Laying On of Hands in the Old Testament

Claude Mariottini
Emeritus Professor
of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary

Several years ago, a friend of mine who was seeking ordination as a Baptist minister asked me if the concept of ordination was biblical. His question came out of his reading about ordination and the fact that Charles Spurgeon was never ordained.

The great British Baptist preacher, Charles Spurgeon, was never ordained. Although most Baptist ministers are ordained ministers of the Gospel, Spurgeon refused to be ordained because he believed ordination was not biblical. In addition, Spurgeon did not like to use the title of “reverend.” Rather, Spurgeon preferred to be called “pastor.”

As a result of my friend’s question, I decided to study the idea of ordination in the Bible. This series of three posts on ordination is the result of my desire to help my friend and to study more about the ordination of ministers to the ministry of the Gospel. In order to study whether the New Testament warrants the ordination of ministers, it became necessary to study the background which the Old Testament offers in understanding the New Testament concept of ordination.

The study presented here is not at all complete; the ideal would be to relate the theology of ordination to the ideas of the priesthood of all believers and the Christian concept of ministry in much more detail than offered here, and then relate these three concepts to the idea of the minister as a paid professional.

The New Testament has no technical word which describes a person’s entrance into the ministry of the church. The word “ordain” does not appear in the New Testament. The word “ordain” appears in 1 Timothy 5:22 in the New Revised Standard Version, however, the Greek word translated “ordain” in the NRSV, literally means “lay hands on.” In passages in which a person is commissioned, the New Testament uses the word “chosen,” “appointed.” When the early church selected seven men to the diakonia of the church, the men were appointed to deal with this important issue in the church: “Therefore, friends, select from among yourselves seven men of good standing, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we may appoint to this task” (Act 6:3).

Also, in several passages in the Bible which seem to refer to the practice of ordination, the practice of laying on of hands is present. Paul urges Timothy, “Do not be hasty in the laying on of hands” (1 Timothy 5:22 ESV). Thus, before an attempt is made to develop a theology of ordination, it is necessary to study this traditional custom as it appears in both the Old and the New Testaments.

In studying the custom of laying on of hands in the Bible, it is important to recognize that the act of laying on of hands was very important in ancient religious traditions, for the act was often considered as a means of transferring powers or spiritual authority from one individual to another.

The laying on of hands seems to have played a significant role in the history of religion. For example, by seizing the hands of Marduk, the Babylonian king gained and annually renewed his dominion and kingship over his nation. In Egypt, a blessing was bestowed upon the king by the deities’ laying on of hands, bestowing upon the king long life and a prosperous rule (Waetjen 1960: 320).

Laying on of hands was used in several ways in the Old Testament:

1. In the cult of Israel, the animals offered as an offering for sins were set apart and dedicated to their sacred purpose by the laying on of hands by the priest or by the person offering the sacrifice:

The laying on of hands by the priest: “You shall bring the bull in front of the tent of meeting. Aaron and his sons shall lay their hands on the head of the bull” (Exodus 29:10).

The laying on of hands by the person offering the sacrifice: “You shall lay your hand on the head of the burnt offering, and it shall be acceptable in your behalf as atonement for you” (Leviticus 1:4).

The act of laying hands upon the animal to be sacrificed indicates an identification of the priest or the people with the sacrificial animal.

2. On the Day of Atonement, Aaron placed his hands on the head of the goat which was to go to the wilderness and confessed the people’s sins over it, thus putting the sins of the people upon the goat: “Then Aaron shall lay both his hands on the head of the live goat, and confess over the live goat all the iniquities of the people of Israel, and all their transgressions, all their sins, putting them on the head of the goat, and sending it away into the wilderness by means of someone designated for the task” (Leviticus 16:21).

3. The Levites, who as priests represented the people before God, were anointed by the people placing their hands upon their heads: “When you bring the Levites before the LORD, the Israelites shall lay their hands on the Levites, and Aaron shall present the Levites before the LORD as an elevation offering from the Israelites, that they may do the service of the LORD” (Numbers 8:10-11).

4. Moses ordained Joshua as his successor by placing his hands upon him and investing him with some of his authority: “the LORD said to Moses, ‘Take Joshua son of Nun, a man in whom is the spirit, and lay your hand upon him; have him stand before Eleazar the priest and all the congregation, and commission him in their sight. You shall give him some of your authority, so that all the congregation of the Israelites may obey” (Numbers 27:18-20).

At the time of his ordination, Joshua was described as “a man in whom is the Spirit,” but Deuteronomy 34:9 states that he was full of the spirit of wisdom because Moses had laid his hands upon him: “Joshua son of Nun was full of the spirit of wisdom, because Moses had laid his hands on him; and the Israelites obeyed him.”

The implication of the act of laying hands upon a person indicates that a community leader, possessed by the Spirit of Yahweh, received additional gifts when commissioned for service by the laying on of hands. The act also indicates a transfer of authority from Moses to Joshua (Marshal 1965: 724). In the laying on of hands, Moses conveyed to Joshua a commission; Joshua was spiritually qualified to serve as the leader of the community after Moses’ death and his public ordination was an outward sign of recognition of his capability as a leader and gave him the authority to exercise the office of leadership in the congregation of God’s people. This ceremony was adopted in later times for the ordination to the rabbinate, which may well have been the source of Christian ordination.

5. In Genesis 49:13-14 Jacob (also known as Israel) laid his hands upon Joseph’s sons for the purpose of invoking God’s blessing upon them: “Joseph took Ephraim in his right hand toward Israel’s left, and Manasseh in his left hand toward Israel’s right, and brought them near him. But Israel stretched out his right hand and laid it on the head of Ephraim, who was the younger, and his left hand on the head of Manasseh, crossing his hands, for Manasseh was the firstborn.”

6. Related to this concept of blessing is the idea of the “’lifting up” of outstretched hands to invoke a blessing upon a group. Aaron lifted his hand to bless the people: “Aaron lifted his hands toward the people and blessed them” (Leviticus 9:22). When Solomon dedicated the temple, he lifted his hand to bless the people: “Now when Solomon finished offering all this prayer and this plea to the LORD, he arose from facing the altar of the LORD, where he had knelt with hands outstretched toward heaven; he stood and blessed all the assembly of Israel” (1 Kings 8:54-55) (Shepherd 1962: 521-522).


“Laying On of Hands in the New Testament”

“A Theology of Ordination”


Marshal, I. H., “Laying on of Hands,” The New Bible Dictionary. J. D. Douglas, Editor. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1965.

Shepherd, M. H., “Hands, Laying on of,” Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible. George A. Buttrick, Editor. New York: Abingdon Press, 1962, 2:521-22.

Waetjen, Herman C., “Laying on of Hands,” Baker’s Dictionary of Theology. Everett F. Harrison, Editor. Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1960.

Claude Mariottini
Emeritus Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary

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2 Responses to Laying On of Hands in the Old Testament

  1. Margie Fuss Start says:

    Believe that all truth originated with God and has been in a sense twisted/watered down/changed by man. So as His truths were originally passed on were orally and in came the Tower of Babel where each group would’ve taken their interpretation of truth to their families. This being said, “laying on hands” couldn’t it have become different in different places? I was recently reading about the ancient practice of Reiki and to me much of its concepts I think related to laying on hands. I think it is in practice now very far from a holy ceremony due to what human pride has done to it however I think I will be researching to see if there is a way to find the real truth roots and get back to Holy Intent and in a sense it would would be “Christian Reiki” but believe it would’ve actually predated reiki and is Biblical. Would like to hear your thoughts on this possibility


    • Margie,

      Thank you for your comment. The laying on of hands has been widely used in many contexts. Generally, laying on of hands was used in the context of blessing and in the transmission of power or authority. In Reiki, people believe in healing through the laying on of hands. In the Christian context, the laying on of hands is used in ordination ceremonies to confirm a person’s call to the ministry and symbolically, authorizing a person to act as a minister.

      I am not knowledgeable about Reiki to be able to help in your research.

      Claude Mariottini


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