Author A.J. Jacobs admits that he was agnostic before he even knew what the word meant. For all the good God seemed to invoke, the potential for abuse was far too high in his mind for God to be taken seriously. In a book exploring religion and religiousness, Jacobs describes an uncle who seemed to confirm this for him. Dabbling religiously in nearly every religion, his uncle went through a phase where he decided to take the Bible completely literally. Thus, heeding the Bible’s command in Deuteronomy 14:25 to secure money in one’s hand, he tied bills to his palms. Heeding the biblical command to wear fringes at the corners of one’s garment, he bought yarn from a kitting shop, made a bunch of tassels, and attached them to every corner he could find on his clothes.(1) While his uncle sought faithfulness to the letter, Jacobs was left with the impression that his uncle was “subtly dangerous.”
There are certainly sections of the Bible that when stripped of context and read in a lifeless vacuum can lead a mind to extremes. Like Jacobs, it is easy to conclude that religion and religiousness are completely ridiculous; or like his uncle, it is possible to assume complete literalism and run in ridiculous directions. The practice of making and wearing tassels on the corners of one’s garment, for instance, commanded in Numbers 15:37, is one such peculiar biblical decree easily dismissed in the name of reason or disemboweled in the name of faithfulness. Yet neither response truly yields an honest view of the command.
In fact, what seems an entirely curious fashion tip for the people of Israel was a common sight in many ancient Near Eastern cultures. Fringed garments were considered ornamental and illustrative of the owner; they were also were thought to hold certain spiritual significances.(2) In Assyria and Babylonia, for instance, fringes were believed to assure the wearer of the protection of the gods. Thus, God’s command of the Israelites to “make fringes on the corners of their garments throughout their generations” took something familiar to the nations and gave it new significance for the nation God called his own. “39You will have the fringe so that, when you see it, you will remember all the commandments of the LORD and do them, and not follow the lust of your own heart and your own eyes” (Numbers 15:39). Like many of the commands and rituals described in Jewish and Christian Scriptures, the instruction of tassels is about remembrance. The perpetual presence of fringe and tassel was a tangible reminder that all of life, not only moments of piety or prayer, was an opportunity to be in the presence of God. To miss the rich substance of this divine petition is to miss it—and its petitioner—entirely.
But more than this, we do well to carry such social, historical, and linguistic depth throughout other segments of Scripture we might otherwise dismiss. What might have seemed an insignificant quirk of an ancient context finds meaning in texts long thereafter. In ancient times, for instance, tassels were a part of the hem of a garment, which itself was a significant social statement. The hem was the most ornate part of one’s attire, and thus declared the wearer’s importance before the world. It was considered a symbolic extension of one’s person, a means of grasping one’s stature—sometimes literally. Grasping the hem of one from whom you wanted something, you were thought to be grasping the very identity of the owner—and hence it was shameful to refuse the request. The hems of kings’ and nobles’ robes, moreover, were symbolic of their rank and authority, and therefore were often longer, richer in color, or made with more costly fabric. Thus, when David cut the hem of Saul’s robe in the cave, the declaration was as potent as crushing the crown of Queen Elizabeth or impeaching the president. Saul conceded, “Now I know that you shall surely be king, and that the kingdom of Israel shall be established in your hand.”
But along with authority, importance, and personhood, holiness was also expressed in antiquity by the fringes and hems of one’s garment. The length of a priest’s or rabbi’s fringes was symbolic of piety, respect, and authority. And this message is perhaps no clearer than in the vision of Isaiah when the very hem of the robe of the LORD filled everything before the prophet’s eyes. “In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lofty; and the hem of his robe filled the temple. Isaiah envisions the God described in Scripture as one whose person is larger than anything we can imagine, one who comes near to us within a specific context, and fills the world with even the fringes of Himself.
I know only of one other hem that amazed crowds and changed individuals in the same way. Unlike the priests who made “their fringes long” to shout of their piety, this man had no form or majesty that we should look at him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him (Matthew 23:5, Isaiah 53:2). And yet, people came from the very fringes of society hoping to touch even the hem of his robe. They begged him that they might touch even the tassels of his cloak. And indeed, all who touched him were made whole.(3)
Jill Carattini is managing editor of A Slice of Infinity at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in Atlanta, Georgia.
(1) A. J. Jacobs, A Year of Living Biblically: One Man’s Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2007), 6.
(2) “Fringes,” in J. Hastings, Dictionary of the Bible (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1902), 68-70.
(3) Cf. Matthew 14:36, Matthew 9:20, Luke 8:44, Mark 6:56.