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Bathing in the Hebrew Bible

Bathing in ancient Israel was not an everyday mundane activity but a significant event that often had a religious function.

Figurine of the bathing woman

To us, bathing may seem like a mundane activity. But in biblical Israel, where water was scarce, bathing was often a momentous event, fraught with religious significance.

The Bible itself offers scant insight into when and how ancient Israelites might have bathed in the course of ordinary life, although archaeology helps fill out the picture somewhat. Generally, water would be poured from a jug over the bather’s body, and this is probably how Bathsheba was washing herself when David saw her, perhaps using rainwater collected on her roof. Israelites do not generally seem to have had bathtubs, although a bathtub was found at a ninth-century B.C.E. religious site at Tel Dan, and a clay figurine of a woman in a small, shallow tub was discovered in an eighth or seventh century B.C.E. Phoenician tomb. A metaphorical reference in Jeremiah (Jer 2:22) attests to the use of soap-like substances, including natron and something called borit in Hebrew, probably made from wood or vegetable ashes.

Biblical references to bathing suggest that it was often something of a special event. A woman, for example, might bathe before an amorous encounter. Ruth bathes and anoints herself with oil (a common practice to prevent dry skin) in preparation for a nighttime meeting with Boaz, during which she intends to persuade him to take her as a wife. Ezek 23:40 likewise describes a woman bathing and putting on makeup and jewelry before meeting her lovers. For royalty, bathing was probably more common. King David, after fasting and praying for God to spare his son, bathes and anoints himself when his son dies (2Sam 12:20). These acts indicate that the king has resumed normal life, since, he observes, nothing he can do now will bring the child back.

The overwhelming majority of references to bathing in the Bible, however, have to do with ritual bathing. The Priestly laws of Leviticus (so called because they were probably written by priests) require bathing to purify oneself from various things that were considered contaminating, such as skin disease (Lev 14:8-9), sexual intercourse (Lev 15:18), and certain bodily discharges (for example, Lev 15:5-6). These laws do not explicitly require bathing after menstruation, although they do consider it contaminating (Lev 15:19-24). But some Israelite women may have bathed for this purpose: 2Sam 11:4 indicates that Bathsheba was purifying herself from her period around the time that David saw her bathing, which suggests that her moonlit bath may have been ritual in nature.  

In Priestly law, the ultimate purpose of ritual purification is to protect God’s sanctuary, the tabernacle, from contamination (Lev 15:31). Thus, for example, the high priest had to bathe before entering the tabernacle shrine (Lev 16:4). Washing was a physical act to prevent contamination by physical things, but it served a sacred function: through ritual bathing, Israelites marked off God’s space as holy and showed reverence for the divine presence.

  • Eve Levavi Feinstein

    Eve Levavi Feinstein is a writer and editor in Palo Alto, California. She received her Ph.D. in Hebrew Bible from Harvard University and is the author of Sexual Pollution in the Hebrew Bible (Oxford University Press, 2014), which examines biblical concepts of purity in the context of sexual relations.