Right hand and left hand,  as used in the Bible

The hands are mentioned twice within the Sermon on the Mount, the right hand alone in Matt 5:29-30 and both hands in Matt 6:1-4.

Drinkwater (1996, 274) suggests that left and right are frequently used, within the Bible, without any special connotations. Nevertheless, when referred to in connection with the hands, they do seem to have some distinct associations.

When the Hebrew Bible mentions both left and right hands together, it is usually to contrast directions or positions. However, where either hand is mentioned on its own, then the passage is usually drawing upon a commonplace metaphor, and one that seems to have had its roots in military practice. The right hand being associated with offense, engagement, or interaction, whilst the left is employed in defense, thrusting away, or covering.

Later rabbinic commentary developed the idea that the left hand was bad and the right hand good, though it was perhaps more influenced in that by the customs of surrounding nations than the biblical text. 

To left or right

A review of references to hands in the Hebrew Bible reveals that the right hand is mentioned reasonably frequently, but the left much less so, and then usually with the right. 

References to the right hand and the left are most used to express nothing more than both sides. Examples are found in passages such as:

A similar sense is found in Judg 16:29; 2 Sam 16:6; 1 Chr 6:39, 47; 2 Chr 18:18; Neh 8:4; Dan 12:7, and possibly also Gen 13:9. 

Most of the remaining references to both hands occur in the context of turning aside or deviating from a straight path. For example:

Deviation is also the sense in: Deut 17:11, 20, 28:14; Josh 1:7, 23:6; 2 Sam 2:19, 14:19.

The hands and their military use

Amongst the few remaining passages that mention both hands, a number are concerned with their military use. For example Ezek 39:3 refers to the bow being held in the left hand and the arrows in the right. Such a link between military power, and the authority that came with it, is also apparent in the majority of the references that mention only the right hand, or in which an unidentified hand is its poetic parallel.

For the ancient civilisations of the fertile crescent, warfare was a fact of life with which everyone would have been aware. In those cultures a foot-soldier typically held his shield in the left hand and a weapon in the right. The same was true within the later Assyrian, Persian, Greek, and Roman empires. It is clear that Israelite forces also used shields extensively, for example:

From a relatively early date military strategists began to realised the benefits of arranging foot soldiers into a phalanx, a row of men stood side by side so that their overlapping shields formed a protective shield wall. Variations on this theme played a major part in the military tactics of antiquity, and certainly in those exercised in the ancient near east. Israel’s long standing adversaries, the Philistines, are known to have “fought in phalanxes of four men each, three of them armed with a long, straight sword and a pair of spears, and the fourth with only a sword. All carried round shields” (LaSor 2002, 844). Moreover, by the second century B.C.E., first Alexander the Great and then the Selucids had deployed the large-scale phalanx to great effect as they extended their empire into Palestine and then sought to consolidated it. The Macabbean freedom-fighters were well aware of its strengths (and weaknesses), for, in their earlier days, they avoided facing it, except when that became inevitable, as when Judah met Nicanor’s forces at Emmaus (Pearlman 1973, 133). The evidence remains ambivalent as to whether the Macabbees used phalanx tactics themselves, though Rappaport concludes that whilst “Lack of clear evidence makes it difficult to arrive at a safe conclusion, it may be argued that both guerrilla warfare and phalanx tactics were used in different stages of the revolt, depending on the situation” (1996, 439). By Jesus day the Roman legions routinely deployed effective shield-wall tactics and it was this image that Paul probably had in mind when he wrote Phil 1:27 (Ryken 2002, 642). A similar allusion is found in Col 2:5 (Wuest 1997, 198).

For an effective shield wall two criteria had to be met:

With most people being naturally right handed, such requirements lead to specific roles for the right and left hands; right hand for weapon, left hand for shield. Indeed, the first-century Jewish historian Josephus assumed that to be the case, in his attempt to explain the practice of gouging out the right eye (Ant. 6.69–71).

Foot-soldiers were trained in warfare (cf. Ps 18:34, 144:1) and were therefore familiar with the relative roles of the left and right hand. The left hand secured, protected, covered or repulsed, whilst the right hand acted, struck out, grasped, or engaged. Hence, the exceptional use of the left hand for a weapon is the primary reason to mention its use. Judges 3:21 and 2 Sam 20:9 both involve a person being caught out by a weapon wielded in such a manner, while Chr 12:2 comments on ambidextrous bowmen and Judg 20:16 concerns left-handed slingers.

Whilst only occasionally does the Bible mention men using their right hand to hold a weapon (e.g. Neh 4:23 ESV), God’s right hand is frequently portrayed as if it did, for example:

A similar inference is found in Ps 45:4 and Ps 78:54, whilst in Hab 2:16 a cup of wrath is brandished in the right hand, and in Deut 33:2 it holds flaming fire.

Elsewhere the right hand of the Lord is credited with the outcome of wielding a weapon, or at least wielding authority as if it were a weapon (cf. Rom 13:4), in keeping with God’s signet ring being worn on His right hand (Jer 22:24). Such outcomes include:

Hence, the years when God acted to deliver his people are called “the years of the right hand of the most High” (Ps 77:10 AV). Sometimes it is simply the strength of God’s right hand that is extolled (Ps 89:13, Ps 118:15) or the righteousness and justice that empower it (Ps 48:10; Matt 26:64). Occasionally the strength of the divine right hand is contrasted to our human capabilities, as when the Lord, having queried Job’s ability to perform a range of humanly impossible tasks, then asks whether Job’s own right hand can save him (Job 40:13).

The creative hand

Whilst the right hand is frequently portrayed in the context of combat, it was also the hand traditionally associated with creative work in general. Hence, the Lord declares, “my hand has laid the foundation of the earth, and my right hand has spread out the heavens” (Isa 48:12 WEB) and in Ps 80:15 the Lord’s right hand performs the creative function of planting. Elsewhere “let my right hand forget its skill” (Ps 137:5 WEB) is pronounced as a curse, whilst the Lord’s right hand was seen as a suitable object for an oath (Isa 62:8).

In Judg 5:26 the boundary between craft and warfare blurs, as Jael’s left hand secured a tent peg whilst her right wielded a hammer as her weapon. Similarly in Judges 7:20 the warriors blow trumpets with their right hands, whilst the once-shielded torches are brandished in the left.

Supporting the right hand

Whilst the left side was protected with the shield, the right side was more vulnerable, hence a rabble rising at your right hand was a worrying development (Job 30:10) and one could imagine an accuser at the right hand as one who exposed your vulnerability (cf. Ps 109:6, Zech 3:1). Conversely, a dependable person, or deity, at your right hand would lend it greater strength (cf. Ps 73:23, 89:42; Isa 41:13), as was the case for Cyrus (Isa 45:1) and Moses (Isa 63:12). To have the person at your right hand fall, or worse still, deliberately withdraw, was to be left exposed (cf. Lam 2:3). Hence, Ps 80:17 asks the Lord of hosts to continue to empower the son of man so that he can be the dependable individual at God’s own right hand (although the metaphor fails with the idea of God becoming vulnerable). 

At times passages seem to reflect the impact of a shield, carried on the left hand of an adjacent person, as in a shield-wall, where the shield to the right provides vital protection for the exposed side of the body. Such passages include:

Less obvious allusions

Some passages possibly reflect the normal military/authority understanding but in less obvious ways. In Ps 89:25 the right hand exerts dominion over the rivers. In Gen 48:14 the conferring of the double portion of inheritance, and the greater power that it carried, was done with the right hand. In Song 2:6, 8:3 the right hand engages with the beloved, whilst the left provides support for her. In Pr 27:16 the sense that power resided in the right hand informs the idea of trying to grasp oil in right hand as a picture of futility. In Prov 3:18, long life, the result of strength (Ps 90:10), is in the right hand and riches, the result of security, in the left.

In Ezek 21:22 the right hand is used in divination, effectively to decide who an army would engage with. 

The right hand was trained for battle, so whilst Nineveh was notorious for its violence, its occupants who did not know their right hand from their left, i.e. get involved in the fighting, were considered innocence of that violence (Jonah 4:11). In describing the siege of Jerusalem, the first-century Jewish historian Josephus speaks of fighters who had already polluted their right hands with the murder of their own countrymen (Wars bk 6 1:3). Hence those with a corrupt right hand (cf. Ps 26:10, 144:8; Isa 44:20) were to be avoided. 

Support is again inferred when the psalmist speaks of the richly adorned queen standing at the right hand of the king (Ps 45:9).  

Other biblical uses

A few biblical passages refer to the use of the right or left hands in religious acts (Exod 29:20; Lev 8:23; 14:14; 2 Chr 34:2; Job 23:8). These may be no more than procedural, but symbolic associations should not be ruled out. 

The idea of the right hand providing guidance appears to be found in Ps 139:10, where it holds a person and the context suggests this prevents them getting lost in the dark. There may also be a hint of this when Ps 16:11 acknowledges that God makes known the path to life and that at His right hand are eternal pleasures. The idea of receiving guidance or instruction at a persons right hand perhaps also lies behind the command in Ps 110:1, ‘the LORD says to my Lord, “Sit at my right hand, until I make your enemies your footstool for your feet”’ (HNV).

Good hand, bad hand

It has also been suggested that the left hand was considered ignoble because it was the hand used for personal hygiene. However, Garber (2002, 610) notes that there is no biblical evidence to suggest this was the case in Israel.

One passage in Ecclesiastes could be construed as suggesting that the left is bad and the right is good: “A wise man’s heart is at his right hand, but a fool’s heart at his left” (Eccl 10:2 WEB). This was certainly an interpretation that later rabbis would apply, e.g.: “Man has two kidneys, one of which prompts him to good, the other to evil; and it is natural to suppose that the good one is on his right side and the bad one on his left, as it is written, A wise man’s understanding is at his right hand, but a fool’s understanding is at his left” (b. Berakoth 61a [Simon]). However, if right was always good and left bad, then why would the apostle John and his brother James have wanted places at both of Jesus’ hands (Mark 10:37)? So good and bad were clearly not universally associated with the right and left hands.

The figurative right hand in the first century

The Jewish philosopher Philo (20 B.C.E.-50 C.E.) explains ‘“is in my hand;”’ is “an expression equivalent to saying, depends upon my administration, and endeavours, and powers” (Dreams 2:200 [Yonge]). Elsewhere he brings the typical military understanding to bear, as he comments on a portrayal of the Olympian deity Apollo:

(104) Let him also transpose the things which he bears in each of his hands, and not pollute the proper arrangement, for let him bear his arrows and his bow in his right hand, for he knows how with good aim to shoot at and to pierce men and women, and whole families, and populous cities, to their complete destruction. (105) And let him either at once throw away his graces altogether, or else let him keep them in the shade in his left hand, for he has defaced their beauty, directing all his eyes and exciting all his desires against vast properties, so as to plunder them in an iniquitous manner, in consequence of which their owners were murdered, finding themselves unfortunate through their good fortune.”

(Embassy 104-105 [Yonge])

The same military pattern probably lies behind the unattributed rabbinic teaching that one should always use the left hand to thrust away and the right hand to draw near, i.e. invite back (b. Sotah 47a; b. San 107b). This was the pattern found in Jesus’ parable of the sheep and the goats (Matt 25:33), the king drawing those at his right hand near to bless them, whilst casting those on his left hand away into eternal fire. That parable finds its parallel in the teaching of rabbi Hananel ben Papa (uncertain date), where the words of the Torah stand in the equivalent position to Jesus’ king:

“What is meant by, Hear, for I will speak princely things:  why are the words of the Torah compared to a prince? To tell you: just as a prince has power of life and death, so have the words of the Torah [potentialities] of life and death. Thus Raba said; To those who go to the right hand thereof it is a medicine of life; to those who go to the left hand thereof it is a deadly poison”

(b. Shabbath 88b [Freedman])

In the Jewish Historian Josephus’ (37 - c. 100 C.E.) eye-witness description of Vespasian’s capture of Jotapata (67 C.E.), the use of the right hand is used figuratively for exerting military power:

“However, such of the watch as at the first perceived they were taken, and ran away as fast as they could, went up into one of the towers on the north side of the city, and for a while defended themselves there; but as they were encompassed with a multitude of enemies they tried to use their right hands when it was too late, and at length they cheerfully offered their necks to be cut off by those that stood over them.”

(Josephus Wars 3.332 [Whiston])

Elsewhere Josephus describes warriors who disguised themselves as wanton women, but then killed with their right hand (Wars 4:563 [Whiston]).

However, in the same account of the fall of Jotapata, extending the right hand is seen as a token of support and good will:

“for there was one of those that were fled into the caverns, which were a great number, who desired that this Antonius would reach him his right hand for his security, and would assure him that he would preserve him, and give him his assistance in getting up out of the cavern.”

(Josephus Wars 3.334 [Whiston])

It conveys a similar sense when Josephus, describing Caesar’s support of Herod against his accusers, states “Caesar gave him his right hand, and remitted nothing of his kindness to him” (Antiquities 15.357 [Whiston]). In a similar manner the apostle Paul (c. 5 – c. 67 C.E.) speaks of extending the right hand of fellowship (Gal 2:9).