We were out for a walk on Sunday afternoon, wearing jackets appropriate for the brisk 50-degree temperature. I had even donned my Georgia football cap, but still felt a little chilly.
The fall colors are gorgeous this year, if not a bit late, and most houses in our development were built on small but wooded lots, so trees are everywhere, and the walk was nice.
As we made our way out of a cul-de-sac, I noticed a boy walking toward us, so we shifted to the other side of the road. He greeted us cheerfully, and he must have noticed that I was looking at his feet, which were bare.
“No, I’m not crazy!” he said with a smile, then hustled on.
I entertained the thought of walking barefoot over all the acorns and twigs and bits of gravel on the road, and cringed.
Half a mile or so later, we rounded a corner near our only Muslim neighbors, and noticed their two boys out riding a battery-powered scooter, with their feet nearly dragging the ground.
Their feet were also bare, giving rise to other cringe-worthy thoughts. What if they took a tumble? I envisioned broken toes or peeled back nails.
I think of myself as an adventurous sort, but not with my feet: I firmly believe that shoes and socks are among the greatest advances in human civilization.
I remember going barefoot as a boy and enjoying it, but only on the grass. Feeling the soft grass tickling my toes on the first warm day of spring was an annual rite, but tiptoeing over rocks and sticks was never my cup of tea.
We didn’t have much in the way of luxuries when I was young, but my mama made sure we had shoes and socks, and I’m grateful for that.
Biblical folks knew how important it was to take care of their feet, even though they didn’t have socks or protective shoes. Everyone wore sandals, and everyone walked the same dirt paths, so a prime indicator of hospitality was offering guests a chance to wash their dusty feet.
I don’t know if the ancients typically left their sandals at the door as in some shoe-free homes of today, but I doubt it. The first floor of most homes in biblical Israel was made of beaten earth, except for the stall where they kept livestock (that’s right – in the house). The stall was usually paved with pebbles, making it easier to muck out.
Many homes had a second floor made of mud plaster spread over a base of cross beams and some sort of thatch. Neither floor would have been dirt free, and I think I’d have wiped my sandals down and kept them on inside the house.
Come to think of it, the Bible speaks of very few occasions for getting barefoot.
Washing feet is commonly mentioned, usually as a hospitable practice. See, for instance, Genesis 18:4, 19:2, 24:32, 43:24; Judges 19:21; 1 Samuel 25:41; John 13:5-10, 14; 1 Timothy 5:10.
Priests were to wash their hands and feet as a means of purification (Exodus 30:19, 21; 40:31).
Naomi instructed Ruth to sneak into Boaz’s threshing floor blankets and “uncover his feet,” but that suggests something entirely different (Ruth 3:4, 7).
Isaiah believed that God told him to remove both his clothes and his shoes for a time, so he did, “walking naked and barefoot” (Isaiah 20:2). I hope that’s not what my recurring dream about being naked in the pulpit is about.
More memorably, we recall Moses’ careful approach to a burning bush when God spoke from the fiery shrub and said, “Come no closer! Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.” The text never says that Moses did so, but since God kept talking, we assume he complied.
An odd passage in Joshua is similar. What appears to be an incomplete story has the hero come face to face with “the commander of the army of the LORD,” who ordered: “Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place where you stand is holy.” This time the text is clear: “And Joshua did so” (Joshua 5:15).
I take comfort in passages suggesting that God cared about the health of people’s feet. A speech attributed to Moses after the wilderness wandering declares: “The clothes on your back did not wear out and your feet did not swell these 40 years” (Deuteronomy 8:4, quoted in Nehemiah 9:21).
Later on, he added “I have led you 40 years in the wilderness. The clothes on your back have not worn out, and the sandals on your feet have not worn out” (Deuteronomy 29:5). Talk about some old shoes.
I figure that if God cares about my feet, then so should I. Isaiah said, “How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of the messenger who announces peace, who brings good news, who announces salvation, who says to Zion, ‘Your God reigns!’” (Isaiah 52:7).
Paul quoted that text in Romans 10:15: “And how are they to proclaim him unless they are sent? As it is written, ‘How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!’”
And I might add, then, how are they to proclaim unless their feet are in good shape?
Take care of your feet, friends: it’s your Christian duty.
Professor of Old Testament at Campbell University Divinity School in Buies Creek, North Carolina, and the Contributing Editor and Curriculum Writer at Good Faith Media.