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There are several references on left/right in the Bible. In general to be at right is good but to be at left is bad.

See, for example, Matthew 25:33

"He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left."

What is the origin and meaning of this symbolism left/right?

Here in Brazil, several left-handed children struggled at school because of this symbolism. These children had their left hands tied so that they were forced to write with their right hands.

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  • Jose Bortolossi I have edited your question including 25:31 changed to 25:33. I hope all changes meet with your approval. If not just delete them.
    – C. Stroud
    Apr 23, 2023 at 14:07
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    'Right' is not always 'right'. Judges 20:16 seven hundred chosen men lefthanded; every one could sling stones at an hair breadth, and not miss. And not forgetting left-handed Ehud who slew Eglon. There is spiritual meaning in this : faith that does not follow the usual course of nature. Up-voted +1.
    – Nigel J
    Apr 23, 2023 at 20:12
  • @NigelJ I was told by a Biblical theologian that these two passages meant that both of these cases were elite warriors, trained to be ambidextrous, and they were called left-handed because they were also capable with their left hands, not exclusively. The Judges 20 passage seems to be the main source, I believe.
    – Nacht
    Apr 23, 2023 at 23:20
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    Oof. The symbolism of right hand does not justify forcing children to switch handedness.
    – Joshua
    Apr 24, 2023 at 1:35

3 Answers 3

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In most languages, both ancient and modern, the "right" is associated with righteousness and justice, while the left is associated with evil.

Even in modern English, if a person is said to have handled a meeting "with dexterity", (Latin: dextra = right) the meaning is that the person handled the situation with tact and wisdom. By contrast "sinister" (Latin: left) means evil or bad. Even in more modern times, left-handed people (until only about 70 years ago) were thought of as unreliable and often had their left-handedness beaten out of them at school!

In the Bible Hebrew the same distinction is much less observed. However, we do see a consistent pattern of associating the right hand with power and might. For example:

  • Gen 48:13, 14, 17, 18 - And Joseph took both of them—with Ephraim in his right hand toward Israel’s left hand, and Manasseh in his left hand toward Israel’s right hand—and brought them close to him. But Israel stretched out his right hand and put it on the head of Ephraim, the younger; and crossing his hands, he put his left on Manasseh’s head, although Manasseh was the firstborn. ... When Joseph saw that his father had placed his right hand on Ephraim’s head, he was displeased and took his father’s hand to move it from Ephraim’s head to Manasseh’s. “Not so, my father!” Joseph said. “This one is the firstborn; put your right hand on his head.”
  • Ex 15:6 - Your right hand, O LORD, is majestic in power; Your right hand, O LORD, has shattered the enemy.
  • Ps 74:11 - Why do You withdraw Your strong right hand? Stretch it out to destroy them!
  • Ps 89:13 - Mighty is Your arm; strong is Your hand. Your right hand is exalted.
  • Ps 110:1 - The LORD said to my Lord: “Sit at My right hand until I make Your enemies a footstool for Your feet.”
  • Ps 110:5 - The Lord is at Your right hand; He will crush kings in the day of His wrath.
  • Ps 118:16 - The right hand of the LORD is exalted! The right hand of the LORD performs with valor!”
  • Isa 48:13 - Surely My own hand founded the earth, and My right hand spread out the heavens; when I summon them, they stand up together.

In the NT, the right hand is consistently associated with power and ability:

  • Matt 22:44 - The Lord said to my Lord, "Sit at My right hand, until I place Your enemies as a footstool for Your feet."'
  • Mark 14:62 - “I am,” said Jesus, “and you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of Power and coming with the clouds of heaven.”
  • Acts 2:33 - Exalted, then, to the right hand of God, He has received from the Father the promised Holy Spirit and has poured out what you now see and hear.
  • Acts 5:31 - God exalted Him to His right hand as Prince and Savior, in order to grant repentance and forgiveness of sins to Israel.
  • Acts 7:56 - “Look,” he said, “I see heaven open and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.”
  • Heb 1:3 - The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of His nature, upholding all things by His powerful word. After He had provided purification for sins, He sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high.
  • Heb 1:13 - Yet to which of the angels did God ever say: “Sit at My right hand until I make Your enemies a footstool for Your feet”?
  • 1 Peter 3:22 - who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers subject to Him.
  • Rev 5:1 - Then I saw a scroll in the right of the One seated on the throne. It had writing on both sides and was sealed with seven seals.
  • Rev 5:7 - And He came and took the scroll from the right of the One seated on the throne.

One assumes that this is due to the greater "dexterity" of the right hand of most people because about 85% of people are right-handed.

The incident in Matt 25 concerning the parable of the righteous sheep on the right, and the unrighteous goats on the left is a perfect illustration of this deeply ingrained cultural idea.

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I would add a further anthropological explanation to those suggested by @user33535. In traditional societies, especially in the Middle East, the left hand is used for wiping one's backside. Even today, in many parts of the Middle East and Asia, this is still the case.

Indeed, Islamic tradition specifies:

Abu Qatadah (May Allah be pleased with him) said: The Prophet (ﷺ) said, "Do not touch your private parts with your right hand while urinating, nor for washing or cleaning [after using the toilet]..."

For this reason, in many cultures, one must not reach into a common food plate with one's left hand, nor should gifts or money be offered with the left.

If we consider that biblical traditions arose out of a nomadic people who often traveled in areas with few trees and little water, we can imagine that hygienic considerations were what gave rise to the left hand being considered unclean and therefore not preferred.

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  • Surely this just pushes the question to what made those nomadic people associate their left hand with being unclean? Apr 24, 2023 at 14:04
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As an aside, the Latin for "left" is sinister.

In the Hebrew Bible or Old Testament, there is no consistent association of left with evil and right with good. In fact, both left and right are used in a variety of ways throughout the Hebrew Bible, with no clear preference for either direction

One example of this is in the book of Ecclesiastes 10:2, where it says, The heart of the wise inclines to the right, but the heart of the fool to the left. Here, the right is associated with wisdom and the left with foolishness, but this is just one instance of such an association and not a consistent theme throughout the Bible. A counter-example would be in Judges 3:15-21, where the left-handed Ehud is able to assassinate the Moabite king Eglon by using his left hand to draw the sword from his right side. In this case, the left hand is associated with skill and cunning, while the right hand is associated with weakness and vulnerability.

Another example is in Psalm 110:1, which says, The Lord said to my Lord, 'Sit at my right hand until I make your enemies a footstool for your feet.' In this case, the right hand is associated with a position of power and authority.


A possible anthropological explanation is that the right hand is traditionally associated with strength and skill because most people are right-handed, and thus the right hand is often used for tasks that require precision and dexterity (in Latin, right is dexter). In contrast, the left hand is less commonly used and can be seen as weaker or less skillful. This association of right with strength and left with weakness may have contributed to the idea of right being associated with good and left with evil.

Another possible explanation is that the association of left with evil and right with good is related to the way we organize space and movement. Many cultures traditionally organize space and movement in terms of cardinal directions, with east, west, north, and south being the primary directions. In this system, the right side is associated with the east (the direction of the rising sun) and the left side with the west (the direction of the setting sun). The east is often associated with new beginnings, birth, and renewal, while the west is associated with death, endings, and decay. This could have contributed to the idea of right being associated with good and left with evil.


In Portuguese, the word for "left" - esquerda - seems to have come from the Latin exsurdus, which means awkward or unlucky.

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    The custom of associating 'east' with 'right' (and hence 'west' with 'left') is a fairly modern Western custom, at most a few centuries old.
    – user56403
    Apr 24, 2023 at 0:56
  • Most Western medieval maps were oriented with east up, and south to the right. That's what the word "orienting" (="easting") a map means, after all. Apr 24, 2023 at 14:03

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