Shemot/Exodus 27:16 ... and for the gate of the courtyard, a screen of twenty amos: blue, purple and scarlet yarn and twisted linen, the work of an embroiderer ...
From last week's conversation betweenHaShem and Moshe, we suddenly find ourselves near the end of the instructions for making the Tabernacle and - in this case - the courtyard that surrounded Tabernacle. One hundred and fifty feet long and seventy five feet wide, with the Tabernacle itself at the western end, the courtyard is five times the length of the red Routemaster London bus and half the length of a football pitch. The level of detail in the instructions has led modern scholars to be skeptical of their veracity, but Richard Elliott Friedman argues exactly the opposite: "The quantity of detail in these chapters is an indication that these are authentic descriptions of the Tabernacle and its accoutrements. The dominant view in critical scholarship for over a hundred years has been that the Tabernacle is a fiction. The character of the text, however, argues against that view as much as the content does."
The main hangings - or walls - of the courtyard are the uniform white/cream of the plain but "fine twisted linen" (Shemot 27:9, JPS). The gate, a riot of colour in blue, purple and scarlet yarn, is about thirty feet wide, flanked on each side by a white shoulder of approximately twenty two feet six inches that together make up the far wall of the compound. Umberto Cassuto insists1 that "it will definitely be in the centre - exactly in the middle of the east side." This splash of vivid colour, just thirty feet in a total of four hundred and fifty feet of plain white, marks the entrance to the courtyard, HaShem's point of presence among His people - a focus of holiness among the Children of Israel in the midst of the wilderness. Once through the gate, worshippers find themselves facing another almost identical colour block marking the entrance to the Tabernacle itself; Cassuto points out that the courtyard gate is "exactly like the doorway of the tent". The Torah tells us Moshe's instructions: "You shall make a screen for the entrance of the Tent, of blue, purple, and crimson yarns, and fine twisted linen, done in embroidery" (Shemot 26:36, JPS).
The first colour, , from the unused root , possibly meaning "to peel or shell", is the same colour as the blue thread in tzitzit, the tassels to be worn on a four-cornered garment. Thought by the ancient rabbis to be derived from the blood of a fish (b. Menachot 44a), the most recent research suggests it comes from hexaplex trunculus, a snail that is found on the Israeli coastal plain. According toSaadia Gaon and Ibn Ezra, it resembles the colour of heaven. The second colour, , whose etymology is unknown, is a purple or red-purple colour produced from the excretions of a mollusc. Ibn Ezra suggests it is dark red; the Rambam purplish-red. The Phoenincians produced this dye on a semi-industrial basis from a facility on the Moroccan coast. The last colour, , is a red-crimson colour, produced from the tola'at worm - a tiny insect that lives on oak trees in Israel. It is also harvested in the mountains of Turkey and farmed commercially in South America where is it used as a food colour. Targum Onkelos translates it using the word for 'scarlet', because its colour is bright (like scarlet red). All these colours are very expensive, because of their high cost of production and their permanence in material, so were reserved for the very rich, public officials and royalty.
The block of bright colour marked the way in to the Tabernacle courtyard, in contrast to the steady white/cream of the unbleached linen walls that formed the walls of the courtyard. Seven feet six inches high, they prevented anyone seeing what was going on inside without going in through the gate and being part of the process. The colour was bright and different enough so that everyone would be able unambiguously to locate the entrance; no matter from which direction you approached, you knew whether you saw the gate or not and would easily find it by walking round the perimeter. It couldn't be missed. People needed to know where the entrance was; you could only get in at the entrance and nowhere else.
The symbolism of the colours is also significant. Blue was taken as a symbol of heaven, perhaps from the obvious blue of the sky as people looked up; when Moshe, Aharon and the elders of Israel ascended Mt. Sinai at G-d's command, "they saw the G-d of Israel: under His feet there was the likeness of a pavement of sapphire, like the very sky for purity" (Shemot 24:10, JPS). Ezekiel too, saw a vision of G-d: "Above the expanse over their heads was the semblance of a throne, in appearance like sapphire; and on top, upon this semblance of a throne, there was the semblance of a human form" (Ezekiel 1:26, JPS). Purple was the symbol of power and glory - specifically of royalty. In the days when Gideon defeated the Midianites, the spoil included "the purple garments worn by the kings of Midian" (Judges 8:26, ESV); when Mordechai became first minister of the Persian empire after the downfall of Haman, he was dressed in "royal robes of blue and white, with a great golden crown and a robe of fine linen and purple" (Esther 8:15, ESV). Scarlet symbolised blood, so was also a symbol of life. The Israelite spies gave Rahab a scarlet cord to "tie in the window" (Joshua 2:18) as a sign to protect her and her family when Jericho was taken; the prophet tells that "the L-RD is restoring the majesty of Jacob as the majesty of Israel ... The shield of his mighty men is red; his soldiers are clothed in scarlet" (Nahum 2:2-3, ESV).
Two of the same colours appear in the gospel accounts of the arrest and crucifixion of Yeshua. Matthew tells us that the Roman soldiers "stripped him and put a scarlet robe on him, and twisting together a crown of thorns, they put it on his head and put a reed in his right hand" (Matthew 27:28-29, ESV), before paying mock homage to Him, while John's account is that, "the soldiers twisted together a crown of thorns and put it on his head and arrayed him in a purple robe" (John 19:2, ESV). It is while wearing that purple robe that Pilate shows Yeshua to the "chief priests and officers" (v. 6) and makes the well-known declaration: "Ecce homo! - Behold the Man!" (v. 5) for them to cry out and demand His crucifixion. Even if in mockery and taunting, Yeshua was arrayed in the colours of life and royalty; He was dressed in scarlet and purple.
Earlier in His ministry, Yeshua taught about ways of getting in: "Truly, truly, I say to you, he who does not enter the sheepfold by the door but climbs in by another way, that man is a thief and a robber. But he who enters by the door is the shepherd of the sheep" (John 10:1-2, ESV). The people didn't understand what He was saying, so he tried again, making a stronger statement: "Truly, truly, I say to you, I am the door of the sheep. All who came before me are thieves and robbers, but the sheep did not listen to them. I am the door. If anyone enters by me, he will be saved and will go in and out and find pasture" (vv. 7-9, ESV). Yeshua is the gate; He is the one dressed in blue, purple and scarlet. Yeshua is the block of colour that stood out from the plain white/cream vanilla of Second Temple Judaism. Yeshua alone had the words of life; He offered the way to relationship with G-d, to coming into G-d's presence and being able to participate in life with G-d. He criticised the scribes and Pharisees for their blandness and hypocrisy, calling them, "whitewashed tombs ... full of dead men's bones" (Matthew 23:27).
If we are to be effective witnesses for the kingdom of G-d, we have to stand out from the same blandness and hypocrisy in our society today. Everything is plain vanilla; just the same all over - no variation, nothing to attract people, nothing to let them know that there is a way in to life, to a fulfilled and meaningful life in Messiah. Everyone wears the same clothes, must have the same trainers, drinks the same drinks and even eats the same food, driven by advertising and peer-pressure so that everyone looks the same and no-one stands out. No-one has anything different to offer, the shops all sell the same bland, tired and tawdry wares, while many churches offer the same easy-believe ticket-to-heaven gospel that doesn't change lives and doesn't offer any challenge to the existing status quo in the wider society. Darling, don't stand out from the crowd, for heaven's sake; being different is just so weird!
That is not our calling. Yeshua told us to be "salt for the earth" (Matthew 5:13) and "light for the world" (v. 14), to be the "city on the hill that cannot be hidden" (v. 14). Our calling - without being so different as to be cranky - is to quietly but firmly stand out from the crowd, to echo the colour and richness of Yeshua Himself as we point others to Him and, as necessary, help and urge them to enter the kingdom through the only legitimate door. We are to have taste and intelligence, intellectual rigour and stimulating conversation; we are also to have love and compassion, accompanied by discernment and candour - "wise as serpents and gentle as doves" (Matthew 10:16). These are qualities within the reach of every man and gifts of the Spirit in our day.
1. - Umberto Cassuto, A Commentary on the Book of Exodus, Magnes Press, Jerusalem, 1983, 965-223-456-7
Further Study: Jeremiah 23:1-6; Revelation 3:15-21
Application: Are you bright, vibrant and colourful, or is your life monochrome or simply a few shades of utilitarian grey? Ask the Master Embroiderer to put His threads of blue, purple and scarlet yarn to work in your life so that you may light up your world.
© Jonathan Allen, 2017
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