Scarlet Yarn

During the time of Moses, priests were instructed to dip scarlet yarn into animal blood and use it to sprinkle, and thus purify, the ritually impure (Leviticus 14:6-7, 49-51). But why scarlet yarn? Why not blue or purple, like the yarns used to weave the curtains of the tabernacle (Exodus 26:1)? After all, blue and purple yarns were the most expensive yarns of the ancient world, symbolizing royalty and nobility… The “scarlet yarn” is a translation from the Hebrew ‏שְׁנִי הַתּוֹלַעַת, which literally means “scarlet worm.” According to the Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew Lexicon (BDB), the etymology of the word “scarlet” suggests the coccus ilicis, a scale insect that attaches itself to oak trees native to the western Mediterranean in order to feed (§8144). So what does this bug have to do with scarlet? When a female attaches itself to an oak and dies, its dried body yields scarlet dye. Its death produces the means of purification–a process that undoubtedly foreshadows Christ, whose death on a tree (Acts 5:30; Galatians 3:13; 1 Peter 2:24) poured forth the blood that cleanses us from our sins (Hebrews 9:11-28). May every post on this blog, from now ’til its cyber termination, point people to Christ!

While this symbolism is not made explicit in the immediate Biblical context, the use of scarlet yarn in Old Testament purification rites is noted by the author of Hebrews, who argues that the blood of the covenant was fulfilled by Christ with his own blood.

Moreover, scarlet (or red) as a symbol for blood is widely attested throughout the Bible. A red heifer (Num. 19:1-10) is used in the Old Testament for a purification sacrifice, Israel’s “sins … like scarlet” are likened to the bloodstained hands of murderers (Isa. 1:15, 18), and the dragon (Rev. 12:3) and beast (Rev. 17:3) of Revelation are described as “red” to represent the shedding of innocent blood (Rev. 16:6). The moon turns into “blood” to symbolize divine retribution (Joel 2:31; Rev. 6:12), the “red horse” of warfare inflicts God’s judgment upon evil men (Zech. 6:2; Rev. 6:4), and God’s avenging wrath is demonstrated by his “crimsoned garments” with “lifeblood spattered” on them due to his treading in the winepress of wrath (Isa 63:1-6).

Finally, Christ’s atonement is powerfully expressed through the paradoxical image of believers’ robes that are washed “white in the blood of the Lamb” (Rev. :14), which fulfills Isaiah’s prophesy: “though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red like crimson, they shall become like wool.” A yarn (wool) dyed in scarlet invokes these themes of guilt, atoning bloodshed, and innocence.

Scarlet Yarn

Twined linen, dripping scarlet red
And curtaining his face (Ex. 26:1)
Embroidered on the ephod donned
To enter holy place (Ex. 28:6-8; 39:1-5)

The scarlet yarn unspooled and spilled
To dye the skeins of sin
Flows freely from his naked wounds
To cover my chagrin

With hyssop dipped in gurgling blood
To sprinkle lepers clean (Lev. 14:1-7; Heb. 9:18-22)
Red heifer’s blood, consuming fire
To purify and glean (Num. 19:1-6)

The scarlet yarn unspooled and spilled
To dye the skeins of sin
Flows freely from his naked wounds
To cover my chagrin

Cascading down the Jer’cho wall
To wipe a harlot’s slate (Josh. 2:18-21)
Red robe adorns his bloodied back
It’s my Redeemer’s fate (Mt. 27:27-28)

The scarlet yarn unspooled and spilled
To dye the skeins of sin
Flows freely from his naked wounds
To cover my chagrin

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3 thoughts on “Scarlet Yarn

    1. Thanks Erin! You shouldn’t let that keep you from blogging! My previous title was as unoriginal as any: Shawn S Woo. lol. I think you’re more creative than I and more than capable of coming up with a good blog title!

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