The Priestly Robe (Exodus 28:31-35).
Under the ephod Aaron wore a priestly robe. From its skirts were to hang pomegranates of bluey-violet, purpley-red and scarlet all round, and in between there were to be golden bells. Their sound as he went in and out of the Holy Place in some way contributed to his survival.
“And you shall make the robe of the ephod all of bluey-violet, and it shall have a hole for the head in its midst. It shall have a binding of woven work round about its hole, as it were the hole of a coat of mail, that it be not torn.”
The priestly robe was to be of one colour, setting off the multicolours of the ephod. The place for the head to go through was to be round and not formed by a slit, and the hole was to be protected by a binding of woven work, carefully protected just like the hole in a coat of mail. This was to prevent any danger of it being torn. To wear a torn robe within the sanctuary would bring dishonour to it for it would depict that which was less than perfect.
“And on the skirts of it you will make pomegranates of bluey-violet, and of purpley-red and of scarlet, round about its skirts, and bells of gold between them round about. A golden bell, and a pomegranate, a golden bell, and a pomegranate, on the skirts of the robe round about. And it shall be on Aaron to minister, and its sound shall be heard when he goes into the Holy Place before Yahweh, and when he comes out, that he die not.”
Hanging from the bottom of the skirt of the robe were to be, alternately, replica pomegranates and golden bells. The pomegranates were to be made of material of three colours matching the colours used elsewhere. Bells for religious purposes are known from Assyria, where bells were common, and Assyrian fashions would be known in Egypt, and no doubt copied by some. And bells were certainly known in Egypt by 800 BC, both as decoration and as often being attached to children to ensure knowledge of their whereabouts.
The probable idea of the bells is that Aaron must not enter the Holy Place secretly and unawares. The bells would announce his presence as all high servants of a king must be announced. Thus his entry was always to be a public affair, on behalf of the people, and never to be seen as a private audience. This would stress that the Holy Place belonged to Yahweh, and Aaron did not have freedom of movement in it. He came as an underling. To give the impression of trying privately to sneak up on God or as a private person would be to be worthy of death. Thus the emphasis of the bells is on the necessity for his announcement each time he came, and resulted from the fact that there was no one else there to announce him.
The bells could then further be seen as an indication of subservience. They declared that he was not free to move as he would. They indicated that he was always to be under some level of subservience and observation. Compare how horses and cattle would later wear bells as subservient to man because they too were under control and so that they could be found by means of the sound of the bells.
The pomegranates, like the bread of the presence, probably spoke of the fruitfulness of the land that God intended to give them. Pomegranates are often mentioned with this in mind (Numbers 13:23; Numbers 20:5; Deuteronomy 8:8; see also Song of Solomon 4:13; Song of Solomon 6:11; Song of Solomon 7:12; Joel 1:12; Haggai 2:19) and may have been seen as especially suitable for depiction on the robe, possibly matching the shape of the bells (round metal ones with a piece of metal inside to make the noise). Thus they may have been intended in the eyes of the people to indicate their request for the fruitfulness of the land.
Or the bells with their music and the pomegranates with their wholesomeness may have been intended to indicate happiness and fruitfulness. To enter into a king's presence in a gloomy state was to be in danger of death. Thus the thought here may be that Aaron must remember that he must enter God's presence with happiness, happiness at the God-given fruitfulness of the land and with the joyful sound of bells.
Or the idea may be that the bells were important because by hearing the bells the people could participate in what Aaron was doing and could participate with him in thought as they heard him moving about, and that for Aaron to deliberately act in such a way as to prevent this was to be worthy of death. He must ever remember what his position was, and to go in without their being aware would make him as one who went in as an individual regardless of the fact that he was the people's representative. Proper reverence always had to be observed.
Sir 45:9 gives the interpretation held by some many centuries later and explained it as follows: “He compassed him with pomegranates and with many golden bells round about, that as he went there might be a sound, and a noise made, that might be heard in the temple, for a memorial to the children of his people.”
Others have suggested that God may have intended the pomegranates and bells on the hem of the robe to remind the Israelites of the declaration of God's commandments, the pomegranate being possibly a symbol of the spiritually nourishing quality of God's Word and the bells a warning that they should be heeded (compare Proverbs 25:11; Psalms 19:8-11; Deuteronomy 8:3). Or there is the view that the bells were a symbol of the sounding or proclamation of God's Word through testimony, the priest being the teacher of God's word par excellence. The problem with these latter is that while the principles are good, they are rather remote from what is being described, and are nowhere else directly so connected with such ideas. Nor do they explain why their lack in this particular place should be particularly worthy of death.
The later tradition that the High Priest went into the Most Holy Place with a rope tied round his leg so that if he was struck down and the sound of the bells ceased he could be dragged out without anyone desecrating the Most Holy Place is interesting, but is hardly relevant. If true it would, however, bring out the recognition of the awesomeness of entering the Sanctuary at all, and bells (a different type) do later declare the holiness of Yahweh (Zechariah 14:20).