It wasn’t the remarkable relevance of the portion of Scripture for that week which caught my attention as much as all the bowing involved. Isn’t bowing supposed to be off limits for Jewish people? To anyone except God? Mordecai the Jew certainly thought so in the book of Esther, and it got him in a lot of trouble before God saved the day.
To bow or not to bow?
Each week, there’s a section of the Torah (the first five books of the Bible) called the Parashah to be read in synagogues across the world, and an accompanying portion from the prophets called the Haftarah. The Haftarah for that week was 1 Kings 1:1-37, the part where Solomon nearly gets usurped by Adonijah. The text tells us that Nathan the prophet advises Solomon’s mother, Bathsheba, to let King David know what’s going on and to plead for their lives. Adonijah on the throne would likely end up in the execution of Solomon, Bathsheba, Nathan, and all opposition. Bathsheba follows Nathan’s advice and enters to see King David, bowing low. Nathan does the same. Long story short, David affirms Solomon as king and the story gets back on track. But the bowing – is that ok? I decided to check.
WHAT DOES THE BIBLE SAY ABOUT BOWING?
What happens when a believer meets a monarch or dignitary and are supposed to bow? Or when they are expected to give cultural greeting where bowing is the norm? Can it ever be acceptable?
I was aware that Mordecai the Jew refused to bow to Haman in the book of Esther, and Daniel’s brave friends refuse to bow to Nebuchadnezzar’s statue. In the book of Revelation, John falls to his face a couple of times when an angel speaks to him and is rebuked, and reminded to worship God alone. References like these certainly give the sense that bowing down is something which should be reserved for God. What would a search of the Scriptures for references to bowing reveal?
The first (and therefore key) reference to bowing in the Bible occurs in Genesis 18:2. Abraham receives three mysterious visitors and bows before them to honor and welcome them. However, it transpires that one of them is Adonai, the LORD Himself, in the flesh. So fair enough! It was standard practice in the honor culture of the Middle East to show respect in such a way, but it’s a beautiful detail that the first to receive this treatment in the Bible is God Himself.
However, Abraham does a lot of bowing to all kinds of people in Genesis. In chapter 23 for example, we read about the death of Sarah in the Torah portion, or parashah for the week, which corresponds to the haftarah about Adonijah. Abraham looks to purchase some burial ground and bows to the people of the land after they first offer it to him for free, then willingly sell it when Abraham insists on paying. Verses 7 and 23 record that he bows down to them in appreciation, and we see a lot of honour given both ways throughout the passage.
There’s also a lot of bowing when Jacob is trying to reconcile with his brother Esau in Genesis 33. The penitent Jacob bows down seven times, and in fact his entire family—all the wives, children, servants and their children—all go to bow down before Esau. The only one of the twelve sons of Israel who does not bow down is Benjamin, but reason Benjamin wasn’t there bowing with everyone else was that he hadn’t been born yet! But interestingly, guess who Mordecai was descended from:
“There was a Jewish man in Shushan the capitol whose name was Mordechai, son of Yair, son of Shim’I, son of Kish, a Benjaminite…” (Esther 2:5)
Later on, we have Joseph and his dreams in which his entire family bows down to him—even including his parents. God himself had given those dreams, so it’s hard to imagine that his brothers bowing to him was an offense to God. It seems that bowing as a show of honor and respect is not inappropriate, but that worshiping anyone except God is where the problem lies.
The prophet Isaiah has a lot to say about those who worship idols and bow down to man made objects. In three separate chapters we see God referring to himself with the phrase used in Revelation: He is the First and the Last. In each case, the chapter goes on to mock those who worship and bow before idols.
A few conclusions about bowing in the Bible
- Worship of anything or anyone other than God is right out. Idol worship in any form is abhorrent to God, and He alone is to be worshiped.
- Honoring one another is a great way to go – this can be expressed in submission, and showing honour and respect to each other. Bowing as a mark of honor is not necessarily violating God’s word when worship is not involved
- Sometimes we will need to take a stand and refuse to bow when facing evil, as Shedrach, Meshach and Abednigo did – and later Mordecai – when the Jewish people were in Babylon.
In the light of these Biblical principles, here are a few questions to help us apply them to our lives:
- Are we truly in submission to God? Are we in the posture of bondservant, ready to do his will? Are we more aware of his agenda or our own? Let’s make sure we really ARE worshiping God in the way we live our lives, the way we set our priorities, and our focus.
- Have we slipped into idolatry anywhere? A good warning signal is complaining. It reveals a heart focused on something other than God. Let God highlight any area where we have let something else take His place.
- Are we showing proper honor and respect to others—including outsiders? Are we honouring our family members, those in our household? Those around us?
- Are we ready and willing to do a Mordecai and publicly refuse to bow? When the stakes are high, are we willing to be visible in our refusal to capitulate to the world and its demands?
- Try the action of physically bowing before God as you worship Him today! He deserves all our worship and honor. When we finally see Him face to face, I’m sure we’ll all hit the floor just as they did in the Bible. We serve a mighty God.
Photo by Naassom Azevedo on Unsplash