Bowing Seven Times

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.

Claude Mariottini
Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary

This entry was posted in Book of Genesis, Esau, Jacob and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to Bowing Seven Times

  1. Thank you for this post. If you are familiar with my blog (click my name), you will no doubt be aware of my interest in the Jacob cycle. I would quibble with the sense that Jacob is truly addressing Esau as his superior, his lord (or that Jacob truly thinks this to be the case). The reconciliation scene, I have argued, is full of Jacob playing the role of the trickster. Not only does he offer the blessing, which Isaac had already made clear could not be recalled from the recipient, he also agrees to join Esau in Seir but then deceptively goes on and settles instead in Sukkoth (33:14-17). The bowing down, then, to me, certainly has the subtext you provide, but I read it is a far more intentionally ironic portrayal. Jacob, I maintain, is simply out to save his own skin . . . it is an inauthentic gesture that–quite likely because of the cultural context that would presumably have been well-known to Jacob and Esau both–is meant to (and succeeds in) tricking Esau yet again.I thank you again for this discussion. Who knows, maybe Obama’s bow was a trickster act?!?!

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  2. John,

    Thank you for your comment. I know your blog and received it regularly on my reader.I agree and disagree with your comment. I did not say that Jacob treated Esau as his superior but that only he acted in the way vassals acted. The act of bowing seven times before Esau was the customary action of a vassal before his overlord.I do not think that by its action Jacob was trying to trick Esau. Jacob was a trickster all right, but here he was afraid for his life. This is what he said to God: “I fear him” (Genesis 32:11).This is the reason he did what he did. When Jacob tricked Esau and went to Succoth, he did so because he was still afraid of Esau.You may consider the bowing a trick but his action represented real fear, a fear that moved Jacob to treat Esau as his superior. And he was, since Esau had 400 men with him. It may be an issue of semantics. Although Jacob’s bowing was inauthentic, it sent the message that, at that time, he was acting like a vassal.Obama’s bow was the action of someone who does not have much political savvy.

    Thank you for your interesting comment.

    Claude Mariottini

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  3. Thank you for this response. Indeed, I think in part our disagreement is a matter of semantics. I do not wish to undermine the genuineness of Jacob’s fear, yet it seems to me that fear need not be the only answer. Fear, for me, is Jacob’s catalyst. Terribly afraid of Esau (going back to Gen 27, the plan was that Esau was going to kill Jacob . . . this is still likely meant to be in the background), Jacob knows–from experience no less (Gen 25:27-34; 27) that he can outwit Esau, and that Esau will likely fall for it. While my friend Chris Heard will likely disagree with this characterization of Esau, I cannot help but see him as intentionally depicted as a bumbling fool. So, fear is surely on the table as the impetus, but what this fear prompts Jacob to do is to trick Esau. At bottom, whether it was motivated by fear, joy, or simple deceit for the sake of deceit, Jacob’s going to Sukkot is deception. That, to me, is clear. Further, and while I recognize I may be in the minority on this, I still argue the ‘reconciliation’ scene is one in which Jacob, no doubt afraid for his life, sees tricking Esau as perhaps the only means of ‘surefire’ success and survival. His bowing to Esau seven times may indeed be an act of a vassal to his overlord, but I would find it quite difficult to sustain the view that Jacob truly would see himself as a vassal to Esau at this point (or any point) in the narrative. Thus, it becomes a trick.Thank you for pressing me on this.

    All the best!

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  4. John,

    I have to say that I agree with Chris Heard on his assessment of Jacob. Jacob was no fool; he knew what he was doing.Jacob never saw himself as a vassal of Esau. His actions were the actions of a vassal.I think what Jacob wanted was to survive Esau. The reason he went to Succot was the fear that Esau would change his mind. This is the reason Jacob deceived his brother. “Isn’t he rightly named Jacob?” (Genesis 27:36). He deceived his brother twice and now he is deceiving him again.

    Claude Mariottini

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  5. Chris Heard and I are closer than I may have implied in my post above. I disagree with him, though, on his notion that Esau is an ambiguous character. Certainly, I believe his arguments have much merit, and I do my best to refute them when I discuss the topic (ha!), but in the end, it seems clear to me–and I recognize this is a choice–that Esau is portrayed as a bumbling idiot. Jacob, on the other hand, as Robert Alter argues, and I agree, is shrewd, calculating, and business-like. I am pleased to read the final sentence of your post immediately above. In my forthcoming article (which will be on my blog soon), I argue (in part) that Jacob’s saying he will go to Seir and then venturing to Sukkot is an act of deception. Surely, one of fear (indeed, I actually call his seven-times-bowing “fearful flattery” in a piece I will be doing at SBL in New Orleans), but one that leads to trickery and deception.

    All the best!

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  6. John,

    I hope to be able to hear your presentation in New Orleans. I have not seen the program yet, but I will do my best to be there.

    Claude Mariottini

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  7. Chip Hardy says:

    Claude,

    Not to self promote, but I've given several Ugaritic epistolary examples that mention bowing in a recent DailyHebrew.com post on this passage from Genesis 33. The Ugaritic examples provide additional evidence of the broader "Amorite" practice.

    Best,chip

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  8. Chip,

    Thank you for this information. You are not self-promoting but providing valuable information.I will add this information as an update to my post.

    Claude Mariottini

    Like

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