Hyssop, Cedar, and Scarlet

Symbolism in the Mosaic Law

By Glenn Pierce

The Old Testament ceremonial law used quite a lot of symbolism in the materials required. A red heifer, robe fringe, a bronze snake — some of the items make sense, but some seem completely random to modern ears. One example is the combined use of cedar, hyssop, and scarlet yarn.

This trio is found in two different ceremonies. The more noteworthy is the sacrifice of the red heifer in Numbers 19. While the heifer was being burned to ash outside the Temple, a branch of cedar (most likely the shrub juniper) and a piece of hyssop were tied together with a scarlet wool yarn and tossed onto the burning cow. When the entire sacrifice was reduced to ash, the ash was used to purify the water used in other Temple ceremonies.

Leviticus 14 describes a ceremony in which the trio played a more prominent role — the cleansing of a person from leprosy or a house from mold. If a house was infected with mold which spread, the offending stones were to be removed, along with all the interior plaster. If the priest determined this did not stop the mold, the entire house was to be torn down. If the mold didn't return, he declared it clean and performed the ceremony. The same ceremony would be performed for a person who was healed from leprosy.

The actual ceremony was symbolic, but meaningful. One bird was killed over fresh water. A sprig of hyssop and a branch of cedar (juniper) were tied to a live bird with scarlet wool yarn. The priest dipped the hyssop, cedar, and the tail of the bird in the blood and water. He used the unorthodox brush to sprinkle blood on the person or house seven times and declared them to be clean. Then the bird was released in an open field.

Hannah's Cupboard says hyssop was common in the Middle East and was used as both a detergent and a laxative. Hyssop was also used in the first Passover to paint the door lintels with blood (Exodus 12:22). And it acted as a straw when the Roman soldiers offered Jesus wine vinegar as He hanged on the cross (John 19:29). In Jewish ceremonies, it represents cleansing.

The word used for "scarlet" literally means the scarlet stuff that comes out of a worm. The coccus ilicis female lays eggs on the bark of a tree and attaches herself over the eggs as protection. As the larvae consume her body, her blood runs down the tree, staining it. If the beetle was harvested at the right time, the blood could be used to dye fabric. The fabric for the Tabernacle and the priests' robes were presumably dyed this way, but the word for "scarlet" is also used in passages like Psalm 22:6 ("But I am a worm, and no man...") The dye was commonly used in ceremonial items, most likely referencing blood. But it also brings to mind sin, which, like blood, draws attention to itself in a cry for healing.

"Cedar" probably means a branch of the juniper bush, which is known for its medicinal properties. In Jewish tradition, it was a symbol of human pride.

While the birds aren't directly explained their symbolism is easy to conjecture. The killed bird is a blood sacrifice; the other is set free in an homage to Christ's resurrection and our justification. It also represents our freedom from sin when our relationship with God is restored. The water added to the blood could have been a practical matter, as sparrows don't actually have much blood. It would have been fresh spring water ("living water"), probably held in a clay pot (Jeremiah 2:13; 17:13).

The mold/mildew and leprosy can also be seen as symbolic. Leviticus 14:34 says God placed mildew on the house, presumably as a punishment. Leprosy also sometimes occurred as a punishment (Numbers 12). Mold and leprosy are both contagious and destructive — characteristics which also apply to sin. With leprosy, the victim must show definite signs of improvement; with mold, the afflicted stone and surfaces must be removed. In either case, symbolic cleansing only follows significant physical improvement.

In fact, a single leprosy victim can be equated with a moldy stone — both must be removed from its environment (the people or the house) until it is sufficiently cleansed. Like a house whose mold has spread beyond saving, both the tribe of Israel and Judah were removed from their homelands when the people's sins became too great and pervasive. Those from Judah returned when they showed repentance.

In a similar way, a sinful believer's relationship with God can only be renewed after a significant response to sin. Sometimes, as in mold, it requires great effort and discipline on our part. Other times, like with leprosy, the sin can only be removed by God. In both cases, the relationship is most completely restored after the sin is seriously addressed and we intentionally approach God for His relational forgiveness.

Salvifically, it is similar. Repentance means to recognize wrong and turn away from it in a way that shows our new mindset has reached our heart and changed our actions. But no matter what prayers we say (or birds we tie branches to), it is God Who does the real work in justifying us to Himself. We show our request for healing or appreciation for the healing we've received in ways that demonstrate our desire to please God, but we trust God to do the heavy lifting. A bird and a prayer don't save; they are symbols of our trust in God to save.

It's also worth noting that the symbolic items were very common. Hyssop, birds, beetles, and juniper could be found anywhere. Jesus, too, gave great significance to common bread and wine. And prayer can be had anywhere, at any time. So items common to our every day can remind us of His sovereignty over worldly things and His power to heal.

Ceremonial laws concerning ritual purity for worship in temple, priest, and animal sacrifice have been fulfilled in Jesus Christ (Colossians 2, Hebrews 3-10), and while Christians are no longer under obligation to perform all the Old Testament rituals for maintaining ceremonial purity, the moral law is still to be observed as an objective standard in the coming to a knowledge of sin (Galatians 3:19) and revelation concerning the heart of God on the righteous standard of living (Matthew 5:18).

God certainly doesn't need a bird, a cedar branch, a bit of hyssop, and crimson yarn to purify leprosy victims and homes with mildew. And we don't know why He chose this particular ceremony to do so. We do know that He invited the Israelites into the process of their own healing. He gave them a way to participate, requiring only common items and their own trust in Him. He healed them, and then made it easy for them to come to Him. With prayer, bread, and wine, He's done the same for us.

Image Credit: Julia O'Gara; " Aspergillum as described in Leviticus "; 2011; Public Domain


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Published 1-28-15