The Right Hand Of Blessing
Dr. Orville Boyd Jenkins
Many peoples of the world consider the left hand a shameful hand. This was true of many African tribes we came into contact with. A friend of mine once told me one of his Maasai friends commented that my friend was writing the Maasai's name with his left hand! It is only a mild matter with the Maasai, but can be a very serious moral breach in some tribes. Likewise in Arab culture, you must be careful how you use your left hand.
The Hand of Offence
It is considered an offence to hand someone something with your left hand in some cultures. In East Africa, the common practice was to use either the right hand alone or with both hands. When greeting someone, it was common to hold one's own right arm at the wrist or above while shaking the other person's hand with the right hand. This practice is found all the way through central Africa and to the Cape. We found the same practice when we lived in South Africa.
This distinction of the left hand as inferior, or shameful, is an ancient concept that is reflected in today's Middle East and shows up in Biblical events. The favorite son of Jacob, for instance, was named Ben-Yamin, the Son of my Right Hand, indicating his favored position.
A missionary in East Africa told of an experience in his ministry. In central Tanzania he was eating with Gogo pastors after a meeting. He reached into the ugali (also called sadza or nsima) with his left hand. The others pushed their chairs back and their mouths dropped open in shock.
For the Gogo, use of the left hand pronounces a curse on the whole household. This is similar for many African peoples. In Swahili the right hand is mkono wa kulia, "the eating hand." By contrast, the left hand is mkono wa kushoto "the crooked, unruly, or perverse hand!"
The Hand of Cursing
That missionary also said that once in the market, when he reached to pay a woman with his left hand, she slapped his hand, saying: "Don't you curse me!" In much of Africa, and the Arab world, you will see people giving and receiving with both hands.
The Hand of Blessing
My friend points out that this relates to the Old Testament concept of God's right hand of blessing. Jacob was branded by God in the thigh after wrestling with the angel of God. This presents an interesting concept of blessing even under duress. But that will have to wait for another article!
The Son of the Right Hand
The name Ben-yamin (Benjamin) means "son of my right hand," indicating "the one loved." Benjamin's original name Ben-oni meant "son of my pain." (Rachel died bearing him.) But to his father Ben-oni was Ben-yamin, "the right hand (the beloved) son."
Joseph required Jacob to give up Benjamin. We all have a "Benjamin." Can we give it up to get God's blessing? Jacob had to pray "Hold back the blessings, God, they are too many!"
God's Right Hand
Let us strive for God's right-handed blessing. Let us strive to be God's right hand to those around us. Let us use the cultural patterns of relationship and blessing to those God brings into our path.
Dealing with Differences
Gas Pumping and Finger Pointing Fiasco
What Everyone Needs to Know Before Communicating Across Cultures
Related on the Internet:
Original version of this article published in Focus on Communication Effectiveness, November 1993
Web version first posted May 2001
Posted on the Jenkins Millennium Culture Centre 28 May 2002
Revised 18 August 2010
Last edited 30 December 2011
Original written in response to an email query 20 October 2008
Developed into an article for Thoughts and Resources 27 December 2011
Orville Boyd Jenkins, EdD, PhD
Copyright © 1993, 2001, 2002 Orville Boyd Jenkins
Permission granted for free download and transmission for personal or educational use. Other rights reserved.