If we tear our clothing, it is generally by accident unless we are tearing up an old garment for rags. This was not true in the culture of Bible times where the tearing of one’s garment was an external sign of one’s internal pain. The average person of the era did not have multiple changes of clothing like we do in our closets and dressers; consequently, they took great care to prevent accident tearing of their clothing (Exod 28:32; Matt 9:16; Mark 2:21). But there was “a time to tear and a time to mend” (Eccles 3:7); the time to intentionally tear was a time of intense grief that might have included repentance.
At the personal level, there is broad evidence in the ancient Near East that people tore their garments as part of the mourning ritual associated with death (Gen 37:34; 2 Sam 3:31; 13:31 2 Kings 2:12). Other personal tragedies such as rape, loss of position, or the suffering of a friend also precipitated the tearing of one’s garment (2 Sam 13:19; 2 Kings 11:14; Job 2:12). But in the Bible we most often hear about Israel’s leaders literally tearing their garments as they faced some form of national calamity and its associated spiritual failure that put the nation at grave risk. For example, Joshua tore his garment after the Israelite army was defeated by Ai; King Hezekiah did the same in the face of an Assyrian siege of Jerusalem; and Ezra tore his clothing in the face of a return to behavior that had caused the exile from the Promise Land (Josh 7:6; 2 Kings 19:1; Ezra 9:3, 5 see also Num 14:6; 2 Sam 1:11; 15:32; 2 Kings 5:7-8; 6:30; 18:37; 22:11; Esther 4:1).
When the biblical authors mention this cultural practice, they expect us to see the intensity of the moment. But there are other instances when the literal tearing of a garment plays a larger rhetorical role in the narrative. Within the story of Joseph, clothing is a very important literary element. Tearing of garments mark two important turning points in this narrative: (1) Reuben and Jacob tore their garments, highlighting the loveless behavior of Joseph’s brothers who sold him as a slave (Gen 37:29, 34), and (2) the subsequent turning point in Joseph’s story, when Joseph’s brothers tore their garments (Gen 44:13). END OF PART 1.