When someone (like myself) tends to support a greater understanding and obedience to the entire body of biblical law, the law about tassels on garments in Numbers 15:37-41 proves to be one of the biggest hassles to deal with. Even many people who are at least moderately favorable to obeying laws of the Bible fail to divine the purpose of the law about tassels on garments.
Without supporting, therefore, a merely wooden understanding of the wearing of tassels, nor denying its continuing validity today, it is my point to examine this often-maligned law in order to determine its purpose and meaning. It is only after we understand what God was seeking to accomplish with the law of tassels that we can understand what validity the law has for us today, even if obedience to this law may require an unusual sort of effort.
First, though, let us examine the law about tassels first before we speculate on its purpose. In Numbers 15:37-41 we read as follows: “Again the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, “Speak to the children of Israel: Tell them to make tassels on the corners of their garments throughout their generations, and to put a blue thread in the tassels of the corners. And you shall have the tassel, that you may look upon it and remember all the commandments of the Lord and do them, and that you may not follow the harlotry to which your own heart and your own eyes are inclined, and that you may remember and do all My commandments, and be holy for 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.”
From a fair reading of this law, it would appear as if the tassel on garments was a memory device. The thread was designed for a believer to bring into memory the commandments of God, the fact that it was God who delivered believers to freedom, and also to remember to be holy and to avoid the harlotry (i.e. sin) to which we are all in some fashion naturally inclined to commit. That’s a lot to remember from a blue thread. Though it may seem somewhat strange to use a single blue thread to bring all this into memory, a similar custom present within Islam helps to reveal a bit more about its purpose for those who lack a familiarity with the symbolism of this particular law.
In Islam, it is the custom of an artist to make an intentional flaw in a work of art or a tapestry. In a tapestry, for example, there will intentionally be a thread in error. The point of this thread is to remind the artist (and anyone viewing the work of art) that human beings are imperfect and that only God is perfect. Given the purpose of the law about tassels here in Numbers 15, it would appear as if that is precisely the point that God is seeking to make here as well, and therefore in this matter Islamic tradition keeps a valuable reminder of God’s purpose in commanding the deliberate marring of the perfection of a garment by a single blue thread.
The presence of a single blue thread in the midst of a plain colored garment would be a reminder of the dark side of all mankind that we all try to assiduously to cover and ignore. It is a reminder that we are all inclined to evil in some fashion, and that no matter the sin we are all naturally inclined to commit, our natures have some aspect of sin and corruption in them. We all are flawed–and as we desire to be whole and perfect we cannot forget the fallen natural state that we come from that requires the assistance of God to correct, and requires our discipline to obey God and to avoid those sins we are inclined to commit. A tassel on a garment is merely the outward manifestation of that inward flaw, much as the Islamic tapestries are also outwardly flawed to reflect the inward flaw of the human artists that make them. It’s a useful and instructive lesson to keep us humble about ourselves.
Having viewed then some of the context of the meaning of this law, which occurs just after a description of unintentional and intentional sin, the condemnation to death of someone who deliberate broke the Sabbath, and just before the rebellion of Korah, Dathan, and Abiram, it ought to be fairly obvious that this law retains its relevance today. Our natures as human beings, without the indwelling of the Spirit of God, are inclined towards sin for every single one of us, without exception. Only Jesus Christ, the very Son of God, was not so inclined in the whole history of mankind.
The purpose of the wearing of the blue thread in the tassels, therefore, is not to show off that one is righteous. Quite the contrary. The law is designed for believers to show that they too share in the flawed human nature in all mankind, and that godly righteousness is impossible for mankind unaided by God. Fortunately we are not without this aid, but that is due to the graciousness of God and not our own greatness. By openly reminding others and ourselves of our flawed nature, and our desire to overcome it, and expose it by bringing it into the light, we make ourselves an enemy of the pride and pretense that imprisons people by making them slaves to their own egos, their own fragile reputations and lies about themselves. By bringing the darkness of our nature into the harsh light of the day, ruthlessly exposing it, and denying ourselves unearned credit for holiness and righteousness, we show ourselves as true servants of God committed to His standards of righteousness and not our own.
Now, since our own garments (except for graduation robes) do not tend to have tassels, it is difficult to obey this law in the literal sense by making tassels if one intends to truly obey the spirit of the law in behaving humbly rather than showing off literal obedience and missing the greater purpose of this commandment. That said, it might be worthwhile to consider the possibility that sewing a blue thread in the corners of one’s garments might make the same point of deliberately showing the commitment of a believer in overcoming our flawed and corrupt human nature. At the very least, we ought not to simply dismiss this law as ridiculous and clearly “done away with” in light of the continuing existence of our corrupt nature and our continued deceptive efforts as human beings to masquerade ourselves as being more righteous than we really are. Let us therefore think more deeply on these matters.