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).
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.