"It came to pass in an eventide, that David arose from off his bed, and walked upon the roof of the king's house: and from the roof he saw a woman washing herself."
The act of bathing is one of mankind's oldest behaviors that was performed out of a need to be clean and for the sake of comfort. Early bathing usually took place in open water, such as in pools or streams. However, filling bowls or basins with water so that water could be poured or splashed over the body, or used to wet cloths for
rubbing over the body, became a popular alternative. The earliest constructed baths (bathing rooms) containing tubs for immersing the body, are believed to have been the baths in the palace complex at Knossos, Crete that date from the mid-2nd millennium BC.
In the Bible, the first mention of bathing or washing is found in Genesis 18:4 and tells of Abraham offering to fetch water for his Holy visitors so that they might wash their feet. In ancient times, bathing the feet was a common practice. Not only was it a necessity and a comfort but also a social nicety. There are many instances foot washing found throughout scripture.
The Bible's first account of full body bathing occurs In Exodus 2:5, when Pharaoh's daughter went down to bathe in the river (Nile) while her women servants walked alongside the river.
From Herodotus: The ancient Egyptians were known to be great bathers. They practiced both private and public bathing, and allowed mixed bathing in public --as did the later Greeks and Romans. Egyptians preferred cold baths, and their priests bathed twice each day and twice at night. (Herod, ii, 37).
From Porphyry: Egyptian priests bathed three times a day, and one nocturnal ablution.
From Sir John G. Wilkinson: "We have little knowledge of the nature of their (Egyptian) baths, but as they were forbidden in deep mourning to indulge in them, we may conclude they were considered as a luxury, as well as a necessary comfort. In paintings in a tomb at Thebes, a lady is represented with four attendants, who wait upon her, and perform various (bathing) duties. One removes the jewelry and clothes…another pours water from a vase over her head… the third rubs her arms and body with her open hands…and a fourth seated near her holds a sweet scented flower to her nose, and supports her as she sits. The same subject is treated nearly in the same manner on some of the Greek vases (with) the water being poured over the bather who kneels, or is seated on the ground. (Manners and Customs of the Ancient Egyptians Vol. 3, 1837 edition. P. 388.)
While the Greek and Roman world enjoyed public bathing, and mixed bathing at various times in their culture, the Jews were generally private bathers. Most homes had an inner courtyard where the family could wash hidden from public view. However, the Bible describes the pools of Siloam, Hezekiah and Bethesda as having coverings, porches and walls, which leads researchers to believe that these pools were used for public bathing. (The Pool of Hezekiah was built in in 701 BC.) (Nehemiah. 3:15, John 5:2, and John 9:7).
Besides bathing for body cleanliness, ancients also performed ritual bathing for religious reasons. Ablution, as these ceremonial washings were called, were usually done to render the person clean from sin or free from disease.
God was strict with ancient Israel on bodily cleanliness as well as ethnic and spiritual purity. Hebrew priests were commanded to perform different types of washings as part of their priestly duties:
~Ex. 30:19-21: Aaron and his sons were commanded, upon penalty of death, to wash their hands and feet before each entry into the Tabernacle to offer a sacrifice.
1. Leviticus 8:6: Priests were washed with water and then anointed with oil before they assumed their priestly duties.
2. Leviticus 14:8, 9: Priests were required to bathe their entire body after pronouncing someone cured of leprosy.
3. Leviticus 16:4, 24: High Priests were required to bathe before each official act on the Day of Atonement.
4. Numbers 19:7: Priests who were ceremonially defiled were cleansed by bathing their body and washing their clothes.
Ritual bathing could have other meanings as well. It could mark the end of mourning. (Ruth 3:3). Naaman was commanded to dip in the Jordan seven times to be cured of leprosy. (2 Kings 5:10). In the wilderness, John preached the baptism of repentance and baptized accordingly. Baptism was the full immersion of the body in water and was a physical expression of belief Mark 1:4.
While many ancient tribes and cultures observed ritual bathing for one reason or another, the Jews, were especially zealous about the custom. Hand washing was of particular concern to them.
From Easton's Bible Dictionary- Commentary on Mart 7:1-7: "The Jews, like other Orientals, used their fingers when taking food, and therefore washed their hands before doing so, for the sake of cleanliness. These verses in Mark make reference to the ablutions prescribed by (Jewish) tradition, and according to which the disciples ought to have [obeyed and] gone down to the side of the lake, washed their hands thoroughly, rubbing the fist of one hand in the hollow of the other, then placing the ten finger-tips together, holding the hands up so that any surplus water might flow down to the elbow and thence to the ground.
To neglect to do this had come to be regarded as a great sin; a sin equal to the breach of any of the Ten Commandments. Moses had commanded washings oft, but always for some definite cause. But the Jews multiplied the legal observance till they formed a large body of precepts." (Washing)
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