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LINEN. Thread or cloth, prepared from the fiber of flax. The use of flax fiber for cloth and other purposes is very ancient, being traceable as far back as the Stone Age. Flax was cultivated in Mesopotamia, Assyria, and Egypt, and linen was well known in the ancient biblical world. Ancient Egypt was noted for its fine linen and carried on a thriving export with neighboring nations. Flax was being cultivated in the tropical climate around Jericho at the time of the conquest (Josh.2.6). Having learned the art in Egypt (Exod.35.25), Hebrew women practiced the spinning and weaving of flax (Prov.31.13, Prov.31.19). The clans of Beth Ashbea attained eminence as workers in linen (1Chr.4.21).

Linen is a fabric woven from yarn made of the fine fibers of the stalk of the flax plant. The term also designates clothes and garments made of linen. Since the bleached fabric was often flashing white, the term “whiteness” (shesh) also means linen. The term “fine linen” in the Bible refers to sheer, often almost translucent material of the expensive finely woven linen worn by royal and wealthy people or the priests of the Temple.

The flax plant was common in Egypt, being cultured extensively in the fertile Nile Valley. Egyptian linen and weaving was considered the best of ancient times, so much so that some could not distinguish the fabric from silk. Flax also was introduced into Pal. early and was grown in the Jordan Valley near Jericho (Josh 2:6) and also in Galilee. The flax stalk grew quite tall and was cut or pulled out by the roots near full growth, dried for a time in the sun, then pounded vigorously to separate the fine fibers, washed and bleached. The yarn, so fine at times as to be almost invisible, was then ready for the weaver. Linen weavers were known in Moses’ day before the entrance into Canaan and were considered a gift of God to the people (Exod 35:35; 38:23). Later we are informed of a guild of linen textile manufacturers at Bethashbea: “the house of linen workers at Bethashbea” (1 Chron 4:21). Generally women did the spinning and weaving in the home; already during the Exodus women were adept at this ancient art: “And all women who had ability spun with their hands, and brought what they had spun in blue and purple and scarlet stuff and fine twined linen” (Exod 35:25).

In Biblical times linen was used for many purposes. It was popular material for clothing of many kinds and for sheets, curtains, sails of ships, for wrapping scrolls, etc. Shesh, or fine linen, always was used for the garments of the priests in the Temple. Regarding Aaron it is said, “And you shall weave the coat in checker work of fine linen, and you shall make a turban of fine linen, and you shall make a girdle embroidered with needlework. And for Aaron’s sons...you shall make for them linen breeches to cover their naked flesh; from the loins to the thighs they shall reach” (28:39-42). The tunic, headdress and other articles of clothing the priests wore also were made of fine linen (39:27-29). Some of the fine linen woven in Pal. was the best in the world, even preferred by some to the linen which was manufactured in Egypt. The weavers in Pal. were able to make linen almost as fine as silk. It was so sheer and thin that it was diaphanous and cool in hot weather. The shirt people wore close to the body was made of fine linen. The material was also bleached white and the priests appeared in glittering white apparel.

Fine linen is such splendid cloth that sometimes trs. of the Bible have rendered the term “silk.” When the Lord speaks of punishing Israel He includes the taking away of the finery of clothing: “In that day the Lord will take away the finery of the anklets, the headbands,...the sashes...the festal robes, the mantles, the cloaks,...the garments of gauze, the linen garments, the turbans, and the veils” (Isa 3:18-23). In the same vein, the Lord speaks of His blessings to Israel in terms of beautiful cloth and clothing, “I clothed you also with embroidered cloth and shod you with leather, I swathed you in fine linen and covered you with silk....Thus you were decked with gold and silver; and your raiment was of fine linen, and silk, and embroidered cloth” (Ezek 16:10-13). David wore garments made of this fine linen (Gr. byssos) when the Ark was removed: “David was clothed with a robe of fine linen, as also were all the Levites who were carrying the ark, and the singers, and Chenaniah the leader of the music of the singers; and David wore a linen ephod. So all Israel brought up the ark of the covenant of the Lord with shouting” (1 Chron 15:27, 28).

The rich man in the parable of the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19), was dressed in fine linen, considered the clothing of wealthy people. It is possible that linen was also used for fishing nets (Isa 19:8, 9) and for drapes and beautiful hangings (Esth 1:6). Linen material also was dyed in many brilliant colors.

The material was cheaper and less durable when the linen yarn or flaxen yarn was mixed with other yarn such as wool and cotton. The Heb. word shaatnez signified garments or cloth made of two types of thread. God forbade the Israelites to wear garments made of such materials (Lev 19:19; Deut 22:11). Silk was used in ancient Pal., but it was difficult to obtain and very costly; it had to be imported by caravan from the Far E.

Without a doubt linen ranked with wool as one of the most common fabrics in the ancient world. (See CLOTH, LEATHER.)


L. M. Wilson, Ancient Textiles from Egypt (1933); A. E. Bailey, Daily Life in Bible Times (1943); M. Radin, The Life of the People in Biblical Times (1948); G. M. Crowfoot, Linen Textiles from the Cave of Ain Feshkha in the Jordan Valley; Palestine Exploration Quarterly (1951); F. H. Wight, Manners and Customs of Bible Lands (1953); G. E. Wright, “Israelite Daily Life,” The Biblical Archaeologist (1955); M. T. Gilbertson, The Way It Was In Bible Times (1959); H. Daniel-Rops, Daily Life in Palestine at the Time of Christ (1962); J. M. Myers, “Linen” in IDB, Vol. 3 (1962).

International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (1915)

Thread or cloth made of flax.

1. History:

2. General Uses:

Linen was used, not only in the making of garments of the finer kinds and for priests, but also for shrouds, hangings, and possibly for other purposes in which the most highly prized cloth of antiquity would naturally be desired.

3. Priestly Garments:

4. Other Garments:

5. Shrouds:

The Egyptians used linen exclusively in wrapping their mummies (Herod. ii.86). As many as one hundred yards were used in one bandage. Likewise, the Hebrews seem to have preferred this material for winding-sheets for the dead, at least in the days of the New Testament (Mt 27:59; Mr 15:46; Lu 23:53; Joh 19:40; 20:5 ) and the Talmud (Jerusalem Killayim 9:32b).

6. Hangings:

The use of twisted linen (shesh moshzar) for fine hangings dates back to an early period. It was used in the tabernacle (Ex 26:1; 27:9; 35; 36; 38; Josephus, Ant, III, vi, 2), in the temple (2Ch 3:14), and no doubt in other places (Mishna, Yoma’, iii.4). Linen cords for hangings are mentioned in the description of the palace of Ahasuerus at Shushan (Es 1:6).

7. Other Uses:

Other uses are suggested, such as for sails, in the imaginary ship to which Tyre is compared (Eze 27:7), but judging from the extravagance of the other materials in the ship, it is doubtful whether we may infer that such valuable material as linen was ever actually used for this purpose. It is more likely, however, that it was used for coverings or tapestry (Pr 7:16), and possibly in other instances where an even, durable material was needed, as in making measuring lines (Eze 40:3).