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In the King James version of the Bible, Exodus 3:5, we read,

And he said, Draw not nigh hither: put off thy shoes from off thy feet, for the place whereon thou standest is holy ground.

We are to understand that this act was a sign of respect for holy ground, but was it already customary to perform this act on holy ground?

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The practice to remove shoes (and other parts of clothing) in various circumstances seems to permeate throughout ancient cultures. Even with a liberal dating of Exodus around 700 BC, that still places the practice as very old among the Jewish people. Various reasons given include respect and hygene:

It was a custom for a person to remove their shoes as a mark of respect when approaching a Nazarene, or a place where a Nazarene lived or was buried. The practice primarily related to hygene rules.
The Bible, The Hallowed Book of Man - Robert George Crosbie

Other sources: Why are sandals considered to be unholy? and Was removing one's shoes a special sign of respect?

To date the practice before Moses, we'd need an older Jewish instance, but they seem hard to find, including the absence in any earlier Biblical stories (both in real dating and chronology). Jews in general believe that the practice was taught to Moses and was not known (at least to them) before that time. For example:

[T]he Jewish custom that requires mourners who at the conclusion of a funeral to remove their shoes in the graveyard as they depart the palce of burial ... undeniably echoes Jewish behavior on hallowed ground. This is a practice that God taught Moses when he warned him to "take off your shoes from your feet ..."
When a Jew Dies - Samuel C. Heilman

However, Egyptians removed their shoes when entering their temples, and the story tells us that Moses was raised as a prince by Egyptians, so he should have had much contact with Egyptian priests.

[Egyptian] priests wore papyrus or palm leaf sandals made so that they could be slipped on from the front or rear. Egyptian priests removed their shoes out of respect for their gods. It was also the custom to remove sandals in the presence of superior rank . Shoes were worn outside the house but never in the home.
History of Sandals - "Egyptian Sandals"

Conclusion

This seems to me, if we believe Exodus accurately describes Moses' life, strong evidence that Moses was keenly aware of removing foot ware for many reasons, including religious ones.


Extra Information

The burial of one's own dead in a place in effect turns that place into one's family's hallowed ground on which those who mourn must remove their shoes ... Death numinously transforms these places so that they are no longer profane and are set apart from the rest of the world. These places then serve, as we have seen, as special portals for petitions to heaven, places where the bond connecting mourners, the dead, and God are ritually reenacted and affirmed.
When a Jew Dies - Samuel C. Heilman

While searching for sources, I found this concept of transformation of the profane into something holy, merely because something divine has happened, opened a few doors for some interesting cultural explanations that do not exist in our modern society. It would seem that the idea that a "divine touch" makes things holy, therefore makes them no longer usable in common use. God touched the ground where the burning bush was, making it holy, but had Moses' shoes then touched that ground, they would also have been made holy and it would then be a blasphemy to use them in common vulgarities.

[I]t was common practice in many cultures to remove their shoes when walking on sacred ground lest their sandals become transformed. Contact with hallowed ground would have made their shoes unusable for everyday living. Priests and other individuals, who regularly were exposed to the divine, often wore special garments that were reserved for that purpose.
Göbekli Tepe: The Burying Of An Ancient Megalithic Site - Dr. Rita Louise

The author continues, discussing a different culture but contemporary to Moses', and notes that ancient peoples feared unintentionally making things holy:

A god, or his human counterpart, could not be touched; his possessions could not be handled. Likewise, if he touched you or something that belonged to you, its status was instantly changed. The rules of taboo included their home and anything in it. If a divine agent entered someone’s home, their home became sanctified and no one else could go into it or use it. Even the ground a divinity walked upon was deemed holy. Their fear of unintentionally coming into contact with something sacred was so powerful that it became custom in many regions to carry the god-king upon a littler so his feet did not touch the ground.
ibid

I can't help but reminded of the strict "no touch" rule of the Ark of the Covenant in this instance. I suspect that Moses had many ideas and images about removal of foot ware and some of them may have included ideas such as the above.

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This is also stated from the bible:

Acts 7:33 "Then the Lord said to him, 'Take off your sandals, for the place where you are standing is holy ground.

Yes, this is already a custom to us, even on other religion, as you said, a sign of respect. Even during the time of Moses, when God talks to him at the bushes, to remove any dirt before meeting God.

  • Sub text: bathe before you go to church. (Your fellow parishoners will thank you). :-) – KorvinStarmast Mar 26 '16 at 2:05
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    I'm not sure how this passage demonstrates that the practice was "customary" prior to Exodus 3:5. – Nathaniel Mar 26 '16 at 4:07
  • Nathaniel is correct. But I do not think there is any scripture showing this custom before Exodus 3:5. That is why I supplied reasoning in my answer. Yet I was criticized by Nathaniel for not providing scriptural references… go figure. – Jack Swayze Sr Mar 26 '16 at 19:02
  • @JackSwayzeSr The criticism was for not providing any source. – fredsbend Dec 22 '16 at 0:13
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I have visited people who request that I remove my shoes in their home. Evidently, this prolongs the life of the carpet.

I live in a home without carpet so I walk around with shoes.

If we assume that Moses lived in tents at this time and if we assume that these tents had a floor of cloth to them, then it would be customary to remove your shoes upon entering the tent of someone else.

So maybe God was saying that Moses was in the tent of God.

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