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When God Commanded Israel to Break His Law

wool strings sxc hu smallThere is an interesting twist, if you’ll pardon the pun, in the tassel command from Numbers 15:38-41 when it is woven (sorry I just can’t stop myself) into the new context of Deuteronomy 22:9-12.

Here we have a series of commands against mixtures followed by the Tassel Command.

  • “You shall not sow your vineyard with two kinds of seed, lest the whole yield be forfeited, the crop that you have sown and the yield of the vineyard. v. 9 (I feel the same way about succotash.)
  • You shall not plow with an ox and a donkey together. v. 10 (I imagine the ox will do all the work, the donkey will be mercilessly dragged around, and the rows will lean constantly in the direction of the poor little fellow… not to mention the chiropractic bills for the ox.)
  • You shall not wear cloth of wool and linen mixed together. v. 11 (or my personal favorite… never let anything but cotton touch your skin.)
  • “You shall make yourself tassels on the four corners of the garment with which you cover yourself. v. 12

So, snarky remarks aside, you have a series of commands forbidding mixtures of seeds, plowing animals in a yoke, and garments of linen and wool. This is truly a vital moral issue that demands our full attention, obviously.

One Rabbi once suggested to me that this fixation on mixtures was an attempt to use the common codes of social behavior in the most oft repeated and seemingly mundane aspects of life in order to emphasize in the langue of the working classes something like, “I don’t sow my field with two kinds of seed, I don’t plow my field with two kinds of animals, I don’t wear garments of mixed materials… and, da-dum-de-dum-de-dum I don’t marry Canaanites! We don’t mix; we don’t mix; we don’t mix; we don’t mix. I believe that there is something to this, but…

Of particular interest in this list, to me at least and hopefully to you if you have read this far, is the commandment not to wear cloth of wool and linen mix… what the Hebrew text calls שַׁעַטְנֵז shă-ăt-nāz.

Several explanations have been put forward for such a prohibition, but only one appears to deal appropriately with the two instances in which this command is violated by divine sanction.[1]  Yes, you read that correctly, God’s law commanded the violation of another law.

Jacob Milgrom contends that this very mixture was used only in the sanctuary and upon the priests’ garments and was thus a holy mixture banned from daily life.[2]  It was common in the ancient world to isolate certain things for use only in temples, like the demand for a sacred mix of incense that was forbidden to households. (Exodus 30:34-37)

If this is true, which I believe it is, it explains in powerful terms why the next verse contains a command to violate it.

Deuteronomy 22:12 commands that the people wear tassels on the corners of their outer garments. The origination of the command in Numbers 15:38 says “put a cord of תְּכֵלֶת tekelet on the tassel of each corner.” While I don’t have time to unpack the proof for you here, it’s just a blog post after all, this makes the tassel a linen and wool mix.[3]

This means that the two places this forbidden mixture command is broken is in the Tabernacle and Temple with its priestly garments, as already noted, and here, on the four corners of every Israelite male’s outer garment hem. This law that breaks the law supports my claims in “Why Hassel with a Tassel,” by further establishing the tassel as a priest symbol in accordance with Israel’s commissioning in Exodus 19:6 “and you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.”

The fullness of this reality is celebrated in the life of the Christian by I Peter 2:9 “But you are a chosen race, royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.”

Both we and they were called with a purpose and they wore the symbol of that calling every day, attaching it every morning and detaching it every night, the constant reminder, “You are a priest of God… act like it.”



[1] Carmichael suggests that the production of interwoven linen and wool garments was the special trade of prostitutes. Calum Carmichael, The Laws of Deuteronomy (Ithica: Cornell University Press, 1974), 158-166; Alden suggests that the שַׁעַטְנֵז refers to a web used in ceremonial magic. Robert L. Alden, “שַׁעַטְנֵז,” DOTT 4:202; Keil and Delitzsch argue that this command is yet another extension of the priestly concern for separation of spheres and natural order, a concern woven into the fabric of everyday life through many such separations. I concur in part for, One would not want to argue too hard with Keil and Delitzsch on their notions of priestly separation, for this is clearly behind the larger list of needed separations surrounding these commands and of those contained elsewhere in the Torah.  One must still deal, however, with the fact that this symbolism becomes a vital part of the sanctuary of Israel and the garments of the priest. Keil and Delitzsch, The Pentateuch; The Third Book of Moses (1 vol.; COT 1; Peabody: Hendrickson Publishers, Inc., 1989; repr., Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1986), 422.

[2] Milgrom, “Of Hems and Tassels: Rank, Authority and Holiness were Expressed in Antiquity by Fringes on Garments,” 65.

[3] The largest difficulty with this aspect of tassel investigation is that this command falls in company with an obscure group of commands which rely heavily upon the cultural pre-understanding of the recipients for many of the details, details which are often difficult for the modern scholar to discover. I do much more in my presently unpublished Master’s thesis at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, “Why Hassel with a Tassel.”

2 thoughts on “When God Commanded Israel to Break His Law

  1. Catherine Cusack says:

    Interesting…the reminder that “you are a priest of God, act like it!” seems like a very relavent reminder though, so why don’t we uphold laws like this anymore?

    1. We don’t tend to be an overly analogical people, and hold more to spiritual virtues than the symbolism surrounding them. It wouldn’t mean the same things to us even if we did it.

      There are groups who do this kind of stuff still, catholic ministers, a lot of cult groups, conservative and orthodox Jews still do it.

      We do use wedding rings and those are supposed to have similar effects.

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