CLOTHES, RENDING OF. A symbolic act characteristic of the emotional expression of grief common among eastern peoples. The suggestion is that life is ended in the face of catastrophe, and the common appurtenances of life are no longer of interest or necessity. In Reuben’s case, upon the discovery of the empty cistern where Joseph had been incarcerated, the action was spontaneous (Gen 37:29, 34). The formalization of the act was, however, already visible in the case of Joshua, Tamar, and Job as a sign of affliction or supplication (Josh 7:6; 2 Sam 13:19; Job 1:20; 2:12). Ezra specified the garments involved, as though by his time the legalities of emergent Judaism were establishing degrees of demonstration in the act (Ezra 9:3). It was recognized as a sign of funeral mourning in Levitical times, for Aaron was forbidden thus to grieve for his delinquent sons (Lev 10:6).
In NT contexts the formality of the custom is clear. The high priest “rent his garments,” as the judge was required to do in the presence or sound of blasphemy. These garments were the two chitons (Mark 14:63, Gr.) which people of rank wore. Matthew 26:65, the parallel context, uses the general word for clothes. The act was a histrionic conventionality, but it was also a deeply ingrained practice, as illustrated by Acts 14:14. Faced with the horrible situation of divine reverence paid to them, Paul and Barnabas “rent their clothes.” Figuratively contexts underline the emptiness of the formality in times of spiritual degeneracy (Joel 2:13).
International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (1915)
See also MOURNING.