A Biblical Theology of Garment Tassels

by Jun 25, 2011Theology25 comments

wardmarkisraelshots-1.jpg

A Jewish man in Israel with tassels on his shirt, a yarmulke, and prominent payot (ringlets of hair).
© Mark L. Ward, Jr., 2010.

I was just studying Numbers 15 for my church’s Sunday School, and I came across this little paragraph:

Tassels on Garments
The Lord said to Moses, “Speak to the people of Israel, and tell them to make tassels on the corners of their garments throughout their generations, and to put a cord of blue on the tassel of each corner. And it shall be a tassel for you to look at and remember all the commandments of the Lord, to do them, not to follow after your own heart and your own eyes, which you are inclined to whore after. So you shall remember and do all my commandments, and be holy to your God. I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt to be your God: I am the Lord your God.” (vv. 37-41)

What is a NT preacher supposed to do with this? For years I wasn’t sure. It was mostly just an obscure factoid. For that very reason I think it makes a good test case for figuring out what to do with OT texts. I see two major options.

Option 1: Direct Application

What if we just made a simple, direct moral application? The Israelites were required to do this, and so are contemporary Christians. We should all have tassels coming from our garments.

I think most Christians sense that there’s something wrong with that. But what? Some Christians might say, “This was for Jews, not for Christians.” But why? The answer might come back, “Because this is a ceremonial law.” But I’m not so sure that’s the case. Why not call it a moral law? It has a very moral purpose: to make God’s people remember God’s commandments, to keep them holy. That’s what Numbers 15 says. Don’t Christians need that same kind of reminder?

A Christian might say, “Okay, it still has binding force on us, but culture has changed and now we have other ways of making ourselves remember—like having framed verses or listening to scripturally rich music.”

I’m still not completely comfortable. I’m sure it’s a good idea for us to place reminders around ourselves that we are God’s people. There’s a good reason to have Scripture verses in calligraphy on our walls, on index cards in our cars, and even perhaps—if you absolutely must—on a necktie.

But the most direct parallel to doing that would seem to be God’s command in Deuteronomy to bind God’s words ” as a sign on your hand” and “write them on the doorposts of your house” (Deut 6:4–9)—the commands which gave rise to the contemporary and ancient Jewish custom of wearing phylacteries.

And God said tassels. That’s not culturally impossible for us to do. So what right do we have to turn tassels into calligraphy and neckties?

As you can see, there are some problems with trying to apply this passage more or less directly. I think there is truth in this kind of direct application, because OT Jews and NT Christians are both touched deeply by sin; we need all the help we can get to be truly holy.

Option 2: Redemptive History

But Biblical Theology (or a near equivalent in this context, Redemptive History) changed my perspective. It has helped me remember that OT Jews and NT Christians, despite their similarities, have some very significant differences. Those differences help me see how this little command to wear tassels isn’t just a factoid; I can go from tassels to Christ without doing any violence to the text. In fact, I’ll be doing a sort of violence to it if I don’t go to Christ.

Let me explain by pointing out a difference between evangelical Christians and other religious groups that you may never have thought much about: a lot of religions specify particular garments that must be worn, but we don’t. (Culottes don’t count.) Many groups of Muslims, though apparently not all, have their women wear the head-covering known as the hijab. The men wear a skull cap. Catholics have all sorts of vestments for priests, cardinals, and popes—along with certain kinds of dress for monks and nuns. Buddhist monks, too, have traditional garb. Jewish men wear yarmulkes; some groups of Jewish women are required to wear wigs when they get married. I hate to point it out, but it’s unavoidable: Mormons have holy undergarments.

Numbers of conservative Protestant women wear head-coverings, but that’s not quite the same as tassels. Head-coverings aren’t worn at all times, they’re only for one sex, and they serve a more specific purpose: honoring male leadership in the home (1 Cor 11:2–16). These tassels in Numbers served a very general purpose: they were a physical reminder that the people belonged to God.

So why don’t Bible-believing evangelical Christians have anything equivalent? Why don’t we have any distinctive religious clothing?

There’s an answer, and it comes from remembering that Scripture is a story, a story with progress. Let’s zoom-out to the macro level of that big story. Looking at all of Scripture, what are the biggest differences between us and OT Jews? Simply put, New Covenant believers don’t need constant external reminders that we are God’s people because we have constant internal ones. The story of God’s redemption has progressed since Numbers 15. The Old Covenant did not include a provision for heart change, but New Covenant believers have God’s law written on their hearts (Jer 31:31–34). New Covenant believers, as part of their union with Christ, are all permanently indwelled by the very Holy Spirit of God. We don’t have ritual clothing because we have taken off the old man and have been clothed in a new self (Eph 4:22–24). Gal 3:27 says we have “put on Christ”—just like we put on clothes (cf. Rom 13:14).

Conclusion

Now, even OT Jews were supposed to take external, physical reminders like tassels or verses on doorposts (mezzuzoth) and internalize them. Deuteronomy 6 and Numbers 15 both say this. And Christians have to do the same with our reminder, the Lord’s Supper. We’re warned not to let it be merely external (1 Cor 11:27–32.). But we’re starting with a major advantage over OT Jews. We don’t need tassels; praise God, we have something far better.

I’m aware that what I’ve written may sound like it’s just another clever, creative way to wrest something practical out of obscure OT passages. But I think you’ll find that following this method of looking at the whole story of Scripture and relating every OT passage to it yields genuine insights that are reproducible by others. I have to admit that the particular connections I have made I could not find elsewhere—but I’m still looking.

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25 Comments
  1. Mark Cunningham

    Excellent perspective. Thank you.

    Reply
  2. Michael

    “New Covenant believers don’t need constant external reminders that we are God’s people because we have constant internal ones” Wrong. Christians constantly forget to pray and read the Bible even with the indwelling Holy Spirit. We need reminders before our eyes as we are still imperfect people this side of heaven. Tassels were required under the law for the Jew. As Christians under grace God does not force use to wear anything as a reminder, but with the salvation we now have we should be doing such things voluntarily. I have many things I wear and place around me to help me not forget God during a busy day. I don’t want to get busy and forget to pray for even a day. I do not want to forget to read my Bible for even a day.

    Reply
    • Mark Ward

      By “constant” I mean “constant.” I mean 24/7, like the tassels.

      Reply
  3. Jonathan

    So does that also mean New Covenant believers don’t need to honor the Sabbath and come together between sundown Friday to sunset Saturday, which is commanded from God through the 4th Commandment? If God calls pork unclean, is it now an obsolete command for followers of Christ not to eat pork chops or catfish? God’s instructions to the Israelites (and to untold numbers of us who may very well be descendants of the 10 Lost Tribes of Israel) was His desire for them and all generations after them forever to wear tassels as reminders not to play the harlot and entertain every lust stirring within the soul. And if I’m not mistaken, the present-day descendants of the 10 Tribes are scattered around the world. If God says He is the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow, would He expect any less from today’s followers and disciples? I wear the tassels…”if you love me, keep my commandments.”

    Reply
  4. Jonathan

    I also forgot to include this: The Bible says that everyone will obey the same law. Refer to Leviticus 24:22.

    Reply
  5. Maria

    My family and I are making the cord and tassels in our version that is the Good news bible the scriptures say and you will belong to me completely that’s why when we found the scripture we are doing as soon as possible hopefully today. I usually cross reference scripture I really believe the Lord wants us to do this and so do most of my children at home. So we are really excited about making them and putting them on our garments. Peace be with you.

    Reply
    • Mark Ward

      Maria, thank you for commenting!

      I would actually encourage you *not* to do this, because we are not under law but under grace. The Mosaic law has been fulfilled entirely in Christ. These boundary markers were for a different era of God’s people.

      Reply
  6. Joshua Caleb Asuncion

    Thank You Sir for taking the time to research, this helps a lot :). But I myself will learn to research on my own so that I could really say that I have done my Homework…..Thanks again Sir

    Reply
  7. Jonathan Fritz

    Moses did not create the “Mosaic Law,” this is God’s Law passed down to Moses on the mountain. Sin is disobedience of God’s Laws: Yes, we are under grace, but not exempt from judgment. If a righteous person sins, he will be judged by the Law. We cannot have it both ways: If you drive 100 mph in a 70 mph zone, that law will not protect you. So why do we trivialize God’s Laws and not expect Him to hold us accountable? The soul that sins will die. Not my words, they are from the “New Testament.”

    Reply
    • Mark Ward

      Jonathan, we’ve got to put together all the statements of the New Testament. Jesus came not to abolish the law but to fulfill it. “The law is holy, just, and good.” “We are not under law, but under grace.” “Christ has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances.” “Do we then overthrow the law by this faith? By no means! On the contrary, we uphold the law.”

      I’m trying to put all those statements together, and I am not trivializing God’s law in the least.

      Reply
  8. Jonathan Fritz

    The word “fulfill” means to “give greater meaning to” or “to expand upon.” This does not imply “doing away with.” Our Savior and Messiah said, “I and my Father are one.” He was in complete agreement with the Father, which, in my opinion, did not include doing away with the Law. Both the Father and Son ” are the same, today, yesterday, and tomorrow.” So if God said pigs are unclean animals, He means exactly that today. Isaiah 66:17 talks about a time in the future, when God will return to restore the Earth to its former glory: “They that sanctify themselves, and purify themselves in the gardens behind one tree in the midst, eating swine’s flesh, and the abomination, and the mouse, shall be consumed together, says the Lord.” Verse 18: “For I know their works and their thoughts: it shall come, that I will gather all nations and tongues; and they shall come, and see My glory.” From this verse, our Father is revealing to us that He has not changed or done away with His Laws (my opinion). In Verse 23, God tells us that His Laws are everlasting and unchanging: “And it shall come to pass, that from one new moon to another, and from one Sabbath to another, shall all flesh come to worship before me,” says the Lord. The Sabbaths in this verse are the weekly Sabbaths, Friday sunset to Saturday sunset, the same Sabbaths kept by our Savior. “Therefore the Son of Man is Lord also of the Sabbath,” from Mark 2:28.

    Reply
  9. Jonathan Fritz

    And I did forget to clarify that “unclean animals” are those animals people are not supposed to eat, if they follow the Bible from Genesis to Revelation. Pigs are not fit for human consumption because they are do not “chew the cud,” as cows and deer tend to do. Leviticus 23 has the complete list of animals people are not supposed to eat. Our Savior followed those food laws, not because he was a native Judean, he was also the Son of God. He was an obedient son, even to His death.

    Reply
    • Mark Ward

      Friend, then what is the meaning of Mark 7:19 and Acts 10:9–16?

      Reply
  10. Jonathan Fritz

    Go further to Acts 10:28, where Peter reveals to Cornelius, “You know how that it is an unlawful thing for a man who is a Jew to keep company, or come unto one of another nation; but God has shown me that I should not call any man common or unclean.” Peter’s dream was not about eating unclean animals (and as a devout Jew, he would never eat unclean animals!), it was about judging others as being below him; our Savior’s death and resurrection gave all men equal opportunity for repentance and new directions.

    As for Mark 7:19, we need to start from the beginning to understand what our Savior was teaching: The Pharisees had a particular ritual before eating, a ceremonial washing of the hands. A few of the Pharisees were upset with the Savior’s disciples, who had chosen not to do the handwashing, a tradition of the elders. “For they worship me in vain, teaching for doctrines the commandments of men.” Mark 7:9: “Full well you reject the commandment of God, that you may have your own tradition.” As for the eating with unwashed hands, our Savior, also a devout Jew and the Son of the Eternal One who gave us Leviticus, he said, “There is nothing from without a man, that entering into him can defile him: but the things which come out of him, those are they that defile the man,” Mark 7:15. “If you love me, keep My commandments (His Father’s commandments included…”I and my Father are one.”).”

    Reply
  11. Jonathan Fritz

    John 14:15…my apologies.

    Reply
  12. Toni Colyer

    Jonathan Fritz, thank you for replying and defending His words. It is so sad that believers have gone so sideways.

    Reply
  13. Jonathan Fritz

    Toni Colyer, you and I were once in that same place, not knowing and under tradition, going about our faith under the traditions of men. We cannot help others understand that the early Christian church was a branch of Judaism, and apostles such as Paul and Peter were devout believers in Messiah; they followed every page of the Scriptures (including the tassels), which before their deaths was the Old Covenant or Old Testament. The only Bible (Torah) our Savior taught and quoted from was the Torah or Old Testament; the New Testament did not exist at the time. Taking the Jewishness out of our Savior and denying the Jewish origins of the Christian faith began shortly after our Savior’s death and resurrection, which is recorded in the New Testament. Our Savior said, “You have seen me, you have also seen my Father (my own words here), to emphasize that like his Father, our Savior is the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow. One example to show that our Savior did not approve of his followers eating pork: He sent the evil spirits into a herd of swine; they entered the animals, which drowned immediately after. The Jews who were raising the pigs were profiting from the farming business of pigs — they made money from selling pork to the Gentiles around them. When our Father begins calling individuals to answer, eyes will be opened and the truth will become known. I was one of those individuals; I am thankful that our Father has shown me His Truths; I wish that I had gotten this knowledge earlier in my life.

    Reply
  14. Jonathan Fritz

    Toni Colyer, the “sideways” has been going on since the 1st and 2nd centuries!

    Reply
  15. Dan

    If you read Acts 15, you will see the difficulty placing this Yoke on Gentiles. It give clear instruction as to what the early church says about the Law of Moses. Read it for yourselves. The people hearts and eyes of the people in Numbers were given to Harlotry. And you see from this point forward that they did indeed forget and transgress. So the question I ask, “what did the reminder do.” It couldnt stop them from sinning, or justify them. Wearig a tassle is going to do nothing more today for a person than it did back then. The law is spiritual and I am carnal sold under sin. The law is now written in our hearts and minds. Jesus changes the hearts. The Holy Spirit dwelling in this temple, (my body), reminds me to love the Lord my God and My neighbor and he teaches me all things, as I read the scriptures. We live under the New covenant as established by Christ. I am fully convinced that a born again, walking in the spirit, Loving the Lord our God with all our heart soul mind and strength, believer will be well pleasing to God.

    Reply
    • Robert McMillen

      Thanks Mark! Great and true words about this unusual section of scripture about tassels. Sad to read so many comments by legalistic believers trying to please God by making the OT law their proof of godliness.

      Reply
  16. 1WhoConquers

    I find myself wondering, though, about the many Christians who are having a serious struggle with sin. Would they benefit from tassels as a reminder of Who they’re supposed to be serving? I suppose one could argue that when one has the indwelling Holy Spirit, we’re NOT supposed to be still struggling with sin. But for those who are?

    Reply
    • Mark Ward

      I wouldn’t encourage any Christians to adopt laws specifically given to the Jewish people, because we are not under that law anymore. This is especially true if those laws have the tendency to become “broad philacteries.” But if a Christian privately took a cue from this law and did something of his/her own to remind him/her of God’s law… I wouldn’t complain. More power to them.

      Reply
      • 1WhoConquers

        Agreed, of course. As Paul wrote to Timothy, ALL scripture is beneficial for instruction and reproof. So while we aren’t required to wear tassels or tie scriptures to our doorposts or wrists, it’s beneficial to think about how God required certain things from His people to set them apart from their neighbors in the land of Canaan. How often do Christians think about dressing in a way that sets them apart from what people in “the world” are wearing? And heck, if I start wearing tassels and comments from strangers leads to me sharing my faith, that wouldn’t be a bad thing 😉

        Reply
        • Mark Ward

          I have a C.S. Lewis hat! It’s my one stab at Christian apparel—well, I guess I also have a Sola Scriptura hat!

          See my friend Micah Ellis’ little shop: https://www.furtherupco.com/

          Reply
          • 1WhoConquers

            I’m not big on Christian specific apparel myself. I’m not even a fan of wearing a cross. The most memorable one I’ve run across is my friend Wayne who likes wearing a t-shirt that says “my lifeguard walks on water” when at the beach.

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