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Bible Dictionaries

Holman Bible Dictionary

Laying on of Hands

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A ritual act wherein hands are placed on a person or animal in order to establish some spiritual communion.

Old Testament Laying on of hands is primarily associated in the Old Testament with the sacrifices prescribed in the Law. An Israelite making a burnt offering was to lay his hand on the animal's head that it might be an acceptable sacrifice for his atonement (Leviticus 1:4 ; Leviticus 8:18 ). Peace offerings (Leviticus 3:2-13 ) and sin offerings (Leviticus 4:4-33 ; Leviticus 8:14 ) were made in the same way, as were the offering of the “ram of consecration” or ordination (Leviticus 8:22 ) and the sin offering on the annual day of atonement (Leviticus 16:21 ).

To lay hands on the sacrificial animal was a means of transferring one's iniquity to the animal (Leviticus 16:22 ). Sins of the congregation were transferred by the elders (Leviticus 4:15 ) or the high priest (Leviticus 16:21 ) as the people's representatives. Later the king and princes acted on behalf of the nation (2 Chronicles 29:20-24 ). When the Levites were presented to the Lord as a wave offering from the Israelites, the whole assembly laid hands on them (Numbers 8:10 ). The sin of blasphemy was viewed as so severe that all who overheard one cursing the name of the Lord laid their hands on his head prior to stoning him to death (Leviticus 24:14-16 ). While the primary texts convey little of the spiritual meaning of these rituals, later Old Testament texts emphasize the importance of “a broken spirit: a broken and a contrite heart” (Psalm 51:17 ).

The act of laying on of hands had other meanings in the Old Testament. Jacob (“Israel”) blessed Ephraim and Manasseh by laying his hands on their heads (Genesis 48:13-20 ), and the Psalmist celebrated the Lord's protection as a blessing bestowed by God's having “laid thine hand upon me” (Psalm 139:5 ). Job longed for someone who could arbitrate between himself and God by laying “his hand upon us both” (Job 9:33 ). Moses commissioned Joshua and transferred some of his authority to him by the laying on of hands (Numbers 27:18-23 ; Deuteronomy 34:9 ). Elisha laid his hands on King Joash's hands as a prophetic act signifying God's promise to provide Israel victory over Syria (2 Kings 13:16 ). In addition, the Old Testament frequently uses the image of laying hands on someone as an act of arrest, capture, or violence (Genesis 27:22 ; Exodus 22:11 ; 2 Chronicles 23:15 ; Esther 2:21 ).

New Testament The most frequent usage of the expression in the New Testament relates to the arrest or capture of someone (Matthew 26:50 ; Mark 14:46 ; Luke 21:12 ; John 7:44 ; Acts 4:3 ; Acts 12:1 ). In contrast, miraculous healing accompanied the laying on of hands. Jesus healed a blind man (Mark 8:23-25 ), the sick (Mark 6:5 ; Luke 4:40 ), and a woman with “a spirit of infirmity” (Luke 13:11-13 ) by laying hands on them. This seems to have been a characteristic means of healing (Mark 5:23 ), and Jesus' disciples continued the practice (Mark 16:18 ; Acts 9:12-17 ; Acts 28:8 ). Some view healing by laying on of hands as an extension of the Old Testament blessing. A more explicit example of this is Jesus' laying hands on children to bless them (Mark 10:16 ; Matthew 19:13-15 ).

Acts introduces the dynamic but fluid practice of the early church. Acts 6:1 relates the selection of seven men who were put in charge of the daily service to the widows of the Jerusalem congregation. These men were chosen by the congregation, brought before the apostles, and, after prayer, had hands (whether the congregation's or the apostles' is unclear) laid on them. Fasting, prayer, and the laying on of hands also accompanied the appointment of Barnabas and Saul to their missionary endeavor ( Acts 13:3 ). Peter and John laid hands on baptized believers in Samaria so they might receive the Holy Spirit (Acts 8:14-19 ). Paul did the same for some disciples at Ephesus who had been baptized into John the Baptist's baptism (Acts 19:6 ). These disciples began speaking in tongues and prophesying as evidence of the Holy Spirit.

In 1,2Timothy Paul wrote of Timothy's having been given a spiritual gift by prophecy with the laying on of the hands of the assembly of elders (1 Timothy 4:14 ). He also referred to a gift of God that was in Timothy through the laying on of Paul's hands (2 Timothy 1:6 ). Paul warned against laying hands on any one hastily (1 Timothy 5:22 ).

Hebrews classified laying on of hands among the elementary teachings that persons of maturity must leave behind (Hebrews 6:2 ).

Michael Fink


Copyright Statement
These dictionary topics are from the Holman Bible Dictionary, published by Broadman & Holman, 1991. All rights reserved. Used by permission of Broadman & Holman.

Bibliography Information
Butler, Trent C. Editor. Entry for 'Laying on of Hands'. Holman Bible Dictionary. https://www.studylight.org/dictionaries/hbd/l/laying-on-of-hands.html. 1991.

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Thursday, December 5th, 2019
the First Week of Advent
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