To us, bathing may seem like a mundane activity. But in biblical Israel, where water was scarce, bathing was often a momentous event, fraught with religious significance.
The Bible itself offers scant insight into when and how ancient Israelites might have bathed in the course of ordinary life, although archaeology helps fill out the picture somewhat. Generally, water would be poured from a jug over the bather’s body, and this is probably how Bathsheba was washing herself when David saw her, perhaps using rainwater collected on her roof. Israelites do not generally seem to have had bathtubs, although a bathtub was found at a ninth-century B.C.E. religious site at Tel Dan, and a clay figurine of a woman in a small, shallow tub was discovered in an eighth or seventh century B.C.E. Phoenician tomb. A metaphorical reference in Jeremiah (
Biblical references to bathing suggest that it was often something of a special event. A woman, for example, might bathe before an amorous encounter. Ruth bathes and anoints herself with oil (a common practice to prevent dry skin) in preparation for a nighttime meeting with Boaz, during which she intends to persuade him to take her as a wife.
The overwhelming majority of references to bathing in the Bible, however, have to do with ritual bathing. The Priestly laws of Leviticus (so called because they were probably written by priests) require bathing to purify oneself from various things that were considered contaminating, such as skin disease (
In Priestly law, the ultimate purpose of ritual purification is to protect God’s sanctuary, the tabernacle, from contamination (