Ask Pastor Dave: What Does 'Tore Clothes' Mean?

Ask Pastor Dave: What Does 'Tore Clothes' Mean?

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As part of our "Ask Pastor Dave" series, a parishioner wrote in to ask... I'm trying to read the Old Testament which confuses me at times. What do the writers mean when they say "tore clothes"? I've seen it written a few times.

Pastor’s response:

Reading the Bible is not for the faint of heart. It contains timeless truths, and people’s lives have literally been transformed by the practice, but it can often be a bewildering experience!

When reading the Bible, one must remember that portions of the Hebrew Bible (the Christian Old Testament) were composed some 2,500 years ago, and the Christian New Testament was completed by early in the second century. Consequently, there are customs and practices described in the Bible that seem puzzling to us today, but were very much a part of life in earlier times.

The "rending of clothes" in a time of grief or repentance is one of them. A deeply symbolic act, the tearing of garments points to two realities. When we experience loss, we sometimes describe it as “having our hearts torn apart.” The visual tearing of garments signifies the emotional tearing of the heart — a sign of the grief we bear from having lost someone dear to us, or from the awareness of having done something harmful. Additionally, the actual tearing itself can be a ritual action of destruction; a way to vent our pent-up feelings, and begin the path towards healing. In some Jewish communities, this is still practiced today.

Related, the Bible also describes people who wear sackcloth (a rough, uncomfortable garment made of goat’s hair), or who sit in ashes, or pour ashes on themselves (a sign of death and destruction). These practices can be understood in similar ways.

To do these things, of course, is not the main point. As the prophet Joel writes (in, perhaps, the fourth century before Christ):

Yet even now, says the Lord, return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; rend your hearts and not your clothing. Return to the Lord, your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love…”
— Joel 2:12-13

If these (or other) practices help us to express our grief, turn to God, and find healing for our hearts, as odd as they seem, they may even serve a helpful purpose in the lives of faithful people today.

- Pastor David Risendal

Have a question you’d like to ask? Send an email to drisendal@stplc.org.

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