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.

Isaiah 1:18


Peacock green, sunflower yellow, and sky blue. From the gold of ripening wheat fields and green meadows to the delicate tints seen in the smallest of mountain flowers, people have taken in the bright colors of nature and have sought to duplicate and wear them. There exists evidence that there existed dye workshops in China some time before 3000 B.C., while in Europe there is evidence that its first dyers were the SwissLake Dwellers in 2000 B.C. [1] Closer to Bible-land and times, the Egyptians and Phoenicians were of great renown with their red and purple dyes.

Before the accidental discovery of synthetic dye by William H. Perkin in 1856, if your outfit choice of the day included dandy purple trousers (yikes!) or and emerald-green jacket, you were undoubtedly wearing colors that came from nature: roots, leaves, lichens, mollusks, or the choicest of ground-up insects. You can easily conclude that the substances used to derive lasting and fade-proof dyes were rather exotic. Hence, the majority of the people dressed in drab earth-tones, beige, and grays, or faded colors derived from humbler plants and barks and treated with weaker mordants while only a small elite dressed in bright, lasting, and vibrant colors.

Historically, one of the most sought-after colors was crimson—the brighter and more attention-grabbing the better. However, it was also wildly expensive because it was so rare. From antiquity to the middle ages, the most sought-after crimson dye was derived from the dried up bodies of tiny grass-land insects imported from the regions of Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Turkey and Iran. The true nature of the dye was shrouded in mystery for a long time; as such, its name was always somewhat of a misnomer. The prosaic Romans called it simply granum[2] (i.e. grain—as it was thought to be a berry or seed of sorts). Kirmis, being the Arabs word for “worm,” gave rise to the term “crimson” that we use today. Closer to the true nature of the little insect is the word used for red  throughout the Bible: tôlâ‘ which is still nothing more than the crimson-grub.

The discovery of the New World led to the discovery of a better “worm” in Mexico and crimson became just a little less exclusive. Huge profits were still being made, however, as American trade records from 1831 (at a time when crimson was more widely available than ever before) show. Crimson was sold by the ounce and still cost up to five times more than the other dyes (the prices of which were—by the way—by the pound).[3] No wonder, then, that crimson and scarlet have ever been associated with prestige and wealth! It was the color of kings, the color of authority, pomp, power, and splendor. It was the color of pride.

Note, then, that God does not liken Israel’s sins of rebellion to a deep black nor to a stubborn brown stain—for can’t something as superficial as a stain be comparatively easily washed away? To have your sins be as scarlet means that you have been imbued in the world and have absorbed into the very fiber of your nature all the characteristics of the world with all its crazy, money-grabbing, power-hungry, and self-seeking pride. This is the natural state of the human heart. But even while we are in that state, God reaches out to us. He wants us to let him get to the last fiber of our being in order to change our rebellious nature. He doesn’t want to just clean us from the stains of myriad individual sins. He is pleading with Israel—pleading with us, today—to let him transform the essence of our selfish and prideful hearts into something wonderful that is in tune with the very nature of heaven.

[1] Adrosko, Rita J. Natural Dyes and Home Dyeing (New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1971) p. 4

[2] Butler Greenfield, Amy. A Perfect Red (New York: HarperCollins, 2005) p. 31

[3] Adrosko, p. 8

One thought on “Crimson

  1. Pingback: Blue | Tree

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