Beyond their obvious use in holding objects, hands have long had two other significant roles for people: we count on our fingers, and we measure with the length or breadth of our hands. Finger width and palm width were standard units of measure in Bible times. In passage like Exodus 25:25 and 37:12, 1 King 7:26, and Ezekiel 40:43 the span is transplanted “three inches,” but the original says “handbreadth”
EXPRESSIONS OF POWER
In the figurative language of the Bible and beyond, hands have long represented power. When Moses says, “In fact, it was the LORD himself who got rid of all of them until none were left in the camp” (Deut 2:15), his expressive phrase is literally, “the hand of the LORD was against them.” When David prays, “Into your hand I entrust my spirit” (Ps 31:5), he is claiming the protection of God’s power and creating an expression Christ used in his closing moments of life on the cross (Luke 23:46). Symbolically, the right hand was the side of favor, so to sit there would be a place of honor: “You make the path of life known to me. Complete joy is in your presence. Pleasures are by your side forever” (Ps 16:11; see also 110:1). In Mark 14:62, when Jesus said to the chief priest, “You will see the Son of Man in the highest position in heaven,” his words were actually. “You will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of power,” a claim to divinity that his enemies immediately seized to justify their rejection of him.
Reference to hands could also indicate a person’s will or attitude. When Jeroboam rebelled against Solomon and eventually split the kingdom, the expression used for his attitude in 1 Kings 11:26 is translated literally, “he lifted his hand against the king.” Even more, when Paul is describing the way God has always offered correction and grace to people, he quotes Isaiah’s words, “All day long I have stretched out my hands to disobedient and rebellious people” (Rom 10:21; see also Isa 65:2).
Clean hands were much more than the product of washing; they were symbols of personal moral purity. Psalm 26:6 says, “I will wash my hands in innocence. I will walk around your altar, O LORD,” claiming that the ritual of washing hands expressed a person’s integrity. David made this a standard for approaching God: “Who may go up the LORD’S mountain? Who may stand in his holy place? The one who has clean hands and a pure heart and does not long for what is false or lie when he is under oath” (Ps: 24:3-4).
The expression “washing one’s hands of a situation” refers to Pilate’s efforts to exempt himself from guilt in turning Jesus over to the people for crucifixion: “Pilate saw that he was not getting anywhere. Instead, a riot was breaking out. So Pilate took some water and washed his hands in front of the crowd. He said, “I won’t be guilty of killing this man. Do what you want!’ ” (Matt 27:24).
THE LAYING ON OF HANDS
One of the most profound symbolic acts in the Bible is the “laying on of hands.” When someone offered a sacrifice to God as a way of seeking forgiveness for sin, the Old Testament instructions required the worshiper to place his hands on the head of the animal, symbolically transferring the sin from his own life to the animal about to die (Lev 1:4). Laying hands on someone was also a symbolic act conferring a blessing or responsibility on that person’s life. When Moses passed over leadership responsibility to Joshua, God commanded him to do so in a public ceremony (Num 27:18-20).
In the New Testament, the first leaders appointed by the apostles to serve the church as deacons were set apart by the laying on of hands (Acts 6:5-6). And the elders in the church of Antioch commissioned Paul and Barnabas for missionary duty by laying on hands and praying for them (Acts 13:3). Paul reminded Timothy of the importance of his ministry on behalf of those who had laid hands on him (1 Tim 4:14; 2 Tim 1:6). The act of touching someone this way functions like a prayer.
Open hands and raised hands have often symbolized surrender or even worship and honor. Paul instructed Timothy to lead the church in fervent prayer that is more than audible: “I want men to offer prayers everywhere. They should raise their hands in prayer after putting aside their anger and any quarrels they have with anyone” (1 Tim 2:8). He was preserving the physical aspects of prayer that are found throughout the Psalms: “Hear my prayer for mercy when I call to you for help, when I lift my hands toward your most holy place” (Ps 28:2; see also 63:4; 88:9; 134:2; 141:2; 143:6).