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The 'Scarlet Worm'.

‘"Come now, let us reason together", says the LORD: "though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red like crimson, they shall become like wool".

Isaiah 1:18

This amazing verse reveals an astounding truth which is hidden in English translations but which is revealed in the original Hebrew. This verse focuses on how God deals with sins. How can sins change their colour in God’s eyes; what does He do to cover our sins? There is a scarlet cord running throughout the entire Bible. Let us investigate.

Let us look at some of the Hebrew of the above verse.

The LORD says ‘come’ or ‘walk please’, ‘let us consider, judge, prove together’. The first point here is that we need to come to the LORD God of Israel and consider together with him. Hear what He wants us to consider. He speaks of sins which in Hebrew is the word ‘chata’ which means to ‘miss the mark’ like an arrow which fails to reach its target. We tend to think of sins as things we do, we commit sins but it also includes things we fail to do. The Ten Words or Ten Commandments reveal that within all mankind there is a failure to do what is right. There is a nature within us which stops us from even obeying the greatest commandment to love the LORD with all our heart, soul and mind. We all fail to reach this goal. King Solomon, in his prayer for all Israel at the dedication of the Temple, said as much: ‘If they sin against you—for there is no one who does not sin’. 1 Kings 8:46.

The Colour of Sins

Our sins are what we do and what we fail to do which are ultimately sins against God. Our sins are described as being ‘like scarlet’ and ‘red like crimson’. Scarlet is a translation of the Hebrew word ‘shani’, red is a translation of the Hebrew word ‘adom’ and crimson is a translation of the Hebrew word ‘tola’. ‘Shani’ and ‘tola’ are very interesting Hebrew words. These two words appear together to describe one of the colours used in the Tabernacle and the garments of the High Priest. They appear together, side by side, in the Torah 33 times and are normally translated as one English word – ‘scarlet’. They appear together 26 times in Exodus, 5 times in Leviticus and twice in Numbers (See the list of references noted at the end of the article). Both of these Hebrew words appear alone in various places but it is highly significant therefore that the LORD would put these in the same verse in Isaiah 1:18.

‘Shani’ is always translated as red, scarlet or crimson. ‘Tola’ likewise is translated the same but with a different word used in Exodus 16:20, the first time it appears in the Torah being translated as worm. It is also translated this way in its final appearance in the Torah in Deuteronomy 28:39. It is also translated worm in Job 25:6, Psalm 22:6, Isaiah 14:11, 41:14 and 66:24. One of the sons of Issachar is called Tola and is mentioned in Genesis 46:13, Numbers 26:23, Judges 10:1 and 1 Chronicles 7:1-2.

The interesting verse above is Psalm 22:6: -

But I am a worm [tola] and not a man, scorned by mankind and despised by the people.’ Psalm 22 is regarded by both Christian and early Jewish scholars as a Psalm which speaks of Messiah.

So, what is the connection between a worm and the colour scarlet?

Well, tola is actually an insect and to be precise, using the technical term, it is the ‘coccus ilicus’, a grub that when it is crushed and placed in hot water produces a brilliant crimson or scarlet colour. It was used as an indelible or permanent colourfast dye for the tabernacle curtains, the veil and the priestly garments.

There is more to this insect however as we look at the life-cycle of the mother:

  • The mother climbs up a piece of wood, mainly a particular type of tree, in order to lay her eggs

  • She then attaches herself to the tree building a hard red shell around her.

  • Inside this crimson shell she lays her eggs and keeps them under her body to protect them.

  • The baby grubs are hatched and they feed on the mother’s body for 3 days.

  • During this time a bright crimson red fluid oozes from the mother.

  • This red fluid stains the wood that she is attached to and the baby grubs are covered being permanently stained with it.

  • The young are ready to leave the shell after 3 days.

  • The mother, being still attached to the shell and to the tree, dies so that she can birth a family.

  • On day 4 the mother’s tail pulls up to her head making a heart-like shape and she is no longer red – she has turned into a snow-white wax.

  • This snow-white body looks like a little piece of wool on the side of the tree. It begins to flake off and falls to the ground like snow.

We see here the wonderful Hebrew background to Isaiah 1:18.

Of course, if the ‘tola’ dye was used in the tabernacle and temple materials we should also expect today that the Temple Institute would be researching this for the materials for the third temple and they are – they have trained young people in Israel how to harvest these insects to provide the dye they need.

Red is also the colour of blood and is related to atonement as per Leviticus 17:11 ‘For the life of the flesh is in the blood, and I have given it for you on the altar to make atonement for your souls, for it is the blood that makes atonement by the life.’ It was and is the blood of sacrifice which atones for sin and which the LORD was referring to in Isaiah 1:18. Could it be that atonement has been made by Messiah on a tree – many Christians believe so and Psalm 22 may hold a hidden key with the imagery of the scarlet worm?! Our sins can be as white as snow or become like wool, both being able to cover which is what the Hebrew word ‘kippur’ means, a ‘covering’ or ‘atonement’. As Marvin R. Wilson wrote in his book ‘Our Father Abraham’ ‘This is God’s joyous announcement to us today as it was to ancient Israel: “Even though your sins are red, indelible as the crimson dye of the tola, I am able to forgive your sin, renew your life, and allow you to stand totally in the clear”.

‘"Come now, let us reason together", says the LORD: "though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red like crimson, they shall become like wool".

Isaiah 1:18

NB: These references have ‘shani’ and ‘tola’ appearing together side by side: -

Exodus (Shemot): -

25:4, and 35:6,23,25 -

Contribution from the people of Israel

26:1 and 36:8 -

Tabernacle curtains

26:31 and 36:35 -

Tabernacle veil

26:36 and 36:37 -

Tabernacle door

27:16 and 38:18 -

Gate of the Tabernacle Court

28:5 and 39:1 -

High Priest’s garments

28:6 and 39:2-3 -

High Priest’s ephod

28:8 and 39:5 -

High Priest’s ephod’s band

28:15 and 39:8 -

High Priest’s breastplate

28:33 and 39:24 -

High Priest’s robe’s pomegranates

35:35 and 38:23 -

Relating to the skill of Bezalel and Oholiab

39:29 -

High Priest’s sash

Leviticus (Vayikra): -

14:4 and 14:6 -

Cleansing lepers

14:49 and 14:51-52 -

Cleansing house of leprosy

Numbers (Bamidbar): -

4:8 -

Placed over the table of shewbread

19:6 -

Purification law

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Oct 29, 2019

Thanks Nirmal for your comment/question. I believe we can say that the scarlet worm dye was definitely used for the Temple and most Jewish scholars hold that view as well as Professor Zohar Amar of Bar Ilan University who has done extensive research for over 10 years on this. The Temple Institute support his research. As to whether it was originally used for the Tabernacle is more difficult to say for certain. There are questions about whether the scarlet worm would have been available in the wilderness for instance. It certainly was and still is available in the land of Israel. The fact that it is the same Hebrew word used in the Torah (Pentateuch) as in Psalm 22 and…


Nirmal Nathan
Nirmal Nathan
Oct 29, 2019

Brilliant! Is it confirmed that the Tolaat is the scarlet worm dye that was used in the dye for the Tabernacle? Do the Jewish scholars hold to this view? Thanks. Nirmal Nathan, India.

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