Old Testament Exegesis on the Hebrew Terms for Prostration and Worship

by Edwin Yamauchi

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619 (hawa) III, exclusively in the Eshtaphal stem, hishtahawa "to prostrate oneself"; "to worship."

Formerly this was analyzed as a Hithpael of shaha (q.v.). Cognate with the Ugaritic hwy "to bow down" (UT 19: no. 847), used in parallel with kbd "to honor," the verb occurs 170 times, in the majority of cases of the worship of God, gods, or idols.

The verb in its original sense meant to prostrate oneself on the ground as in Neh 8:6 "worshipped" (KJV, RSV) but more correctly "prostrated themselves" (NEB, JB, NAB) as the phrase ‘arsa "to the ground" requires.

Prostration was quite common as an act of submission before a superior. Vassals in the Amarna letters write, "At the feet of the king ... seven times, seven times I fall, forwards and backwards." (Cf. ANEP, fig. 5.) Jehu or his servant bows down on his knees with his forehead touching the ground before Shalmaneser III on the Black Obelisk (cf. ANEP, fig. 351).

Muslims perform their salah or prayer by an elaborately prescribed sugud (cf. Heb sagad "to bow down") in which the forehead must touch the ground.

The Greek word proskuneo, which is used to translate hishtahawa 148 times in the LXX, had a semantic development similar to the Hebrew word. Like it proskuneo can mean either "prostration" or "worship." Whether the proskunesis which Alexander the Great received implied "worship" or simply "obeisance" was uncertain to his contemporaries, as it has been to scholars.

Prostration was a common act of self-abasement performed before relatives, strangers, superiors, and especially before royalty. Abraham bowed himself before the Hittites of Hebron (Gen 23:7, 12). He also bowed before the three strangers who visited him at Mamre (Gen 18:2), as did Lot before the two angelic visitors who came to him at Sodom (Gen 19:1). Neither realized at the time that they were before superhuman beings. Balaam, however, perceived that it was an angel who blocked his way, and he "fell prostrate" (JB, Num 22:31).

Following Egyptian protocol, Joseph’s brothers made obeisance before him (Gen 42:6; 43:26, 28), thus fulfilling his dream (Gen 37:7, 9, 10).

Because of the infidelity of Eli’s sons his posterity will be reduced by God’s judgment (I Sam 2:36) "to crouch" (KJV); "to grovel" (NAB); "to beg him on their knees" (JB), i.e. to a state of beggary. At En-dor Saul recognized the revivified Samuel and "did obeisance" (I Sam 28:14, RSV).

It was in open defiance of Persian court etiquette that Mordecai refused to bow or to prostrate himself before Haman (Est 3:2, 5; cf. Herodotus 1.134; 3.86; 8.118). The Targum and Midrash explain Mordecai’s refusal on the basis of an alleged idol on Haman’s robe. Mordecai may have bridled at the thought of bowing before an Amalekite or Agagite (Est 3:1; cf. I Sam 15:32-33).

The verb is used in I Chr 29:20 with two phrases, literally as the KJV: "worshipped the Lord and the king." The NEB renders: "prostrating themselves before the Lord and the king" (cf. NAB); the JB has "went on their knees to do homage to Yahweh and to the king." The RSV supplies a second verb, "worshiped the Lord, and did obeisance to the king." Thus the Egyptians will bow themselves before Moses, petitioning him to leave, and kings and princesses will bow down before redeemed Zion (Ex 11:8; Isa 45:14; 49:23).

The verb is used less frequently of an individual’s worship of the Lord. Abraham on his way to sacrifice Isaac says that he is going to worship (Gen 22:5). The distraught Saul asks for forgiveness that he might worship (I Sam 15:25, 30-31). It is used most often of particular acts of worship, e.g. of Abraham’s servant who "bowed his head and worshipped" (Gen 24:26, 48), and of Gideon (Jud 7:15) upon experiencing God’s grace. Such acts often involved actual prostration "to the earth" as in the case of Abraham’s servant (Gen 24:52), Moses (Ex 34:8), Joshua (Josh 5:14), and Job (Job 1:20).

In Exodus there are three cases of spontaneous communal worship: when the people heard that the Lord had spoken to Moses (Ex 4:31), when they received instructions for the Passover (Ex 12:27), and when they saw the pillar of cloud (Ex 33:10). In II Chr 20:18 Jehoshaphat and the people "fell down before the Lord, worshiping the Lord" (RSV), when they heard his promise of victory.

Commands or invitations to worship are given to Moses, Aaron, and the elders in Ex 24:1, "Come up to the Lord ... and worship afar off" (RSV), and on the occasion of the firstfruits, " you shall set it down before the Lord your God, and worship before the Lord your God" (Deut 26:10; unless indicated otherwise, subsequent citations will be from the RSV). The Psalmist exhorts, "O come, let us worship and bow down, let us kneel before the Lord, our Maker" (Ps 95:6).

After the death of Bathsheba’s child David went into his chapel to worship (II Sam 12:20). His son, Solomon, completed the temple (II Chr 7:3), which became the focus of organized worship Though there were rival sanctuaries, as archaeology has confirmed, Hezekiah insisted that worship should be conducted "before this altar in Jerusalem" (II Kgs 18:22; Isa 36:7; II Chr 32:12; 29:29-30). The Psalmist declares, "I will worship toward thy holy temple" (Ps 5:7 [H 8]; cf. 138:2). Jeremiah spoke to those who worshipped in the temple of their need to repent (Jer 7:2; 26:2). As they did not repent, Nebuchadnezzar destroyed the temple, but Ezekiel beheld in a vision a new temple in which the prince and his people would worship (Ezk 46:2, 3, 9).

The Psalms and the prophets foresee the day when the gentiles will also worship. Those who will worship the Lord include: "all the earth" (Ps 66:4); "all flesh" (Isa 66:23), all the nations (P 22:27 [H 28]; 72:11, Zeph 2:11; Zech 14:16-17) kings and princes (Isa 49:7; cf. Ps 72:11); "all the fat ones" (RV; Ps 22:29 [H 30]), which the RSV interprets as "all the proud" and the JB as "all the prosperous" of the earth.

Before the Lord, not only men worship but also the b’ ne ‘elim (Ps 29:1-2) "sons of the mighty" (RV), literally "sons of God," probably angels (cf. Ps 89:6 [H 7] but also Ps 96:7). Nehemiah 9:6 declares that the host of heaven hip the Lord who created the heavens, the earth, and the seas. According to Ps 97:7 even "all gods bow down before him."

The second commandment forbids the worship of any graven images or other gods (Ex 20:5; 34-14; Deut 5:9). The Israelites were warned not to worship the gods of the Amorites, Hittites, etc. (Ex 23:24; Ps 81:9 [H 10]).

Nevertheless Israel repeatedly worshiped other gods (Deut 29:26 [H 25]; Jud 2:12, 17; Jer 13:10; 16:11; 22:9). These gods included those of the Moabites (Num 25:2), those of the Edomites (II Chr 25:14). Ashtoreth of the Sidonians, Chemosh of Moab, Milcom of the Ammonites (I Kgs 11:33), and Baal of Sidon (I Kgs 16:31; 22:53 [H 54]).

In an interesting passage the verb is used both of "worship" and of "bowing" without an attitude of worship. After Naaman’s healing and his conversion to the monotheistic worship of the Lord (II Kgs 5:17), the Syrian officer asked Elisha, "In this matter may the Lord pardon your servant: when my master (i.e. the king) goes into the house of Rimmon to worship there, leaning on my arm, and I bow myself in the house of Rimmon, when I bow myself in the house of Rimmon, the Lord pardon your servant in this matter" (II Kgs 5:18, RSV). Elisha did not object and said, "Go in peace."

A problem passage is Gen 47:31 where Jacob before dying "bowed himself upon the head of the bed (mitta)." The LXX, however, reads, "And Israel worshiped, leaning on the top of his staff"’ rendering the consonants as matteh "staff." The Syriac and Itala agree; Heb 11:21 cites the LXX. In this context Speiser suggests, "The term ‘to bow low’ need not signify here anything more than a gesture of mute appreciation...." Cf. also I Kgs 1:47 where the dying David bows down in bed.

See also kakap, kara’, qadad, sagad, ‘abad.


Ap-Thomas, D. R., "Notes on Some Terms Relating to Prayer," VT 6: 229-30. Cranfield, C. E. B., "Divine and Human Action," Interp 12: 387-98. Davies, G. Henton, "Worship in the OT," in IDB, IV, pp. 879-83. Driver, G. R., "Studies in the Vocabulary of the Old Testament," JTS 31: 27940. Rowley, H. H., Worship in Ancient Israel, London: S. P. C. K., 1967, Watts, John D. W., "Elements of Old Testament Worship," JBR 26:217-21. TDNT, VI, pp. 758-463. THAT, I, pp. 530-32.

From the Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament, Vol. I, ed. R. Laird Harris, et al. (Chicago: Moody Press, 1980), pp. 267-269.


by Rabbi Hayim Halevy Donin

Kissing is a universal sign of affection.  It is an act of love, an expression of endearment, not only between man and woman, parents and children, but is also the expression of one's feelings for the ritual objects and the religious duties associated with them.

There are no religious laws that require us to kiss a ritual or holy object.  There is only the force of custom as it develops through the ages. In varying degrees kissing has become an optional commonplace among the Jews as an expression of religious devotion at the following times:

  • The tallit [prayer shawl] is kissed just before putting it on.

  • The tefillin [phylacteries] are kissed when taken them out of their bag and before replacing them in the bag.

  • The mezuzah on the doorpost is sometimes kissed upon entering or leaving a house.  It is done by touching the mezuzah with one's hand and kissing the fingers that made contact with the mezuzah.

  • The Torah is kissed when it passes by in the synagogue.  Here, too, it is often done by extending a hand to  touch the Torah mantle and then kissing the hand.  Some touch the Torah with the edge of a tallit and then kiss the tallit.

  • The Torah is also kissed before one recites the blessings over it. Here it is done by taking the edge of one's tallit or the sash that is used to tie the scroll together, touching the outside of the scroll with it, and then kissing the tallit or the sash.  Many people place the tallit or sash to the very words where the reading is about to begin.  The sages advised against doing this as it may hasten a wearing away or erasure of the letters.  At best, they recommend touching only the margin area near the line where the reading is about to begin.  In all instances, one should not touch the Torah parchment with one's bare hand.  The custom of not doing so derives from a special edict issued by the sages prohibiting such contact (Shabbat 14a: OH 147:1).

  • The curtain on the Ark (paokhet) is kissed before one opens it, or after closing it when the Torah is put away.

  • A siddur [prayer book] and [C]Humash [Jewish Bible] are kissed before putting them away.  These holy books are also kissed if they are accidentally dropped on the floor.

From To Pray as a Jew: A Guide to the Prayer book and the Synagogue Service, (New York: Basic Books [Harper Collins], 1980), p.43f.