Among the many seemingly confusing commands that God gave to Israel in redemptive history is the statute concerning the tassels and the violet thread in Numbers 15:37-41. After giving the people of God the distinction between unintentional and high-handed sins, the Lord commanded them to sew tassels with blue (lit. violet) thread on the corners of their garments. The Lord then told them, “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.” No sooner do we read this command that we are compelled to ask, “In what ways did tassels on a garment assist the people of God in obeying the Lord and turning from the wicked inclinations of their hearts? How in the world could tassels help advance sanctification of heart?
As with so much in the Law of God, we must seek to understand this precept in light of redemptive history and the previous revelation of God. Every command that God gave Israel came in the context of what He had promised in previous covenantal revelation, what He had done in bringing them out of the bondage of Egypt and what He would do in fulfilling all of the Old Covenant types and shadows in Christ.
Garments find their place in redemptive history in the Garden of Eden. There is a rich biblical theology of clothing in the very first chapters of the Bible. Adam was to be God’s prophet, priest and king in the Garden. He was to live, move and carry out the commission God gave him, clothed in that holiness. When Adam sinned, his spiritual nakedness was symbolized by his physical nakedness. The clothing God provided our first parents from the skin of the animal sacrifice pointed forward to the righteousness of Christ imputed to the believer (Gen. 3:21; Zech 3:4).
In the progress of revelation, God intimated that He was restoring what Adam had lost in the Garden. As Adam was to bear offspring who were to be holy priests to the Lord, so God appointed a priesthood in Israel as a type of the great High Priest Jesus Christ. In Exodus 20, we are told something of the importance of the priestly garments, when we read, “You shall not go up by steps to my altar, that your nakedness be not exposed on it.’ Then, in Exodus 28, God gave very specific instruction about the priestly garments and the fact that part of their purpose was to cover the nakedness of the priest when he went to minister in the sanctuary. This was all symbolizing and foreshadowing the need to have our spiritual nakedness covered with the righteous robes of Jesus Christ.
God had not only appointed a special priesthood in Israel–He had also intimated that He wanted the covenant people to “be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Ex 19:6). Just as the Levitical priesthood had their special garments to remind them of their office and function, so the people of God were to have their garments to remind them of the privileges and responsibilities that they had by God’s grace. This accounts for the law about the tassels and the purple thread.
Ian Duguid writes,
“The key element within each of these tassels was also a color, a single violet thread. Violet dye was phenomenally expensive in the ancient world since it came from tiny sea snails that had to be harvested by hand, each of which only produced a single drop of dye.4 The color violet therefore came to symbolize wealth and nobility in society at large. Even more significantly, violet was the most sacred color in the tabernacle (see the discussion on 4:6, 7). The single violet thread in the midst of the tassel thus symbolized Israel’s identity as a royal priesthood. Requiring a single thread made it an affordable badge for everyone to wear, even the poorest members of society. All the Israelites would be reminded by their tassels to live according to the sanctity and nobility of their calling. The tassels served as a reminder of two things.
In the first place, they reminded the Israelites who they were by God’s overwhelming grace. They were the people of the Lord, the people he had redeemed from Egypt. He had redeemed them so that they might have an ongoing relationship with him: neither the power of Egypt nor their stubborn, defiant rebellion could compromise that purpose (v. 41).
Secondly, though, it reminded the Israelites of the obligations that went with their calling. They were redeemed from Egypt to be a holy nation and a royal priesthood. God brought them out of bondage so that they might obey his commands and be consecrated to their God, instead of going after the lusts of their own hearts and eyes (vv. 39, 40).
In some ways, with this combined emphasis on their privilege and responsibility, the requirement to wear the tassels sums up the thrust of the whole chapter. God redeemed Israel by his grace for relationship with him; yet that did not now leave them free to do whatever they wanted to do. Such “freedom” would actually merely be a different kind of bondage, prostituting themselves to their own lusts (v. 39). A relationship with God by grace does not eliminate the need for obedience but rather forms the foundation for it. The God who commands us is the same God who first delivered us from bondage; so we know that his purposes in commanding us are good. In fact, he delivered us from our former bondage to sin so we could experience the true freedom that comes as we obey his commandments and law. His law turns out to be the path to true liberty.”1
Though we are not commanded to wear physical tassels on our garments in the New Covenant, we are to constantly remember that we have been redeemed by Christ to be “a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, His own special people, that you may proclaim the praises of Him who called you out of darkness into His marvelous light” (1 Pet. 2:9). When we remember the privileges that we have been freely given in Christ, we are to live in light of them. Remembering who we are in Christ enables us to live for Him. We are to pursue obedience and holiness out of gratitude for what God has done for us through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus and out of a sense of responsibility about what we are to be in the world for His glory. Believers have been clothed in the righteousness of Christ and ought, therefore, to live accordingly.
1. Ian Duguid Numbers: God’s Presence in the Wilderness (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2006) pp. 195-196