The meaning of Color; Colors in the Bible
(From International Standard Bible Encyclopedia)
kul'-er, kul'-erz: The word translated "color" in the King James Version is 'ayin, which literally means "eye" or "appearance," and has been so translated in the Revised Version (British and American). In the New Testament the Greek prophasis, has the meaning of pretense or show (Acts 27:30; compare Revelation 17:4 the King James Version). The references to Joseph's coat of many colors (Genesis 37:3, Genesis 37:12-13) and "garments of divers colors" (II Samuel 13:18-19) probably do not mean the color of the garment at all, but the form, as suggested in the American Revised Version, margin, "a long garment with sleeves." In Judges 5:30 the word for "dip" or "dye" appears in the original and has been so translated in the American Standard Revised Version. (see DYE). In I Chronicles 29:2 riqmah, meaning "variegated," hence, "varicolored," is found. In Isaiah 54:11, pukh is used. This name was applied to the sulfide of antimony (Arabic kochl) used for painting the eyes. Hence, the American Revised Version, margin rendering "antimony" instead of "fair colors" (see PAINT). In Ezekiel 16:16 Tala', is found, meaning "covered with pieces" or "spotted," hence, by implication "divers colors."
Although the ancient Hebrews had no specific words for "color," "paint" or "painter," still, as we know, they constantly met with displays of the art of coloring among the Babylonians (Ezekiel 23:14) and Egyptians and the inhabitants of Palestine Pottery, glazed bricks, glassware, tomb walls, sarcophagi, wood and fabrics were submitted to the skill of the colorist. This skill probably consisted in bringing out striking effects by the use of a few primary colors, rather than in any attempt at the blending of shades which characterizes modern coloring. That the gaudy show of their heathen neighbors attracted the children of Israel is shown by such passages as Judges 8:27; Ezekiel 23:12, Ezekiel 23:16.
Two reasons may be given for the indefiniteness of many of the Biblical references to color. (1) The origin of the Hebrew people: They had been wandering tribes or slaves with no occasion to develop a color language. (2) Their religious laws: These forbade expression in color or form (Exodus 20:4). Yielding to the attractions of gorgeous display was discouraged by such prophets as Ezekiel, who had sickened of the abominations of the Chaldeans (Ezekiel 23:14-16); "And I said unto them, Cast ye away every man the abominations of his eyes" (Ezekiel 20:7).
Indefiniteness of color language is common to oriental literature, ancient and modern. This does not indicate a want of appreciation of color but a failure to analyze and define color effects. The inhabitants of Syria and Palestine today delight in brilliant colors. Bright yellow, crimson, magenta and green are used for adornment with no evident sense of fitness, according to the foreigners' eyes, other than their correspondence with the glaring brightness of the eastern skies. A soapmaker once told the writer that in order to make his wares attractive to the Arabs he colored them a brilliant crimson or yellow. A peasant chooses without hesitation a flaring magenta or yellow or green zun-nar (girdle), rather than one of somber hues. The oriental student in the chemical or physical laboratory often finds his inability to distinguish or classify color a real obstacle. His closest definition of a color is usually "lightish" or "darkish." This is not due to color blindness but to a lack of education, and extends to lines other than color distinctions. The colloquial language of Palestine today is poor in words denoting color, and an attempt to secure from a native a satisfactory description of some simple color scheme is usually disappointing. The harmonious color effects which have come to us from the Orient have been, in the past, more the result of accident (see DYE) than of deliberate purpose, as witness the clashing of colors where modern artificial dyes have been introduced.
This inability of the peoples of Bible lands to define colors is an inheritance from past ages, a consideration which helps us to appreciate the vagueness of many of the Biblical references.
The following color words occur in the King James Version or Revised Version: (1) bay, (2) black, (3) blue, (4) brown, (5) crimson, (6) green, (7) grey, (8) hoar, (9) purple, (10) red, (11) scarlet, (12) sorrel, (13) vermilion, (14) white, (15) yellow. In addition there are indefinite words indicating mixtures of light and dark: (a) grisled (grizzled), (b) ringstraked (ringstreaked), (c) speckled, (d) spotted.
(1) Bay or Red:
Bay or red is more properly translated "strong" in the Revised Version (British and American).
(2) Black (Blackish):
Eight different words have been translated "black." They indicate various meanings such as "dusky like the early dawn," "ashen," "swarthy," "moved with passion." Black is applied to hair (Leviticus 13:31; Song of Solomon 5:11; Matthew 5:36); to marble or pavement (Esther 1:6); to mourning (Job 30:28, Job 30:30; Jeremiah 14:2); to passion (Jeremiah 8:21 the King James Version; Lamentations 5:10); to horses (Zechariah 6:2, Zechariah 6:6; Revelation 6:5); to the heavens (I Kings 18:45; Job 3:5; Proverbs 7:9 the King James Version; Jeremiah 4:28; Micah 3:6); to the sun (Revelation 6:12); to the skin (racial) (Song of Solomon 1:5-6); to flocks (Genesis 30:32-33, Genesis 30:15, Genesis 30:40); to brooks because of ice (Job 6:16).
Blue (tekheleth, a color from the cerulean mussel): This word was applied only to fabrics dyed with a special blue dye obtained from a shellfish. See DYE. shesh in one passage of the King James Version is translated "blue" (Esther 1:6). It is properly translated in the Revised Version (British and American) "white cloth." "Blueness of a wound" (Proverbs 20:30) is correctly rendered in the Revised Version (British and American) "stripes that wound." Blue is applied to the fringes, veil, vestments, embroideries, etc., in the description of the ark and tabernacle (Exo. 25 ff.; Numbers 4:6 f.; Numbers 15:38); to workers in blue (II Chronicles 2:7, II Chronicles 2:14; II Chronicles 3:14); to palace adornments (Esther 1:6); to royal apparel (Esther 8:15; Jeremiah 10:9; Ezekiel 23:6; Ezekiel 27:7, Ezekiel 27:24).
The Hebrew word meaning "sunburnt" or "swarthy" is translated "black" in the Revised Version (British and American) (Genesis 30:32 ff.).
Crimson (karmil): This word is probably of Persian origin and applies to the brilliant dye obtained from a bug. A second word tola'ath, is also found. Its meaning is the same. See DYE. Crimson is applied to raiment (II Chronicles 2:7, II Chronicles 2:14; II Chronicles 3:14; Jeremiah 4:30 the King James Version); to sins (Isaiah 1:18).
(6) Green (Greenish):
This word in the translation refers almost without exception to vegetation. The Hebrew yaraq, literally, "pale," is considered one of the three definite color words used in the Old Testament (see WHITE; RED). The Greek equivalent is chloros; compare English "chlorine." This word occurs in the following vs: Genesis 1:30; Genesis 9:3; Exodus 10:15; Leviticus 2:14 (the King James Version); Leviticus 23:14 (the King James Version); II Kings 19:26; Psalms 37:2; Isaiah 15:6; Isaiah 37:27; Job 39:8; chloros, Mark 6:39; Revelation 8:7; Revelation 9:4. ra'anan, closely allied in meaning to yaraq, is used to describe trees in the following passages: Deuteronomy 12:2; I Kings 14:23; II Kings 16:4; II Kings 17:10; II Kings 19:26; II Chronicles 28:4; Job 15:32; Psalms 37:35; Psalms 52:8; Song of Solomon 1:16; Isaiah 57:5; Jeremiah 2:20; Jeremiah 3:6; Jeremiah 11:16; Jeremiah 17:2, Jeremiah 17:8; Ezekiel 6:13; Hosea 14:8. In the remaining verses the Hebrew equivalents do not denote color, but the condition of being full of sap, fresh or unripe (compare similar uses in English) (Genesis 30:37 (the King James Version); Judges 16:7-8; Psalms 23:2; Song of Solomon 2:13; Job 8:16; Ezekiel 17:24; Ezekiel 20:47; Luke 23:31). In Esther 1:6 the Hebrew word refers to a fiber, probably cotton, as is indicated by the American Revised Version, margin. Greenish is used to describe leprous spots in Leviticus 13:49; Leviticus 14:37. The same word is translated "yellow" in Psalms 68:13.
The Hebrew sebhah, means old age, hence, refers also to the color of the hair in old age (Genesis 42:38; Genesis 44:29; Genesis 44:31; Deuteronomy 32:25; Psalms 71:18; Hosea 7:9). See Hoar, next paragraph.
(8) Hoar (Hoary):
The same word which in other verses is translated "gray" is rendered "hoar" or "hoary," applying to the hair in I Kings 2:6, I Kings 2:9; Isaiah 46:4; Leviticus 19:32; Job 41:32; Proverbs 16:31. Another Hebrew word is translated "hoar" or "hoary," describing "frost" in Exodus 16:14; Job 38:29; Psalms 147:16.
The Hebrew equivalent is 'argaman; Greek porphura. The latter word refers to the source of the dye, namely, a shell-fish found on the shores of the Mediterranean. See DYE. This color, which varied widely according to the kind of shellfish used and the method of dyeing, was utilized in connection with the adornment of the tabernacle (Exo. 25; 26; 27; 28; 35; 36; 38; 39; Numbers 4:13). There were workers in purple called to assist in beautifying the temple (II Chronicles 2:7, II Chronicles 2:14; II Chronicles 3:14). Purple was much used for royal raiment and furnishings (Judges 8:26; Esther 1:6; Esther 8:15; Song of Solomon 3:10; Mark 15:17, Mark 15:20; John 19:2, John 19:5). Purple was typical of gorgeous apparel (Proverbs 31:22; Jeremiah 10:9; Song of Solomon 7:5; Ezekiel 27:7, Ezekiel 27:16; Luke 16:19; Acts 16:14; Revelation 17:4; Revelation 18:12, Revelation 18:16).
The Hebrew 'adhom, is from dam, "blood," hence, "bloodlike." This is one of the three distinctive color words mentioned in the Old Testament (see GREEN; WHITE), and is found in most of the references to red. Four other words are used: (a) chakhlili, probably "darkened" or "clouded" (Genesis 49:12; Proverbs 23:29); (b) chamar, "to ferment" (Psalms 75:8 margin; Isaiah 27:2 the King James Version); (c) bahaT, probably "to glisten" (Esther 1:6); (d) purros "firelike" (Matthew 16:2-3; Revelation 6:4; Revelation 12:3). Red is applied to dyed skins (Exodus 25:5; Exodus 26:14; Exodus 35:7, Exodus 35:23; Exodus 36:19; 39: 34); to the color of animals (Numbers 19:2; Zechariah 1:8; Zechariah 6:2; Revelation 6:4; Revelation 12:3); to the human skin (Genesis 25:25; ruddy, I Samuel 16:12; I Samuel 17:42; Song of Solomon 5:10; Lamentations 4:7); to the eyes (Genesis 49:12; Proverbs 23:29); to sores (Lev. 13); to wine (Psalms 75:8 m; Proverbs 23:31; Isaiah 27:2 the King James Version); to water (II Kings 3:22); to pavement (Esther 1:6); to pottage (Genesis 25:30); to apparel (Isaiah 63:2); to the sky (Matthew 16:2-3); to sins (Isaiah 1:18); to a shield (Nahum 2:3).
Scarlet and crimson colors were probably from the same source (see CRIMSON; DYE). tola'ath, or derivatives have been translated by both "scarlet" and "crimson" (Greek kokkinos). A Chaldaic word for purple has thrice been translated "scarlet" in the King James Version (Daniel 5:7, Daniel 5:16, Daniel 5:29). Scarlet is applied to fabrics or yarn used (a) in the equipment of the tabernacle (Exo. 25 ff.; Numbers 4:8); (b) in rites in cleansing lepers (Lev. 14); in ceremony of purification (Numbers 19:6); to royal or gorgeous apparel (II Samuel 1:24; Proverbs 31:21; Lamentations 4:5; Daniel 5:7, Daniel 5:16, Daniel 5:29, "purple"; Nahum 2:3; Matthew 27:28; Revelation 17:4; Revelation 18:12, Revelation 18:16); to marking thread (Genesis 38:28, Genesis 38:30; Joshua 2:18, Joshua 2:21); to lips (Song of Solomon 4:3); to sins (Isaiah 1:18); to beasts (Revelation 17:3); to wool (Hebrews 9:19).
This word occurs once in the Revised Version (British and American) (Zechariah 1:8).
This word, shashar, occurs in two passages (Jeremiah 22:14; Ezekiel 23:14). Vermilion of modern arts is a sulfide of mercury. It is not at all improbable that the paint referred to was an oxide of iron. This oxide is still taken from the ground in Syria and Palestine and used for decorative outlining.
The principal word for denoting whiteness in the Hebrew was labhan, a distinctive color word. Some of the objects to which it was applied show that it was used as we use the word "white" (Genesis 49:12). Mt. Lebanon was probably named because of its snow-tipped peaks (Jeremiah 18:14). White is applied to goats (Genesis 30:35); to rods (Genesis 30:37); to teeth (Genesis 49:12); to leprous hairs and spots (Lev. 13; Numbers 12:10); to garments (Ecclesiastes 9:8; Daniel 7:9); as symbol of purity (Daniel 11:35; Daniel 12:10; Isaiah 1:18); to horses (Zechariah 1:8; Zechariah 6:3, Zechariah 6:1); to tree branches (Joel 1:7); to coriander seed (Exodus 16:31). The corresponding Greek word, leukos, is used in New Testament. It is applied to hair (Matthew 5:36; Revelation 1:14); to raiment (Matthew 17:2; Matthew 28:3; Mark 9:3; Mark 16:5; Luke 9:29; John 20:12; Acts 1:10; Revelation 3:4-5, Revelation 3:18; Revelation 6:11; Revelation 7:9, Revelation 7:13-14; Revelation 19:14); to horses (Revelation 6:2; Revelation 19:11, Revelation 19:14); to a throne (Revelation 20:11); to stone (Revelation 2:17); to a cloud (Revelation 14:14). Besides labhan, four other Hebrew words have been translated "white": (a) chori, or chur, meaning "bleached," applied to bread (Genesis 40:16); to linen (Esther 1:6; Esther 8:15); (b) tsach, or tsachor, literally, "dazzling," is applied to asses (Judges 5:10); to human appearance (Song of Solomon 5:10); to wool (Ezekiel 27:18); (c) dar, probably mother of pearl or alabaster (Esther 1:6); (d) rir, literally, "saliva," and, from resemblance, "white of egg" (Job 6:6).
This word occurs in Esther 1:6 to describe pavement; in Lev. 13 to describe leprous hair; in Psalms 68:13 to describe gold.
Mixtures of colors: (a) grizzled (grisled), literally, "spotted as with hail," applied to goats (Genesis 31:10, Genesis 31:12); to horses (Zechariah 6:3, Zechariah 6:1); (b) ringstreaked (ringstraked), literally, "striped with bands," applied to animals (Genesis 30:35 ff.; Genesis 31:8 ff.); (c) speckled, literally, "dotted or spotted," applied to cattle and goats (Genesis 30:32 ff.; Genesis 31:8 ff.); to a bird (Jeremiah 12:9); to horses (Zechariah 1:8 the King James Version); (d) spotted, literally, "covered with patches," applied to cattle and goats (Genesis 30:32 ff.). In Judges 1:23 "spotted" means "defiled."
Figurative: For figurative uses, see under separate colors.
Perrot and Chipiez, History of Art in Ancient Egypt, History of Art in Chaldea and Assyria, History of Art in Phoenicia and its Dependencies; Wilkinson, The Ancient Egyptians; Jewish Encyclopedia;EB; Delitzsch, Iris.
James A. Patch
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