“Roses are red, violets are blue.”
This popular refrain is found in nursery rhymes of Mother Goose and has become very popular to express sentiments from one person to another on Valentine’s Day cards.
Although the refrain is often used in poems, songs, and jokes, the origin of the refrain is unknown. According to the Wikipedia, this popular refrain was developed from a poem by Edmund Spenser written in 1590:
She bath’d with roses red, and violets blew,
And all the sweetest flowres, that in the forrest grew
How Do Humans See Colors?
Sir Isaac Newton discovered “that color is not inherent in objects. Rather, the surface of an object reflects some colors and absorbs all the others. We perceive only the reflected colors.” When Newton originally observed a rainbow of light split by a prism, he discovered that sunlight is composed of seven colors, red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, and violet.
If colors are not inherent in objects, how do humans see colors? The human eyes translate light into color. Light receptors within the eye transmit messages to the brain, which produces the familiar sensations of color.
The surface of the rose is reflecting the wavelengths we see as red and absorbing all the rest. Humans see colors when the colors of the spectrum are combined. By varying the amount of red, green and blue light, all of the colors in the visible spectrum can be produced. An object appears white when it reflects all colors of the spectrum and black when it absorbs them all.
Does God See Colors?
Listener: “Does God know what the color red looks like to humans?”
Chris Date answered the listener’s question at the 1:22:29 of the debate.
Chris Date: “I do not think that God has experienced seeing the color red.”
Chris’s answer brought me back to the text of the Old Testament and the many uses of colors found throughout the biblical text. The fact is that God sees the color red.
God sees the color red
When God instructed Moses on the purification ritual for a person who had become contaminated by contact with a corpse, God told Moses that a red heifer should be brought to the priests for sacrifice and its ashes were to be used in the ritual of purification:
“The LORD spoke to Moses and Aaron, saying: This is a statute of the law that the LORD has commanded: Tell the Israelites to bring you a red heifer without defect, in which there is no blemish and on which no yoke has been laid” (Numbers 19:1–2).
A heifer is a female cow which has never been pregnant or milked or yoked. There were many cows among the Israelites that could be used in a ritual of purification, but the Lord commanded Moses to use a red cow. This clearly indicates that God could see the color red.
When the people of Israel were about to begin the construction of the tabernacle, God told Moses, “Tell the Israelites to take for me an offering; from all whose hearts prompt them to give you shall receive the offering for me” (Exodus 25:2). Among the things God asked the people to bring to him was “ram skins dyed red” (Exodus 25:5).
God can see the color red.
God sees the color blue
God told Moses that the curtains of the tabernacle should be made with linen made of blue yarns: “Moreover you shall make the tabernacle with ten curtains of fine twisted linen, and blue . . . yarns” (Exodus 26:1).
God had a preference for the color blue. The color blue was used on the curtains of the tabernacle (Exodus 26:1), on the veil of the ark (Exodus 26:31), on the curtain for the entrance of the tabernacle (Exodus 26:36), on the curtain for the entrance to the courtyard (Exodus 27:16), on the sacred vestment of Aaron (Exodus 28:5), on the turban on the head of the High Priest (Exodus 28:37), on the girdle or sash worn by the priest (Exodus 39:29), on the coverings of the table of the bread of the Presence (Numbers 4:7), on the cloth on the golden altar (Numbers 4:11), on the cloth under the utensils used in the sanctuary (Numbers 4:12), and on the cloth that covered the lampstand (Numbers 4:9).
God sees the color purple
The curtains of the tabernacle were very colorful. In addition to the blue color, the curtain of the tabernacle also contained the purple color (Exodus 25:4).
In the Old Testament, the color purple was generally used in combination with the color blue. Purple was used in the curtains and veils of the tabernacle, in the garments of the priests, and in the cloth spread on the altar.
God sees the color scarlet
The curtain of the tabernacle was multicolor. It contained blue, purple, and scarlet colors (Exodus 25:4). Scarlet is a mixture of red and orange; more red than orange.
God sees the color green
When God created human beings, he provided them with food. God said, “I have given every green plant for food. And it was so” (Genesis 1:30).
Why Does God See Colors?
Color matters. Color can evoke the feelings of happiness and sadness. Since colors are perceived by the eyes in combination with the brain, colors affect the way humans think, act, or react. Today, colors communicate messages that have meanings and evoke actions. Red means “stop.” Green means “go.” Blue conveys the idea of sadness.
In the Old Testament, color can also have a theological meaning. After the flood, God told Noah that the rainbow, with its beautiful colors, would be the sign of the covenant God made with humanity, “I have set my rainbow in the clouds, and it will be the sign of the covenant between me and the earth” (Genesis 9:13).
When God sees colors, it demonstrates that Yahweh, the God of Israel, is the true God. When the psalmist described the false gods of the nations, he wrote:
“Their idols are silver and gold, the work of human hands. They have mouths, but do not speak; eyes, but do not see. They have ears, but do not hear; noses, but do not smell. They have hands, but do not feel; feet, but do not walk; they make no sound in their throats” (Psalm 115:4–7).
So, the answer to the question, “Does God know what the color red looks like to humans?” is YES. The idols have eyes, but they cannot see the color red. God can see the color red.
Some people say that God sees the color red is anthropomorphic language. Anthropomorphism is attributing to God human characteristics and human emotions. The use of anthropomorphism is used by some to hide or minimize some true aspects of the nature and character of God.
A better word that describes a God who sees red is theomorphic. Theomorphism is attributing to human beings divine characteristics. After all, humans were created in the image and likeness of God (Genesis 1:6-27).
In his book, The God Who Risks: A Theology of Providence, John Sanders wrote, “God’s concern for justice and love is not anthropomorphism; rather, our concern for justice and love is theomorphism. Humans are created in the image of God, and so the human must be seen as a theomorphism. This is the stance of the Christian faith” (Sanders 1998:21).
In his Old Testament Theology, Gerhard von Rad wrote, “Israel conceived even Jahweh himself as having human form. But the way of putting it which we use runs in precisely the wrong direction according to Old Testament ideas, for, according to the ideas of Jahwism, it cannot be said that Israel regarded God anthropomorphically, but the reverse, that she considered man as theomorphic” (Von Rad 1962:1:145).
In his prayer to God, Isaiah called on Yahweh to open his eyes, “open your eyes, Yahweh, and see” (Isaiah 37:17 NJB). The psalmist said that from his throne in heaven, “His eyes see. They examine Adam’s descendants” (Psalm 11:4 NET).
When Yahweh saw the iniquities of Israel, he lamented their wickedness, “O that my eyes [were] a fountain of tears, so that I might weep day and night for the slain of my poor people” (Jeremiah 9:1).
Yes, God sees red and much more.
O, what a wonderful God we serve!
Emeritus Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary
Sanders, John. The God Who Risks: A Theology of Providence. Downers Grove: Intervarsity Press, 1998.
Von Rad, Gerhard. Old Testament Theology. Volume 1. New York: Harper and Row, 1962.
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