Revisiting SHANI (Scarlet)

About twelve years ago I woke up one morning and my face felt very tight. When I looked in the mirror I was as red as a lobster. I had contracted Scarlet Fever. Thankfully, a strong antibiotic was able to clear me of the disease. This is what I think of when I hear the word “scarlet”.

The Scarlet Thread

The Hebrew word for scarlet (shani) is actually quite fascinating and it shows up in the stories of two women from Yeshua’s (Jesus’) genealogy:

Matthew 1:1-6

The record of the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah, the son of David, the son of Abraham:

Abraham fathered Isaac, Isaac fathered Jacob, and Jacob fathered Judah and his brothers. Judah fathered Perez and Zerah by Tamar, Perez fathered Hezron, and Hezron fathered Ram. Ram fathered Amminadab, Amminadab fathered Nahshon, and Nahshon fathered Salmon. Salmon fathered Boaz by Rahab, Boaz fathered Obed by Ruth, and Obed fathered Jesse. Jesse fathered David the king. David fathered Solomon by her who had been the wife of Uriah [Bathsheba].

In Matthew’s genealogy of Yeshua (Jesus) there were five women listed. 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. Although we know that there were many other women in Jesus’ family tree, it was only these five women that Matthew found worth mentioning. 

Tamar, who played the part of a prostitute to ensure her inheritance, supplied the first instance of scarlet in the Bible:

Genesis 38:27-30

It came about at the time she was giving birth, that behold, there were twins in her womb. Moreover, it took place while she was giving birth, that one baby put out a hand, and the midwife took and tied a scarlet [shani] 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. Afterward his brother came out who had the scarlet [ha-shani] thread on his hand; and he was named Zerah.

With Tamar’s story the scarlet thread was associated with birth and first-borns.

Rahab’s story, on the other hand, was about allegiance, blood, and a symbolic Pass-over. When two Hebrew spies came into Jericho, Rahab recognized these men as followers of YHWH. She promised to help them, if they in turn protected her and her family from death and destruction. They agreed to the oath, on one condition: 

Joshua 2:17-21

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.

Rahab placed a scarlet thread in her window as a symbol of her promise to Hebrew spies. They promised to pass-over her house in their pursuit of Jericho if the scarlet rope remained in her window. As long as the symbol remained, they would spare Rahab and her family. The promise was honoured and Rahab eventually married into the Hebrew family and became a matriarch of Yeshua’s ancestry.

Sins like Scarlet

In writings of the prophet Isaiah, the scarlet thread theme expanded. Scarlet became the symbolic colour of sin and sacrifice.

YHWH called on His people to rethink their sacrificial traditions. True sacrifice was personal:

Isaiah 1:11-18

“What are your many sacrifices to Me?” says YHWH. “I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams and the fat of fattened cattle; and I take no pleasure in the blood of bulls, lambs, or goats. When you come to appear before Me, who requires of you this trampling of My courtyards?

Do not go on bringing your worthless offerings, incense is an abomination to Me. New moon and Sabbath, the proclamation of an assembly— I cannot endure wrongdoing and the festive assembly.

I hate your new moon festivals and your appointed feasts, they have become a burden to Me; I am tired of bearing them.

So when you spread out your hands in prayer, I will hide My eyes from you; yes, even though you offer many prayers, I will not be listening. Your hands are covered with blood.

Wash yourselves, make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your deeds from My sight.

Stop doing evil, learn to do good; seek justice, rebuke the oppressor, obtain justice for the orphan, plead for the widow’s case.

“Come now, and let us debate your case,” says YHWH, “Though your sins are as scarlet [ka-shanim], they shall become as white as snow; though they are red like crimson, they shall be like wool.”

Image (without words) by Alexander Belyaev (

The Scarlet Robe

In the Tanakh the High Priest’s outfit was covered in scarlet and other complimentary colours: 

Exodus 39:2-3

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.

It’s not surprisng then that Yeshua, just before His crucifixion, was mockingly dressed in a scarlet robe.

Matthew 27:28-31

And they stripped Him and put a scarlet [Greek: kokkinen] cloak on Him. And after twisting together a crown of thorns, they put it on His head, and put a reed in His right hand; and they knelt down before Him and mocked Him, saying, “Hail, King of the Jews!” And they spit on Him, and took the reed and beat Him on the head. And after they had mocked Him, they took the cloak off Him and put His own garments back on Him, and led Him away to crucify Him.

They mockers knew what they were doing; it was evident to all the Jewish people who witnessed the horrific scene. Traditionally, the garments of the High Priest were woven with scarlet thread. They dressed Yeshua up like a mock High Priest and then stripped Him of the title. They also dressed him up like a mock King in a crown of thorns with a reed sceptre, and exalted Him on a crucifix throne. Their mockery was His truth.

The spilling of His scarlet blood, like the Passover Lamb, washed away our scarlet sin. He was the breach that surpassed the scarlet thread, symbolically outlined in His ancestor Perez’s birth, and the Passover Lamb which we are reminded of in Rahab’s story.

The colour scarlet carries a heavy weight in the Bible. It symbolized sacrifice and redemption, it pointed to the covenant YHWH has with His people, and it was reflected in Yeshua’s crucifixion. Every word has a purpose in the Bible and they all point to the beautiful conclusion of the story. There is life beyond our final breath… a return to Eden, the beautiful, vibrant, colourful garden Kingdom where a place is prepared for you and for me! HalleluYAH!

For a more detailed look at the Hebrew word for scarlet, click below:


Next week: CAKE

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