Saturday, November 30, 2013

Are Christians Allowed to Bow to People?

Is bowing to a human being permissible for a Christian? There are some verses of the Bible that on the surface might suggest that we should bow to no one except God. The second commandment reads: “You shall not bow down (חוה) to [images] or serve them, for I, Yahweh, am a jealous God” (Deut 5:9). We also have examples of particular people in the Bible who request that they not be bowed down to. When Cornelius bowed down to Peter, Peter told him to stand up on the basis of the fact that Peter himself was merely human (Acts 10:25–26). A number of angels also appear in the book of Revelation, requesting that the Apostle John abstain from bowing down to them (Rev 19:10; 22:8–9).

There are a number of different terms used in Hebrew to describe bodily postures of respect. ברך is used to denote kneeling. כרע can be used of bowing, crouching, or kneeling. שׁחח implies lowering one’s body by bending down in some way. קדד is used of bowing one’s head or the upper part of one’s body. ‎קדד is always followed in the Hebrew Bible by the verb חוה. In the Hishtafel stem חוה indicates a form of prostration. This usually involved either kneeling then bowing one’s head forward to face the ground, or kneeling then lowering the part of the body which is above the knees fully forward so as to lie with one’s body totally flat against the ground. The idioms נפל על פנים and נפל על אפים (to fall on one’s face) are also used to denote prostration.

It is true that the Bible teaches that the one true God alone is to be worshiped. Nevertheless, there are examples of godly people in the Bible bowing down to humans. While negotiating the purchase of a burial plot for his family, Abraham bowed (חוה) to the local Hittite people on two occasions (Gen 23:7, 12). Joseph bowed down (חוה) to his father, Jacob, just before Jacob blessed Joseph’s sons, Ephraim and Manasseh (Gen 48:12). When Moses met his father-in-law in the vicinity of Mount Sinai after the exodus, he bowed down (חוה) and kissed him (Exod 18:7). Ruth, thankful at Boaz’s kindness, bowed down (נפל על פנים plus חוה) with her face towards the ground (Ruth 2:10). A similar action was exhibited by David (נפל על אפים plus חוה) when saying goodbye to Jonathon (1 Sam 20:41). David also bowed down (קדד plus חוה) to Saul when he greeted him after sparing his life (1 Sam 24:8). Abigail bowed down (נפל על פנים plus חוה) to the ground when greeting David (1 Sam 25:23). Queen Bathsheba bowed down (קדד plus חוה) to King David (1 Kgs 1:16). The prophet Nathan also bowed down (חוה) to King David (1 Kgs 1:23). God made David’s enemies bow at his feet (Ps 18:39 [MT Ps 18:40]). King Solomon also greeted his mother, Bathsheba, by bowing down (חוה) to her (1 Kgs 2:19). In 2 Kgs 1:13 a pious military commander bowed down (כרע) to the prophet Elijah.

There are also verses in the Bible that indicate that humans bowing before other humans is appropriate or expected. Isaac’s mistaken blessing of Jacob pictures peoples bowing down (חוה) to him (Gen 27:29). Jacob’s blessing foresaw the other tribes bowing down (חוה) to Judah (Gen 49:8). In Ps 45:11 the wife of the king of Israel is instructed to bow down (חוה) to the king. According to Prov 14:19, the wicked will bow down (שׁחח) before the good. Israel’s ultimate victory over her enemies is also pictured in terms of people and kings and queens of the other nations coming and bowing down (חוה) to the people of Israel (Isa 45:14; 49:23). The sons of Israel’s oppressors are spoken of as coming to bow down (שׁחח plus חוה) at their feet.

In conclusion, the biblical prohibition against bowing only applies to the situation of bowing down to worship or show respect to false gods or images. But where the purpose is to express respect or submission to individual human beings who in a position of authority (such as kings, prophets, or parents), then the Bible treats bowing in such a situation as being an appropriate action for believers to engage in.