During the meeting of the G-20 leaders in London, President Barack Obama bowed before King Abdullah, King of Saudi Arabia. In response to Obama’s gesture, King Abdullah did not bow back.
Obama’s act of prostration before the king of Saudi Arabia has caused moral outrage throughout the United Sates because Obama has broken a long-standing protocol that American presidents do not bow down to kings and queens.
In response to the furor raised by Obama’s bowing down before King Abdullah, the White House has released a statement declaring that President Obama did not bow down but was stooping down to shake both of the Saudi King’s hands.
After Jacob returned from serving Laban, he prepared to meet his brother Esau. When Jacob saw Esau coming to meet him and accompanied by 400 men, Jacob was afraid. So he divided his children according to their mothers. He put the servant wives and their children in front, then Leah and her children, and then Rachel and Joseph last. Jacob then went in front of his family to meet his brother. As Jacob came near Esau, Jacob bowed down to the ground seven times before his brother (Genesis 33:3).
Jacob’s act of submission to his brother is followed by his wives and children. Like Jacob, each wife and their children bowed down before Esau.
The servant wives and their children came to Esau and bowed down before him (Genesis 33:6). Then Leah and her children approached Esau and they also bowed down before him (v. 7a). Lastly, Rachel and her son Joseph came forward and they also bowed down before Esau (v. 7b).
Jacob’s decision to bow down to Esau reflects an ironic reversal of the blessing he received from his father: “Let peoples serve you, and nations bow down to you. Be lord over your brothers, and may your mother’s sons bow down to you” (Genesis 27:29).
In the Old Testament, the act of bowing was the customary act of self-abasement performed by an individual before a person in a superior position. The Hebrew verb translated “bow down” can be translated “to prostrate oneself”; “to worship.” Bowing down was a gesture of respect before and act of submission to superiors, persons in authority, government officials, and God.
After Joseph became the governor over the land of Egypt, his brothers came before him and bowed themselves with their faces to the ground (Genesis 42:6).
When Abraham needed to buy a portion of the land in Canaan to bury his wife Sarah, Abraham bowed to the Hittites, the people of the land who lived in Hebron, as a sign of submission (Genesis 23:7).
Abraham also bowed before the Lord and his companions who visited him at Mamre (Genesis 18:2). Lot bowed down before two angelic visitors who came to him while he was living in Sodom (Genesis 19:1).
The act of bowing down or prostration in antiquity was a common act of submission of an inferior before a superior. One classical example was the image of Jehu bowing down in an act of submission to Shalmaneser III on the Black Obelisk.
Bowing seven times was a demonstration of reverence that was the customary act of homage a vassal offered to his overlord. According to Claus Westermann (Genesis 12-36 [Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1995]), Jacob greeted his brother as a vassal greeted his overlord with an act of reverence that had its origin in the royal court.
“The text describes an attestation of submission. The whole procedure with all its details is such as could take place between an overlord and his rebellious or otherwise culpable vassal. The narrator has in view some such court ritual as, for example, the Amarna letters show, with the oft-occuring formula, ‘I fall prostrate at the feet of my lord, seven and seven times’” (pp. 524-25).
I have selected three examples from the Amarna letters to show a vassal’s attitude of self-abasement before the king of Egypt. In these examples, the vassals show their submission to Pharaoh by bowing seven and seven times at the feet of the king.
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.”
The expression “seven and seven times I fall at the feet of the king, my lord” is found more than fifty times in the Amarna letters.
Generally a single bow was sufficient to express great reverence. So, why did Jacob and the vassals of Pharaoh bow seven times?
It is possible to interpret the act of bowing seven times as a demonstration of complete submission to the overlord. However, I would like to suggest another possible reason why Pharaoh’s vassals bowed seven times before his feet.
In the three examples listed above, the vassals of Pharaoh call him “my Sun-god” or “the Sun-god of the lands.” Thus, bowing seven times before Pharaoh was an act that acknowledged him to be not only lord and king, but also a god.
It would be interesting to find out whether in other literature of the Ancient Near East the vassals bowed seven times before their overlords and called them gods. When Jacob bowed before Esau, Jacob indirectly recognized him as a god. Jacob said: “To see your face is like seeing the face of God” (Genesis 33:10).
Thus, it is possible that the act of bowing seven times before a person in a superior position was to acknowledge that person as having the characteristics or the attributes of a god.
It is clear that Obama bowed before the king of Saudi Arabia, and without intending to send a message to the world, his action implied that the inferior was bowing before the superior. I am just glad that Obama did not bow seven times.
Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary