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MOURN, MOURNING. The ancient Hebrews placed a much greater emphasis on external symbolic acts than do modern Western people; people in the East today still carry on this respect for symbolic actions. Ceremonies for expressing grief at the death of a relative or on any unhappy occasion are referred to frequently in the Bible. One reared in the modern West must be careful not to view these public expressions as hypocritical; they were a natural valid manifestation of grief in that culture.

The OT contains warnings against pagan mourning rites (Lev.19.27-Lev.19.28; Deut.14.1-Deut.14.2). Israelite priests were not allowed to take part in any mourning or other funeral ceremonies (Lev.21.1-Lev.21.4, Lev.21.10-Lev.21.11).

When bad news was received or when sudden calamity came, it was customary to tear the clothes (2Sam.1.2) and to sprinkle earth or ashes on the head (Josh.7.6). Hair cloth (“sackcloth”) was adopted as clothing in times of grief (Isa.22.12). We read of covering the head in mourning (Jer.14.3), and also the lower part of the face (Ezek.24.17, Ezek.24.22). Among those who habitually wore some covering on the head it was a sign of mourning to let the hair go loose (Lev.10.6), which normally (like that of a Greek Orthodox priest in the Near East) would be coiled up.

A death in the household set in motion an elaborate ceremony of mourning that lasted a week or more. The members of the family and their friends gathered around the corpse and indulged in lamentations bordering on hysteria. The rites mentioned above were observed, but in a more abandoned form than for other mourning. During the last century, W. M. Thomson saw a ceremony of mourning carried out by the Arabs of Palestine. He described the three concentric circles of mourners, slowly marching, clapping their hands, and chanting a funeral dirge. At times they stopped and, flinging their arms and handkerchiefs about in wild frenzy, screamed and wailed like maniacs.

Professional mourners were often called in for a funeral (Jer.9.17-Jer.9.22; Amos.5.16; Matt.9.23). In the earliest times these were probably to protect the living from the spirits of the departed, who were greatly feared. By Bible times, however, the mourning women served merely as another manifestation of grief for the departed.

Occasions for mourning


National calamity.

Trouble and calamity which are threatening and impending also are occasions for mourning (Neh 1:4; Esth 4:3). Generally such threats are due to a dissatisfied deity and call for an attitude of penitential mourning in the hope that God’s favor might be restored.

Before a calamity.

The same behavior is found in all occasions for mourning. However, mourning in the actual presence of death is spontaneous emotional feeling whose expression custom rigidly prescribed, while the mourning associated with the prophetic prediction of national disaster is an activity which is motivated by the hope of altering the path of impending doom. The thought seems to be that to mourn before a disaster is better than mourning afterward, particularly if it is efficacious in averting the calamity. In an era when it was firmly and widely believed that God is present and that He controls the affairs of men, it can be seen that penitential mourning would be urged upon a nation by the prophets. As in the case of prayer, it was sincerely felt that mourning changes things. It would be one-sided, however, to think of these national expressions of mourning in the OT as hypocritical activities designed solely to change God’s mind. On the contrary, national mourning was intended also to be an expression of a heartfelt contrition at having ignored or violated the word of the Lord. To avoid the divine displeasure, return to compliance with God’s will was expressed by the ceremonies of mourning marking the death of that which had produced the divine disfavor. The prophet Joel shows the repentant attitude in mourning clearly when he calls for a mourning that is a rending of the heart, rather than a rending of the garment in order to persuade God to turn and repent (Joel 2:12-17).

David’s breach of custom in behaving in a mournful fashion before the death of Bathsheba’s child, instead of after his death, was prob. the definitive example that gave sincere mourning the purposeful character of influencing God rather than remaining simply a spontaneous manifestation of grief (2 Sam 12:15-23).

Mourning customs

Personal behavior.

Prohibited from being a part of the Jewish mourning rites were certain practices found among pagan neighbors, e.g., gashing the flesh or shaving the head or beard (Lev 19:28; Deut 14:1; Jer 16:6; cf. the priests of Baal on Mt. Carmel, 1 Kings 18:28). These pagan customs of propitiating and honoring the spirits of the dead by blood letting or offering hair to them, were clearly too much like the Canaanite agricultural festivals which the Mosaic code castigated. It has been suggested that the practices of covering the head (2 Sam 15:30; Esth 6:12; Jer 14:3) and the beard were introduced to replace the forbidden rituals (A Standard Bible Dictionary, 562), but little evidence can be found in the Bible for making the one a substitution instead of the other.


“Rending of the garments,” or tearing a slit in the bottom of an item of apparel, was a universal sign among the Hebrews signifying grief and distress (Gen 37:29; 44:13; 2 Sam 3:31; 2 Chron 34:27; Joel 2:13). It was also a pious method of showing holy indignation and zeal (Ezra 9:3; Acts 14:14). The high priest pretended to have such feelings when he tore his robe at Jesus’ trial (Matt 26:65). Gaster feels that rending is either “a later form of the more primitive practice of gashing the flesh,” or an ancient “method of disguising oneself so that hovering demons may be foiled” (T. H. Gaster, Customs and Folkways of Jewish Life, 162). A more Biblical interpretation of this rite suggested by R. de Vaux is that it expresses natural sorrow as well as religious piety and duty, but without any thought of forming a cult of the dead (Ancient Israel, 61).

Formal lamentations.

In the later part of the OT paid professional mourners, generally female, take an important place in the mourning rituals. Known as “mourning women” or “skillful women” (Jer 9:17; KJV “cunning women”), or as “singing women” (2 Chron 35:25), these individuals embellished the funeral rites with skillfully contrived dirges and eulogies (Amos 5:16). Sometimes they were accompanied by flutes (Matt 9:23). Their office was passed on from mother to daughter (Jer 9:20). In due time these mournfully sung elegies became a stylized treatment of a limited number of themes which could readily be applied to almost any individual.

The meaning of mourning.

Various explanations are given of mourning. Some speak of the mourning rituals as a token of submission to the dead who are thought to have power to help or hurt the living; others argue that men are disguising themselves from a god or spirits of the dead who may otherwise choose them next after having struck so close (SHERK, vol. 8, 31, 32). Undoubtedly the Heb. customs were closely related to the universal tradition of the ancient near-oriental peoples, but there is no foundation in the Scriptures for holding that these outward practices represented any form of a cult for the dead.

In the OT the outward signs of mourning were called for in situations of repentance and supplication as well as sorrow. This would indicate that the rituals were more than natural expressions of sorrow. Paul’s words to the Thessalonians, “that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope” (1 Thess 4:13), show grief as a natural expression that is transformed by religious belief. Likewise, for the Heb. aware of the presence of a loving God, mourning rites could be neither mere expressions of sorrow nor forms of cultic veneration.


W. Nowack, “Mourning and Mourning Customs,” A Standard Bible Dictionary (1909), 562, 563; R. Zehnpfund, “Mourning Customs, Hebrew,” SHERK, vol. 8 (1910), 31, 32; G. Stahlin, “θρηνέω, G2577,” TDNT, vol. 3 (1933), 148-155; J. Pedersen, Israel, vols. 3, 4 (1940), 455-458; T. H. Gaster, Customs and Folkways of Jewish Life (1955), 137-177; R. deVaux, AIs (1961), 56-61; E. Jacob, “Mourning,” IDB, vol. 3 (1962), 452-454.

International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (1915)


See Burial; Grief.