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The Debrief Podcast: The Scarlet Cord Symbol Explained

Thu Oct 22

When Rahab put out the scarlet cord before the destruction of Jericho (see Joshua 2), it was an obvious and noticeable act of setting herself and her family apart from the fate that would fall on the rest of the citizens of the city.

Was there any significance to the scarlet cord that saved her and her household?

From Rahab’s perspective, the request to drop a lengthy cord made with an incredibly expensive dye (some would say that the cost of the dye alone would equal the cost of a home) would have represented a large financial sacrifice – and certainly something that others would now know how much net worth she actually had.

From a Jewish perspective though, I wonder if the scarlet cord would have reminded them of the story of Tamar in Genesis 38. Tamar, you may recall, dressed as a prostitute in order to seduce her father-in-law, Judah. That encounter left her pregnant, and she ended up having twins – one named Zerah, and one named Perez. During birth, Zerah stuck out his hand, getting a scarlet cord tied to his wrist, but then withdrew his hand before Perez came out of the womb first.

Or perhaps Rahab’s cord would have reminded the Israelites of the priestly rituals for cleansing skin diseases or clearing mold from inside a house (see Leviticus 14). 

In both cases, there was something that couldn’t be fixed on one’s own: you can’t just “will” a skin disease away, no matter how hard you try; nor can you cleanse recurring mold out of a house even after replacing its walls. 

No matter how hard one would try on his or her own, these things couldn’t be fixed by individual effort – in both of those cases, a priest was called in to purify the skin (or the house) using the sacrifices of small animals. But there’s also mention of a scarlet cord in this purification ritual.

Zerah would have been given the double portion due to the firstborn son, but instead withdrew his scarlet-wrapped wrist and surrendered that blessing to his brother Perez.

Tamar, Zerah’s mother (and non-Israelite), lived a life of rejection and took desperate action to find an heir, sleeping with her father-in-law.

Rahab, also a non-Israelite, lived a promiscuous life and took desperate action to preserve her family. By faith, slinging the scarlet cord out of her window, when Jericho fell, her house stood.

In the book of Matthew, we see the lineage of Jesus listed in full detail. Every name listed is that of a man, except for four. These names are women: Tamar. Rahab. Bathsheeba. Mary.

Listing a woman in Jewish lineage during that time was a peculiar act. Looking at the women listed is even more scandalous.

Tamar – impregnated by her father-in-law as she played dress-up as a prostitute.

Rahab – career prostitute who was spared the destruction of Jericho.

Bathsheeba – arguably a non-Israelite as well, who was taken in to King David’s bed even though she was married to someone else.

Mary – faithfully following the call of God, even as salacious rumors of her pregnancy undoubtedly swirled around her.

Four women on the outs of society.

Four women in need of redemption, of being counted as included.

Four women who couldn’t rescue themselves on their own.

Four women who are the matriarchs of Jesus himself…

Picture Jesus, on his way to be crucified. He was wrapped in a scarlet robe (Matthew 27). As the nails were driven into his hands and feet, blood the color of scarlet wound its way down the cross – the most expensive and noticeable blood the world has ever seen.

I wonder if the Jewish bystanders saw that scarlet line dripping from the cross and thought of Tamar. I wonder if they thought of Rahab’s life-line that saved her household. They may have considered the scarlet cord present during the priestly sacrifices that rid people of conditions they just couldn’t fix on their own.

I wonder if the onlookers gazed upon Mary, weeping as she lost her precious son.

Did the weight of redemption sink in to those observers? As the blood dripped down the cross, did they see the foreshadowing of this moment from centuries before?

Could they have seen what would have occurred three days later, when the resurrection offered hope, inclusion, redemption?

May the scarlet blood of Jesus become your lifeline today; and may that blood cleanse you from the inside out, providing hope and freedom – and may you draw others in to that same saving grace as you live in the redemption that Jesus offers you today.

– Nathan Westwick, Sandals Church Spiritual Formation Content Team