Hebrew In Israel | Worship? – Learn Torah

Worship, bow down

Hebrew In Israel | Worship? – Learn Torah

Yoel Halevi No Comments

Probably one of the more misunderstood Hebrew verbs is להשתחוות.  This verb has been translated as “to worship”, which has spun many ideas which are not true.  The verb’s root is debated, varying from שחה to חוה.  The main issue is the context this verb appears in.  It is true that as a general idea the verb can be used as “to worship”, however it actually means “to bow down”.  Cases where the verb would mean “to worship” are only if it is used as a lone verb of worshiping, and when it is directed to God.  Any other case only means “to bow down”.


וַיֹּאמֶר אַבְרָהָם אֶל-נְעָרָיו, שְׁבוּ-לָכֶם פֹּה עִם-הַחֲמוֹר, וַאֲנִי וְהַנַּעַר, נֵלְכָה עַד-כֹּה; וְנִשְׁתַּחֲוֶה, וְנָשׁוּבָה אֲלֵיכֶם

Avraham said to his young men, “Stay here with the donkey. I and the boy will go there, worship and return to you.” Gen 22:5

Bow down:

וַיָּקָם אַבְרָהָם וַיִּשְׁתַּחוּ לְעַם-הָאָרֶץ, לִבְנֵי-חֵת

“Avraham got up, bowed before the people of the land, the sons of Het”  Gen 23:7

Bowing Down in the ANE


Bowing down was not necessarily a sign of worship, but submission, and was used by different people to represent their submission to a higher authority.  We find an example of this in the El Amarna letters where writers would use a formula:

Amarna Letter No. 244:  “To the king, my lord, and my Sun-god say:  Thus Biridiya, the faithful servant of the king.  At the two feet of the king, my lord, and my Sun-god, seven and seven times I fall.”

Amarna Letter No. 137:  “Rib-Addi spoke to the king, his lord, the Sun-god of the lands.  Beneath the feet of the king, my lord, seven times, and seven times I fall.”

Amarna Letter No. 147:  “To the king, my lord, my pantheon, my Sun-god say:  Thus Abimilki, thy servant.  Seven and seven times I fall at the feet of the king, my lord.”.

This act, as can be seen, was done between a king and his servant, and was not used in a deistic way.  A very famous case we have in actual depiction can be found in the attached image taken from the Black Obelisk.  In it we can see King Yehu of Israel bowing face down to King Shalmanesser king of Assyria.  As a vassal king he had to show submission to Shalmanesser by giving tribute and bowing.



Kedari.M, BH dictionary, Bar Illan 2007

Mariottini.C, “Bowing Seven Times”, 2009

Photo Attribution: Jehu Obelisk; See page for author [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)], via Wikimedia Commons

Originally Published:  13 December 2016

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