The “right hand” in ancient thinking (Hebrews 1)

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The hand was symbolic in the ancient world. It was believed that from it one either bestowed grace or pronounced punishment. In addition, the hand represented the authority of an individual, the instrument of carrying out a person’s intentions. The right hand, in particular, was special for two reasons. First, the left hand was universally acknowledged to be the one used for sanitation purposes and therefore, was less respected than its counterpart. Secondly, since most people were right-handed, the right hand was considered to have innately superior strength and capability.

Because of its special physical status, the right hand was assigned important metaphorical significance, frequently expressing blessing, fellowship or comfort. Certain acts of ritual cleansing, as well as the ordination of the Aaronic priesthood, involved the right hand or the right-hand side. The right hand was also used in taking vows in judicial matters, since it was believed to represent the character, will and actions of the individual taking the vow. In literature, it personified a king or deity’s character and deeds, while in the Hebrew Bible the right hand represented God’s ultimate strength and provision for His people.

To be seated at the right hand of a ruler or host meant occupying a place of high honour. The position itself was considered an indicator of the power and authority of the one holding it. Someone who sat at the king’s right hand was, as in the modern English idiom, his “right-hand man”, – the one acting as the principal agent of the king’s authority, through whom he carried out his most important work. In addition, sitting at the right hand was a statement of fellowship and favour between the central figure and the individual so honoured. Jesus Christ is depicted several times in the Bible as sitting at the right hand of God the Father for eternity (Psalm 110:1, Acts 2:33-35, 5:31, Romans 8:34, Ephesians 1:20, Colossians 3:1, Hebrews 1:3, 13, 8:1, 10:12, 12:2, 1 Peter 3:22).


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