37 The Lord said to Moses, 38 “Speak to the people of Israel, and tell them to make tassels on the corners of their garments throughout their generations, and to put a cord of blue on the tassel of each corner. 39 And it shall be a tassel for you to look at and remember all the commandments of the Lord, to do them, not to follow after your own heart and your own eyes, which you are inclined to whore after. 40 So you shall remember and do all my commandments, and be holy to your God. 41 I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt to be your God: I am the Lord your God.” – Numbers 15:37-41 ESV
This is a rather strange and seemingly out-of-place passage. Why did God choose to give Moses these odd-sounding instructions at this particular point in time? It’s clear from the book of Deuteronomy that this was not the first time that God had issued this command.
“You shall make yourself tassels on the four corners of the garment with which you cover yourself.” – Deuteronomy 22:12 ESV
But what was the purpose behind this non-negotiable piece of fashion advice? As the text points out, they were to serve as a kind of memory enhancer.
“When you see the tassels, you will remember and obey all the commands of the Lord instead of following your own desires and defiling yourselves, as you are prone to do.” – Numbers 15:39 NLT
As the old saying goes, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” The tassels were to be an ever-present visual reminder to keep the commandments of God. It would be like someone tying a string on their finger in order to remind them of something important.
“These tassels were to act as reminders to be totally loyal to the Lord…” – Gordon J. Wenham, Numbers, Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries
It seems that every time an Israelite looked down at his feet, he would see the tassels and be reminded to “walk” according to the will of God. They would recall God’s command to their patriarch, Abraham.
“I am God Almighty; walk before me, and be blameless…” – Genesis 17:1 ESV
The Hebrew word is הָלַךְ (hālaḵ), which can mean “to walk,” but can also refer to conducting one’s life. Abraham had been commanded to live his life blameless, in full view of God Almighty. There was to be no compartmentalization or hidden areas in Abraham’s life. No aspect of his life was off-limits to the all-knowing, all-seeing God. And God was demanding that Abraham live the same kind of life that Noah had lived.
Noah was a righteous man, blameless in his generation. Noah walked with God. – Genesis 6:9 ESV
And Noah was following the example of his ancestor, Enoch, who had also “walked with God” (Genesis 5:22). And when Jacob was blessing his son, Joseph, he spoke of how his father and grandfather had “walked” with God.
“The God before whom my fathers Abraham and Isaac walked, the God who has been my shepherd all my life long to this day…” – Genesis 48:15 ESV
Because the tassels were located on the hem of the garment, they would be in clear sight every time an Israelite looked down to determine his or her next step. When the prepared to ascend a set of stairs, they would see the tassels and be reminded to consider their steps. When they looked down to assess the ground beneath their feet, the tassels would prompt them to take special care of their spiritual footing. They were not to stray from God. They were to remain on the straight-and-narrow.
The prophet, Isaiah, would later warn the people of Israel to watch their step.
Thus says the Lord:
“Stand by the roads, and look,
and ask for the ancient paths,
where the good way is; and walk in it,
and find rest for your souls.” – Jeremiah 6:16 ESV
They were to seek directions so that they might not take a wrong turn and end up in the wrong destination. But, sadly, Jeremiah points out that the people of Israel refused his advice.
“But they said, ‘We will not walk in it.’” – Jeremiah 6:16 ESV
They ignored the tassels, forgot to obey God’s commands, and ending up losing their way. And rather than seeking help, they stubbornly persisted in following their own misguided directions. The apostle Paul describes the destiny of all those who take their eyes off the tassels and forget to walk in obedience to God.
They are headed for destruction. Their god is their appetite, they brag about shameful things, and they think only about this life here on earth. – Philippians 3:19 NLT
In the book of Numbers, God warns what happens when His children follow their own desires: They end up defiling themselves. They replace God’s will with their own and step off the path that He has chosen for them. God’s choice of words is strong. He compares their disobedience to adultery or prostitution. The Hebrew word is זָנָה (zānâ), and it means “to be a harlot, act as a harlot, commit fornication.” And this description was meant to stand in stark contrast to their calling as God’s people. He had set them apart as His own, declaring them to be a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.
“Now therefore, if you will indeed obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession among all peoples, for all the earth is mine; and you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” – Exodus 19:5-6 ESV
There is a huge difference between a priest and prostitute, or there should be. And to drive home the concept of the priestly status, God commanded that they were to use blue threat to attach the tassels to their garments. Blue was the color of royalty and divinity and its presence on their garments would to signify their position as servants of the King. This symbolism would not have escaped them because the ark of the covenant, over which God’s glory rested, was to be covered with a blue cloth everytime it was transported (Numbers 4:6). According to God’s instructions, “a veil of blue and purple and scarlet yarns and fine twined linen” was to hung between the Holy Place and the Holy of Holies in the tabernacle (Exodus 26:31, 36). Even the robe of the high priest was to be made of royal blue (Exodus 28:31).
Each and every Jew was to consider themselves a priest of God and, as such, they were expected to live in obedience to His commands. The tassels were intended to serve as reminders of their status as His chosen people.
“The tassels will help you remember that you must obey all my commands and be holy to your God.” – Numbers 15;40 NLT
Their lives were to match their calling. Set-apart people are expected to live set-apart lives. Unlike the man who willingly violated the Sabbath and was stoned to death, they were to walk according to God’s commands. Each time they prepared to take a step, they would see the tassels on the hem of their garments and be reminded to tread carefully and obediently.
Not long before his death in the wilderness, Moses had delivered a lengthy and passionate speech to the people of Israel. Because of his own disobedience, he would not be entering the land of Canaan with them. So, motivated by his own failure to fully obey the Lord, he called the people to “walk” before the Lord all the days of their lives.
“You shall be careful therefore to do as the Lord your God has commanded you. You shall not turn aside to the right hand or to the left. You shall walk in all the way that the Lord your God has commanded you, that you may live, and that it may go well with you, and that you may live long in the land that you shall possess.” – Deuteronomy 5:32-33 ESV
Moses longed for the people of Israel to enjoy all the blessings that God had in store for them. But he knew it would require obedience.
“And if you faithfully obey the voice of the Lord your God, being careful to do all his commandments that I command you today, the Lord your God will set you high above all the nations of the earth. And all these blessings shall come upon you and overtake you, if you obey the voice of the Lord your God.” – Deuteronomy 28:1-2 ESV
“The Lord will establish you as a people holy to himself, as he has sworn to you, if you keep the commandments of the Lord your God and walk in his ways.” – Deuteronomy 28:9 ESV
But Moses also warned them about the consequences of disobedience. Failure to “walk” with God would prove costly, even catastrophic.
“But if you will not obey the voice of the Lord your God or be careful to do all his commandments and his statutes that I command you today, then all these curses shall come upon you and overtake you.” – Deuteronomy 28:15 ESV
“All these curses shall come upon you and pursue you and overtake you till you are destroyed, because you did not obey the voice of the Lord your God, to keep his commandments and his statutes that he commanded you.” – Deuteronomy 28:45 ESV
It pays to obey. Walking the talk has its benefits. God wanted the Israelites to know that conducting one’s life in keeping with God’s commands wasn’t just good advice, it was a matter of life and death. And the Israelites received a much-needed reminder to consider the source of the commands they were called to keep.
“I am the Lord your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt that I might be your God. I am the Lord your God!” – Numbers 15:41 NLT
New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.