The Hebrew verb shachah means "bown down" or "prostrate".
Since this word is the most common description of an act of reverence in the Tenach many English translations avoid wordiness by translating shachah not literally as "bow down to..." but instead as "worship...". This does create an easier to read sentence, but is slightly inaccurate.
The occasional addition of artzah ("to the earth") implies that most bowing was not done all the way down to the ground. At times merely bowing slightly is explicit, such as when Yosef even bowed down while standing and leaning upon his staff (Hebrews 11:21).
Meaning in Ancient Israel
In the Tenach, several different circumstances were occasions for bowing one's self down. (In all of these circumstances the bowing may be emphasized by prostating one's self all the way down to the ground: the addition of artzah is not specific to any type of circumstance.)
Greeting a Superior
An ancient Israelite bowed when he or she greeted (or was greeted by) someone of higher social standing. Several familiar examples make a far from exhaustive list:
- Avraham before the leaders of Hevron (Genesis 23:7-12)
- Yosef and his family before Esav (Genesis 33:3-7)
- Moshe before Yethro (Exodus 18:7)
- Rut before Boaz (Ruth 2:10)
- David before Y'honatan (First Samuel 20:41) or Shaul (First Samuel 24:8)
- Avigail or Natan before David (First Samuel 25:23, First Kings 1:23)
Bowing in greeting also happened when the higher social standing was simply an honor bestowed upon a guest. This happens with Avraham in Genesis 18:2-3 and Lot in Genesis 19:1-2, since neither of these men knew who their visitors were when first greeting them.
Tangentially, some commentators have written that when Balaam bowed before "the angel of Adonai" (Numbers 22:31) and Joshua bowed before "the captain of the host of Adonai" (Joshua 5:14) these instances of bowing prove the angels in these events were actually theophanies (God manifesting himself). This claim does not seem valid after observing how common it was for ancient Israelites to bow down when greeting a superior.
An ancient Israelite also bowed when offering a prayer of thanks to Adonai. Familiar examples include:
- Avraham's servant (traditionally Eliezer) does so in Genesis 24:26, 48, and 52
- The Israelites in slavery, upon hearing of God's upcoming salvation, do so in Exodus 4:31 and 12:27
- Gideon does so in Judges 7:15
- Eli does so in First Samuel 1:28.
Similarly, when Job and David suffer tragedy they bowed down in acceptance of God's will (Job 1:20, Second Samuel 12:20).
Once the Tabernacle was built, the most genuine way to bow down before God with thanks was to do so there, before his physically manifest presence (Psalm 99:5-9, 132:7). But if that was impractical because of distance, bowing toward the direction of the Tabernacle was enough (Psalm 5:7, 138:2).
Accompanying an Offering or Food
Avraham and Isaac planned to bow before Adonai upon Mount Moriah along with doing an offering (Genesis 22:5).
Bowing accompanied sharing a meal with Adonai before Adonai atop Mount Sinai (Exodus 24:1 and 9-11).
In Numbers 25:2, the Israelites begin doing Baal worship by doing offerings and eating of these while bowing down.
In Deuteronomy 26:10, the liturgy to be used by the Israelites when dedicating to Adonai their first crops in the Promised Land is supposed to accompany bowing down.
In one of the few descriptions of people presenting an offering at the completed Tabernacle, we read of Hannah's husband bowing down when he presented his offerings (First Samuel 1:3, 19).
The Tenach teaches repeatedly that we are not to bow down to images (Leviticus 26:1), false gods (Exodus 34:14), or the sun, moon, or stars (Deuteronomy 4:19).
The text does not say if the cultural context for this bowing to an idol would be to accompany an offering and/or food, to accompanying thanks, or to accompany something else.
Usually the Torah prohibits both shachah (bowing) and avodah (service) towards idols in the same sentence, implying the normal cultural practice for idol use involved physical offerings and not merely thanks or prayer. (See Exodus 20:5, 23:24; Deuteronomy 5:9, 8:19, 11:16, 17:3, 29:26, 30:17; and many other verses later in the Tenach).
Meaning in the First Century
The Biblical Greek word corresponding to shachah is proskuneo, which is also often translated somewhat sloppily as "worship".
The most significant cultural development regarding bowing was that by the first century the Jewish people had stopped the practice of bowing down in greeting, and even considered doing so extremely improper.
This change is first evidenced in the book of Esther when Mordechai refused to bow down to Haman (Esther 3:2) and Esther need not bow down as she approaches her King (Esther 5:2). By the first century it was even considered inappropriate to bow down before an angel (Revelation 19:10, 22:8-9). Note that in both these instances the angels correct the person trying to bow down before them by telling the person to only bow down before God. Peter gives the same correction to Cornelius (Acts 10:25-26).
There are only three examples of people bowing to each other in the Apostolic Writings. Most common are the many times people bow down before Yeshua. Yeshua never taught this was wrong, or corrected anyone who did so. Indeed, even angels bow down before Yeshua (Hebrews 1:6). The second example is single situation in which a group of people is utterly humiliated before others as a punishment from God (Revelation 3:9). The third example is people bowing down to "the beast" later in the book of Revelation.
In the Apostolic Writings we often read of people giving thanks to God, but never of them bowing down while doing so. However, bowing during liturgical prayers was well established at that time, and nothing is said against the custom of bowing when offering spontaneous thanks to God. Most likely the custom of bowing during a spontaneous prayer of gratitude was normal practice and considered not necessary to specifically mention. (To the best of our knowledge, Josephus and other historians also provide no answer to this issue.)
Meaning for Yeshua's followers in Modern Times
What do we learn from a careful observation of how bowing down is a specific part of worshipping Adonai?
First, we should be comfortable bowing down before God. If nothing else, it is practice for how we will worship God in the World to Come, when all nations will go to Jerusalem to bow down before Adonai every Shabbat and Rosh Chodesh, with Cohenim and Levites appointed from every nation (Isaiah 66:10, 21-23).
(Sukkot will also remain an appointed time, observed by all nations (Zechariah 14:16), but bowing down is not specifically mentioned in that verse. Only these three appointed times happen in the World to Come because the others are about Yeshua's sacrifice and God's judgment: issues that will no longer be relevant, unlike resting with God and celebrating Yeshua's birth.)
Second, we must be careful to not bow down to anything ungodly. Satan tempted Yeshua to bow down to him (Matthew 4:9). Satan continues to hinder people in bowing down to God (Second Corinthians 4:4). Revelation warns us repeatedly not to bow down to "the beast", connecting this with being marked as among those who have accepted his authority.
Third, we must bow down to God "in spirit and truth" (John 4:20-26). What does this mean?
We must be genuine in acknowledging God's superiority. Those ancient Israelites who bowed down in greeting did so to express their agreement with a superior's will and dependence on that superior's kindness.
We must avoid false understandings of whom we bow down before. We must have truth in our understanding of Adonai's majesty and kindness, our dependence on him, and his will for our lives. We must internalize this understanding into our spirit so it is not merely an intellectual assent we hypocritically do not act out in our lives. Avoiding false understandings includes heeding Yesuha's warning that we revere God in vain if we think man-made doctrines are divine truth (Matthew 15:9 and Mark 7:7), a concept Isaiah 29:13 explains that confused doctrines ruin our fear of Adonai so we end up praising God with a heart that does not understand or love him:
The Lord said, "Because this people draw near to me, and with their mouth and lips honor me, but their heart they moved far from me, and their fear of me is a commandment of men which has been taught.."
We must be humble and repentant. In scripture it is always true that God ignores the prayers of anyone who is not. If we bow down before Adonai while looking at ourselves instead of him, or while refusing to deal with any personal iniquity of which we are aware, then we are inviting disaster (First Corinthians 11:28-30, also see Isaiah 58-59). Also realize that being humble and repentant is more important than how we pray, for there are many examples of people whose prayers are heard by God without any offering or other ritual, even if the person has in the past been wicked; perhaps Manasseh the son of Hezekiah is the epitome of this lesson (Second Chronicles 33:13).
In First Samuel 15:25 and 30-31, a wordplay links "returning" to a physical location with "turning" in repentance. These verses teach us that cannot properly bow down unless our sins are lifted away in repentance.
In the gospels and the book of Revelation it is normal for people who bow down before Yeshua or the Father to also say something in greeting or praise. Not only should we be complete in our dedication and devotion to Adonai, but we should have something to say about it!
Finally, not only should we bow down before Adonai "in spirit and truth" be we should labor for Adonai "in the Spirit" (Philippians 3:3). We should have complete devotion, say something about it as we bow down, and upon rising carry out God's work!