E. Tekhelet and Argaman in the Tabernacle

The first mention of Tekhelet and Argaman appears in Exodus.1 In the first year after the Exodus from Egypt the Israelites are ordered by divine command through Moses to furnish materials for the construction of a sanctuary. “And the Lord spoke unto Moses saying, Speak unto the children of Israel, that they may bring me an offering;… And this is the offering which ye shall take from them: gold and silver and copper. And Tekhelet and Argaman, etc.” Argaman is generally explained as red purple. With regard to Tekhelet there is less consensus among translators and interpreters. While formerly it would be rendered by “blue purple,” since Hartman2 the more prevailing tendency has been to explain it as denoting both violet and blue purple but chiefly the former. But whatever difference of opinion there may be about the respective shades, the tacit assumption is generally made that both Tekhelet and Argaman are varieties of purple, or, in other words, of stuff dyed with sea-snail pigment. That this great assumption is not questionable will be shown later.

The account of the construction of the Tabernacle of which the opening verses have just been quoted certainly presupposes as thorough an acquaintance on the part of the Israelites with Tekhelet and Argaman as with “gold” and “silver,” and as high an appreciation of these clothing stuffs as of the precious minerals. How is the phenomenon to be viewed in the light of what has previously been said with regard to purple in Egypt? No definite conclusion has been reached simply because in the present state of our knowledge the problem scarcely admits of a solution in the proper sense of the word. The critical theory of the composition of the Pentateuch would hardly countenance the bringing of the P’s account as evidence in this connection; it would simply return it with the usual remark: P is projecting into the past. The utmost that Higher Criticism might grant would probably be that at least contemporaneously with P purple had the same currency and high value in Egypt as in Babylonia or in Palestine, but even such a concession, meagre as it is, would be little short of an act of grace depending on the subjectivity of the critic. The general tendency in critical circles would perhaps be toanswer first in the negative the question with regard to purple in Pharaonic Egypt and then to take the regular occurrence of Tekhelet and Argaman in Exodus XXV as one more illustration of P’s projectional practices.

From the strictly scientific standpoint, however, no such procedure could be allowed. If the present instance offers nothing against the critical view, neither does it go to strengthen it. Granting that Egyptian taste and fashion about the time of the Exodus absolutely tabooed, as it were, purple in all its various shades, we would still scarcely be entitled to assume, in the absence of evidence, that such was the case among the foreign Semitic colonists; or, to speak more to the point, among the Hebrews, who probably from the remotest antiquity cherished a love for colour.3

That the Hebrews, during their sojourn in Egypt, lived in comparative seclusion out of close touch with the religion and inner life of the dominant race, we have first the direct evidence of the Torah and, next, indirect evidence from the fact of the Exodus itself; for if the Hebrews with their admittedly high capacity for adaptability had developed, on settling in Egypt as a small clan, a strong tendency towards assimilation with the natives, and had met with a reciprocating inclination on the part of the latter, then. I say, the sons of Israel would have become so completely merged in the sons of Ham in the course of over two centuries that an Exodus would have hardly taken place at all. Sane critics, of however radical a direction, will hardly venture to question the historicity of the sojourn and the Exodus.

Apart from these considerations, there is a certain document which makes it appear not unlikely that at least under Ramses II purple dyeing was practised in Egypt on a very large scale. I refer to papyrus Sallier No. 1 (Brit. Mus.) which has already been discussed under this aspect. Now it is generally agreed that Ramses II was the Pharaoh of the oppression and that his son and successor, Meremptah, was the Pharaoh of the Exodus.4

If the papyrus in question furnishes evidence of the flourishing of purple dyeing in Egypt in the days of Ramses II, that state of things did not probably go back to many centuries before, nor survive centuries after.

The name of Amenhophis IV is connected with a tremendous revolution in the religious life of Egypt. That pharaoh who has been called the heretic king established the worship of the Sun as the religion of his land to the exclusion of all other cults. Khu-naten, the official title assumed by Amenhophis IV, is generally explained as meaning “Glory of the Solar Disk.” His enthusiasm for the Sun-god was boundless.5 Egyptian art and luxury could hardly remain unaffected. May not this ardent devotion to the Sun have brought about the introduction of purple which owes its colour to the action of the sunrays, and which, as we know, was anciently regarded as the special favourite of the great source of light?6 “The purple dye delights in close contact with the Sun. His rays blazen it up, making its splendour greater and more brilliant,” etc. The ancients with their small knowledge of nature could not help attributing the photographic property of the purple liquid to the direct favour of the Sun. It is worth comparing, in this connection, the Phoenician belief associating purple with Astarte, the consort of Baal the Sun-god. The Phoenician priests of Baal were clothed in sumptuous purple garments. It was perhaps under Asiatico-Semitic influence that Amenhophis acted in setting up the Sun-god as the deity of his nation. If I remember aright, his mother was an Asiatic princess of Semitic origin. Asiatic influence would certainly promote the introduction of purple. But perhaps Amenhophis IV’s religious resolution was simply a determined return to the original Egyptian cult. The sun is the most ancient object of worship to be met with on the Egyptian monuments. Ra was venerated from the earliest times in the land of the Pyramids. In that case colour in general would come back to favour, if, as Ermann states, in the very early ages dyed garments were worn to a great extent. Purple would have a two-fold claim as “Queen of Colours” and as the favourite of the Sun.

Merenptah, the Pharaoh of the Exodus, is separated from Amenhophis IV by only an interval of some 130 years.

Perhaps this train of thought might help us to the understanding of the reference to dyeing in Papyrus Sillier No. 2, which, as we have seen, not improbably implies that purple dye was the dye par excellence in the days of Ramses II, the father of Merenptah.

The reaction against colour and the return to white linen need not have gone together with the undoing of Amenhophis IV’s work in the domain of religion which followed his death. This may have taken place later than Merenptah.



  1. Exodus, Ch. XXV, v.3.​
  2. Gesenius, Thesaurus, תכלת = caerulea sive violacea Purpura.
  3. Cf. Erman, ibid.. II, p. 299. “… denn der allgemeine Charakter der aegyptischen Tracht ist dem, den wir gleichzeitig in Nordsyrien treffen, durchaus entgegengesetzt. Bei den Syrern … Kleider in denen dunkelblaue Lagen mit dunkelroten abwechseln, durchweg mit reicher Stickerei bedeckt etc.”

    Cf. Genesis XXXVII, 3c “and he made him a coat of many colours.” Judges V, 30, implies that coloured and embroidered garments were much in vogue among the Israelites of Deborah’s age. The Kings of the Midianites, near kinsmen of the Hebrews, wore mantles of Argaman as royal insignia: Judges VIII, 26c, Saul’s reaction against Kanaanitism left the fancy for colour altogether untouched at least, as far as concerned female dress “O daughters of Israel, weep for Saul, who clothed you in scarlet with beautiful dresses, who put on ornaments of gold upon your apparel” (II Samuel, I, 24).

    Cf. Proverbs XXXI, 21 22-. Isaiah III, 1825- makes no special allusion to colour and is too far removed from the age of the Exodus to be quoted in this connection. Cf. also Genesis XXVII, “And Rebekah took the goodly garments of her eldest son Esau which were with her in the house, and clothed therewith Jacob her youngest son.” The reference here is not to colour alone, for Isaac being blind (ib.. 1) Jacob could not, of course, be detected through his not wearing Esau’s rich coloured garments. The “goodly garments” were overlaid with artistic (probably coloured) knit-work, and perhaps also embroidered with gold (cf. Erman l.c.) which the blind patriarch might easily feel.↡

  4. The famous inscription of Merenptah found by Professor Flinders Petrie in 1896 in the King’s funeral temple at Thebes, containing, as the late Professor Driver says (Modern Research, etc., p. 38), the earliest mention of Israel known at present to occur on any monument, raises, as that distinguished Biblical scholar rightly remarks, “more questions than it solves.” I may be permitted to observe that a Jewish tradition which, though recorded in the Aggadah, may represent a reminiscence from the earliest days, tells of an abortive partial exodus thirty years before the great universal Exodus. See: Sanhedrin 92b: Who were the dead that Ezekiel called back into life? Rab said they were the Ephraimites who had wrongly calculated the era of the redemption,” etc. Cf., Rashi ad locum. Pirke d’Rabbi Eliezer: “R. Eliezer said all through the sojourn of the Israelites in Egypt the Ephraimites lived in the greatest security and prosperity, until there arose Nun, a descendant of Ephraim, and said, God has revealed Himself unto me, bidding me take you out from Egypt. His tribesmen, buoyed up by their royal descent (seilicet, from Joseph, the viceroy of Egypt) and their great warlike abilities then rose up, and, taking their sons and daughters with them went out from Egypt. Hereupon the Egyptians arose and killed all their mighty men of valour.” Mekhilta, Exodus XIII, i: Aliter “… this refers to the Ephraimite war … because they observed not God’s covenant and refused to walk in His law and they trespassed the appointed end and the oath: (it was therefore to be feared) that the Israelites, seeing the bones of their brothers strewn in Philistia, might return back to Egypt.”

    The inscription in Professor Lehmann-Haupt’s translation reads as follows: “… The princes are prosträte, saying ‘Salam’. Not one among the Barbarians raises his head. Laid waste is Lybia … Canaan is seized with every evil. Ashkelon is led captive. Gezer is taken. Jenoam is annihilated. The Israelite tribe its men are few, its seed exists no more. Palestine (Charu, land of the Charités) has become a widow for Egypt (i.e. helpless before her). All lands are united and at peace. Everyone who was a marauder is held in check by King Merenptah,” etc.

    It has been argued from certain indications in the inscription that the abode of the tribe of Israel to which the text refers is to be sought in the Mountains of Ephraim. (See Lehmann-Haupt, Die Geschichte Judas und Israels im Rahmen der Weltgeschichte. I, Tiibingen (1911), p. 2930-). This affords a curious point of contact with the Aggadah insofar as the latter connects members of the Ephraimite stock with a pre-Exodian partial excursion from the land of oppression. Professor Lehmann-Haupt, it may be added, in an original discussion, tries to show that the Israelites are spoken of in the inscription as a people not yet fixedly settled in Palestine, (ib., p. 30 in fine). May not the pride of Ephraim have had something to do with reminiscences of that bold venture, with the fact that their ancestors had preceded all the other tribes in Palestine?

    Exodus 44 .5-: “And the King of Egypt said unto them, Wherefore do ye, Moses and Aaron, hinder the people from their work? Get you unto your own affairs.” 5: “And Pharaoh said, Behold the people of the land now are many, and ye disturb them in the pursuit of their labours.” Verse 5 implies, I feel, a rejoiner to Pharaoh’s question in verse 4, suppressed in the text.

    A distinction is also apparently made between “now” and a past occasion. May not an allusion be contained here to a previous time when a Pharaoh had granted a favour similar to that prayed for by Moses an Aaron in verse 3. I do not wish to suggest that this has any relation with the problem raised by the inscription of Merenptah. With reference to the same subject, it may be remarked that the escape of a portion of the Hebrew race from Goshen might be favoured by the invasion of the Delta by the Lybians, which took place in the fifth year of Merenptah’s reign.

  5. Petrie, Flinders, History of Egypt, London (1895), p. 11211 ff.
  6. Pollux, I, 6.