Why People in the Bible Tore Their Clothes

Learn about this ancient expression of grief and despair.

Crucifixion by Giotto di Bondone, fresco, close-up
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How do you express grief when you experience something extremely sad or painful? There are several different options in Western culture today.

For example, many people choose to wear black when attending a funeral. Or, a widow may wear a veil for some time after her husband passes away in order to cover her face and express sadness. Others choose to wear black armbands as a sign of grief, bitterness, or even anger.

Similarly, when a President passes away or a tragedy strikes one part of our nation, we often lower the American flag to half-mast as a sign of sadness and respect.

All of these are cultural expressions of grief and sadness.

In the Ancient Near East, one of the primary ways people expressed their grief was by tearing their clothes. This practice is common in the Bible, and it can be confusing at times to those who don't understand the symbolism behind the action.

To avoid confusion, then, let's take a deeper look at some of the stories in which people tore their clothes.

Examples in the Scriptures

Reuben is the first person recorded in the Bible as tearing his clothes. He was the oldest son of Jacob, and one of the 11 brothers who betrayed Joseph and sold him as a slave to traders bound for Egypt. Reuben wanted to save Joseph but was unwilling to stand up to his other siblings. Reuben planned to rescue Joseph in secret from the cistern (or pit) the brothers had thrown him into.

But after finding out that Joseph had been sold as a slave, he reacted in a passionate display of emotion:

29 When Reuben returned to the cistern and saw that Joseph was not there, he tore his clothes. 30 He went back to his brothers and said, “The boy isn’t there! Where can I turn now?”

Genesis 37:29-30

Only a few verses later, Jacob -- the father of all 12 children, including Joseph and Reuben -- responded in a similar way when he was tricked into believing that his favorite son had been slain by a wild animal:

34 Then Jacob tore his clothes, put on sackcloth and mourned for his son many days. 35 All his sons and daughters came to comfort him, but he refused to be comforted. “No,” he said, “I will continue to mourn until I join my son in the grave.” So his father wept for him.

Genesis 37:34-35

Jacob and his sons weren't the only folks in the Bible who practiced this particular method of expressing grief. In fact, many people are recorded as tearing their clothes in a variety of situations, including the following:

  • Joshua and the Israelite elders tore their clothes and fell face-down in front of the Ark of the Covenant after learning that they were defeated in battle because an Israelite named Achan had disobeyed God's command (see Joshua 7:1-9).
     
  • Jephthah (one of the Israelite judges) tore his clothes when he realized his rash vow would result in the death of his beloved daughter (see Judges 11:29-35).
     
  • David and all of his soldiers tore their clothes when they heard that Saul and Jonathan had been killed in battle (see 2 Samuel 11:1-11).
     
  • Ahab, a king of Israel, tore his clothes and put on sackcloth when he learned that God planned to punish him and everyone he loved (see 1 Kings 21:20-28).
     
  • Ezra the scribe tore his clothes and pulled all of the hair from his head and beard when he learned the Israelites of his day had disobeyed God and married with those who worshiped idols (see Ezra 9:1-4).
     

But Why?

Here's a question: Why? What was it about tearing one's clothes that signified deep grief or sadness? Why did they do it?

The answer has everything to do with the economics of ancient days. Because the Israelites had an agrarian society, clothing was a very valuable commodity. Nothing was mass-produced. Clothes were time-intensive and expensive, which meant that most people in those days only had a very limited wardrobe.

For that reason, people who tore their clothes were showing just how upset they felt inside.

By damaging one of their more important and expensive possessions, they reflected the depth of their emotional pain.

This idea was magnified when people chose to put on "sackcloth" after tearing their regular clothes. Sackcloth was a coarse and scratchy material that was very uncomfortable. As with tearing their garments, people put on sackcloth as a way to externally display the discomfort and pain they felt inside.

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O'Neal, Sam. "Why People in the Bible Tore Their Clothes." ThoughtCo, Feb. 5, 2017, thoughtco.com/why-people-in-the-bible-tore-their-clothes-363391. O'Neal, Sam. (2017, February 5). Why People in the Bible Tore Their Clothes. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/why-people-in-the-bible-tore-their-clothes-363391 O'Neal, Sam. "Why People in the Bible Tore Their Clothes." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/why-people-in-the-bible-tore-their-clothes-363391 (accessed November 23, 2017).