The Scriptures richly abound in references to forms of posture and gestures, the descriptions in the Bible being sufficient to show that they were much the same as those practiced in the Middle East today. These Orientals are considerably more demonstrative and less inhibited in the expression of their feelings than are many of the Western peoples. Either accompanied by words or without words, attitudes and gestures carried considerable force and meaning.
Prayer and Homage. Standing. Among the Hebrews and many of the other nations mentioned in the Bible, there was no set form of posture for prayer. All the attitudes assumed were highly respectful. Standing was a common posture. Jesus spoke of this position for prayer. (Mr 11:25) Immediately after being baptized, Jesus was evidently standing and praying when the heaven was opened up and the holy spirit in bodily shape like a dove came down upon him, and God’s own voice was heard from the heavens.—Lu 3:21, 22.
Kneeling was a common attitude of prayer. Jesus himself knelt in the garden of Gethsemane. (Lu 22:41) In representing the nation of Israel in prayer Solomon knelt at the inauguration of the temple. (1Ki 8:54) While many of the instances in the Bible use the word “knees” in the plural, it may be that at times a person would kneel upon one knee, as is done sometimes by modern Orientals.—Ac 9:40; 20:36; 21:5; Eph 3:14.
Bowing. The Jews, wherever they were found, when worshiping turned their faces toward the city of Jerusalem and its temple. (1Ki 8:42, 44; Da 6:10) In vision Ezekiel saw 25 men with their backs toward the temple of Jehovah, bowing with their faces toward the E. (Eze 8:16) Temples of the sun worshipers were built in such a manner that the entrance was on the W side, making the worshipers face E on entering. But the temple of Jehovah was built with the entrance in the E so that the worshipers of Jehovah there turned their backs on the place of the rising of the sun.
Extending the arms. In the postures of standing and kneeling, the palms of the hands would sometimes be spread out to the heavens, or the hands would be lifted up or extended forward as in supplication. (1Ki 8:22; 2Ch 6:13; Ne 8:6) The face would sometimes be uplifted (Job 22:26), or a person might lift up his eyes toward the heavens.—Mt 14:19; Mr 7:34; Joh 17:1.
Sitting and prostrating. Sitting was another posture employed in prayer, the petitioner evidently kneeling and then sitting back upon his heels. (1Ch 17:16) From this position he could bow his head or rest it on his bosom. Or, as Elijah did, he might crouch to the earth and put his face between his knees. (1Ki 18:42) ‘Falling down’ or ‘falling on one’s face’ is often the way the Scriptures express a person’s prostrating himself. This was usually done by falling on the knees and bowing forward, resting on the hands or, more often, the elbows, with the head touching the ground. (Ge 24:26, 48; Ne 8:6; Nu 16:22, 45; Mt 26:39) In great sorrow or very fervent prayer the petitioner might actually lie on his face with his body outstretched. In cases of extreme distress, the petitioner might wear sackcloth. (1Ch 21:16) False worshipers also bowed down before their idols. (Ex 20:5; Nu 25:2; 2Ki 5:18; Da 3:5-12) Additionally, false worshipers would often kiss their idols.—1Ki 19:18.
Religious gestures toward an object. Job pointed out the danger of letting one’s heart be enticed toward some object of reverence such as the sun or the moon to the point of making a worshipful gesture toward it, perhaps placing one’s hand to one’s mouth in a kiss the way pagan moon worshipers and those giving homage to idols did. Job realized that this was a denial of the true God and would require an accounting for such error.—Job 31:26-28.
Christian postures for prayer. Jesus prayed publicly, in sincerity, as did Paul and others. He also recommended private prayer. (Mt 6:5, 6) But Jesus condemned ostentatiousness in making long prayers for a pretense, a practice into which some of the scribes had fallen. (Mr 12:40; Lu 20:47) However, Christians adopted many of the customs and practices of the Jewish synagogue—ones that God did not disapprove—and the same attitudes and postures of prayer are mentioned in the Christian Greek Scriptures. Nowhere do they give support to a facial or bodily attitude of assumed piety and sanctimoniousness. They do not make any given posture, such as placing the palms together or clasping the hands when offering prayer, essential. In fact, prayers can be made silently and completely without outward manifestation, when the individual is carrying on an assigned duty or is faced with an emergency. (Compare Ne 2:4.) Christians are told to carry on prayer “with every form of prayer and supplication.”—Eph 6:18.
Respect, Humility. Kneeling. The attitudes and postures of the Orientals in expressing respect for one another and especially when petitioning superiors were much the same as the attitudes assumed in prayer. We find examples of kneeling in supplication before others. This was not in worship of the person but in acknowledgment of that one’s position or office, with deep respect.—Mt 17:14; Mr 1:40; 10:17; 2Ki 1:13.
Bowing was more frequently used in greeting others, in approaching them on a matter of business, or in displaying a high degree of respect. Jacob bowed seven times on meeting Esau. (Ge 33:3) Solomon, even though he was king, showed respect to his mother by bowing to her.—1Ki 2:19.
Bowing could also be a symbol of acknowledgment of defeat. (Isa 60:14) Those persons defeated might appear before their conqueror in sackcloth and, additionally, with ropes upon their heads in an appeal for mercy. (1Ki 20:31, 32) Some think that the ropes mentioned were put about their necks to symbolize their captivity and submission.
Although it was a common thing for the Jews to bow before authority to show respect, Mordecai refused to bow before Haman. This was because Haman, as an Agagite, was very likely an Amalekite, concerning whom Jehovah had said that he would completely wipe out their remembrance from under the heavens and that he would have war with Amalek from generation to generation. (Ex 17:14-16) Since bowing down or prostration would have a connotation of peace toward Haman, Mordecai refused to perform this act, because he would have violated God’s command in doing so.—Es 3:5.
Prostrating. Joshua prostrated himself before an angel, “as prince of the army of Jehovah,” not in worship, but in acknowledgment of the superior office the angel held and of the fact that the angel was obviously sent from Jehovah with a command for him.—Jos 5:14.
When Jesus was on earth, persons would prostrate themselves before him to petition and to do obeisance to him, and he did not reprove them. (Lu 5:12; Joh 9:38) This was because he was the appointed King, the King-Designate, as he himself said: “God’s royal majesty has approached” (ED); “The kingdom of God has drawn near.” (NW, Mr 1:15) Jesus was the heir to the throne of David and therefore was rightfully honored as a king.—Mt 21:9; Joh 12:13-15.
However, the apostles of Jesus Christ refused to permit others to prostrate themselves before them. This was because, in the instances described, prostration was done as an attitude of worship, as though the power of the holy spirit in the apostles, which performed the healing and other powerful works, were their own. The apostles realized that the power was from God and that credit for these things should be given to him and all worship should be directed toward Jehovah through Jesus Christ, of whom they were merely the representatives.—Ac 10:25, 26.
In connection with the respect paid to Jesus, the word often used is pro·sky·neʹo, a word having the basic meaning “do obeisance,” but also translated “worship.” (Mt 2:11; Lu 4:8) Jesus was not accepting worship, which belongs to God alone (Mt 4:10), but recognized the act of the one doing obeisance as recognition of the authority given Him by God. The angel whom Jesus Christ sent to bring the Revelation to John expressed the principle that man’s worship belongs only to God, when he refused to accept worship from John.—Re 19:10; see OBEISANCE; WORSHIP.
Covering the head was a sign of respect on the part of women. This custom was followed in the Christian congregation. In discussing the principle of Christian headship, the apostle Paul stated: “Every woman that prays or prophesies with her head uncovered shames her head . . . That is why the woman ought to have a sign of authority upon her head because of the angels.”—1Co 11:3-10; see HEADSHIP.
Removing one’s sandals was a gesture of respect or reverence. Moses was commanded to do this at the burning bush and Joshua in the presence of an angel. (Ex 3:5; Jos 5:15) Since the tabernacle and the temple were holy places, the priests are said to have performed their duties at the sanctuary barefoot. Likewise, the loosening of the laces of another person’s sandals or bearing his sandals for him was considered a menial duty and an expression of one’s humility and consciousness of insignificance when contrasted with his master. It is still a practice in the Middle East that when one enters a house, his sandals are taken off, sometimes by a servant.—Mt 3:11; Joh 1:27; see SANDAL.
Pouring water on another’s hands. Elisha was identified as the minister or servant of Elijah by the expression “[he] poured out water upon the hands of Elijah.” This was a service performed particularly after meals. In the Middle East it was not the custom to use knives and forks, but fingers, and the servant would afterward pour water over the hands of his master for washing. (2Ki 3:11) A similar practice was the washing of feet, performed as an act of hospitality, also of respect and, in certain relationships, of humility.—Joh 13:5; Ge 24:32; 43:24; 1Ti 5:10.
Agreement, Sharing Together. Handshaking and striking the palms of the hands were gestures employed to express agreement, ratification, or confirmation of a contract or bargain. (Ezr 10:19) The Scriptures warn against doing this in guaranteeing security of a loan for another person. (Pr 6:1-3; 17:18; 22:26) Joint participation, or sharing together, was also denoted by a handshake or grasping of another’s hand.—2Ki 10:15; Ga 2:9.
Blessing. Putting hands on head; lifting hands. Since the Hebrew word ba·rakhʹ has to do with bending the knees and kneeling as well as blessing, it is probable that, when receiving a blessing, persons knelt down and bowed themselves toward the one giving the blessing. Then the one blessing would put his hands on the head of the one being blessed. (Ge 48:13, 14; Mr 10:16) In bestowing a blessing upon a group of people, it was common to lift the hands toward them as the blessing was uttered.—Le 9:22; Lu 24:50.
Swearing. Raising hand; placing hand under thigh. In making an oath, it was customary to raise the right hand. God speaks of himself as doing this, symbolically. (De 32:40; Isa 62:8) The angel in Daniel’s vision raised both his right hand and his left to heaven to utter an oath. (Da 12:7) Another method of confirming an oath was to place one’s hand under the other’s thigh (hip), as Abraham’s steward did in swearing that he would get a wife for Isaac from Abraham’s relatives (Ge 24:2, 9), and as Joseph did for Jacob in swearing not to bury Jacob in Egypt. (Ge 47:29-31) The word “thigh” applies to the upper part of the leg from the hip to the knee, in which the femur is located. According to the Jewish rabbi Rashbam, this method of swearing was used when a superior adjured an inferior, such as a master his servant or a father his son, who also owes him obedience. And according to another Jewish scholar, Abraham Ibn Ezra, it was the custom in those days for a servant to take an oath in this manner, placing his hand under his master’s thigh, the latter sitting upon his hand. This signified that the servant was under his master’s authority.—The Soncino Chumash, edited by A. Cohen, London, 1956, p. 122.
Grief, Shame. Throwing dust on the head; ripping garments; wearing sackcloth. Grief was usually accompanied by weeping (Ge 50:1-3; Joh 11:35), often by bowing the head sadly (Isa 58:5), by throwing dust on one’s head (Jos 7:6), or by sitting on the ground (Job 2:13; Isa 3:26). Grief was often expressed by the ripping of garments (1Sa 4:12; Job 2:12; see RIPPING OF GARMENTS) and sometimes by putting ashes on the head. (2Sa 13:19) When the Jews were condemned to destruction at the hands of their enemies by the order of King Ahasuerus, “sackcloth and ashes themselves came to be spread out as a couch for many.” (Es 4:3) Jehovah warned Jerusalem to gird on sackcloth and wallow in ashes for the trouble coming against her. (Jer 6:26) Micah told those of the Philistine city of Aphrah to “wallow in the very dust.”—Mic 1:10.
Cutting off or pulling out hair; beating breast. Cutting off the hair (Job 1:20), pulling some of the hair out of one’s own beard (Ezr 9:3), covering the head (2Sa 15:30; Es 6:12), covering the mustache (Eze 24:17; Mic 3:7), and laying one’s hands on his own head denoted grief or shame, even to the point of being stunned. (2Sa 13:19; Jer 2:37) Some believe that the latter gesture signified that the heavy hand of God’s affliction was resting on the mourner. Isaiah walked about naked and barefoot as a sign of the shame to come upon Egypt and Ethiopia. (Isa 20:2-5) Under the feeling of unusual grief or contrition one might beat the breast in grief (Mt 11:17; Lu 23:27), or slap the thigh for regret, shame, and humiliation or mourning.—Jer 31:19; Eze 21:12.
Anger, Ridicule, Insult, Calling Down Evil. Wagging the head; slapping another’s face. Generally accompanied by words, various gestures denoted strong expressions of anger, animosity, derision, reproach, contempt, and so forth, toward others. Among them were gestures with the mouth and wagging the head or the hand (2Ki 19:21; Ps 22:7; 44:14; 109:25; Zep 2:15), a slap in the face (Job 16:10; Mt 5:39; Joh 18:22), and pulling out the hair of another’s beard (Isa 50:6). Jesus suffered the highest forms of indignity before the Jewish high court by being spit on, slapped, having his face covered, and then being hit with fists and taunted with the words: “Prophesy to us, you Christ. Who is it that struck you?” (Mt 26:67, 68; Mr 14:65) Afterward he was given similar treatment by the soldiers.—Mt 27:30; Mr 15:19; Joh 19:3.
Dust throwing was another form of contempt. Shimei employed this against David along with cursing and throwing stones at him. (2Sa 16:13) As an evidence of the fury of the mob as Paul made his defense before them in Jerusalem, they raised their voices, crying out and throwing their outer garments about and tossing dust into the air.—Ac 22:22, 23.
Clapping the hands might be a gesture merely to command attention, as at Joshua 15:18. More often it was a sign of anger (Nu 24:10), contempt or ridicule (Job 27:23; La 2:15), sorrow (Eze 6:11), or animosity, rejoicing at bad that befell a rival, a hated enemy, or an oppressor; it was sometimes accompanied by stamping of the feet.—Eze 25:6; Na 3:19.
Appointing. Anointing. Certain gestures were employed to represent an appointment to office or authority. At the inauguration of the priesthood, Aaron was anointed with the holy anointing oil. (Le 8:12) Kings were anointed. (1Sa 16:13; 1Ki 1:39) King Cyrus of Persia was not literally anointed by a representative of God but was figuratively spoken of as Jehovah’s anointed one because of his appointment to conquer Babylon and to release God’s people. (Isa 45:1) Elisha was ‘anointed’ by being appointed but was never literally anointed with oil. (1Ki 19:16, 19) Jesus was anointed by his Father Jehovah, not with oil, but with holy spirit. (Isa 61:1; Lu 4:18, 21) Through him, his spirit-begotten brothers making up the Christian congregation are anointed. (2Co 1:21; Ac 2:33) This anointing appoints, commissions, and qualifies them as ministers of God.—1Jo 2:20; 2Co 3:5, 6; see ANOINTED, ANOINTING.
The laying on of hands was a method of designating the appointment of a person to an office or a duty, as in the case of the seven men who were appointed by the apostles to care for the food distribution in the congregation at Jerusalem. (Ac 6:6) Timothy was appointed to a particular service by the body of older men in the congregation. (1Ti 4:14) Later he was delegated by the apostle Paul to make appointments of others, which he was admonished to do only after careful consideration.—1Ti 5:22.
The laying on of hands also had other significances, one being the acknowledgment of something, as at Exodus 29:10, 15, where Aaron and his sons acknowledged the sacrifices as being offered in their behalf. Similar meaning is found in Leviticus 4:15.
The laying on of hands was also used to designate certain ones to whom benefits or power would flow, as in Jesus’ healing (Lu 4:40) and in the holy spirit’s coming upon those upon whom Paul laid his hands. (Ac 19:6) This does not mean that the spirit passed through the hands of Paul, but that as Christ’s representative, he was authorized to designate, in harmony with the requirements laid down, who would receive gifts of the spirit. (See also Ac 8:14-19.) That it was not necessary to lay on hands to transmit the gifts of the spirit was shown by the fact that in the case of Cornelius and his household the apostle Peter was merely present when they were given holy spirit and the gift of tongues.—Ac 10:44-46.
Favor. Standing before a superior. Favor and recognition were represented by standing before an authority, since permission was required to enter into the presence of a king. (Pr 22:29; Lu 1:19; 21:36) At Revelation 7:9, 15 a great crowd is shown as standing before the throne, indicating that they have favored recognition before God.
Filling Hands With Power. The filling of the hands of the priests with power of the priestly office was represented by Moses when, as mediator, he put the various items to be sacrificed on the hands of Aaron and his sons and waved the offering to and fro before Jehovah. The waving to and fro represented constant presentation before Jehovah.—Le 8:25-27.
Friendship. Kissing; washing feet; anointing head. Friendship was expressed by a kiss (Ge 27:26; 2Sa 19:39), and on occasions of greater emotion, falling on the neck in embrace along with kissing and tears. (Ge 33:4; 45:14, 15; 46:29; Lu 15:20; Ac 20:37) There were three gestures that were always considered necessary as marks of hospitality toward a guest: kissing him in greeting, washing his feet, and anointing his head.—Lu 7:44-46.
In the reclining manner of eating that was practiced during the days Jesus was on earth, to lean on another’s bosom was an attitude of intimate friendship or favor, and this was known as the bosom position. (Joh 13:23, 25) This custom was the basis of the illustrations in Luke 16:22, 23 and John 1:18.
Eating another’s bread with him was symbolic of friendship and peace toward him. (Ge 31:54; Ex 2:20; 18:12) To turn thereafter to do him harm was considered the vilest treachery. Of this the traitor Judas was guilty.—Ps 41:9; Joh 13:18.
Innocence, and Denial of Responsibility. Washing hands. Innocence in a matter or the act of relieving oneself of responsibility was figuratively demonstrated by one’s washing one’s hands. (De 21:6) In this way the psalmist declares his innocence at Psalm 73:13; see also Psalm 26:6. Pilate tried to evade his responsibility in connection with the death of Jesus by washing his hands before the crowd, saying: “I am innocent of the blood of this man. You yourselves must see to it.”—Mt 27:24.
Shaking out the garments. Disclaiming of further responsibility was shown by Paul when he shook out his garments before the Jews in Corinth to whom he had preached and who opposed him, and then said: “Let your blood be upon your own heads. I am clean. From now on I will go to people of the nations.” (Ac 18:6) When Nehemiah shook out his “bosom,” that is, the bosom of his garment, he was signifying utter casting out by God.—Ne 5:13.
Shaking dust from feet. Shaking the dirt or the dust off of one’s feet likewise indicated disclaiming of responsibility. Jesus instructed his disciples to take this action toward a place or city that would not receive them or hear them.—Mt 10:14; Lu 10:10, 11; Ac 13:51.
Joy. Clapping hands. Joy was demonstrated by clapping the hands (2Ki 11:12; Ps 47:1) and by dancing, often accompanied by music. (Jg 11:34; 2Sa 6:14) Shouting and singing at work, particularly during the grape harvest, were expressions of happiness or of grateful joy.—Isa 16:10; Jer 48:33.
Hand or foot on the back of the neck of one’s enemies is a figurative way of describing the defeat of an enemy, his being put to rout and fleeing away, being pursued and caught.—Ge 49:8; Jos 10:24; 2Sa 22:41; Ps 18:40.
Taking Authority or Action. To stand up or to rise carried with it the significance of taking authority, power, or action. Kings are spoken of as standing up when they take their kingly authority or exercise it in a notable way. (Da 8:22, 23; 11:2, 3, 7, 21; 12:1) Jehovah is represented as rising up to carry out judgment of the people. (Ps 76:9; 82:8) Satan is described as standing up against Israel when he incited David to take a census of them.—1Ch 21:1.
Girding up of the loins implies preparation for action. This had reference to the custom in Bible times of binding up one’s flowing garments with a belt or girdle in order not to be hampered in connection with doing work, running, and so forth.—Job 40:7; Jer 1:17; Lu 12:37; 1Pe 1:13, ftn.
Miscellaneous. Lying down at feet. When Ruth wanted to remind Boaz of his position as repurchaser, she came at night, uncovering his feet and lying down by them. When he awoke, she said to him: “I am Ruth your slave girl, and you must spread out your skirt over your slave girl, for you are a repurchaser.” Ruth hereby indicated that she was willing to undergo brother-in-law marriage.—Ru 3:6-9.
Appearance when fasting. ‘Afflicting one’s soul’ most likely referred to fasting and could represent mourning, acknowledgment of sins, repentance, or contrition. (Le 16:29, 31; 2Sa 1:12; Ps 35:13; Joe 1:13, 14) When Jesus was on earth, hypocritical persons put on a sad face, disfiguring their faces in order to make a show of “holiness” by fasting, but Jesus told his disciples that when fasting they should grease their heads and wash their faces so that they would appear normal to men, knowing that the Father looks upon the heart. (Mt 6:16-18) Fasting was sometimes practiced by Christians in order for them to give undivided attention to spiritual matters.—Ac 13:2, 3; see FAST.
Laying hand on eyes of deceased. Jehovah’s expression to Jacob, “Joseph will lay his hand upon your eyes” (Ge 46:4), was a way of saying that Joseph would close Jacob’s eyes after his death, which was ordinarily a duty of the firstborn son. So it seems that Jehovah here indicated to Jacob that the right of firstborn should go to Joseph.—1Ch 5:2.
Whistling. To “whistle at” something represented astonishment or wonderment. Such was the attitude produced in those viewing the awesome desolation of Judah, and later, the fearsome ruin of Babylon.—Jer 25:9; 50:13; 51:37.
It was the custom of kings or men of authority to lean on the arm of a servant or one in an inferior position, as did King Jehoram of Israel. (2Ki 7:2, 17) King Ben-hadad II supported himself on the hand of his servant Naaman as he bowed down at the house of his god Rimmon.—2Ki 5:18.
Illustrative Usage. Washing another’s feet. Jesus employed one of the Oriental customs in an illustrative way when, giving his disciples a lesson in humility and serving one another, he washed his disciples’ feet. Peter spoke up, asking him to wash not only his feet but also his hands and his head. But Jesus replied: “He that has bathed does not need to have more than his feet washed, but is wholly clean.” (Joh 13:3-10) Here Jesus was referring to the fact that after one had been to the bath he would, on returning from the bath to his house, need only to wash the dust of the road from his sandaled feet. He used this cleanness as figurative of spiritual cleanness.
Walking. Another illustrative expression is “to walk,” meaning to follow a certain course of action, as “Noah walked with the true God.” (Ge 6:9; 5:22) Those walking with God followed the life course outlined by God and found his favor. The Christian Greek Scriptures, using this same expression, picture the two contrasting courses of action pursued by one before and after becoming a servant of God. (Eph 2:2, 10; 4:17; 5:2) In a similar manner “running” is used to symbolize a course of action. (1Pe 4:4) God said that the prophets in Judah “ran” though not sent by him, meaning that they took the prophetic course falsely, unauthorized. (Jer 23:21) Paul describes the Christian course in terms of “running.” He likens it to a race that a person must run according to the rules in order to win the prize.—1Co 9:24; Ga 2:2; 5:7.