Movements of either a part or all of the body to communicate one's thoughts and feelings. Gestures often may involve external objects such as the tearing of one's clothing (Joel 2:13) or the casting down of one's crown before God (Revelation 4:10). A gesture does not have to accompany verbal speech. Just a piercing look (Luke 22:61) is sufficient to communicate persuasively. In a certain sense all gestures are visual symbols. These symbols serve as a vital part of any culture's ability to communicate either within that culture or even beyond that culture. The use of gestures is so common to human expression throughout history that to communicate verbally without the moving of the hands would seem unnatural.
Though “gesture” is not a biblical word, it is definitely a biblical concept. The Hebrews, along with their neighbors, were an action-oriented people, and their speech reflected this same emphasis. The finding of numerous gestures throughout the Bible, therefore, is only to be expected. Biblical gestures may be divided into three categories: cultural-corporal gestures, religious-ceremonial gestures, and prophetic-symbolic gestures.
Cultural-Corporal Gestures These are the most common to the everyday life and customs of the Ancient Near East. Their range of expression is quite vast.
Whole Body Gestures 1. Standing to pray indicates respect to God (1 Samuel 1:26;
1 Kings 8:22;
Mark 11:25). 2. Sitting may communicate several things. David's sitting before the Lord indicated reverence, humility, and submission (2 Samuel 7:18), while the sitting down of Jesus at the right hand of God indicates finality and completion as well as power and authority. (Hebrews 10:12). 3. Kneeling and bowing express honor, devotion, and submission in worship (1 Kings 19:18;
Revelation 5:8) and reverence in prayer (1 Kings 8:54;
1 Kings 18:42;
Luke 22:41). 4. Weeping is not only a sign of sorrow (Job 16:16;
John 11:35), but also of happiness (Genesis 46:29). 5. Dancing shows joy (Exodus 15:20;
Judges 11:34) and celebration in praise (2 Samuel 6:16;
Psalms 149:3). 6. Tearing of one's clothes and heaping of ashes upon one's head signify deep grief (2 Samuel 1:11;
2 Samuel 13:19), shocking horror (Numbers 14:6;
Joshua 7:6), and sudden alarm (Matthew 26:65;
Head Gestures 1. Shaking one's head communicates scorn and reproach (Psalms 22:7;
Mark 15:29). 2. Lifting one's head can indicate exaltation (Psalms 27:6), contempt (Psalms 83:2), and freedom (2 Kings 25:27). 3. Bowing of one's head shows reverence in worship and prayer (Genesis 24:26;
Face Gestures 1. Eye gestures are numerous and quite expressive. Winking the eye may show mischief and deceit (Proverbs 6:13), which also can lead to sorrow (Proverbs 10:10). Wanton eyes are sensual eyes that deserve condemnation (Isaiah 3:16). Jesus' looking at Peter at the point of his denial is an example of eyes showing both hurt and condemnation (Luke 22:61). The lifting up of one's eyelids expresses haughtiness and pride (Proverbs 30:13). One's eyes can show anger (Mark 3:5). The eyes, when uplifted in prayer, signify not only respectful acknowledgment of God, but also devotion to Him (Mark 6:41;
Luke 9:16). To fail to lift one's eyes up to God while praying indicates one's sense of unworthiness (Luke 18:13). Jesus' lifting up of His eyes upon the disciples shows His personal regard for them (Luke 6:20). 2. Mouth gestures also are plentiful in the Scriptures. To smile and laugh can mean more than just happiness and joy; it also can show goodwill (Job 29:24), scorn (Psalms 22:7;
Luke 8:53) or even rebuke (Psalms 2:4). The shooting out of the lip communicates the idea of contempt (Psalms 22:7). Kissing is an act that expresses the warmth of a friendly greeting (Romans 16:16;
1 Corinthians 16:20), the affection of one for another (Song of Solomon 8:1), the sorrow of one who dearly cares for another (Ruth 1:14;
Acts 20:37), the deceit of one who hides true intentions (Proverbs 27:6;
Matthew 26:48), the submission of the weak to the strong (Psalms 2:12), and the seduction of a foolish man by a loose woman (Proverbs 7:5-23). Spitting is an emphatic way of showing contempt in order to shame another (Deuteronomy 25:9;
Matthew 27:30). 3. To incline one's ear is to give attention to another (Psalms 45:10;
Jeremiah 7:26). 4. An obscure gesture is the putting of the branch to the nose. This pagan gesture is an offense to God and possibly has obscene connotations (Ezekiel 8:17). 5. A hardened neck indicates stubbornness (Nehemiah 9:16;
Jeremiah 7:26), while an outstretched neck reveals haughtiness (Isaiah 3:16).
Hand Gestures 1. The raising of hands in prayer is a gesture signifying one's request is unto God (Psalms 141:2;
1 Timothy 2:8). The raising of one's hands can also be a symbol of blessing (Leviticus 9:22;
Luke 24:50), or it can be an act that gives emphasis to an oath (Deuteronomy 32:40;
Ezekiel 20:5,Ezekiel 20:15,Ezekiel 20:23,Ezekiel 20:28). 2. The covering of one's mouth with the hand signifies silence (Job 29:9). 3. The lifting up of one's hand or the shaking of one's fist means defiance (2 Samuel 18:28;
Zephaniah 2:15). 4. The laying of a hand or hands on someone can mean violence (Genesis 37:22), or it can mean favor and blessing as on a son (Genesis 48:14) or in healing (Luke 4:40;
Acts 28:8). The placing of hands on someone's head shows favor and blessing as in the acknowledgment of an office (Acts 6:6) or in the coming of the Holy Spirit (Acts 8:17). The striking or shaking of hands indicates a guarantee or confirmation (Proverbs 6:1;
Proverbs 22:26), while the giving of one's hand to another is a sign of fellowship (2 Kings 10:15;
Proverbs 11:21). 5. To clap one's hands can mean either contempt (Job 27:23;
Nahum 3:19) or joy and celebration (2 Kings 11:12;
Isaiah 55:12). 6. The waving of one's hand can mean to beckon (Luke 5:7;
John 13:24), to call for silence in order to speak (Acts 12:17;
Acts 19:33), or to call on God for healing (2 Kings 5:11). 7. The dropping of hands shows weakness and despair (Isaiah 35:3;
Hebrews 12:12). 8.A hand on one's head communicates grief (2 Samuel 13:19;
Jeremiah 2:37). 9. The washing of one's hands in public declares one's innocence (Deuteronomy 21:6-7;
Matthew 27:24). 10. The pointing of a finger can show ill favor (Proverbs 6:13) or accusation (Isaiah 58:9). 11.
The hand or arm outstretched is a sign of power and authority (Exodus 6:6). 12. To hug or embrace is to show warmth in greeting another (Genesis 33:4).
Feet Gestures 1. The placing of a foot upon one's enemy is a twofold gesture: it shows victory and dominance for the one standing and defeat and submission for the one downfallen and vanquished (Joshua 10:24;
1 Corinthians 15:25). 2. To shake the dust off of one's feet is a sign of contempt and separation (Matthew 10:14;
Acts 13:51). 3. To wash the feet of another is to humble oneself as a servant (John 13:5-12). 4. The lifting of one's heel against another shows opposition (Psalms 41:9;
John 13:18). 5. To cover one's feet is to relieve oneself with some degree of privacy (Judges 3:24;
1 Samuel 24:3). 6. To uncover one's feet or to walk barefooted indicates grief or repentance (2 Samuel 15:30;
Isaiah 20:2). 7. The act of uncovering one's feet as in the case of Ruth with Boaz (Ruth 3:4) was an established practice indicating not only one's willingness to marry, but also the protection of the husband over his wife.
These are a more specialized category of gestures in which prescribed body movements take on a more clearly religious meaning than that found in the previous category.
Old Testament Sacrificial Gestures Two examples are sufficient to represent this limited category of gestures. 1. Within the instructions given by Moses concerning the Passover are the following words: “And thus shall ye eat it; with your loins girded, your shoes on your feet, and your staff in your hand; and ye shall eat it in haste: it is the Lord's passover” (Exodus 12:11). All of these actions symbolize urgency and readiness. This whole body gesture is one of the profound ways that God chose to emphasize the abruptness and costliness of their freedom from bondage. It is a message with lasting significance (Exodus 12:14). 2. Another whole body gesture with special emphasis upon the hands is the act of offering a burnt offering unto God. If the offering came from the herd it was to be a male without blemish, and it was to be offered at the door of the tabernacle of the congregation as a free will offering. “And he shall put his hand upon the head of the burnt offering And he shall kill the bullock before the Lord” (Leviticus 1:4-5). The offering of this sacrifice emphasized God's holiness (a male without blemish) and human sinfulness and separation (only as far as the altar could a sinful person enter into the court of the tabernacle). The act expressed the need for substitution and death (the killing of the animal) and mediation (the ministry of the priests). In an ideal sense the act of coming to the entrance of the tabernacle was a public testimony of confession and commitment. The offering of a sacrifice was the language of covenant acted out in prayerful imagery. The act of putting one's hand upon the head of the animal and killing it served as the focal point of the offering for the sinner. Not only were costliness and substitution present, but also identification was expressed. It is this personal dimension of individual identification, recognition, and participation that helped to make the sacrifice a valid means of worship.
New Testament Sacrificial Gestures The two ordinances of the church continue the sacrificial theme. Both ordinances testify to the sacrificial death of Jesus Christ. 1. The ordinance of baptism is a whole body gesture that expresses one's identification with Christ's atoning work: His death, burial, and resurrection. To be baptized (Matthew 28:19) is to testify publicly of one's total commitment to Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord. 2. The Lord's Supper (Matthew 26:26-30;
1 Corinthians 11:23-29) also emphasizes one's identification with the sacrificial death of Christ. It is through the observance of the Lord's Supper that one testifies to a willingness to deny oneself, and take up the cross (Matthew 16:24) to follow Christ. Faith expressed in terms of lordship and servanthood through death to self is faith that is pleasing unto God (Romans 12:1-2).
Prophetic-Symbolical Gestures Prophets dramatized their message with symbolic gestures. Here examples are limited to the prophets Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel. The use of symbolical gestures by the prophets could range from the simple and obvious, such as Ezekiel's mock attack against a clay model of Jerusalem to symbolize God's impending judgment on the city (Ezekiel 4:1-3) to the complex and theological, such as Jeremiah's purchase of a field (Jeremiah 32:1-44) to symbolize God's future restoration of the Southern Kingdom as its Kinsman (go' el) Redeemer.
Isaiah 20:3, Isaiah “walked naked and barefoot three years” as a symbol of the humiliation that Egypt and Ethiopia were to know when Assyria conquered them. In
Jeremiah 27:1-7, Jeremiah wore a yoke of wood around his neck as a symbol of the future domination of the Babylonians over Judah and her neighbors; therefore, Jeremiah's message was one of submission to Babylonian rule. Ezekiel more than any other was known for his use of prophetic-symbolic acts. His laying on his side for many days (Ezekiel 4:4-8) indicated a year for each day of their iniquity and of their impending siege. His eating of scant rations (Ezekiel 4:9-17), the cutting of his hair and its various consequences (Ezekiel 5:1-17), and the setting of his face toward the mountains of Israel (Ezekiel 6:1-7) were all symbolic gestures which showed the judgment of God that soon was to come upon his people. (See also
Ezekiel 12:1-28 for additional examples.) See Festivals; Ordinances; Prophets; Sacrifice and Offering; Symbol.
Gary A. Galeotti