Colour theory differs in some very significant ways if one comes at it from a scientific or an artistic perspective. While white is the union all colours of light in scientific understanding, to an artist or craftsperson’s mind, colour must be removed to produce white. This interplay of colour and whiteness is utilized by the laws of the tabernacle. The previous posts discussed the sacred colours; this last post is about white and the priestly garments. But I find it requires some background information to get us there.
The Torah includes a number of laws that seem pointless to modern people. One of these is the prohibition against linsey-woolsey or “shatnez” (the prohibition isn’t against any type of blended fibre either; it's very specific that the prohibited shatnez is a blend of linen and wool). Modern people have difficulty explaining or understanding it; they’ll often point to it as an example of a law that is simply meant to differentiate the Israelites from their neighbours (it isn’t). What they usually miss is that the priest was commanded to wear linsey-woolsey, except on Yom Kippur. I guess that’s where dye history and knowledge come in.
One of the dividing lines between Egyptians and the various Canaanite peoples of the Levant was their use of fibre; the Egyptians detested sheep and everything that came into contact with them, including shepherds and of course wool. They became the preeminent linen producers of the ancient world (it’s through linen production that we can date a likely time for the Exodus). So a prohibition of mixing linen and wool could be seen as a prohibition against syncretism in the vein of the laws against getting horses from Egypt, but it’s likely more than that.
The Egyptians note the brightly coloured clothing of the Canaanites (see the beni hasan murals depicting Canaanites or Hyksos in patterned clothing). Like Joseph’s coat, this was a distinguishing feature of the people of Palestine. It is of course because they favoured the very fibre the Egyptians detested: wool. Anyone who does natural dyeing knows that wool takes almost all colours the best (with the exception of indigo--one would assume murex being a vat dye would have similar properties). Cellulose fibres need a lot of extra processing to take most colour, and it is never as bright. So while linen was sometimes dyed, it was usually bleached. When you wanted true vibrant colour you opted for wool (see our samples from my dye trip post and how wool takes dyes compared to other fibres). Vat dyes would produce good colours on cellulose fibres, but other dyes need some chemical wizardry (in some cases, a 29 step process). The material isn't mentioned in Exodus, but since shani was not a vat dye, wool would be required to get a bright scarlet. This is later confirmed by the author of Hebrews. The coloured threads were made of wool.
Which brings us to the clothing of the priest. The garments he was to wear included an ephod and sash woven or embroidered in a pattern with both the sacred colours and linen. Meaning those items were made of linen and wool blend, as were much of the tabernacle textiles. Consider that the coloured yarn is mentioned in addition to linen. There are sometimes a lot of gymnastics done in rabbinical writings about what counts as shatnez and what doesn’t, but only a few dispute that the priestly garments and tabernacle were shatnez. Some Jews also believe the prayer shawls laymen wear were to be shatnez as well.
In other words, like the special incense, this blend was to be set aside for sacred purposes. So it wasn’t about making the Israelites peculiar. The tabernacle and the priest were being singled out from the people, the holy from the common. Mem says this is like how no one was to work on the sabbath but the priest. Just as we now do not work, and instead trust that our Lord is “always working” for us.
A second part of the equation is that on the day of atonement, the high priest wore linen only. This not only prevented sweat (since basically any discharge was a sign of uncleanness) but also did away with the wool embroidery/weaving and colour. Ezekiel re-iterates this and says the new priesthood of his vision does not wear wool but only linen (which again implies that the daily priestly garments at the time were in fact shatnez). That the wool, with the colours of blood, judgement and death is removed when atonement is made is a powerful picture of the true work of the final high priest. shatnez for now, but finally linen pure and clean. A little bit of simil justus et peccator.
As noted the production of these dyes is very ancient, and at various times, controlled by royalty. This has led some to think the dyes were commanded just because they were valuable, to remind people of the kind of respect God deserved. But God tells David he's not particularly interested in human displays of wealth, and the fact that all traces of the colours were removed from the sacred robes on the day of atonement as well as Ezekiel’s vision suggests that this was all very intentional. If the colours represent the work of God (both for salvation and judgement), perhaps the lack thereof represents the results. It reminds one a little of the blinding visions of God, not to mention Peter’s description of the transfiguration. White and light, all colours blurred into oblivion.
So while there is an element of royalty and status in the colours and, as YHWH himself said, “glory and beauty”, it is interesting that on the day of atonement, the priest appeared with “no beauty or majesty to attract us to him”. He arrived before God in plain white. White like the dress of the angels, and finally the dress of the martyrs, white robes given to them by the lamb and final high priest, bleached in his blood. The restored priesthood with Christ alone as their head don’t wear beautiful colours. They wear white like the high priest, like the cord on the door of the temple when atonement has been made. Like God himself as partakers in his nature.
It turns out all colour does unite to make white.