Two of our three websites (this one and LivingWithFaith.org) have blogs, and we usually publish a post on each of these two sites every week. But in order to concentrate on production of new free e-books, we will be rotating the blogs for a while – a new post will appear on this site one week and on our other site the following week. As a result, our latest blog post ("Why the Philosopher Was Wrong") appears today on our sister site. There are, of course, hundreds of past posts that you can select from on this site (see the "Categories" links on the right side of this page). But if you are looking for something new, our other site with today's blog is only a click away, here.
There is a language you can learn in order to better understand many verses in the Bible. That language is not Greek, Hebrew, or Aramaic – it is simply the “language” of gestures and actions we call “body language.” We are all familiar with body language in our own cultures and absorb it subconsciously as we grow up. We learn from a very early age that if a parent stands with fists on hips as he or she is about to speak to us that we are probably in trouble! As we go through life we routinely “read” the gestures and postures of others without thinking about it, but those same clues are a very real part of our understanding of what is happening in the world around us.
In some cases, the body language mentioned in the Bible is similar or identical to that found in many modern cultures. For example, the act of bowing before important individuals or before God mentioned so often in the Bible is perfectly understandable to us today, and even more subtle gesture expressions make sense to us, as when the book of Proverbs tells us that “Whoever winks with their eye is plotting perversity; whoever purses their lips is bent on evil” (Proverbs 16:30).
The Bible draws attention to many of these non-verbal forms of expression – especially those involving the hands or feet. For example, the book of Ezekiel records God commanding the prophet Ezekiel to gesture by clapping his hands and stomping his feet regarding sinful Israel (Ezekiel 6:11). Such gestures were commonly used in both ancient Israel and the nations surrounding it. The book of Job mentions pagan worshipers of the sun and moon gesturing by kissing their hands to bless their gods (Job 31:26-28), and in both the Old and New Testaments we see that in blessing a group of people it was common to lift the hands toward them as the blessing was spoken (Leviticus 9:22; Luke 24:50).
But there are some things we should remember in understanding the body language mentioned in the Bible. First, we sometimes find different body gestures being used with the same meaning. The book of Genesis gives several examples of oaths being sworn by a person placing his hand under another’s thigh or hip – as Abraham’s steward is said to have done in promising that he would get a wife for Isaac from among Abraham’s relatives (Genesis 24:2, 9), and as Joseph did in swearing not to bury his father Jacob in Egypt (Genesis 47:29-31). But later in the Old Testament references to taking an oath usually show individuals doing so by raising a hand toward heaven (Deuteronomy 32:40; Daniel 12:7; etc.), and in the book of Ezekiel God himself is said to take an oath by raising his hand in this way (Ezekiel 20:5, 15, 23).
Another factor to keep in mind is that many societies assign unique meanings to gestures and postures, and we cannot always assume that a body language “signal” meant the same thing to those in other places or times that it does to us. The gesture of clapping is a good example of this. We usually understand clapping the hands together positively - to signify applause. But in biblical times we see not only that same meaning of this gesture as applause (2 Kings 11:12) and praise (Psalm 47:1), but also clapping was used to signify negative reactions such as anger (Numbers 24:10), revulsion (Ezekiel 22:13), and even contempt or derision (Job 27:23). So when we read of people clapping in a Bible verse (compare for example, Ezekiel 6:11 and 25:6), we should realize that we need to look at the different possible meanings of this gesture to see which best fits the context.
In a similar way, removing one’s shoes was often a gesture of reverence or respect, just as Moses was commanded to do this at the burning bush (Exodus 3:5) and Joshua in the presence of the angel of the Lord (Joshua 5:15). But removing shoes could also be a sign of grief (2 Samuel 15:30), of disrespect (Deuteronomy 25:6-10), or even of sealing an agreement (Ruth 4:7-8). In fact, most gestures mentioned in the Bible have multiple meanings and need to be understood in context. The gesture of throwing dust in the air onto oneself or others was used by those who were grieving (Joshua 7:6, etc.), but also as a gesture indicating scorn or anger – as when the man Shimei did this against David along with cursing him (2 Samuel 16:13). The same gesture is seen in the New Testament when an angry mob responded to Paul’s defense by crying out and tossing dust into the air (Acts 22:22-23).
In the New Testament, bodily gestures and expressions are frequently noted in the Gospels and this is especially true – as we might perhaps expect – in the Gospel of Luke the physician. But body language appears in some form or other in most books of the Bible, and looking out for it and learning to “read” it correctly can often help us to better understand what is happening in the narrative or to notice points that the biblical writers especially wanted to stress.
Are you afraid of change? I’ll admit it right up front: I often am. In fact, at some level we all are. Psychological studies have found that people are often afraid of change in their lives because of experiences they have had where changes led to less desirable situations. Those experiences can often give us an almost hard-wired resistance to changing the status quo. If you don’t believe that, think about the last time you switched checkout lanes in a grocery store because your lane was moving so slowly – only to find the lane you changed into then slowed down even more – and the resultant feeling of frustration with the change you made.
More rigorous psychological tests have proven the deep-seated nature of our frequent frustration with change. For example, a University of Illinois study examined the multiple-choice tests of students and interviewed those who had changed their minds on questions, and thus changed their answers during a test. The significant finding was that when they were questioned afterwards, the students who had changed answers indicated that switching a correct answer to an incorrect answer was much more frustrating and memorable than failing to switch to a correct answer from an incorrect one!
And so it is, from tests in school to lines in stores and in countless other ways we experience small but memorable frustrations with change and may often resist it as a result. These are hardly catastrophic experiences, but the human brain remembers little things like that so when we are tempted to change something in our lives, the suspicion that it may make things worse kicks in almost immediately.
But we need to remember “the other side of the coin” of change: that change is necessary in order to enjoy all of the most satisfying aspects of life. We change in order to move from childhood to adult life, from school to career, from single status to marriage, and in many other ways as we grow and mature. As Paul told the Corinthians “When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I gave up childish ways” (1 Corinthians 13:11, ESV). Like Paul, most of us are happy to give up childish pleasures and satisfactions for mature ones.
Spiritually, we might expect the principle of giving up old wrong ways for better ones to be appealing, too, but human nature and the fear of change we so often develop can slow us down in this area. In addition, limited understanding of the guidance the Bible gives us for change can affect us, too. We may know that the New Testament counsels us all to “repent” or to change our ways (Acts 2:38, etc.), but that command is not a one-time thing – it is an ongoing way of life.
The apostle Paul had something to say about the fact that we need to continually focus on distinct areas in which we should change: “I appeal to you therefore, brothers … Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect” (Romans 12:1-2).
Think about these words for a minute. The idea of being transformed by renewal is an ongoing one in what Paul wrote. Being “transformed” simply means to be “changed,” of course, and the ongoing “testing” Paul then talks about in these verses refers to accepting the need to change and testing or trying new, better ways in various aspects of our lives. That is not a natural process and it is not always a comfortable one – if it were, Paul would not have had to “appeal” to us to do it. But the good news is that this kind of change is always positive and for the best when it is accomplished – and that is what Paul meant in saying it is “good and acceptable and perfect.” So how do we put the need to change into practice? Primarily, we do so in the way we study the word of God. We do so by reminding ourselves every time we read a section of Scripture not just to read for inspiration, but also to focus on commands or challenges to do or be something different from the way we are. It means asking ourselves: “Is this me?” “Should this be me?” and “How do I need to change to make it me?” Because, spiritually, the only change we really ever need to fear is the change not made.