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COLOR, COLORS. No word occurs in Heb. for the abstract idea of color. It is possible that overshadowing effects of the first commandment inhibited many types of artistic efforts among the Israelites including the extensive employment of color. On the other hand, the colors of the Tabernacle hangings were prescribed by God, and likewise also the vestments of the high priest. But it was prob. after contact developed with the Phoenicians that colors became more emphasized in Israelite culture. Words designating color have basic meanings differing from the concept of color.

1. עַ֫יִן, H6524, (Prov 23:31; Ezek 1:7; 8:2 KJV), lit. “appearance” (or “aspect”). Here color is expressed in terms of likeness to some other material.

2. פַּסִּֽים (Gen 37:3, 23, 32 KJV; 2 Sam 13:18, 19) not so much color as the form and type of garment, namely a sleeved garment frequently associated with officials.

3. פּוּכְ “background for precious gems” (Isa 54:11); “eye shadow” (2 Kings 9:30; Jer 4:30); actually antimony or stibium used to provide emphasis or contrast.

5. טָל֗וּא, descriptive of patch-colored sheep and goats (Gen 30:32), of idol shrines (Ezek 16:16) and the patchwork of repaired sandals (Josh 9:5 RSV), all indicating variety of color.

6. זִיו, H10228, Aram. (Assyr. zîmu?) splendor of idol (Dan 2:31), brightness of face (5:6, 9, 10). Here aspect or intensity is indicated.

Real colors appear principally as dyes (see specific color) among the Jews, the most lavish use being seen in the Tabernacle (q.v.) and on a reduced scale in Solomon’s Temple (q.v.). Colors were extracted principally from plants or mollusks, and the resulting product was rather impure and often unstable. The most expensive was the purple of the murex which required 250,000 mollusks per ounce! Hence the implication of great wealth in the saying, “born to the purple.”

Color derivation processes were mostly family secrets passed from father to son, and many formulas have been lost. Having only crude controls, constancy of color quality was impossible to obtain. The most important dyes were the reds and purples.

In early times colors prob. had little allegorical meaning. Philo (Life of Moses, II, 17) makes white a symbol of the earth and purple the sea. The NT makes white the symbol of righteousness (Rev 19:8) while red symbolizes the carnage of war (Rev 6:4), and black signifies the sorrow and death resulting therefrom (Zech 6:2, 6).


F. E. Wallace, “Color in Homer and in Ancient Art,” Smith Col. Class. Studies (1927); A. Guillamont, “La Designation des Couleurs en Hebreu et en Araméan,” in I. Meyerson, ed., Problèms de la Couleur (1957), 339-348.

International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (1915)

Although the ancient Hebrews had no specific words for "color," "paint" or "painter," still, as we know, they constantly met with displays of the art of coloring among the Babylonians (Eze 23:14) and Egyptians and the inhabitants of Palestine Pottery, glazed bricks, glassware, tomb walls, sarcophagi, wood and fabrics were submitted to the skill of the colorist. This skill probably consisted in bringing out striking effects by the use of a few primary colors, rather than in any attempt at the blending of shades which characterizes modern coloring. That the gaudy show of their heathen neighbors attracted the children of Israel is shown by such passages as Jud 8:27; Eze 23:12,16.

Two reasons may be given for the indefiniteness of many of the Biblical references to color.

(1) The origin of the Hebrew people: They had been wandering tribes or slaves with no occasion to develop a color language.

(2) Their religious laws: These forbade expression in color or form (Ex 20:4). Yielding to the attractions of gorgeous display was discouraged by such prophets as Ezekiel, who had sickened of the abominations of the Chaldeans (Eze 23:14,15,16); "And I said unto them, Cast ye away every man the abominations of his eyes" (Eze 20:7).

Indefiniteness of color language is common to oriental literature, ancient and modern. This does not indicate a want of appreciation of color but a failure to analyze and define color effects. The inhabitants of Syria and Palestine today delight in brilliant colors. Bright yellow, crimson, magenta and green are used for adornment with no evident sense of fitness, according to the foreigners’ eyes, other than their correspondence with the glaring brightness of the eastern skies. A soapmaker once told the writer that in order to make his wares attractive to the Arabs he colored them a brilliant crimson or yellow. A peasant chooses without hesitation a flaring magenta or yellow or green zun-nar (girdle), rather than one of somber hues. The oriental student in the chemical or physical laboratory often finds his inability to distinguish or classify color a real obstacle. His closest definition of a color is usually "lightish" or "darkish." This is not due to color blindness but to a lack of education, and extends to lines other than color distinctions. The colloquial language of Palestine today is poor in words denoting color, and an attempt to secure from a native a satisfactory description of some simple color scheme is usually disappointing. The harmonious color effects which have come to us from the Orient have been, in the past, more the result of accident (see Dye) than of deliberate purpose, as witness the clashing of colors where modern artificial dyes have been introduced.

This inability of the peoples of Bible lands to define colors is an inheritance from past ages, a consideration which helps us to appreciate the vagueness of many of the Biblical references.

The following color words occur in the King James Version or Revised Version:

(1) bay,

(2) black,

(3) blue,

(4) brown,

(5) crimson,

(6) green,

(7) grey,

(8) hoar,

(9) purple,

(10) red,

(11) scarlet,

(12) sorrel,

(13) vermilion,

(14) white,

(15) yellow.

In addition there are indefinite words indicating mixtures of light and dark:

(a) grisled (grizzled),

(b) ringstraked (ringstreaked),

(c) speckled,

(d) spotted.

(1) Bay or Red:

Bay or red is more properly translated "strong" in the Revised Version (British and American).

(2) Black (Blackish):

(3) Blue:

(4) Brown:

The Hebrew word meaning "sunburnt" or "swarthy" is translated "black" in the Revised Version (British and American) (Ge 30:32 ff).

(5) Crimson:

Crimson (karmil): This word is probably of Persian origin and applies to the brilliant dye obtained from a bug. A second word tola`ath, is also found. Its meaning is the same. See Dye. Crimson is applied to raiment (2Ch 2:7,14; 3:14; Jer 4:30 the King James Version); to sins (Isa 1:18).

(6) Green (Greenish):

(7) Gray:

The Hebrew sebhah, means old age, hence, refers also to the color of the hair in old age (Ge 42:38; 44:29; 44:31; De 32:25; Ps 71:18; Ho 7:9). See Hoar, next paragraph.

(8) Hoar (Hoary):

(9) Purple:

(10) Red:

The Hebrew ’adhom, is from dam, "blood," hence, "bloodlike." This is one of the three distinctive color words mentioned in the Old Testament (see Green; White), and is found in most of the references to red. Four other words are used:

(a) chakhlili, probably "darkened" or "clouded" (Ge 49:12; Pr 23:29);

(b) chamar, "to ferment" (Ps 75:8 margin; Isa 27:2 the King James Version);

(c) bahaT, probably "to glisten" (Es 1:6);

(11) Scarlet:

Scarlet and crimson colors were probably from the same source (see Crimson; Dye). tola`ath, or derivatives have been translated by both "scarlet" and "crimson" (Greek kokkinos). A Chaldaic word for purple has thrice been translated "scarlet" in the King James Version (Da 5:7,16,29). Scarlet is applied to fabrics or yarn used

(a) in the equipment of the tabernacle (Ex 25 ff; Nu 4:8);

(12) Sorrel:

This word occurs once in the Revised Version (British and American) (Zec 1:8).

(13) Vermilion:

This word, shashar, occurs in two passages (Jer 22:14; Eze 23:14). Vermilion of modern arts is a sulfide of mercury. It is not at all improbable that the paint referred to was an oxide of iron. This oxide is still taken from the ground in Syria and Palestine and used for decorative outlining.

(14) White:

(a) chori, or chur, meaning "bleached," applied to bread (Ge 40:16); to linen (Es 1:6; 8:15);

(b) tsach, or tsachor, literally, "dazzling," is applied to asses (Jud 5:10); to human appearance (So 5:10); to wool (Eze 27:18);

(c) dar, probably mother of pearl or alabaster (Es 1:6);

(d) rir, literally, "saliva," and, from resemblance, "white of egg" (Job 6:6).

(15) Yellow:

This word occurs in Es 1:6 to describe pavement; in Le 13 to describe leprous hair; in Ps 68:13 to describe gold.

Mixtures of colors:

(a) grizzled (grisled), literally, "spotted as with hail," applied to goats (Ge 31:10,12); to horses (Zec 6:3,1);

(b) ringstreaked (ringstraked), literally, "striped with bands," applied to animals (Ge 30:35 ff; 31:8 ff);

(c) speckled, literally, "dotted or spotted," applied to cattle and goats (Ge 30:32 ff; 31:8 ff); to a bird (Jer 12:9); to horses (Zec 1:8 the King James Version);

(d) spotted, literally, "covered with patches," applied to cattle and goats (Ge 30:32 ff). In Jude 1:23 "spotted" means "defiled."

Figurative: For figurative uses, see under separate colors.


Perrot and Chipiez, History of Art in Ancient Egypt, History of Art in Chaldea and Assyria, History of Art in Phoenicia and its Dependencies; Wilkinson, The Ancient Egyptians; Jewish Encyclopedia;EB; Delitzsch, Iris.

James A. Patch