Question: "What did it mean to tear one's clothes in the Bible?"
Answer: The tearing of one’s clothes is an ancient tradition among the Jews, and it is associated with mourning, grief, and loss. The first mention of someone tearing his garments is in Genesis. “When Reuben returned to the cistern and saw that Joseph was not there, he tore his clothes” (Genesis 37:29). A short time later, “Jacob tore his clothes, put on sackcloth and mourned for his son many days” (Genesis 37:34) when he thought that Joseph had been killed.
Other biblical examples of men who tore their clothes to express pain and sorrow include David, when Saul and Jonathan were killed (2 Samuel 1:11–12); Elisha, when Elijah was taken up into heaven (2 Kings 2:11–12); Job, when he was bereft of all he possessed (Job 1:20); Jephthah, when he learned the result of his rash vow (Judges 11:34–35); Mordecai, when he learned of Haman’s plot to destroy the Jews (Esther 4:1); Ahab, when Elijah pronounced a judgment against him (1 Kings 21:27); and Paul and Barnabas, when the people of Lystra began to worship them (Acts 14:14).
Sometimes, the tearing of one’s clothes was accompanied by other signs of humility and grief, such as shaving one’s head (Job 1:20), throwing dust on oneself (Job 2:12), and wearing sackcloth (2 Samuel 3:31).
There were times when people should have torn their garments but did not. The prophet Jeremiah received the Word of God concerning a soon-coming judgment on Judah. Jeremiah faithfully wrote the prophecy in a scroll and delivered it to King Jehoiakim. The king listened to the first part of the prophecy, but then he took a knife, cut the scroll in pieces, and burned it in a brazier (Jeremiah 36:23). This impious act was met with chilling stoicism from his aides: “The king and all his attendants who heard all these words showed no fear, nor did they tear their clothes” (verse 24). If ever there was a time to tear one’s clothes, this was it; but these men had no fear of God, no remorse, no conviction of sin.
It is interesting that the high priest was not allowed to tear his clothes: “The high priest, the one among his brothers who has had the anointing oil poured on his head and who has been ordained to wear the priestly garments, must not . . . tear his clothes” (Leviticus 21:10). The special nature of the high priestly office dictated a separation from some of the common customs, including that of mourning.
Tearing one’s clothes was a public and powerful expression of grief in ancient times. The practice is continued today in the Jewish practice of keriah. Today’s ritual is less spontaneous and more regulated: the garment is cut by a rabbi at a funeral service, as the bereaved recite words relating to God’s sovereignty. One tradition says that the mourner must tear the clothing over the heart—a sign of a broken heart.
More important than outward shows of grief are true sorrow for sin and genuine repentance of the heart. The prophet Joel relayed God’s command: “Rend your heart and not your garments” (Joel 2:13). The One who sees the heart requires more than external ritual. And the command came with a promise: “Return to the LORD your God, for he is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in love, and he relents from sending calamity” (Joel 2:13; cf. Psalm 34:18).