing can have a
drastic effect on individual behavior. Note the classic
Shakespeare utilizes clothing to
symbolize not only the change of power in Scotland
but also the essential changes in Macbeth himself.
As soon as Macbeth is told that he has been made
the Thane of Cawdor, he says, “The Thane of Cawdor
lives. Why do you dress me in borrowed robes?”
Not only does Macbeth not believe that
the prediction of the witches has come true, but also,
like David, he feels totally uncomfortable in another’s
clothing, another’s identity. Yet, by accepting the new
garments and new role, he also loses himself while
taking on the Thane of Cawdor’s traits. Macbeth’s
dressing in “borrowed robes” effects his change into
a monstrous murderer. The moment he becomes the
Thane, he cannot stop contemplating the killing of
Duncan so he can become king. His entire being has
changed. And after killing Duncan, Macbeth rapidly
becomes a control- and power-hungry madman.
Unfortunately, as Shakespeare emphasizes, Macbeth’s new title and role
never fit him. His title, as Shakespeare says, “hangs loose about him, like a
giant’s robe upon a dwarfish thief” (5.2.21–22). Macbeth simply does not fit
properly into his “borrowed robes.” He should have never accepted the title
of Thane of Cawder.
In contemplating the implications of David’s actions, his rejecting Saul’s
armor and preferring to face Goliath with merely his slingshot and his shep-
herd’s bag full of stones, can we think of times when we attempted to wear
someone else’s symbolic garments that simply did not fit us? Sometimes,
we might have even tried every which way to make them fit. Did we ever
undertake a role or assume a position that did not match who we were?
Were we seduced by the beauty or cost of the clothing, or rather, were we
insightful enough to realize that the clothes just were not us: they didn’t
fit our personalities, goals, or
values? Did we have any sense
of role distance?
Social Psychology of Clothing
to 1 Samuel 17:38.
to 1 Samuel 17:39.
Erica M., “Macbeth and the Clothes
That Make the Man,”
Unmasking Ourselves: Interpreting
Biblical Texts on Clothing & Identity
© 2012 by Norman J. Cohen.
Permission granted by Jewish
Lights Publishing, P.O. Box 237,
Woodstock, VT 05091;
David and Goliath:
Donning and Removing Saul’s Armor
Rabbi Norman J. Cohen ‘71, Ph.D. ‘77,
Provost Emeritus; Professor of Midrash, HUC-JIR/New York
Leonard Everett Fisher, "David and King Saul" from
David and Goliath
acrylic on paper, 1993.