Not unlike the Evil Eye, it appears that threshold rituals are also surprisingly ancient and widespread. When we find religious practices held in common by the ancient Assyria, tribal Melanesia, and contemporary Central Asia, that’s something worth digging into a bit. Humanity, it seems, impulsively fears the demonic entering their homes through their doorways. This fear has resulted in some common responses among the religious beliefs and traditions of the world.
Take this obscure rebuke from Zephaniah 1:9,
On that day I will punish everyone who leaps over the threshold, and those who fill their masters house with violence.
Here’s a historical explanation of this verse: “Evil spirits were often believed in the ancient Near East to be able to enter temples and homes via windows and doors, especially if someone stepped on a threshold (cf. 1 Sam 5:5). This is perhaps why the Assyrians often buried sacred objects below their thresholds.”*
Apparently there were residents of Judah in Zephaniah’s day who were leaping over thresholds because they had been influenced by the pagan religions around them. They believed that by not stepping on the threshold of the door, they could protect the space they were entering from evil spiritual forces. This was of course syncretism which would be part of the reason for Judah’s coming judgment. Even though some might view this as a relatively harmless folk belief, here we see how seriously God takes this kind of attempt to fight the demonic by borrowing from the rituals of the pagans. Missionaries, let us take note.
As soon as I read the part about Assyrians burying sacred objects below their threshold, I was transported back to high school, when one of my Melanesian teachers shared her testimony. One of the key parts of proclaiming her faith in Jesus was her agreement to dig out and throw away the sacred ancestor stone that was buried in the dirt beneath her door frame. This stone, viewed as a spiritual necessity by her tribesmen, was buried in order to protect her house from evil spirits and the curses of enemy witch doctors. When she dug it out her family was furious and made genuine threats against her life. But by getting rid of that stone she was proclaiming that Jesus now protected her from the threats of the spiritual realm, not her sacred ancestor stone. It was a hill to die on.
How fascinating that the ancient Assyrians had the same practice of burying sacred objects below thresholds. Did these things ultimately come from the same early pagan practices that emerged sometime in the first eleven chapters of Genesis? Or did they arise independently, inspired by the demonic who seem to have a pretty similar playbook they use in the animistic/polytheistic systems that have emerged around the globe? Was all of this some kind of hijacking of what occurred at the Passover, when the lamb’s blood spread on the door posts protected God’s people from the angel of death?
Sacred objects being buried is one threshold ritual which attempts to protect against evil spirits. Another is to avoid stepping on the threshold, as was mentioned earlier in Zephaniah 1:9. If we follow the cross-reference in that passage to 1st Samuel 5:5, we learn that Dagon’s head and hands were mysteriously cut off and found on the threshold and Dagon’s torso was found lying facedown in front of the Ark of the Covenant. “This is why the priests of Dagon and all who enter the house of Dagon do not tread on the threshold of Dagon in Ashdod to this day.” Apparently YHWH, by placing these idol pieces on the threshold, was communicating in a form the Ashdodites would clearly understand. An enemy spiritual power has been here, one more powerful than your patron “god.” Not only can he can cross this threshold, he can dismember your idol and leave him on the threshold for double emphasis. The Ashdodites, rightly terrified, decide to never step on that threshold again. Why exactly they thought that would accomplish anything is unclear, but perhaps they thought it was better than doing nothing. Typical religious response.
The Islamic traditions in our part of Central Asia advocate for their own threshold rituals. But instead of burying things or not stepping on things, they focus on the goodness of the right side and the badness of the left side. This likely has links to the old idea that the right side is the side of honor, as is often picked up in biblical language and imagery. But apparently our local friends are also taught that Satan does everything with his left side. So he eats with his left hand, leads with his left side, and most importantly, enters a room with his left foot.
Therefore, for a good Muslim, you must not enter a room (especially a mosque) with your left foot first. You should be careful to enter with your right foot only. This also applies if two men are walking through a door side by side. The one on the right should be allowed to go first, leading with his right foot of course, then the man on the left can enter with his right foot. This in some way is supposed to fight evil, not unlike the way locals build staircases with one random step always higher than the others, “to stop Satan.” Seems more likely to cause missionaries severe pain in the middle of the night when the power has gone out than to do anything of consequence to Satan.
Missionaries would be wise to keep an eye out for the presence and importance of threshold rituals among our focus people groups. Some of them, like those of my Melanesian teacher, will be so serious as to warrant repudiation as an expression of true faith. Others, like those in my Central Asian context, are not quite this serious. Because they have shifted out of a serious spiritual practice and into a simple tradition or way of being polite, it’s not necessary for us to strongly emphasize our freedom to enter a room with our left foot first. Sure, we talk about it and joke around with our local believing friends, sometimes insisting that the man on the left go first because we are those who do not believe the local folk religion. But it seems to be heading in the direction of “Gesundheit” and less like digging up a sacred ancestor stone, with its accompanying death threats. Still, we need to ask more questions because these beliefs can go very deep, only reemerging in force in times of crisis and weakness. It was always when a child was very sick that Melanesian Christians were most tempted to return to the old witch doctor.
But whether we need to relieve a believer of threshold-demon fear or simply help one another better understand these fears that are out there, we can have confidence in the power of the Spirit. He is the Lord of thresholds, the one who dismembered Dagon on his own doorstep. He can keep us from spiritual harm, whether we are too afraid of the demonic or not afraid enough. The simple practices of spiritual warfare advocated in the New Testament are sufficient. Elaborate threshold rituals are not required.
No leaping over my threshold, please. Leave the burying of items to my future dog. And when you come over, feel free to enter with your left foot first.
*ESV Archaeology Study Bible, p.1309