Sermon on the Mount, The Emmaus View

Appendix K: White as snow (Version 1.4)

In Chapter 20, I propose that sins like scarlet becoming white as snow (Isa 1:18) occurs within the leading edge of a chiasmus1, the equivalent trailing edge of which refers to scabby scalps, bald foreheads and the loss of beautiful adornment (Isa 3:16-24). For this to fit, becoming ‘white as snow’ must, at least to Isaiah’s audience, have been an undesirable outcome. Take a close look at the phrase and its biblical history and such a conclusion appears justified. For, just as the Indo-European meaning of black has transmuted with time from meaning fiery or shining white to meaning dark or without light2, so the phrase “white has snow” appears to have undergone a similar shift of meaning down the centuries.

Scarlet was associated with both the firstborn’s wealth (Gen 38:30) and luxurious clothing (2 Sam 1:24, cf. Exod 26:1, Jer 4:30), whilst crimson was a dye used for exquisite cloth3. Isaiah therefore starts his verse along the lines ‘although you wear your sins like fine clothes….’

Robert Culver, considering Isaiah’s setting of ‘white as snow,’ concludes that its focus is justice rather than grace and that its context demands that the phrase was delivered with a critical edge4. He, along with the translators of the New Century Bible and The Interpreters Bible, therefore see the phrase used in an ironic manner, in the sense ‘will I let them be white as snow?’ However, I would argue that the contrast is not between sin and sanctity, but between finery and filthiness, the critical edge coming from Isaiah’s use of ‘white as snow’ as idiomatic for ‘as unclean as a leper’.

‘White as snow’ is first used of a person’s appearance when Moses’ hand develops tsara`ath leprosy (Exod 4:6)5. Given the increased mortality that accompanied snow (cf. Ps 147:16), this imagery was apt for such a symbolic death. Tsara`ath, turned Miriam ‘white as snow’ (Num 12:10) and later did the same for Gehazi (2 Kgs 5:27). Therefore, turning ‘white as snow’ was originally bad news as it meant that God had struck you with Tsara`ath.

The NKJV renders Psalm 51 "Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; Wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow" (Ps 51:7 NKJV). Yet the NKJV, like every other translation I have seen, overlooks this verse’s clear allusion to cleansing from tsara`ath (Lev 14:3-4). David, the king promised an eternal house, asks for purging, chata’. However, this term occurs amidst the cleansing procedures only when hyssop is used and in two of the three references are in relations to cleansing a house after tsara`ath (Num 19:10-13, Lev 14:49, 52). Surely, in Psalm 51, ‘white as snow’ describes David’s prior state, rather than his hoped for outcome.

Isaiah’s parallel between becoming white as snow and becoming like wool also speaks of tsara`ath, for the affliction caused the hair to turn white (Lev 13:3-4)6 and wool was a form of hair associated with snowy whiteness (Ps 147:16).

Isaiah delivery of this prophecy within the reign of Uzziah, a king incapacitated by tsara`ath on the forehead (2 Chr 26:19), provides a diagnosis for the scabby scalps and bald foreheads that occupy the chiasmus’ parallel passage (Isa 3:17). Tsara`ath’s symptoms included a scaly scalp and loss of hair from the forehead (Lev 13:29-30, 41-42). This, combined with the foregoing evidence, suggests Isaiah was speaking of sins worn like finery being like tsara`ath in the Lord’s sight.

Proverbs suggests that those dressed in scarlet need not fear snow (Prov 31:21). But, for Isaiah’s people, quite the opposite was true. I believe his audience would have heard his words along the following lines – “Come now, let us consider together the state of things. Though you wear your sins as if they were scarlet finery, they will make you like those with tsara`ath, though, to you, they are like choicest cloth, they will render you leprous. If you obey, you will still have fine things, but if you continue to rebel then the outlook is nothing but hardship and suffering. That’s the truth of it” (Isa 1:18-20, my paraphrase).

Lamentations 4:1-22 is an acrostic poem7 in which the earlier stanzas seeks to portray either Judah’s uncleanliness (eg Lam 4:2, cf. Lev 11:33-35) or the impact of this state (e.g. Lam 4:10). It blames the nations ills on the sins of their priests and prophets, which it portrays as so severe that nobody could touch them and people drove them away like lepers (Lam 4:13-15, cf. Lev 13:45). This poem also juxtaposes scarlet with snow in a manner that seems to hark back to Isaiah’s words (Lam 4:5-7). Those reared in crimson embrace ash pits, as did Job when Satan smote him with boils (Lam 4:5, Job 2:7, cf. Ps 147:16). Their Nazirites are brighter than snow, whiter than milk, but bones render more ruddy than rubies those pavements of sapphire8, i.e. it is as when boils that have turned bright reddish white with tsara`ath or an all white person shows raw flesh (Lam 4:7, cf. Lev 13:12-14, 19), they are unclean.

The Babylonian exile saw a distinct change in the tenor of passages that refer to being white as snow. This starts with Daniel’s description of an “Ancient of Days” (Dan 7:9 KJV). Whilst Isaiah provides the vocabulary for this image, Daniel hints that this individual was white from head to foot. Thus, like an ancient Melchizedekian priest, even amidst Judah’s ‘leprous’ priesthood this judge was still to be considered clean (Lev 13:12-13).

Daniel had linked ‘white as snow’, the phrase once associated with ultimate lack of cleanliness, with absolute purity instead. A similar usage appears in the tale of Aḥiḳar, a story known from fifth century B.C.E. Elephantiné9, where the likelihood of a raven (an unclean animal) becoming as white as snow is compared to that of a fool becoming wise. With time this latter association seems to have prevailed, for snowy whiteness went on to be a standard for the purity of heavenly beings (2 En. 37:1-2, Matt 17:2, 28:3, Rev 1:4). Hence, the author of First Enoch, writing in the first or second centuries B.C.E., could look back on Lamentation’s snowy whiteness (Lam 4: 7) and see in it only an unambiguously positive description (1 En. 71:1, 106.10). Similarly, early Christendom, with its post-exilic perspective, saw in Isaiah’s words only a beautiful example of the grace that they had personally experienced. The characteristic that once marked out a rebellious leader, had become the epitome of holiness.

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1 Its structure is as follows A1 1:9-17, B1 1:18-2:5, C1 2:6-9, D1 2:10, E 2:11-18, D2 2:19-21, C2 3:1-12, B2 3:16-4:6, A2 5:1-30

2 Joyce A. Joyce, “Semantic Development of the Word Black: A history from Indo-european to the present,” Journal of Black Studies, Vol. 11, No. 3 (Mar., 1981), pp. 307-312.

3 Ronald F. Youngblood, “2516     ×ª×œ×¢ (tlË“)”, TWOT, 971-72.

4 Robert Duncan Culver, “Isaiah 1:18 Declaration, Exclamation or Interrogation?” JETS 12:3 (Summer 1969): 133-43.

5 Job 9:30 mentions washing with snow water (or possibly soap), but that was simply snow being used.

6 On route it faded through yellowish or reddish white and became thin (Lev 13:19-20, 30)

7 The poem uses the first letter of the first line in each stanza to work through the Hebrew alphabet.

8 The word rendered here as appearance or form is found elsewhere only as an uncertain architectural term in Ezek 41:12-14, the equivalent in the Septuagint suggests an open space. Sapphire is used for such expanses in the presence of God (e.g. Ex 24:10, Isa 54:11). The word rendered bodies is elsewhere usually bones (e.g. Gen 2:23, Job 30:30, Ex 37:4) and holy spaces would be desecrated by filling them with bones (2 Kgs 23:14).

9 Charles, EPOT, 2:715