Abarim Publications' online Biblical Hebrew Dictionary
The root רגל (rgl) isn't used as verb in the Bible and it's unknown what it might have meant. Its derived feminine noun רגל (regel) means foot, and appears to have no cognates in languages other than Aramaic. It occurs 245 times and is used primarily for human feet (Genesis 18:4, Exodus 3:5, Job 13:27) or legs (Ezekiel 16:25), sometimes for the feet of birds, insects and other animals (Genesis 8:9, Leviticus 11:42, Job 39:15), and on occasion for the legs of a table (Exodus 25:26). Both Seraphim and Cherubim are reported to have feet (Isaiah 6:2, 2 Chronicles 3:13, Ezekiel 1:7), and even YHWH has feet (Exodus 24:10, 2 Samuel 22:10).
Our noun also features in a rich bouquet of expressions: "according to one's feet" describes the pace at which one can go (Genesis 33:14); "at one's feet" appears to denote submission or nearness (Genesis 30:30, Isaiah 41:2), and "to lift one's feet" denotes undertaking action or going somewhere (Genesis 29:1).
Note that in the Bible the idea of certainty is depicted as the mind's "solid ground" (see our article on the Greek word πιστις, pistis, meaning faith). In this same symbolic system, the feet mean to the body what social manners and basic people skills mean to the individual mind. It's where the individual touches the world.
Feet and erotica in the Bible
It's been overly reported that in Hebrew "feet" may be a euphemism for the male genitals, but that's jumping the gun a bit. Men would wear long tunics and any kind of laborious activity would require hoisting up the tunic to free one's feet (that's where the "girding of the loins" comes from; 1 Kings 18:46). The colloquial expression "covering one's feet" is the opposite of that, and describes a pose of rest. All this is on a par with keeping one's ears and eyes open during periods of activity and alertness, and covering ears and eyes during periods of slumber.
The expression "covering one's feet" is in English almost perfectly reflected in the expression "taking a load off," which also describes a pose of rest after performing labor. When judge Ehud had murdered fat king Eglon of Moab, Eglon's servants didn't dare to go into the room he lay bleeding and spilling his refuse because they figured he was "covering his feet," which in this case strongly implies that they thought he was taking a load off by taking a dump (Judges 3:24). Likewise, during one of Saul's campaigns to apprehend David, Saul went into a cave to "cover his feet," which only means that he went in there to take a load off (1 Samuel 24:3). In this case it is implied that Saul was taking a nap.
When at the end of a working day or long journey, a man came into a home — his own or someone else's — the "covering of his feet" would be preceded by the washing of them (Genesis 18:4, 1 Samuel 25:41). One would obviously not recline to dine and certainly not slide into bed with one's wife with unwashed feet, and that ties the washing of feet with taking a rest after a period of work, having diner and sleeping with one's wife. When David sent Uriah home to "wash his feet" (2 Samuel 11:8) he didn't express his concerns for Uriah's smelly feet but literally told him to go home and take a load off, implying that he would subsequently sleep with his wife Bathsheba. When Jesus washed the feet of his disciples, he also implied that he had brought them into a period of domestic rest (John 13:5), but when Mary anointed Jesus' feet with fragrant oil, she unmistakably prepared Jesus for his wedding night (John 12:3, see for more on this our article on the name Nicodemus).
Commentators usually miss the sexual connotation of Mary anointing Jesus' feet, but erroneously ascribe a sexual connotation to Ruth's dealings with Boaz (Ruth 3:1-18). Naomi told Ruth to go into Boaz' quarters after he had dined and gone to sleep (for which he had washed and covered his feet), and uncover his feet and lay herself at his feet. When Boaz woke up in the middle of the night he noticed that his feet were uncovered and a lady was sleeping at his feet.
Boaz was obviously a man of honor who not only wanted to honor the levirate law but also wanted to allow a closer relative to marry Ruth (Ruth 3:12-13). What women back in those days still knew was that no woman can catch an honorable man by putting out on the first date. If Ruth had uncovered Boaz' privates that night, he would doubtlessly have kicked her out of his tent. Now that she had uncovered his feet and lay herself at his feet, she indicated that she placed herself at Boaz' service and also respectfully asked Boaz to go to work for her. Boaz got the message, did the honorable thing and even protected her from the walk of shame (3:14). Boaz contacted Ruth's close relative and offered him his rights to Ruth (4:1), but the relative declined and demonstrated as much by removing his sandal, which is also a symbol of the foot-genre (4:7). Someone who puts a sandal on his foot indicates he's fixing for action (Exodus 12:11, Isaiah 5:27); someone who removes a sandal indicates his standing down (Exodus 3:5). When John the Baptist said he was unworthy to untie Jesus' sandal, he also indicated that he could not possibly take over Jesus' work and give him a break (Luke 3:16).
Another much quoted reference to feet possibly euphemizing genitals is Isaiah 7:20, where Isaiah states that YHWH will use the king of Assyria as a razor with which he will shave Judah's head and "hair of the feet," which is then explained to denote pubic hair. Here at Abarim Publications we have no objection to pubic hair but see no reason to let hair of the feet denote pubic hair. It simply reads that the Lord will shave Judah head to toe, from top to bottom (and read our article on Hair In The Bible).
Other derivations from this same root are:
- The denominative verb רגל (ragal), meaning to hoof it, to go on foot, mostly in the sense of spying out a place (Numbers 21:32, Joshua 6:25, 2 Samuel 10:3). Twice this verb is used to mean to slander (Psalm 15:3, 2 Samuel 19:28) but it's not directly clear how the link works; possibly via the proverbial dirt on one's feet, possibly via a stepping on someone, but most probably this verb denotes a step-by-step eyes-wide-open exploration of a place or figuratively, a person.
- The adjective רגלי (ragly), denoting foot-folk and particularly foot-soldiers (Exodus 12:37, Judges 20:2, Jeremiah 12:5).
- The feminine noun מרגלות (margelot), meaning place of the feet (Ruth 3:4, 3:7 and Daniel 10:6 only).