For most of us, shoes are surprisingly important. I say surprisingly because most of us would think them less important than various other items of clothing, yet badly-fitting shoes or shoes that do not protect us from stones or thorns will quickly leave us unable to continue walking. An ill-fitting shirt causes much less trouble!
I came across some unusual references to shoes or sandals in the Bible while researching the footwear Jeremiah may have worn. Writing biblical fiction has frequently led me into interesting research and the footwear of the Old Testament is no exception.
Two Psalms written by King David refer to God describing Moab as his washbasin and Edom as the place over which he casts his shoe. Some suggest that this relegates both Moab and Edom to the position of servants, since only servants would help with cleaning feet dirtied by travel. You may remember Jesus’ cleaning of his disciples’ feet to teach them the lesson that they should all be willing to serve each other. It seems that Peter objected to Jesus doing this because he thought that he was not worthy to have Jesus serving him in this way. John the Baptist had earlier said that he was not worthy even to carry Jesus’ sandals. If servants really did take a visitor’s sandals, we could understand John to mean that he wasn’t a sufficiently important servant to take Jesus’ sandals.
In the same time as Jeremiah, Ezekiel was told that his wife would die, and that when she did, he should not mourn but behave in a way that was fairly normal, putting his turban on his head and sandals on his feet. This was to be a lesson to the people who watched, and Ezekiel was to explain to them that they would have to do as he had done when the inhabitants of Jerusalem were taken into captivity.
As a family, we frequently visit India, and in most of the houses we visit, people are very particular to remove their sandals when they enter. Sandals are considered to be unclean. This attitude brought home to us God’s requirement of Moses at the burning bush where he was told to take off his sandals because the place where he was standing was holy. Sandals would profane the holy place whereas feet would not, which is interesting given that feet end up quite dirty when one wears sandals. Just to confirm this message, Joshua was also told the same thing at a different time.
Another interesting reference to a sandal was in punishing a man who would not cooperate with a leviratic marriage. In ancient times, if a man died having a wife but no children, his brother had a responsibility to marry the widow to produce a child who would inherit the dead man’s estate. This was called a leviratic marriage. A man could refuse to take his brother’s wife, but he was punished in a way that seems unusual to us: the widow would pull off his sandal and spit in his face, announcing that that was what happened to a man who would not build up his brother’s family. The references to sandals in the book of Ruth seem to be either related or corrupted procedures.
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