Moses and Joshua had to take off their shoes because the ground was holy, an exchange of footwear sealed the deal in Ruth, and the Psalms talk of tossing sandals at Edom… what is it with the Middle East and shoes?
As I struggled to board the train to Tel Aviv airport with my heavy suitcases, I watched with horror as one of my shoes was wrenched off and tumbled between the train and the platform. Stunned, I gazed down at it, lying there helplessly on the track, and I suddenly grasped something about the importance and significance of having something to wear on our feet. I simply could not go on without it. I had to make a decision – do I go on, hopping along on one foot and find alternative footwear somehow at the airport? Or miss the vital train to make it to check in on time? The shoe recovery operation won out in the end, and although I made it (just) to my flight, I had a lot to ponder on as I continued my journey.
Old Testament covenants are often sealed with some kind of footwear deal, and there is good reason for this. Without shoes, we are powerless. We are humbled. We are weak and incapable. We cannot go on. A soldier cannot fight without his boots, a farmer cannot plough his field, a traveler will not get very far… I once knew of someone who was robbed penniless and forced to travel through the baking desert barefoot because they also took his shoes – the anguish he must have gone through is unthinkable. God reminds the Israelites that their clothes – and their sandals – never wore out as they wandered for those 40 years in the desert, and this is a most remarkable and important provision.
By removing a shoe in the ancient Middle East, a person can be seen to be offering vulnerability – putting themselves at the mercy of the recipient. It is a statement of trust and submission.
In Isaiah 9:1-7, the announcement is made (about a millenium before the event) that unto us a Son is born… right before that is a message of triumphant victory:
The people walking in darkness have seen a great light;
on those living in the land of deep darkness a light has dawned…
For as in the day of Midian’s defeat, you have shattered the yoke that burdens them,
the bar across their shoulders, the rod of their oppressor.
Every warrior’s boot used in battle and every garment rolled in blood
will be destined for burning,
will be fuel for the fire.
For to us a child is born…
Taking a warrior’s boots and burning them is pretty much a coup d’état. It’s pretty hard to come back from that. It’s a resounding victory for the boot-burner and a crushing defeat for the barefooted enemy. This rich also passage speaks to us of Yeshua’s complete triumph and the contrasting powerlessness of the enemy.
Later in the Bible, in the New Testament, we see more references to footwear, but this time the significance is in putting it on. Again, in a military context, Paul urges the Ephesians (6:13-15):
“Put on the full armor of God, so that when the day of evil comes,
you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand.
Stand firm then, with the belt of truth buckled around your waist, with the breastplate of righteousness in place,
and with your feet fitted with the readiness that comes from the gospel of peace.”
To be shod with shoes is symbolic of being ready for action, and able to fight. But this passage speaks of standing, defending, and peace. I love that he chose footwear to represent our readiness based on the gospel – a lack of shoes is incapacitating, but if we have our shoes on, we are ready for action.
Also, in Acts 12:7-8 we see the daily routine of waking up and getting dressed taking on a new twist when Peter is in jail:
Suddenly an angel of the Lord appeared and a light shone in the cell. He struck Peter on the side and woke him up.
“Quick, get up!” he said, and the chains fell off Peter’s wrists. Then the angel said to him,
“Put on your clothes and sandals.” And Peter did so.
“Wrap your cloak around you and follow me,” the angel told him.
God does the miraculous chain dissolving trick, but Peter still has to get up and put his shoes on. God could, theoretically, have made him ready miraculously too, but it was part of the deal – Peter had to do what he could do, and the impossible business was taken care of by God’s power. Peter had to act and be ready. He had to put his shoes on, and follow the angel to freedom.
Do it all for the glory of God
So next time you take your shoes off, consider in that moment your barefooted inability, your weakness, your incapacity, and turn your thoughts to your dependence on God. You could let that moment be an act of submission and surrender to him – casting yourself on his mercy, and recognising his holy presence with you.
And when you put your shoes on, consider Peter, dazed and confused, getting ready to take his next steps into freedom and the adventures God had for him. Consider Paul’s encouragement to fit your feet with the readiness that comes from the gospel of peace. Equip yourself mentally and spiritually for the day and be ready for the tasks God has for you, whatever they might be.