Exodus 3:5: "Draw not nigh hither: put off thy shoes from off thy feet, for the place whereon thou standest is holy ground. " (KJV)
Taking off one's shoes before entering a holy place is a very old custom and was practiced almost universally among the ancient peoples.
According to James Usher, the Biblical account of Moses encountering the presence of God in the burning bush and removing his shoes took place about 1491 BC, making it one of the earliest documented accounts of this religious custom. Although, many historical sources mention that the people of early Egypt and Mesopotamia were also observing this practice at the same time or possibly earlier.
But unlike so many ancient customs and traditions that lose their importance over time, shoe removal in deference to a deity or the divine continued for centuries and has remained a significant aspect of at least one religion into the twenty-first century.
From Ovid: "It chanced that at the festival of Vesta I was returning by that way which now joins the New Way to the Roman Forum, Hither I saw a matron coming down barefoot (from the altars): amazed I held my peace and halted. An old woman of the neighborhood perceived me, and bidding me sit down she addressed me in quavering tones, shaking her head. 'This ground, where now are the forums, was once occupied by wet swamps: a ditch was drenched with the water that overflowed from the river. That Lake of Curtius, which supports dry altars, is now solid ground, but formerly it was a lake. '" ("Fasti or The Book of Days", v1, 395 ff. Published in Rome, 8AD.)
From Justin Martyr: "They (the Jews) set up their baptisms, and made such as go to their temples, and officiate in their libations and meat-offerings, first sprinkle themselves with water by way of lustration; and they have now brought it to such a pass that the worshippers are washed from head to foot before they approach the sacred place where their images are kept. And whereas their adorers are commanded by priests to put off their shoes before they presume to enter the temples." ("The First Apology of Justin Martyr", p.78. Published in Rome, 155 AD -157 AD.)
From Iamblichus Chalcedonies (245 AD – 345 AD): "Enter not into a temple negligently nor adore careless, not even though you stand at the doors themselves: Sacrifice and adore unshod:" ("Life of Pythagoras – 570 AD – 495 AD"*, p.12. Published in London, 1818.)
*Translated from the Greek by Thomas Taylor.
From Richared le Pelerin: In his epic poem*, "La Chasnon de Jerusalem", Pelerin relates an episode that took place during the First Crusade (1096-1099) on the Mount of Olives, in which the Bishop of Martirano and his army removed their shoes before seeking out a hermit, living in a cave on this holy site, and whom they believed would aid them in the capture of Jerusalem. Poem written between 1350 and 1425 in Northeaster France. (*Translation from the French not available.)
From Josephus Abundancnus: "The Monks, and those that the French generally call religious amongst the Jacobites, live much more strictly then those that live in Europe.... They wear a Shirt, and upon it a Robe made of the coarsest wool, and go barefoot in their Monastery." ("The True History of the Jacobites of Egypt, Libya, Nubia, and the Origine, Religion, Ceremonies, Laws, and Customs...Great Britain", Chapter 18, p.24. Published in London, 1692.)
From M. Karstens Neibuhr: "The dress of Eastern nations, some peculiar cities among which we observed with particular attention, is adapted to their climate and manners. As they are accustomed to sit cross-legged, they wear their clothes very wide. And being obliged to express their respect for holy places, and for the, apartments of the great, by leaving their shoes at the gate, they find it necessary to dress so as that they may suffer no inconvenience from the want of them." ("Niebuhr's Travels Through Arabia and Other Countries in the East", Vol 1, p, 111-112. Published in Edinburgh and London, 1792.)
From Rev. William Ward: "The natives of Bengal never go into their own houses, nor into the houses of others, with their shoes on, but always leave them at the door. It would be a great affront not to attend to this mark of respect in visiting; and to enter a temple without pulling off the shoes, would be an unpardonable offense." ("A View of the History, Literature, and Religion of the Hindoos", Vol 2, p. 465. Second Edition. Published in London, 1815.)
From Rev. George Paxton: "All the Orientals, under the guidance of tradition, put off their shoes when they enter their holy places. " ("Illustrations of Scripture in Three Parts", Vol 2, p.286. Published in Philadelphia, 1822.)
From Sir J.G. Wilkinson: "(In modern Egypt) Ladies and men of rank paid great attention to the beauty of their sandals: but on some occasions those of the middle classes who were in the habit of wearing them preferred walking barefooted; and in religious ceremonies the priests frequently took them off while performing their duties in the temple. ("The Manners and Customs of the Ancient Egyptians ", Vol 2. p .336. Published in New York, 1878.)
From Dr. Jacob R. Freese: "Next we visit the Mosque of Sultan Ahmet (Istanbul, Turkey) and …while examining this mosque some of the attendants become very insolent; one of them pushed others against us because of our refusal to take off out shoes before stepping on the matting in the passageway." ("Travels in the Holy Land, Syria, Asia Minor and Turkey", P.512, 4th edition. Published in Philadelphia, 1882.)
Obviously, the taking off of one's shoes is an extremely important custom. And, because it is performed in deference to a deity or the divine, it importance is easily understood. But the question still remains, considering that any number of rituals that could be performed to show respect for God or one's spiritual authority, why is the removal of shoes the "one" chosen?
From Horatio Hackett: "This mark of respect (putting off the shoes) was regarded as due to a superior; since to appear before him wearing shoes or sandals was to be guilty of the indecorum of approaching him (one's superior) with the feet soiled with the dust which would otherwise cleave to them. On the same principle, the Jewish priests officiated barefoot in the tabernacle and in the temple." ("Illustrations of Scripture as Suggested by a Tour of the Holy Land", p.66. Published in Boston, 1857.)
From Matthew Poole: "The 'Putting of thy shoes" was required by God as an act and token of reverence to the Divine Majesty, then and there eminently present; and of his humiliation for his (Moses) sins, whereby he was unfit and unworthy to appear before God; for this was the posture of humiliation. (See scripture: 2 Samuel 15:30; Isaiah 20:.2,4; Ezekiel 24: 17,23.) ("Annotations on the Holy Bible", Vol 1, P.120. Published in London, 1840.)
From Jacob Nacht: "Only with bare feet should one draw near to a place dedicated to God. The shoe denotes supreme power and possession. 'Den Pantoffel schwingen'* is a well-known proverbial expression marking off the shoe as the symbol of power. And another adage, in which likewise the shoe is represented as the embodiment of power says: 'As long as they foot is shod, tread the thorn.' The shoe thus is accorded and importance equaling that of the foot. The foot signifies domination: 'Thou madest him to have dominion over the works of thy hands; thou hast put all things under his feet.' (Psalms 8:6.) An example of this dominion, King David removing his shoes as he flees before his son, Absalom. (2 Samuel 15:30)" ("The Symbolism of the Shoe with Special Reference to Jewish Sources"; The Jewish Quarterly Review - New Series, Vol 6, No.1., pp.1-22. Published in Philadelphia, July 1915.)
*Translation: Swing the Slipper as in wielding all the power.
The action taking place in the introductory verse is that God, by instructing Moses to remove his shoes, is alerting him that what he sees, a fiery bush that is not consumed, is no supernatural manifestation but the presence of the Almighty God, Himself.
Moses, in removing his shoes demonstrates that he does indeed believe himself to be in the presence of holiness, that he shows reverence and humility for God, and he acknowledges that God possesses the power and dominion over him.
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