Scarlet: shani (Strong’s 8144)
Root: שָׁנִי (shin, nun, yod) [Sounds like: sh’Nee]
There has been much written on the scarlet thread that weaves its way through the Old Testament (Tanakh), the Jewish Rabbinic writings (Talmud) and into the New Testament (B’rit Chadashah). And although there are all sorts of theories and suppositions we are going to look strictly at what is presented in the Bible.
The scarlet thread and Tamar’s first born
The first time we come across the word shani (scarlet) is in Genesis 38. One of Yeshua’s great, great, great Grandmother’s was Tamar. With great difficulty and courage she claimed her rights as a woman and placed herself in a situation that would benefit herself and the future of the Messiah. Tamar is denied her legal rights by her father-in-law. To protect her rights she uses the only thing she has left to give: her body. She plays the harlot and tricks her father-in-law into impregnating her, allowing her the right to remain in the family with full support. This is not easy for us to identify with and we may, in fact, find ourselves judging Tamar as this hardly seems like virtuous behaviour. However, it’s important to keep in mind that God rewards Tamar. She conceives twins and it is through her line that King David, and eventually the Messiah Yeshua, come into existence on earth. Here is the description of Tamar’s birth experience:
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 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 is a complicated verse. Who is the first born? Zerah is not the true first born, but neither can Perez claim that title absolutely. To God there is only one true First Born, His only Son, the redeemer Messiah sent to save the people from their sins. Zerah’s name means to rise, to dawn, to come forth, but it is Yeshua who is the risen Messiah, the Morning Star (Revelation 22:16), and the first born who comes forth to be a Saviour.
Zerah’s twin Perez, whose name means “to breach or to break”, actually does break through what was seemingly meant to be the right of his brother. It is through the line of Perez, not Zerah (whose name means to arise/dawn/come forth) that Yeshua comes forth to be the salvation of the earth.
Zerah does not live up to his name nor does he live up to the fact that he was meant to be the first born. What we do know about Zerah is that his descendants are eventually wiped out because of Zerah’s great grandson, Achan, who steals from the LORD’s treasury. As punishment God allows the line of the Zerahites to be completely annihilated. (Joshua 7:16-26).
What does that say about the scarlet thread?! If scarlet represents sins then surely Zerah’s descendants were drenched in them. Is the scarlet thread a curse or a blessing? In the case of Zerah and his descendants it seems to be a curse.
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 takes on the curse of the scarlet thread and become a sacrifice for us all.
Rahab and the Scarlet Thread
Many years later the scarlet thread makes 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. She heard of the rumours of this powerful Hebrew God, YHWH, and with wisdom she recognized that this was no false god. This is the true God. She also recognized that the wise thing to do would be to be on the right side of this powerful God. She may not have known the loving God quite yet, but she certainly knew what side to be on. As a result of her wisdom she offered to hide Joshua’s spies, Caleb and Pinchas. In return for her courage and kindness she asked to be spared when the Hebrew people would ascend on their lands. She asks the Hebrew people to swear to her by YHWH, not swear to me by your God. In her wisdom she recognizes the power of the holy name of 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 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 in the window.
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.
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, promises to spare all the Hebrew homes if they place a sign of blood on their doorposts (Exodus 12:13). They are 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 were most likely there during 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 passover you and your family, as YHWH passed over us. Rahab was not a Hebrew 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 are including Rahab, the Canaanite, into fellowship as a believer in the Hebrew God. It is perhaps because of this inclusion that Rahab eventually marries a Hebrew and becomes an in-law to the Jewish faith and, ultimately, a direct ancestor of Yeshua HaMashiach (Jesus, the Messiah). This second named woman in the genealogy of Yeshua, again, does not line up with what we would consider moral or virtuous. Rahab is a prostitute, but God sees her wisdom and her bravery. He judges her heart and blesses her with the title of great grandmother to the Saviour of the earth.
Lips like a scarlet thread
Generations later the great and decadent King Solomon uses this early symbol of the scarlet thread and incorporates the phrase into his romantic poem. In great detail he describes his lover, including the phrase, Your lips are like a scarlet thread (Song of Solomon 4:3a).
The Song of Solomon is often regarded as symbolic of the Messiah’s deeply rooted love for His people (the Messiah being the male voice and the people being the female voice). Interesting that these same words (scarlet thread) are used twice in instances that include women of Yeshua’s genealogy (Tamar and Rahab).
Scarlet Sins Turn White as Snow
God promises a redeemer, one to wipe clean the sins of the world (Isaiah 59:20-21). One of the most recognized verses in the Old Testament that includes the word scarlet (shani) is found in the prophetic writings of Isaiah:
“Come now, and let us reason together,”
“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 seems that this passage includes 4 colours: scarlet, red, white & crimson. However, the colour “crimson” is actually not a colour at all, but refers to the grub or worm that provides the red colour (also known as the crimson-grub or crimson-worm).
In Psalm 22:1 ,6-8, 14-18 we hear the Messiah’s lament. The death of the Messiah is all over the text. But notice the often overlooked phrase, I am a worm and not a man. This phrase uses the specific word towla-at (crimson-worm), not the generic word for worm (rimmah).
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 (dom) shares the same root for the word red (aw-dehm), which ultimately comes out of the word for man (aw-Dom/‘Adam’). Yeshua, through the shedding of blood, is the crimson worm who removes our scarlet sin so that all that is left is pure white. Our sinful nature needs to be redeemed. Yeshua is the one to do it. [As an aside… for a fascinating suggestion on how the crimson-worm represents Yeshua go here.]
Scarlet is not only tied into the concept of sin but it is also used practically within the confines of the Jewish Temple. Scarlet & Crimson are 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, including the following passage about the making of the priestly garments, known as an ephod:
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. 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 is also mocked as the “King of the Jews” and simultaneously it is implied, as one who wears the scarlet robe, that He is mocked as the “High Priest of the Jews”. This would be a concept more familiar to the Jewish people at the time. Yeshua is 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.
As we head into the Passover (Pesach) season let us remember that Yeshua is the passover lamb; He is 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