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I see a lot of blue in the tabernacle, and when moving it. For example:

Then they are to cover the curtain with a durable leather, spread a cloth of solid blue over that and put the poles in place.—Numbers 4:6 (NIV)

There is also scarlet used in the tabernacle:

They are to spread a scarlet cloth over them, cover that with the durable leather and put the poles in place. —Numbers 4:8 (NIV)

The special use of purple is used to cover the altar:

They are to remove the ashes from the bronze altar and spread a purple cloth over it.—Numbers 4:13 (NIV)

Is there any particular significance to these colors? Do other biblical texts help us understand what they mean?

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Purple is usually associated with royalty and status because it was incredibly expensive to make. I have nothing for blue. –  swasheck Jun 29 '12 at 19:36
    
Kind of related: judaism.stackexchange.com/q/14742/472 –  Gone Quiet Feb 7 '13 at 16:50
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@swasheck: Blue dye (technically indigo) was also expensive for the same reason purple dye was: it was difficult to obtain from nature. It's likely that the specific shade of scarlet used was also expensive, though reddish dyes are fairly easy to obtain from natural sources. –  Jon Ericson Feb 8 '13 at 0:40

7 Answers 7

up vote 4 down vote accepted

I just want to pop in here to add that it's important to remember that the way that we think of "blue", "purple", and "red", is necessarily not the same as how the Biblical audience would have thought of "tekheleth", "argaman", and "shani".

In particular, I'm not sure that the "red+blue=purple" argument is particularly applicable here, since these colours were not made by mixing paints. Tekheleth, as far as we can tell, is a shade of (sky?-)blue made from the glands of the mollusk Murex trunculus. Argaman is a deep red-purple similarly made from a type of mollusk, similar to what was known as "royal purple" or "Tyrian purple". Shani is a crimson red made from crushed scale insects (which is why it's often called tola'at shani, literally "worm crimson" in the Bible).

In terms of their significance, in general these colours are often brought together as symbols of royalty, luxury, and Divinity — the Tabernacle hangings, garments of nobles and kings, etc. Specifically, the relation of tekheleth to the sky and to the ocean is important. See, for example, the Talmud's comment in Menaḥoth 43b: “The tekheleth [thread] resembles the sea, and the sea resembles the heavens, and the heavens resemble G!d’s Throne of Glory”. The High Priest wears a robe entirely of tekheleth, and so one might suggest that the thread of tekheleth worn in the tzitzith allows each Israelite to remember that they are part of a "nation of priests" (Ex. 19:6).

Shani/crimson also has Biblical significance — crimson threads appear in a number of significant places, like the birth of Zerah and Perez, and the story of Rahav. It's also used in the cleansing rituals of the metzora' [leper?] and according to the Mishna (Yoma 4:2), a crimson thread tied to the altar would turn white when the scapegoat for 'Azazel reached its destination (death?), symbolizing the forgiveness of the people — an illustration of Isaiah 1:18. I would argue that in the TaNaKh, shani is a symbol of protection, new life, and forgiveness.

I have little more to say about argaman, and I have to go to work, so I'll leave this here.

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+1 - cool. Lots of interesting info. I researched you claim about lack of color mixing and I think you are right. Which kinda poo poos my won answer a bit, so I will not accept it as it stands. "The degree to which Ancient Egyptian artists and craftsmen mixed colors varies according to dynasty. But even at its most creative, color mixing was not widely spread. Unlike today's pigments which give consistent results, several of those available to Ancient Egyptian artists could react chemically with each other, for example lead white when mixed with orpiment (yellow) actually produces black." –  Mike Feb 7 '13 at 14:45
    
Oh, now I feel guilty! But leaving my feelings aside, I think you're right. The point that I was trying to make was that when we think of "blue", we're thinking of the generic colour. But "tekheleth" is not a colour, it's a specific material dye made in a specific way (in this case, from the Murex trunculus shell). Same with argaman and shani. In our minds, "purple" is made from "red" and so they are related in that way; but argaman is not made from shani, so we really have to think about each "colour"/dye on its own terms, and then how they are related to each other in Biblical usage. –  Noam Sienna Feb 7 '13 at 14:59
    
Actually I think I haVe to switch my acceptance. I have enjoyed the many answers on this post and I do still have not fully made up my mind, but I did learn the most from your post. Thanks. –  Mike Feb 7 '13 at 15:10
    
I agree that mixing these dyes likely would not produce the desired purple. I don't think Egyptians mixed dyes, but overdyeing (dye first in one color, let it dry, then dye in another) has a moderately-long pedigree -- dunno if it goes this far back, though. –  Gone Quiet Feb 7 '13 at 16:50
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As it turns out, yes, @MonicaCellio, we do have some archaeological evidence of overdyeing in Biblical Israel. Dr. Zvi Koren (an expert on ancient Near Eastern textiles) briefly discusses a garment with a stripe of "purple" produced by overdyeing first with madder and then woad (picture on pg. 172, discussion on pg. 174): edelsteincenter.files.wordpress.com/2010/07/… But that is not argaman, even if it might have approximately the same colour... Later in the article he discusses a fabric found at Masada dyed with actual argaman purple, pp. 184-186. –  Noam Sienna Feb 7 '13 at 21:06

I am proposing two options, one obvious and one subtle.

The obvious meaning of blue, purple and scarlet, would be that they are associated with precious fabrics and in some cases even royal colors. I think this is sometimes the meaning that they convey in the Bible.

For example, 

When Mordecai left the king’s presence, he was wearing royal garments of blue and white, a large crown of gold and a purple robe of fine linen. And the city of Susa held a joyous celebration. (Esther 8:15)

However what sparked my interest is that many aspects of the temple had blue, purple and scarlet, but only purple was used to cover the altar before it was moved.

Why the focus on purple for the alter but blue covering for everything else?

This question lead me to a theory I would propose. This theory relates the colors to nature, rather than commerce in the world.

  • Blue = sky = separation for God in the heavens = included in the veil and curtains of the tabernacle

  • Purple = blood (red) mixed with blue = the way to remove the curtain

  • Scarlet = purple mixed with fire (orange) = the way sin is burned.

Note: Orange can be seen in nature when the Sun goes 'down' or when a green leaf 'dies' and of course in 'fire'.

This is actually how those colors are made by mixing them in a dish. Blue paint plus red is purple. In the days of old, I think people would have been more familiar with the subject, even though it may have had no more than a subconscious effect on them. Primary colors and their mixing was more important before technology existed.

It makes an interesting spin on many bible verses. How it is applied to the tabernacle needs no explanation.

Moreover, you shall make the tabernacle with ten curtains of fine twined linen and blue and purple and scarlet yarns; you shall make them with cherubim skillfully worked into them. (Exodus 26:1)

And you shall make a veil of blue and purple and scarlet yarns and fine twined linen. It shall be made with cherubim skillfully worked into it. (Exodus 26:31)

Interesting spin on the robe Jesus was clothed with before the crucifixion:

17And they clothed him in a purple cloak, and twisting together a crown of thorns, they put it on him. 18And they began to salute him, “Hail, King of the Jews!” (Mark 15:17-18)

The imagery can be reversed to switch from the blood of Christ, to the blood of his church martyrs.

4The woman was arrayed in purple and scarlet, and adorned with gold and jewels and pearls, holding in her hand a golden cup full of abominations and the impurities of her sexual immorality. 5And on her forehead was written a name of mystery: “Babylon the great, mother of prostitutes and of earth's abominations.” 5And I saw the woman, drunk with the blood of the saints, the blood of the martyrs of Jesus. When I saw her, I marveled greatly. (Revelation 17:4-6)

Or we can switch back again to Christ's red blood in the same book:

He is clothed in a robe dipped in blood, and the name by which he is called is The Word of God. (Revelation 19:13)

One might think this blood color of the Lord's robe is the blood of his enemies, over whom he has always prevailed, yet as it seems 'dipped' before battle, it seems better to take it as his own blood, by which he purchased this power to wage war and save his loved ones.

I am not saying this is 'the' meaning of the colors. Just saying it seems like a possible meaning in the context of the subjects where these colors are used. In fact knowing myself I would be critical of this view if I read it posted from someone else. I am not attracted to those who go too far with symbolism.

Notes: 

  • The signification of the color blue I took from Matthew Henry's commentary of the verses related to the tabernacle.
  • All bible references used are from NIV.
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Sensus plenior provides means for solving riddles since things which take metaphoric meaning must have that meaning everywhere they occur.

The first clue is that though blue, purple and scarlet are closely associated most of the time, occasionally gold is added to the group. We have a group of colors following the pattern of 3+1.

This is the pattern of the four voices of God. H- heavenly, E-Earthly. Of the four voices only one represents pure heavenly, the other three voices all are mixtures or pure earthly. Priest-HH, Judge-HE, Prophet-EH, King-EE. These also represent the four layers of the Quadriga in reverse. One layer is plain to us, King-EE (literal), and the other three are hidden in a heavenly language (spiritual layer).

Also when two things are closely associated, one is H and the other E. Gold and silver are such a pair. Gold is Divinity in heaven, and silver is Divinity on earth. Gold is God, and Silver is God incarnate.

So the other three colors must represent the three other voices. We have other clues.

Isa 1:18 Come now, and let us reason together, saith the LORD: though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they be red like crimson, they shall be as wool.

Here we are told that scarlet and red represent sin. Snow and wool are a pair [1] where snow is the heavenly color of covered sin which is derived from :

Ps 147:16 He giveth snow like wool: he scattereth the hoarfrost like ashes.

where snow is again related directly to wool (or fleece), which references the skin of the lamb "slain from the foundations of the world" [2] which covered Adam and Eve.

The word for 'blue' תלכת has a root meaning 'consume' הלכ (my Hebrew is backwards). The pomegranates were blue, and it has a root meaning exalted or lifted up. And blue laces were used to tie and bind things as well as cover the instruments of the tabernacle.

More clues:

Re 17:4 And the woman was arrayed in purple and scarlet colour, and decked with gold and precious stones and pearls, having a golden cup in her hand full of abominations and filthiness of her fornication:

The church is the bride of Christ (who was a harlot and then made into a virgin) made in his image, here the woman has purple, gold and scarlet. Christ would have all four colors. The one thing the woman cannot be is a king. So by elimination, Blue is the King.

The pomegranates were on the hem of the garment, which is suggestive of the circle (excluding corners) of the circumcision of a harvested field. The harvested circle was a kingdom. And 'blue' means 'exalted'.

This leaves Judge and Prophet and purple and scarlet.

Purple (ןמגרא ) has the root (םגר) meaning stone, and friend. The stone is the Word of God incarnate, suggestive of the Prophet.

This would leave scarlet as the Judge.

In sensus plenior, a score may be assigned to an interpretation based on the numbers of verses analyzed against the number of verses that need to be analyzed.

The score for meaning of two, four, scarlet and gold is high, for blue and purple is low. Answers are penciled in until the score is 100%. My gut score on the whole analysis is about 30%. In SP a single verse is a deal-breaker.

[1]

Ps 147:16 He giveth snow like wool: he scattereth the hoarfrost like ashes. Isa 1:18 Come now, and let us reason together, saith the LORD: though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they be red like crimson, they shall be as wool.

Da 7:9 I beheld till the thrones were cast down, and the Ancient of days did sit, whose garment was white as snow, and the hair of his head like the pure wool: his throne was like the fiery flame, and his wheels as burning fire.

Re 1:14 His head and his hairs were white like wool, as white as snow; and his eyes were as a flame of fire;

[2]

Re 13:8 And all that dwell upon the earth shall worship him, whose names are not written in the book of life of the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world.

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I enjoyed reading your post a lot and had to read it a few times to understand your method, but I can't buy into the outcomes. Blue-King, Scarlet-Judge, Purple-Prophet. Only the alter was covered in purple, everything else blue. (When they moved the tabernacle) If anything I would have connected the altar with the priestly office. Cheers. –  Mike Jun 30 '12 at 16:44
    
The altar has four horns... The four voices... that is the Word, or Prophet. The rest is covered with the sovereign will of the King who executes righteousness. You can't judge one system by the result obtained in another. What would be the basis of your judgement? –  Bob Jones Jun 30 '12 at 16:57
    
In SP we don't pit one opinion against another, we bring scripture to bear upon it. Yes. the altar has a relationship to the priest, but the priest speaks of esoteric things in a hidden language. The altar is his voice to the earthly. The prophet speaks of the earthly in the hidden voice. –  Bob Jones Jun 30 '12 at 17:01
    
In the same 3+1 relationship, the prophet is the summation of the prophecies contained in the voices of priest, king and judge, and the judge is the executor of the judgements found in the voices of the other three. So separating them is a subtle endeavor. I've given myself a 30% on the surety at this point, so any other insights are welcome. –  Bob Jones Jun 30 '12 at 17:07
    
The altar is also made of wood/Man covered with brass/sin covered by the blood of the lamb and burnt up in tribute to His total devotion. We could also say that judge, but it has to be the same thing everywhere it occurs. And the purpose of the riddles is to draw us into meditation upon his word. It sure does that! –  Bob Jones Jun 30 '12 at 17:21

Hebrews 10:20 tells us the veil is Jesus' flesh. He was bruised for our iniquities Isaiah tells us. The gospels tell us his flesh was torn when the centurion thrust a spear in his . The veil was torn in the temple when Jesus died so based on Hebrews 10:20, I believe the blue, purple and scarlet colors represent the bruising and bleeding Jesus endured on our behalf.

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Hi Mark, and welcome to Biblical Hermeneutics. We normally strive to have answers that are based on statements of fact that will help lead to solid exegesis. Answers containing conjecture tend to be downvoted. I'd like to see a bit more development of this answer with either sources, or a survey of biblical material that confirm your statements. –  swasheck Jan 28 '13 at 19:27
    
This is a short answer linking bruising alone to red, purple and blue, but as Christ was the tabernacle of God and his flesh was bruised and these colors are similar to bruising I think it is a excellent hypothesis (+1) I wonder if these colors can be argued to mean the same in other locations of the bible as well that would probably speak to swashek's comment? Welcome to the site! –  Mike Jan 29 '13 at 0:55
    
Isaiah does not say that Jesus was bruised for our iniquities. –  Gone Quiet Nov 8 '13 at 2:47

Optics Basics: Visible Light

God established all things through Christ, and the first item sent forth was light.

And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light.—Genesis 1:3 (ESV)

Interesting parallels in Physics and Scripture:

All visible light on the electromagnetic spectrum, ranges from: Blue to Red. Purple is a mixture of the two. The Curtain-Veil of the tabernacle was all three colors.

Old Testament: The full spectrum of light is represented in the Veil - a Veil that separates man from Elohim.

And you shall make a veil of Blue and Purple and Scarlet yarns and fine twined linen. It shall be made with cherubim skillfully worked into it.—Exodus 26:31 (ESV)

New Testament: We must pass through, as in cleaned, by the blood and Light of Chirst Jesus.

...washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb” Rev.— Rev 7:14(ESV)

Further noted: Blood in the veins is viewed by many as Purple. Blood appears Blue from looking at your blood through layers of skin as well as the vein itself. Blood oxidized turns Red.

"...blood that has had the oxygen extracted is a dark red to purple color." —(The University of Southern California Keck School of Medicine)

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welcome to the site. For some reason the question has brought out all the creative people. (+1) It is refreshing in a way as often Bible students are more the detail oriented types who have a dislike, or at least mild aversion towards imagination. –  Mike Feb 7 '13 at 12:43
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Hi Derek. I deleted some comments that were getting us off on the wrong foot. I'm sorry about that. I went ahead and edited your answer based on some ideas from your comments and I hope I helped make your answer better. If not, feel free to edit again. (We are a little different sort of site than you might be used to. It can be a bit hard to get used to, but we think it's totally worth it. ;-) –  Jon Ericson Feb 8 '13 at 17:16
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"Blood in the veins is Purple." This is a myth. –  swasheck Feb 11 '13 at 17:05
    
Hi Swasheck. What is your answer based off/on? –  Derek Scott Feb 11 '13 at 18:46
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@DerekScott I fear this is going to spiral out of control and so I'd like to clear the air. First, I would like to also extend Mike's welcome. I appreciate you putting yourself out there to answer a question with imagination and ingenuity. I apologize if anything in my tone has communicated criticism or ridicule. Let me just state that my comments are generally placed in order to help guide you toward an improved answer (regardless of whether or not I agree with it) that is logical and accurately represents an answer to the question. –  swasheck Feb 11 '13 at 22:28

The four colors are all shadows, representing the four facets of Jesus, and the four Gospels.

Purple = color of royalty, corresponds to Matthew, who portrays Jesus as King, also represented by the face of a lion.

White = color of servant, corresponds to Mark, who portrays Jesus as the servant, also represented by the face of an ox.

Red = color of blood, corresponds to Luke, who portrays Jesus as man, also represented by the face of a man.

Blue = color of Heaven, corresponds to John, who portrays Jesus as God, also represented by the face of an eagle.

Bible MUST interpret bible.

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What about the original context in Numbers? Even if you believe that the Tanakh is all abut Jesus (I don't and that's not an axiom of this site, BTW, though this particular question does invite it), those colors presumably meant something to the people building the tabernacle. Can you say anything about that? Thanks. –  Gone Quiet Aug 25 '13 at 14:17

I agree with most responses and all have some elements of truth which I've enjoyed a lot :). However, I see some scriptures have been missed altogether and just wanted to share them with you all.

As some others have stated purple is the color of royalty:

When Mordecai left the king’s presence, he was wearing royal garments of blue and white, a large crown of gold and a purple robe of fine linen. And the city of Susa held a joyous celebration. (Esther 8:15)

And they clothed him in a purple cloak, and twisting together a crown of thorns, they put it on him. And they began to salute him, “Hail, King of the Jews!” (Mark 15:17-18)

Red represents sin and white purity, having no sin (either by living a perfect life like Jesus did or by justification by grace as was the case of Joshua)

“Come now, and let us reason together,” Says the Lord, “Though your sins are like scarlet, They shall be as white as snow; Though they are red like crimson, They shall be as wool. (Isaiah 1:18)

The one color that seems to be least understood of all is blue, but the Bible does give us the meaning which is obedience to God's law

Speak to the children of Israel: Tell them to make tassels on the corners of their garments throughout their generations, and to put a blue thread in the tassels of the corners. And you shall have the tassel, that you may look upon it and remember all the commandments of the Lord and do them, and that you may not follow the harlotry to which your own heart and your own eyes are inclined, and that you may remember and do all My commandments, and be holy for your God. (Numbers 15:38-40)

It is interesting that the text cited uses the term "harlotry" and that the Harlot in Revelation 17 only wears two of the colors used in the tabernacle, these being red and purple. This tells us that this Harlot symbolizes a church (being a woman) that is impure (no white) and does not keep God's commandments (no blue).

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