In the ancient world, clothing held symbolic value. Dress could indicate status, power or membership in an elite group. A purple robe, for example, represented royal authority (Esther 8:15); a linen ephod distinguished priests from mere worshippers (1 Samuel 22:18).
Clothing could also represent the wearer’s responsibilities. The removal of a shoe represented a rejection or a denial of obligation, as in the case of the levirate marriage (Deuteronomy 25:5-10). A garment could even stand in for its owner: For example, letters found in the ancient archives of Mari, in Syria, describe a professional prophet sending a piece of his hem to the king as both identification and a guarantee that his prophecy will come true.
Throughout the Hebrew Bible, the accumulation or receipt of clothing has positive connotations, as seen in Jacob’s famous gift of a tunic to his favorite son, Joseph (Genesis 37:3), and Hannah’s yearly present of a robe to her son, Samuel (1 Samuel 2:19). The loss of clothing and the status associated with it, however, can be humiliating, even devastating. The Ammonites, Israel’s enemies east of the Jordan, embarrass King David’s messengers by cutting their garments at the buttocks (2 Samuel 10:4-5)….
Several times in the Bible, the act of rending garments represents the gain or loss of a kingdom. The prophet Ahijah, for example, rips a garment into twelve pieces and tells Jeroboam to take ten of them, since God has declared, “I am tearing the kingdom from Solomon and I am giving you the ten tribes” (1 Kings 11:30-31). And when, earlier, Saul rips the prophet Samuel’s cloak, a princely garment that symbolizes the prophet’s calling and dignity, Samuel proclaims, “God has ripped the kingdom of Israel from you today and has given it to one who is better than you” (1 Samuel 15:28). Ironically, Saul grasps Samuel’s cloak only as a gesture of supplication or submission, and David intends only to cut off a distinctive part of Saul’s garment—both acts, however, take on a far greater meaning in this context.