Following on from The Importance of Numbers in the Bible Series, I thought it would be interesting to look at colours in the Bible. How often are colours mentioned and do they have a particular meaning in scripture? We know that a rainbow of colours was symbolic; in Genesis 9:13, a rainbow was used as a symbol of God’s promise that he would never flood the earth again. In Ezekiel 1:27, a rainbow represented the glory of God. Revelation 4:3 records John’s witness of the same rainbow as Ezekiel but he also saw one above the head of a “mighty angel” who carried a book about the events to occur at the end of time.
Our modern understanding of a rainbow was established by Isaac Newton, who divided up the different wavelengths of light (colours) that we are able to see into seven groups. These are red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo and violet. I will begin by looking at the first of these colours, however, as you will see, there is a whole continuum of colours that fall in-between.
Red is one of the three primary colours (the others are yellow and blue) and can be found on 75% of national flags around the world. In contemporary times, red is associated with a number of different things. Red, when seen on a traffic light or road sign, means “stop”. It is one of the colours used to describe fire, which can have both positive and negative connotations. Fire brings warmth and a means of cooking but, on the other hand, it can also signify danger.
In astronomy, Mars is known as the Red Planet and on Jupiter, there is a Great Red Spot. There are stars known as red giants, red supergiants and red dwarfs. The sky occasionally turns red during sunset or sunrise. This has led to the saying, “Red sky at night, shepherd’s delight; red sky in the morning, shepherd’s warning.” It was believed a red sky signified an approaching storm. The original phrase, however, comes from the Gospel of Matthew:
Human blood is red, which can symbolise both life (i.e. we need blood in order to live) or death (in terms of blood being spilt). Two per cent of the world’s population has naturally red hair. The term redhead, or redd hede as it was originally spelt, has been in use since around 1510.
In human and animal behaviour, red sometimes indicates dominance. Wearing the colour red has been linked with success and enhanced performance, especially in sport. A more controlled test of this theory has suggested this is not entirely true.
Other meanings that the colour red connotes are love (i.e. red roses on Valentine’s day), celebration and ceremony (red carpet), Christmas (Santa Claus), anger (“seeing red”), seduction (red lipstick) and sexuality (red-light district).
In the Bible, the word “red” appears at least fifty times. I am going to use the New International Version because some translations use “red” more broadly. As I mentioned before, there is a wide spectrum of colours and red is only one small section. Either side of red on the spectrum are similar colours, such as, scarlet and crimson, which have their own mentions and meanings in the Bible – at least in the NIV.
On more than one occasion, the colour red is used symbolically as an indication of sin or sinfulness. When Israel attacked the wicked Moabites, the “water looked red – like blood.” (2 Kings 3:22) When the city of Nineveh fell, Nahum tells us “The shields of the soldiers are red.” (Nahum 2:3).
Ezekiel writes about a prostitute and, therefore, a sinner who lusted after a group of men of whom a sketch had been drawn on a wall in red. “But she carried her prostitution still further. She saw men portrayed on a wall, figures of Chaldeansportrayed in red.” (Ezekiel 23:14) An interesting thing to note here is the colour red was the first pigment to be used in art. In this instance, it may be a coincidence that the drawing was in the same colour as one that represents sin.
In Zechariah 1, the prophet is told that the Lord was very angry with his ancestors. Later on that day, Zechariah had a vision: “During the night I had a vision, and there before me was a man mounted on a red horse. He was standing among the myrtle trees in a ravine. Behind him were red, brown and white horses.” (Zechariah 1:8) The prophet records a vision of red horses again in Zechariah 6:2.
Another red horse is mentioned in Revelation 6:4 as a sign war, bloodshed and the end times: “Then another horse came out, a fiery red one. Its rider was given power to take peace from the earth and to make people kill each other. To him was given a large sword.”
A red dragon is used as a similar symbol but also represents Satan’s power and determination to bring about destruction: “Then another sign appeared in heaven: an enormous red dragon with seven heads and ten horns and seven crowns on its heads.” (Revelation 12:13)
Other mentions of the red in relation to the end times are:
Proverbs 23:31 says, “Do not gaze at wine when it is red, when it sparkles in the cup, when it goes down smoothly!” This is a warning about the temptation of sin. It may look good but it will have its repercussions.
In the book of Job, the colour red is a sign of sorrow, grief and distress. “My face is red with weeping,dark shadows ring my eyes.” (Job 16:16)
Red is also a symbol of death. The Red Sea, which lies between Africa and Asia on the edge of the Indian Ocean, has claimed many people’s lives. In the present day, the Red Sea is bordered by Egypt, Sudan, Eritrea, Djibouti, Saudi Arabia and Yemen. It is approximately 1400 miles in length and about 220 miles wide.
The most famous Bible passage involving the Red Sea takes place in the book of Exodus. Moses rescued the Israelites from Egypt by parting the waters of the Red Sea. When Pharaoh and his army tried to cross, God caused the waters to return to normal, drowning the entire army.
On a couple of occasions, Biblical characters are given names that mean “red”.
At least three verses of the Bible mention items being dyed or decorated red. The significance of this, if there is one, is uncertain.
These have been the main examples of the colour red I have found in the Bible. There are plenty of mentions in the NIV of crimson and scarlet but I will look into them later. To finish, looking into the importance of the colour red, I have researched what the colour represents in Christianity today.
In the Roman Catholic Church, the colour red is associated with the fire of Pentecost and the Holy Spirit. It has also been the colour worn by Cardinals since 1295.
In general, red is the colour of Christ’s blood and, therefore, a symbol of his crucifixion. At Christmas, red tape or ribbon is used during Christingle services to represent the blood. The flags of some historically Christian nations still bear a red cross.
If you have anything you would like to add about the link between the colour red and the Bible, let us know. We value your thoughts.
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Rev'd Martin Wheadon