The Scarlet Thread

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Rescued scarlet threadOver the years I remember hearing people make reference to “The Scarlet Thread” or  “The Crimson Cord” and I picked up that the image was used as a motif for a string of images through the Old Testament that included blood and in some way pre-figured the Cross. The image was drawn from the incident in the book of Joshua where Rahab, the prostitute who helped the Hebrew spies in Jericho,  is told to hang a scarlet thread from her window so that she would marked out and saved in the ensuing attack, she joined the people of YHWH and it seems became part of the Messianic line.

But whenever I looked for internal evidence in the Bible for this being more than just a preachers tools, a useful soundbite to convey the rich pattern of markers that get across the idea’s of forgiveness costing blood; a life for a life, I couldn’t find it.

But then I did find out some things about the “Scarlet Thread” that gave it meaning beyond simply sharing the colour of blood. First in the word “Scarlet” and then in the word “Thread”.

In Joshua 2:18 the word scarlet is “shaniy”/”שני” it is almost always translated as “scarlet” though can also mean the crimson dye that makes things scarlet and even the worm that the dye comes from. In the ancient world, scarlet dye was made from the crushed bodies of pregnant female coccus ilicis worms. Something had to die to make things scarlet.

Now there is a second Hebrew word with the same set of meanings as “shaniy”,  it is “towla”/”תולע” (translated “crimson” or “worm” in the King James Bible). Both words “shaniy” and “towla” can be used for all three states, the source, the substance and the consequence of the red dye, you have to work out from context which is intended: the worm, the dye or the colour .

These scarlet worms/coccus ilicis have a very unusual life-cycle, which deserves a post in its own right, it has been said that the whole gospel story is contained in the life of the coccus ilicis, when I’ve written it you’ll be able to link to it here!

For this post I just want to draw out three aspects of this important dye. First it was antiseptic and used for cleansing and second something had to die to make it, third it was used as a symbol of sin:

Come now, and let us reason together, saith the LORD: though your sins be as scarlet(shaniy), they shall be as white as snow; though they be red like crimson(towla), they shall be as wool.” – Isaiah 1:18

scarlet thread text

Joshua 2:18: Strand of Cord

So when Rahab hangs out her scarlet thread she is saved by cord that symbolises a death, sin and cleansing. Straight away we can see it as an image of the Cross, but there is more…

The spies and Rahab also double up the word for a thread or cord or tape, (see the clip from an Interlinear translation of Joshua above). The second word, “thquth”/חוט has two very different meanings, it can mean “cord” or “tape” as translated here or it can mean “hope”, (see Strong’s Concordance 08615 “Tiqvah”).

rahabs-red-cord_1_2So Rahab hangs out a Scarlet Thread of Cord, quite literally a Thread of Hope, hope for cleansing from sin by the blood of another’s life!

So it is not too surprising that this visual symbol, the Scarlet Thread has been picked up as a symbol of all the incidents where something else had to die to cover and cleanse and remit the sins of others. From Genesis 3 where an unnamed animal gave up it’s skin to cover Adam and Eve’s sin, through the Passover lamb that saved all in the house and the scape goat that yearly carried the sins of a nation off to be eaten in the Wilderness, on and on until finally Jesus gave his own blood as a final and complete remission of all sins for all people for all time, Matthew 26:28.

According to the law, nearly everything is cleansed with blood, and apart from shedding of blood there is no remission of sins” – Hebrews 9:22

Christen Forster

Christen Forster

Christen Forster is widely recognised as an original Bible teacher who brings people into a love of and confidence in scripture.

Christen has planted churches, been a youth worker, mission administrator and church leaders. The author of several books, Christen is now an itinerant minister, helping churches to step into a more deliberately spiritual experience of the Christian life while at the same time firmly rooting their practice in scripture.

© 2000 - 2017 Christen Forster
Christen Forster

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2 Replies to “The Scarlet Thread”

  1. Thank you, for you short, but enlightening discourse on the scarlet thread in the book of Joshua.
    I had done some research into the life cycle of the coccus ilicis (scarlet worm) which vividly depicts
    the Crucifixion of Our Lord Jesus Christ, in Psalm 22, but it hadn’t occurred to me before that the
    same little insect produced the same colour in the scarlet Thread. That leads me to believe the
    scarlet worm was in God’s Plan of Salvation before it was even created.
    One of many examples of God’s Wisdom!

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