I think it was in the very first draft of Cross-Examined, way back in around 1999, when I used an illustration for facing up to the hardest things in life (such as guilt and condemnation) of of a jeweller showing off a brilliant diamond. I described how the diamond would be placed against a black velvet cloth on the counter so that its glories could truly sparkle. A friend made a simple comment in passing that the use of blackness like that was unknown in the Bible. I thought little of it, other than simply substituting ‘dark’ for ‘black’. There was no point in causing unnecessary offence for something so marginal, so it was fine. But that small moment lodged in the recesses of my mind.

I’m toying with starting an occasional (ie very infrequent) series of posts on what you could call scriptural quirks. Nothing systematic or planned; just as and when they occur to me. But I’m fascinated by colour generally, and by biblical colours in particular. So, for example, Victoria Finlay’s history of colour is just wonderful. But I really started going down multicoloured rabbit holes when I read what haas become one of my favourite books of all time: Guy Deutscher’s Through the Language Glass.

Did Homer ever see blue things?**

In this book, I discovered — did you know this? — that four-time British Prime Minister William Gladstone also wrote a huge 3-volume work on Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey. In this, Deutscher picks up on Gladstone’s discoveries:

In those instances when colours are mentioned, they are often vague and highly inconsistent: his sea is wine-coloured, and when not wine-coloured, it is violet, just like his sheep.  His honey is green and his southern sky is anything but blue. (Deutscher, p36)

Gladstone’s theory was that this had to have been the result of the invention of artificial dyes, after which it was necessary to identify different colours in abstraction. And even though we are all used to seeing ‘blue’ all over the place, in a world without dyes, it’s perfectly possible that Homer’s contemporaries (if he existed at all, that is) had never seen something blue. People scoffed at Gladstone’s ideas. How ridiculous! But it seems now that the PM was so ‘accurate and far-sighted that wit would be inadequate to class him as merely ahead of his time. Fairer would be to say that his analysis was so brilliant that substantial parts of it can stand almost without emendation as a summary of the state of the art today, 150 years later.’ (Deutscher, p40)

But then things get even weirder. Comparative philology lays ancient languages side by side to find out if there are things to learn. And guess what? An astonishingly learned and clever chap from Frankfurt called Lazarus Geiger emerged from an old family of rabbis in the 19th Century. His ambition at 7 was to ‘learn all the languages’ (!!) and if he hadn’t died from heart failure at 42, Deutscher suggests that he probably came closer to this goal than anyone else! He was utterly inspired by Gladstone’s work and decided to extend the study to other literatures. This is what he wrote about the Indian Vedic poetic descriptions of the sky:

These hymns, of more than ten thousand lines, are brimming with descriptions of the heavens. Scarcely any subject is evoked more frequently. The sun and reddening dawn’s play of colour, day and night, cloud and lightning, the air and the ether, all these are unfolded before us over and over again in splendour and vivid fulness. But there is only one thing that no one would ever learn from those ancient songs who did not already know it, and that is that the sky is blue.

Deutscher’s comment is astonishing:

So it was not just Homer who seemed to be blue-blind, but the ancient Indian poets too.  And so, it would appear, was Moses, or at least whoever wrote the Old Testament.

… And yet, like Homeric Greek, biblical Hebrew does not have a word for ‘blue’. (Deutscher, 43)

Soon many others joined the party. African languages were studied, indigenous American languages were analysed. For example, the Sioux from Dakota used ‘the same word for both blue and green’. (Deutscher 61) From all over the world, the same confusions that Gladstone and Geiger identified were being made! But not only that, colours would then be added to a language on one side the world in roughly the same order as languages on the opposite side. Which is just nuts.

Just as Geiger had anticipated, red was always the first of the prismatic colours to receive a name.  Indeed, it transpired that there were peoples around even in the nineteenth century who had not yet progressed beyond the red stage.  Ernst Almquist, the doctor of the Swedish expedition to the Polar Sea, reported that the Chukchis in Siberia were quite content with using just three terms – black, white, and red – to describe any colour. Nukin, the word for ‘black’, was used also for blue and all dark colours, as long as they did not contain a trace of red; nidlikin was used for white and all bright colours; and tschetlju for red and anything with a trace of a reddish tint.

Yellow and green might then come, often both evoked by a single word. Just no blue! Did this mean that people wouldn’t distinguish colours? Of course not. We can all do distinguish things for which we have no words; just think of tastes or smells. Lacking vocabulary doesn’t imply weakened senses.

** Answer: no. According to legend, he was blind.

Getting Caught Red-Handed?

So what on earth has this got to do with the issue here? After all, if you do a simple digital search of the bible, you’ll find blue comes up all over the place. Well, the fact that blue IS used in modern translations is neither here nor there; it simply is the result of reasonable judgments about what the text is getting at. The point is this: if the bible assigns a metaphorical colour to sin, it is never black. Yet in standard English, that is the first, if not only, colour associated with it. Why does this matter?

I’ll never forget hearing for the first time what a Ugandan friend said to my Father-in-law, someone who had worked in East and Southern Africa for 30 out of his 40+ years of working life. ‘Graham you truly have a black heart.’ What might that mean in common British parlance? Here’s a line from George ‘Game of Thrones’ RR Martin, no less:

The vilest of men and the wickedest of women likewise may do good from time to time, for love and compassion and pity may be found in even the blackest of hearts.

In other words, black hearts are evil and horrific. But that’s definitely not what Graham was meant to hear. It was a powerful and tender complement, implying that Graham had an African heart. To European ears, though, the words jolted, because in perhaps 90% of uses, black has negative connotations. Which is a problem because people with dark skin have often been called ‘black’ (despite being different shades of brown) and Caucasians ‘white’ (despite being different shades of pink). 

Now, isn’t interesting that if the colour palette available in Hebrew vocabulary was so limited, it didn’t use the standard word for dark things. Search for ‘black’ in the bible and all the references are to night, storm clouds and living creatures like crows. Instead, we get this famous passage in Isaiah 1. The prophet has gone into detail about the hypocrisy of Israel’s worship and how offensive this is to God. He even says that when they ‘spread their hands in prayer’, ‘Your hands are full of blood!‘ (Isaiah 1:15). Then

16 Wash and make yourselves clean.Take your evil deeds out of my sight;stop doing wrong.17 Learn to do right; seek justice.Defend the oppressed. Take up the cause of the fatherless;plead the case of the widow.

18 ‘Come now, let us settle the matter,’says the Lord.‘Though your sins are like scarlet,they shall be as white as snow;though they are red as crimson, they shall be like wool. (Is 1:16–18)

You can see why this is the metaphor of the moment in that context, then, can’t you? It is vivid, striking, frightening. And in fact, as became clear when I devoted a whole section in Cross-Examined, the sight of blood in the ancient, pre-medicalised world was frightening. Even a small cut that became infected could be lethal. The sight of blood was alarming.

But here’s the wonder. It astonishes us today especially, Good Friday. For there is a way of getting clean from these metaphorical blood stains. God says we need to come to him to settle the matter. He will wipe them away. How? By the shedding of the blood of his very own Son.

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