Home » Biblical Studies » 101 Most Misunderstood Verses » Though Your Sins be Made White as Snow, You Still Might Goof Isaiah 1:18: Part 1—Red to White

Though Your Sins be Made White as Snow, You Still Might Goof Isaiah 1:18: Part 1—Red to White

scarletIsaiah 1:18—almost every Christian I know can quote it. It is a common favorite of preachers who see in this verse a solid Old Testament promise of forgiveness in Jesus, a powerful prediction of His work, centuries before the “shadow” of the Spirit loomed over Mary.

Unfortunately, that isn’t exactly the best way to understand this verse in context… Okay I was being nice. Of the six major proposals for how to understand this verse, the “promise” or “prediction” interpretation is the only interpretation that I flat out reject… as does almost every commentator I’ve read… and given that I’ve taught the book of Isaiah for years that’s a lot of commentators.

There are a number of errors that people make when reading Isaiah 1:18, but today I want to consider mistakes that we tend to make over issues of color.

  1. Many assume that color terms in Scripture are primarily about color, or, more pointedly, color symbolism… and that what ancients would have imagined that a color symbolized must be identical to what our modern society imagines about them. Blue is heaven, Purple royalty, white purity, red is blood and, thus, redemption through sacrifice… or blood guilt. “Out damned spot!!!”[1]
  2. Color terms in the Bible, however, are often about dyes… or more specifically dyed goods. So the color scarlet or crimson often reflects red garments, and so on for “purple” garments, “blue” garments… etc.
  3. Unbeknownst to most people, these dyes (particularly “Scarlet,” “Purple,” & “Blue”) actually overlap a good deal in shading, being more clearly distinguished by how they are made and how expensive they are than by our own fixations on “looks like” or “reminds me of.” When applied in particular ways each of these dyes can create overlapping ranges of color—anything from red to black passing through violets and purples.
  4. What most also don’t know is that ALL of these dyes were regarded as producing materials that were symbolically reflective of sacrificial blood, representing the bond of protection between the worshiper and his or her god, even carrying in the pagan’s mind an actual magical power. Of course the degree to which any individual fixated on “ritual” vs. “beauty” vs. “prestige” when wearing them is anyone’s guess.
  5. Based on texts like Revelation 7:13-14 “‘Who are these, clothed in white robes, and from where have they come?’ …’These are the ones coming out of the great tribulation. They have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb,'” Many assume that RED to WHITE must mean BAD to GOOD or DIRTY/BLOODY to CLEAN/INNOCENT. One must notice, however, that in this Revelation text, “red” was not the dirty stage, but the cleaning stage. There is an irony that dirty garments washed in blood come out white.
  6. An inspection of the use of “scarlet” in Scripture exposes a wider range of meanings.
  7. Even though the “scarlet” dye was a “poor man’s” “purple,”[2] Red is often used to represent opulence (Lamentations 4:5), beauty (Jeremiah 4:30; Song of Songs 4:3), and prosperity (2 Samuel 1:24; Proverbs 31:21) and, in one text, the bond of covenant between Rahab and Israel, after she aids the spies of Israel. (2:18-20)
  8. The goodness of white depends on what is being made white and why.
  9. White does, at times, represent cleanness both literal (Lamentations 4:7) and figurative (Psalm 51:7; Daniel 11:33-35; Daniel 12:10; Matthew 17:2; Matthew 28:3) but…
  10. “White like snow” is also a common picture of the advanced stages of some hitherto unidentified skin disease [wrongly translated leprosy] which appears to have begun with raw red patches (Leviticus 13:14-15; Leviticus 13:19; Leviticus 13:42) and ended with flakey rotted white skin.[3] (Exodus 4:6; Numbers 12:9-12; 2 Kings 5:25)
  11. In one text, white represents the final stage of death for an abused tree representing Israel. (Joel 1:7)
  12. If one of these last two establishes the imagery employed in the text, then there is a real possibility that the challenge is a demand to confront the reality of their situation. There sin is bad, but it will only get worse. Their condition is desperate, but unchecked; it will grow even more dire. They must act; they must respond. Their options are, then, laid out in Isaiah 1:19-20 “If you are willing and obedient, you shall eat the good of the land; but if you refuse and rebel, you shall be eaten by the sword; for the mouth of the LORD has spoken.”
  13. If one works with common garment imagery in which “scarlet garments” represents luxury and “white garments” represent poor man’s garb, then the deterioration might be a contrast between the “pleasure” season of sin vs. the “wages” season of sin—death. Think, “It’s all fun and games until someone loses an eye,” and “Your sin will find you out.” Though your sins be as scarlet they shall be white as snow. (see the notion in Lamentations 4:5)[4]

So, we have a dilemma in front of us. We have no instance in Scripture in which “scarlet” garments, or scarlet in general is set against white in terms of a passage from bad to good, dirty to clean… yet those who quote Isaiah 1:18 frequently assume that THIS is the absolute meaning of Isaiah’s remark, “Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red like crimson, they shall become like wool.” Maybe they are right. Maybe not. We’ll need to ask & strive to answer a few other questions about the passage to know for sure.


[1] I am not swearing, but being literal and quoting Shakespeare.

[2] The dye called argaman “purple” and teklet “blue” are extracted from snails from the sea floor of the Mediterranean. It took 12,000 snails to produce 1.4 ounces of dye. The tôla‛ath shânı̂y “scarlet” “crimson” or “red” is made from a land “worm” (a little more beetle like) and is more readily available.

[3] The ritual interest as opposed to medical interest in skin diseases leaves a single term (tsara’th) serving as a label for different skin diseases. The primary interest in describing them is to separate those who can as opposed to those who cannot breach holy space. This makes a clear picture of the Red to White transformation as a worsening and defiling skin disease a little iffy, but a definite point of interest for this text.

[4] The question of date and circumstance for Isaiah 1 as a whole will be needed to contemplate this one more seriously.

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