Scarlet: shani (Strong’s 8144)
Root: שָׁנִי (shin, nun, yod)
Sounds like: shaw’Nee
There are many words that we associate strongly with the Judeo-Christian beliefs: love, hope, faith redemption, wisdom. Not many people think to associate the word shani (scarlet) with their faith, but it really does have an interesting footprint in the Bible.
The decadent king Solomon incorporated the symbol of the scarlet thread into his romantic poem. In great detail he described a lover saying, (from the male voice):
Song of Solomon 4:3a
Your lips are like a scarlet thread [k-khut ha-shani]
The Song of Solomon is often regarded as symbolic of the Messiah’s deeply rooted love for His people (the Messiah being the grooms voice, and His people the bride). Throughout the Tanakh there are many poignant hints that point to the future Messiah. The scarlet thread seems to be a metaphor that weaves its way through scriptures, uniting the Tanakh (Old Testament) to the B’rit Chadashah (New Testament).
A scarlet thread found its way into the story of two women, Tamar (Genesis 38) and Rahab (Joshua 2), Solomon’s not too distant ancestors. They spoke words from their lips which rescued themselves and brought Salvation (Yeshua) to all humanity.
Yeshua’s (Jesus’) genealogy in the book of Matthew listed five women, including Tamar and Rahab, as well as Ruth, the wife of Uriah (Bathsheba), and Mary, Yeshua’s mother. These women stood apart from what was socially accepted female behaviour. One pretended to be a prostitute, one was a prostitute, two were foreigners of pagan religions (Canaanite & Moabite), two were widows, one was an adulteress (although she may not have had much say in the situation), and two had pregnancies outside of marriage. Yet these were the women that Matthew found worth mentioning.
The scarlet thread and Tamar’s first born
The first time we come across the word shani (scarlet) is in Genesis 38. This is the story of Tamar, who was listed as a direct ancestor of Yeshua (Jesus) in Matthew’s genealogy.
Tamar was faced with a great challenge. Her first two husbands were brothers; when the first brother died she married the second brother. When the second husband died her father-in-law did not want her to marry his third son. This was the custom, but out of fear he tried to keep Tamar out of the family.
But Tamar was a formidable woman and with great courage she claimed her rights as a widow. She did what she needed to do, to survive. Tamar was denied her legal rights by her father-in-law. To protect herself, she used the only thing she had any control over: her body.
Tamar played the harlot and tricked her father-in-law into impregnating her, allowing her the right to remain in the family with full support. This story is challenging for us to identify with, and we may, in fact, find ourselves judging Tamar for what we see as questionable behaviour. However, it’s important to keep in mind that God rewarded Tamar. She conceived twins, and it’s through Tamar’s line that King David, and eventually the Messiah Yeshua, came into existence. Tamar was the first of five women listed in Matthew’s genealogy of Yeshua (Matthew 1:3). Her story is an important one, and her birth experience highlighted the uniqueness of this ancestral line, leading to the Messiah:
Genesis 38: 27-30
It came about at the time she [Tamar] was giving birth, that behold, there were twins in her womb. Moreover, it took place while she was giving birth, one put out a hand, and the midwife took and tied a scarlet (thread) [shani] on his hand, saying, “This one came out first.”
But it came about as he drew back his hand, that behold, his brother came out. Then she said, “What a breach you have made for yourself!” So he was named Perez [meaning ‘to breach’]. Afterward his brother came out who had the scarlet thread on his hand; and he was named Zerah [meaning, ‘to arise/dawn/come forth’].
This gets a bit complicatedh. Who was the first born? Zerah was not the true first born, but neither can Perez claim that title. Zerah’s name meant to rise, to dawn, to come forth, like a seedling. Not surprisingly the Hebrew word for seed is zera.
Zerah’s twin Perez, whose name meant “to breach or to break”, actually did break through what was traditionally meant to be the right of his brother. It was through the line of Perez, not Zerah, that Yeshua came forth to be the salvation of the earth. He would be the little seedling coming forth to save the world through the breach.
Ultimately I think we are to understand Zerah as a false first born… someone who reached for the task but never got there. Perez broke through and became the ancestor of the true First Born, the Messiah who took on the curse of the scarlet thread and became the sacrifice for us all.
Zerah did not live up to his name, nor did he live up to the fact that he was meant to be the first born. What we do know about Zerah was that his descendants were eventually wiped out because Zerah’s great grandson, Achan, stole from YHWH’s treasury. As punishment, the line of the Zerahites were annihilated and God did not save a remnant (Joshua 7:16-26).
Rahab and the Scarlet Thread
Many years later the scarlet thread made a reappearance. A Canaanite woman risked her life for a few Hebrew men and a God she did not yet know.
Rahab lived as a harlot and an innkeeper. At some point she heard of the rumours of the3 powerful Hebrew God, YHWH. With wisdom she recognized that this was no false god; this Hebrew God, called YHWH, was the true God. Rahab may not have had a personal relationship with YHWH at this point, but she certainly knew what side to be on. As a result, she offered to hide Joshua’s spies.
In return for her courage and kindness, Rahab asked to be spared when the Hebrew army ascended on Jericho. In her formal request she made the spies swear to her by YHWH. She did not say by “your God” rather she recognized YHWH as The God:
[Rahab:] “Now therefore, please swear to me by YHWH, since I have dealt kindly with you, that you also will deal kindly with my father’s household, and give me a pledge of truth, and spare my father and my mother and my brothers and my sisters, with all who belong to them, and deliver our lives from death.”
So the men said to her, “Our life for yours if you do not tell this business of ours; and it shall come about when YHWH gives us the land that we will deal kindly and faithfully with you.”
Then she let them down by a rope through the window, for her house was on the city wall, so that she was living on the wall. She said to them, “Go to the hill country, so that the pursuers will not happen upon you, and hide yourselves there for three days until the pursuers return. Then afterward you may go on your way.”
The men said to her, “We shall be free from this oath to you which you have made us swear, unless, when we come into the land, you tie this cord of scarlet thread [et tiqvat khut ha-shani] in the window through which you let us down, and gather to yourself into the house your father and your mother and your brothers and all your father’s household. It shall come about that anyone who goes out of the doors of your house into the street, his blood shall be on his own head, and we shall be free; but anyone who is with you in the house, his blood shall be on our head if a hand is laid on him. But if you tell this business of ours, then we shall be free from the oath which you have made us swear.”
She said, “According to your words, so be it.” So she sent them away, and they departed; and she tied the scarlet cord [et tiqvat ha-shani] in the window.
The spies held up their end of the bargain:
And Rahab the harlot and her father’s household and all she had, Joshua spared; and she has lived in the midst of Israel to this day, for she hid the messengers whom Joshua sent to spy out Jericho.
Photo by Deilantha (pixabay.com)
Blood of the Passover:
This idea of a scarlet thread in the window parallels the story of the Passover blood on the door frames of the Jewish homes in Egypt. The final plague of Egypt was to wipe out the first born in all of Egypt. God, however, promised to spare all the Hebrew homes if they placed a sign of blood on their doorposts (Exodus 12:13). They were to roast a lamb for a meal and take the blood of that lamb and mark the door frames of their homes. If this was done, their lives would be spared.
Joshua’s spies most likely lived through the miracle of the first Passover. No doubt that came to mind when they asked Rahab to place a scarlet cord in the window. I imagine their thinking was: we will pass-over you and your family, as YHWH passed over us. Rahab was not of Hebrew descent so there would not be a passover lamb to take blood from. A scarlet cord could stand in the place of the blood. Symbolically they were including Rahab, the Canaanite, into fellowship as a believer in the Hebrew God YHWH.
It was, perhaps, because of this inclusion that Rahab eventually married a Hebrew and became the mother of Boaz. Rahab was the second woman named in the genealogy of Yeshua and, again, she did not line up with what we would consider moral or virtuous. Rahab was a prostitute, but God saw her wisdom and her bravery. He judged her heart and blessed her with the title of great, great grandmother to king David, and ancestor of the Saviour of the earth. Rahab’s son, Boaz, would marry Ruth, the third woman mentioned in Yeshua’s genealogy (Matthew 1:5).
Wearing Scarlet: De-Creation, Re-Creation
The prophet Jeremiah lived during the terrible years of Babylonian threat, in his mind a time of de-creation. Life, during this time, was like living in desolate wilderness, without the light of YHWH, harking back to a time before YHWH put creation in order:
I looked at the earth, and behold, it was a formless and desolate emptiness; and to the heavens, and they had no light.
I looked on the mountains, and behold, they were quaking, and all the hills jolted back and forth. I looked, and behold, there was no human, and all the birds of the sky had fled.
I looked, and behold, the fruitful land was a wilderness, and all its cities were pulled down before YHWH, before His fierce anger.
For this is what YHWH says: “The whole land shall be a desolation, yet I will not execute a complete destruction. For this the earth will mourn, and the heavens above will become dark, because I have spoken, I have purposed, and I have not changed My mind, nor will I turn from it.”
At the sound of the horseman and archer every city flees; they go into the thickets and climb among the rocks; every city is abandoned, and no one lives in them. And you, desolate one, what will you do?
Although you dress in scarlet [shani], although you adorn yourself with jewelry of gold, although you enlarge your eyes with makeup, in vain you make yourself beautiful. Your lovers despise you; they seek your life.
For I heard a voice cry as of a woman in labour, the anguish as of one giving birth to her first child. The voice of the daughter of Zion gasping for breath, stretching out her hands, saying, “Ah, woe to me, for I faint before murderers.”
The people of Jerusalem had turned their attention towards other gods; the lovers (foreign gods) they turned to were not like the Messianic groom in the Song of Solomon. They were not husbands that cared and gently loved them. By following foreign gods, the Hebrew people of Jeremiah’s day lived in wilderness, surrounded by murder, chaos and destruction. They were dressed/drenched in scarlet.
Being dressed in scarlet shows up a few times in the Bible. The valiant wife of Proverbs dressed her household in scarlet (Proverbs 31:21); king Saul dressed “the daughters of Israel” in scarlet (2 Samuel 1:24); the Hebrew “desolate ones” were dressed in scarlet (Jeremiah 4:30).
In Jeremiah’s description, the Hebrew people were dressed in scarlet (literally and metaphorically). In this setting, the woman giving birth to her first child was surrounded by death, but YHWH promised life. There would be a way out.
Cleansing Scarlet Sins
God promised a Redeemer, one to wipe clean the sins of the world (Isaiah 59:20-21) and turn our lives around. One of the most recognized verses in the Old Testament, which included the word scarlet (shani), is found in the prophetic writings of Isaiah:
“Come now, and let us reason together,” says YHWH, “Though be your sins as scarlet [ka-shanim], like snow they will be as white [yal-binu]; though they are red [ya-dima] like crimson [ka-towla], like wool they shall be…”
It appears that this passage included four colours: scarlet, red, white & crimson. However, the colour “crimson” was actually not a colour at all, but referred to the grub or worm that provided the red colour (also known as the crimson-grub or crimson-worm).
Psalm 22 was the Messiah’s lament and it included the often overlooked phrase, I am a worm and not a man. This phrase used the specific word for crimson-worm (towla’at), not the generic word for worm (rimmah):
Psalm 22:1 ,6-8, 14-18
My God, my God, why have You forsaken me? Far from my deliverance are the words of my groaning…
…But I am a (crimson) worm and not a man, a reproach of men and despised by the people. All who see me sneer at me; they separate with the lip, they wag the head, saying, “Commit yourself to YHWH; let Him deliver him; Let Him rescue him, because He delights in him…”
…“I am poured out like water, and all my bones are out of joint; My heart is like wax; It is melted within me. My strength is dried up like a potsherd, and my tongue cleaves to my jaws; and You lay me in the dust of death.”
“For dogs have surrounded me; a band of evildoers has encompassed me; they pierced my hands and my feet. I can count all my bones. They look, they stare at me; they divide my garments among them, and for my clothing they cast lots.”
The blood of the sacrificial lamb, the Messiah, is what sets us free. It is interesting to note that the word blood (dahm) shares the same root for the word red (aw-dehm), which ultimately came out of the Hebrew word for humankind (aw-dahm/‘Adam’). Yeshua, through the shedding of blood, was the crimson worm who would remove our scarlet sin so that all that would be left was pure white. We needed redemption and Yeshua was the one to do it. [As an aside… for a fascinating suggestion on how the crimson-worm represents Yeshua go here.]
Sacrifice and Scarlet String
The book of Leviticus is well know for Jewish regulations and traditions. The ritual for cleansing a leprous house (very similar to the ritual for cleansing a person with leprosy found in Leviticus 14:1-7) reads:
To cleanse the house then, he shall take two birds, cedar wood, a scarlet string [u-sh’ni], and hyssop, and he shall slaughter the one bird in an earthenware vessel over running water. Then he shall take the cedar wood, the hyssop, and the scarlet string [sh’ni], with the live bird, and dip them in the blood of the slaughtered bird as well as in the running water, and sprinkle the house seven times. So he shall cleanse the house with the blood of the bird and with the running water, along with the live bird, the cedar wood, the hyssop, and the scarlet string [u-vish’ni]. However, he shall let the live bird go free outside the city into the open field. So he shall make atonement for the house, and it will be clean.”
The blood of the sacrificed bird cleansed the leprous house and the living bird was bathed in the blood and set free. The leprous scales were symbolically removed and the house was free, just as the leprous scales were removed from the person and they were made clean. It’s an early symbolic reference to the Messiah whose blood would set the people free from the chains of death that weigh us down. It’s the scarlet thread of Tamar’s birth story, and the “pass-over” scarlet rope of Rahab’s story… a symbol of redemption, renewal, and life after death.
Scarlet is not only tied into the concept of sin and redemption, but it was also used practically within the confines of the Jewish Temple. Scarlet and crimson were united together in the Temple curtains/veils:
All the skilled women spun with their hands, and brought what they had spun, in blue and purple and the scarlet material [tola’at ha-shani] and in fine linen.
The Hebrew word for material in this passage is towla-at, which is the same word used for crimson-worm. So it appears that this word evolved from representing the worm to also representing any material coloured scarlet by the worm itself.
This scarlet material (tola’at shani) is found all over the Torah, and had a particular emphasis in decorating the Temple.
“You shall also make a veil of violet, purple, and scarlet material [w-towla’at shani] , and fine twisted linen; it shall be made with cherubim, the work of a skilled embroiderer. Then you shall hang it on four pillars of acacia overlaid with gold, their hooks also of gold, on four bases of silver. You shall hang up the veil under the clasps, and bring in the ark of the testimony there within the veil; and the veil shall serve as a partition for you between the Holy Place and the Most Holy Place.”
The priestly garment (an ephod) also used a lot of scarlet thread:
He made the ephod of gold, and of blue and purple and material of scarlet [we-tola’at shani], and fine twisted linen. Then they hammered out gold sheets and cut them into threads to be woven in with the blue and the purple and the scarlet material [tola’at ha-shani], and the fine linen, the work of a skillful workman.
This beautiful garment of gold, blue, purple and scarlet was made for the High Priest. Exodus 39 continued with more details: the breast-piece had scarlet yarn (Exodus 39:8); the hem, decorated in embroidered pomegranates, included scarlet yarn (Exodus 39:24); the waistband used scarlet yarn (Exodus 39:5); and the sash was made with scarlet yarn (Exodus 39:29).
The High Priest was covered in scarlet and other complimentary colours. Interesting, then, that before Yeshua was hung upon the cross they beat, and mocked, him and dressed him up in a scarlet robe:
Then the governor’s soldiers took Jesus into the Praetorium and gathered the whole company around Him. They stripped Him and put a scarlet robe on Him. And they twisted together a crown of thorns and put it on His head. They put a staff in His right hand and knelt down before Him to mock Him, saying, “Hail, King of the Jews!” And they spat on Him, and took the staff and struck Him on the head repeatedly.
After they had mocked Him, they removed the robe and put His own clothes back on Him. Then they led Him away to crucify Him.
If scarlet represents sin that will be redeemed, then Yeshua having a scarlet robe placed upon Him and then taken off of Him is a word picture that paints a striking image. Our sins are placed upon Him and through His death our sins are stripped away.
Yeshua was also mocked as the “King of the Jews” and simultaneously it was implied, as one who wore the scarlet robe, that He was mocked as the “High Priest of the Jews”. This would be a concept more familiar to the Jewish people at the time. Yeshua was stripped of His scarlet robe and sent to the cross to be a crimson-worm, His red blood shed like the sacrificial lamb of Passover.
When Yeshua died the great Temple curtain, decorated in violet, purple and scarlet, was torn in two. It was the veil which surrounded the Most Holy of Place (the Ark of the Covenant and YHWH’s Presence). No longer was a veil needed to protect us from YHWH’s Presence. Yeshua opened the door so we could face YHWH unashamed.
The scarlet thread, which began with Tamar’s breach birth, ended with the breach death of the YHWH’s Anointed One. If Perez was a “false first-born”, Yeshua was the “true first-born”. In the epic adventure of humanity wrongs were made right. We would grow from false image-bearers to YHWH’s true image bearers. By reflecting Yeshua, YHWH’s unique Son, we become the true children of YHWH that we were born to be.
As we head into the Passover (Pesach) season let us remember that Yeshua was, and is, the Passover Lamb, the blood on the lintel, the scarlet rope in the window, the true First Born, the High Priest of our Hearts, and the King everlasting.
Next week: Lamb