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.