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Blue, Purple and Scarlet

The LORD said to Moses, “Speak to the people of Israel, that they take for me a contribution. From every man whose heart moves him you shall receive the contribution for me. And this is the contribution that you shall receive from them: gold, silver, and bronze, blue and purple and scarlet yarns and fine twined linen, goats’ hair, tanned rams’ skins, goatskins, acacia wood, oil for the lamps, spices for the anointing oil and for the fragrant incense, onyx stones, and stones for setting, for the ephod and for the breastpiece. And let them make me a sanctuary, that I may dwell in their midst. Exactly as I show you concerning the pattern of the tabernacle, and of all its furniture, so you shall make it. Exodus 25.1-9.

As I read that passage this morning, I suddenly caught something of the awe and wonder and excitement … and even fear … with which Moses’ words must have been greeted by the Children of Israel. I heard the stunned exclamations: “God is going to come and dwell among us! We are to make him a tent!”

But it was to be a tent, a tabernacle, according to a pattern laid down by God himself, and his directions had to be followed “exactly”. Why? What did it matter if something that God had said should be silver was made out of gold instead? What did it matter if something that should be two and a half cubits wide should end up two and three-quarter cubits wide instead? Well it mattered because everything about the tabernacle … everything … looked forward to another tabernacle — “a greater and more perfect tent not made with hands” (Hebrews 9.11) — namely, the Lord Jesus himself; and every part and aspect of it speaks of him.

When he was born in Bethlehem, John records that “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1.14); and the word “dwelt” is skenoo which literally means “to dwell in a tent”. God tabernacled with his people in the Sinai peninsula 3,500 years ago, but 2,000 years ago he tabernacled among us and his tent then was a human being — the man Christ Jesus. He, “though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” (Philippians 2.6-8).

In Israel’s history, the tabernacle of the wilderness subsequently became (following the same pattern) the temple of Solomon, and later yet again, the temple of Herod. And it was in the last of these tents/temples that Jesus one day stood and said, “Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up” (John 2.19); but, as John adds, “he was speaking about the temple of his body” (John 2.21).

So how do the parts and features and materials and so on of the tabernacle commissioned by God in today’s reading speak of Jesus? That would take days, possibly weeks, to explore; but here is a taster. I choose it because of something an artist asked me recently after finding my post of 27 June entitled “Bells and Pomegranates” where I had talked about the bells and embroidered pomegranates on the hem of the high priest’s garment. “Why,” the lady asked me, “were they embroidered not only in scarlet and purple (which are the colours of a pomegranate) but in blue as well (which is not). Is God an abstract artist?”

My reply was to this effect. The colours blue, purple and scarlet are always to be used together in the tabernacle (the curtains, the veils, the screens, the high priest’s ephod, breastplate and sash — Exodus 26.1, 31, 36; 27.16; 28.6, 15, 33; 39.29) because the colours and their togetherness have symbolism and significance.

First, blue. The Hebrew is techeleth which is azure or sky-colour. Its Greek equivalent is hyakinthinos from which we get the word “hyacinth”. The skies of Sinai and Canaan were, for most of the year, pure blue (unlike the skies of England which are mostly grey!) so blue is, it seems to me, the colour of heaven.

Next, though last in sequence, there is scarlet. As soon as scarlet or crimson is mentioned, one immediately associates it with blood. But I am convinced that that is not its significance here. Real blood was used in the sacrifices taking place in the tabernacle so there was no need for symbolic blood. No, “scarlet” (the Hebrew is tola’ath which is actually the name of the worm from which the red pigment was obtained) in my view signifies “earth”. The Hebrew word for red is ‘adam and the Hebrew word for earth is ‘adamah … “red stuff”. (Adam was “formed from the dust of the ground [‘adamah]” — Genesis 2.7). The earth in my garden is brown, but the soils are strikingly red in many parts of the world where there has been iron-rich sedimentary rock; and that is true of the Middle East.

Which leaves purple; and purple is, as everyone knows, the colour that results when blue and scarlet are mixed together and made one. Purple is, therefore, to my mind, the colour that represents heaven joined with earth — something that finds perfect and glorious fulfilment, of course, in Jesus. As Graham Kendrick so beautifully puts it:

Meekness and majesty,
manhood and deity,
in perfect harmony,
the man who is God:
Lord of eternity
dwells in humanity,
kneels in humility
and washes our feet.
Oh, what a mystery,
meekness and majesty:
bow down and worship,
for this is your God.

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