Q: #309. Why did people tear their clothes in the Bible?
A: People would tear their clothes for a number of reasons. Here are some examples.
When mourning over someone who had died:
Jacob when he thought Joseph had died (Gen 37:34)
Joshua and his men after 36 soldiers were killed (Josh 7:6)
David after Saul, Jonathan, and their men died (2 Sam 1:11)
David after Abner was killed (2 Sam 3:31)
Job when his children were killed (Job 1:20)
When in despair:
Reuben when Joseph disappeared (Gen 37:29)(This is the first example in the OT.)
Benjamin’s brothers when Joseph’s cup was found in Benjamin’s sack of grain (Gen 44:11-13)
Joshua and Caleb over the Israelites lack of faith (Num 14:6)
Jephthah over a rash vow he made (Judg 11:35)
The king of Israel over a letter from the king of Aram (2 Kin 5:7-8)
When in sorrow:
Tamar after being raped (2 Sam 13:19)
The king of Israel after hearing people were eating their sons (2 Kin 6:30)
Mordecai when learning of a plot to kill the Jews (Es 4:1)
Job’s friends when they saw what had happened to him (Job 2:12)
When in deep repentance:
Ahab (1 Kin 21:27)
Josiah (2 Kin 22:11,19)(2 Chr 34:19)
Ataliah when the people revolted (2 Kin 11:14)(2 Chr 23:13)
The High Priest at Jesus claims (Mt 26:65)(Mk 14:63)
Ezra when he found out Israelite men were marrying foreign women (Ezra 9:3-5)
Paul and Barnabas when people tried to worship them (Acts 14:14)
Symbolic of God “tearing” a kingdom from a king: (1 Sam 15:22-28)(1 Kin 11:29-35)
Thus, tearing one’s clothes was an outward sign to others that a person or persons were deeply upset about something. We sometimes do this same thing today in a different way. For example, when someone dies, we might wear black to a funeral, lower the flag to half-staff, or a women might wear a veil to conceal her grief.
Oftentimes, other acts went hand in hand with tearing one’s clothes such as: putting on sackcloth (Gen 37:34)(2 Sam 3:31)(Es 4:1), putting dust (1 Sam 4:12)(Josh 7:6)(Job 2:12) or ashes (Es 4:1)(2 Sam 13:19) upon one’s head, fasting (2 Sam 1:11-12)(1 Kin 21:27), or shaving one’s head (Job 1:20).
*** Many times, these also occurred without tearing one’s clothes.
Because clothes in Bible times were usually very expensive (everything was hand made, no mass production like today), this was often a sacrificial act.