The color of forgiveness

"'Come now, let us reason together,' says the LORD. 'Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red as crimson, they shall be like wool." - Isaiah 1:18

The preceding passage is considered by many Bible readers as one of the most powerful Bible verses about forgiveness.  Through beautiful use of imagery, it deeply illustrates the graciousness of God in forgiving even the most undeserving sinner.  The contrast between the colors white and crimson red effectively shows the loving-kindness of God and His ability to remove even an extreme degree of moral blemish.

There is however more to the passage than the degree of contrast between the colors.  When the passage is read in its original Jewish setting, taking into account the Hebrew words used in the passage, we may be able to understand the nature of God's forgiveness on a much deeper level.

The worm connection

The word crimson is translated from the Hebrew word tola.  Marvin Wilson, author of the book Our father Abraham: Jewish roots of the Christian faith, explains the word as follows:

“The term tola refers primarily to a "worm" and secondarily to the color crimson.  This secondary meaning developed because this worm (the technical name today is coccus ilicis), when crushed and placed in hot water, produced a brilliant crimson color that was colorfast and indelible.  Thus it was a valuable commodity in the ancient dyeing industry (cf. Lam. 4:5).  The dye-stuff of this crimson-producing worm was used for the curtains of the tabernacle (Exod. 26:1)." [1]

A deeper meaning

The passage then is not merely focusing on the stain having an extremely deep color but more so on its being permanent.  Just as the smell of blood in the hands of Shakespeare's Lady Macbeth cannot be sweetened by all the perfumes of Arabia, the indelible stain of the sin of Israel could never be removed by any amount of washing.  Yet, despite the permanent quality of the sins of Israel, God is able and willing to offer them forgiveness.

Importance of the Hebraic setting

Through Isaiah 1:18, we can see how important it is to read the Bible in its original Hebraic setting.  The Bible cannot be properly read, understood, and interpreted apart from its original Jewish context.

Unfortunately, many people read the Bible with a mindset influenced by Greek philosophies, post-apostolic Church Fathers, and Reformation leaders.  This prevents them from realizing that many popular beliefs such as the three-in-one-God doctrine, immortal soul doctrine, and other post-biblical beliefs are not only foreign to the Bible but are even contrary to what the Bible teaches. 

As people familiar with the Hebrew Scriptures would attest, the Old Testament teaches that there is only one God who is the Father of all [2].  This belief was upheld in the New Testament by the Jewish apostles when they taught not a God consisting of co-equal persons but a "God and Father of all, who is above all" [3].   This belief was also taught by our Jewish Lord and Savior when he introduced the Father as "the only true God" [4].


[1] Our father Abraham: Jewish roots of the Christian faith, Marvin Wilson
[2] Deut. 4:35, Deut. 6:4, 5, Mal. 2:10, Isaiah 64:4, 8
[3] Eph. 4:6
[4] John 17:1,3

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