Customs and Cultures of Bible Times

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Mosaic Authorship HOW RELIABLE ARE THE GOSPELS
EDWARD D. ANDREWS (AS in Criminal Justice, BS in Religion, MA in Biblical Studies, and MDiv in Theology) is CEO and President of Christian Publishing House. He has authored over 160 books. Andrews is the Chief Translator of the Updated American Standard Version (UASV).

Biblical archaeology is the scientific study of ancient cultures through the examination of their material remains such as buildings, graves, tools, and other artifacts usually dug up from the ground. The biblical archaeologist in Bible lands remove the soil of the earth in a very careful and methodical manner, so as to examine rocks, ruined walls, buildings, the city remains as well as pottery, clay tablets, written inscriptions, coins, and other ancient remains, or artifacts, with the purpose of recording information that can aid in the discovery of what happened. This painstaking work has improved our understanding of 2,500 years of Bible times, from the days of Noah stepping off the ark in about 2369 B.C.E. to the death of the Apostle John in 100 C.E. We have gained immense knowledge of their languages, places of residence, food and meals, clothing, home life, marriage, health, education, the peoples around them, economy, cities and towns, recreation and sports. Our knowledge of all the regions of Bible history has grown immeasurably: Palestine, Egypt, Persia, Assyria, Babylonia, Asia Minor, Greece, and Rome. Archaeology is a relatively new science, as it has only been around for about 200-years.

THE CREATION DAYS OF GENESIS gift of prophecy

Historical-Cultural Elements

The Bible is filled with a rich history of people, places, and events, and God’s interactions with them, personally at times, through materialized angels at other times, but by far, through human representatives.

All Christians desire a full or accurate understanding of the meaning of the Bible. However, most are not aware that they must have knowledge of the historical-cultural and geographical background of the Bible. Without such much of the Bibles true message will be lost, because the read is attempting to impose their modern day mindset on an ancient society, as oppose to bridging that gap, getting back to the Bible times setting.

Judges 16:2-3 Updated American Standard Version (UASV)
2 The Gazites were told, “Samson has come here.” And they surrounded the place and set an ambush for him all night at the gate of the city. They kept quiet all night, saying, “Let us wait till the light of the morning; then we will kill him.” 3 But Samson lay till midnight, and at midnight he arose and took hold of the doors of the gate of the city and the two posts, and pulled them up, bar and all, and put them on his shoulders and carried them to the top of the hill that is in front of Hebron.

Figure 1 City gate from Balawat—Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds

Every Christian is aware of Samson’s superhuman strength that he received through God. However, some biblical accounts come to life when the reader is aware of the background information. What Samson pulled out of the ground at and threw on his shoulders at Judges 16:2-3, weighted minimum of 400-500 pounds, with some suggesting closer to 2,000 pounds. If this feat of strength is not enough to grow our appreciation of Samson’ great strength, the simple statement that he “carried them to the top of the hill that is in front of Hebron,” will do just that. Gaza, the city mentioned here is at sea level, while Hebron is about 3,000 feet above sea level, a serious climb indeed! However, there is more. Hebron is 37 miles from Gaza, uphill all the way! Knowing the weight of the gate and posts, the distance traveled, and that it was uphill, makes Samson’s colossal feat take on a completely new magnitude, does it not?

If most Christians were aware of the need for having some understanding of Bible backgrounds, they would eagerly find the appropriate books that would aid them in this area. It seems that when a pastor adds some Bible background into his sermon, it really enhances what is being said, and is a part of the conversation after the meeting is over by most of the congregants. Learning of the historical setting is paramount in much of the Bible if the reader is going to have an accurate understanding of the text. Many Christians are hungering for this sort of information, which will make their studies come to life. Please see the footnote below, for a section of our Amazon bookstore that will recommend some books that covers this area.[1]

DEFENDING OLD TESTAMENT AUTHORSHIP Agabus Cover BIBLICAL CRITICISM

Places of Residence

Amos 5:19 Updated American Standard Version (UASV)
19     as if a man fled from a lion,
    and a bear met him,
or went into the house and leaned his hand against the wall,
    and a serpent bit him.

Figure 2 First Century C.E. Home

Homes in Bible times were not viewed the same as those of our modern-day Western world. They spent most of the day outside, using the home for protection from the weather, and a place to sleep. In the plains, where one could find little good-quality limestone and sandstone, sunbaked or, sometimes, kiln-baked mud bricks were used for the walls of homes. Snakes could be found in the crevices of the walls because they too enjoyed the warmth of sunbaked bricks. (Amos 5:19)

Joshua 2:15 Updated American Standard Version (UASV)
15 Then she let them down by a rope through the window, for her house was built into the city wall, so that she lived in the wall.

Some houses were built on the top of wide city walls. (Jos 2:15) Some cities had double walls surrounding it. The space between the two walls was filled with dirt.

The mound, or “tell,” of Jericho was surrounded by a great earthen rampart, or embankment, with a stone retaining wall at its base. The retaining wall was some 12–15 ft high. On top of that was a mudbrick wall 6 ft thick and about 20–26 ft high (Sellin and Watzinger 1973: 58). At the crest of the embankment was a similar mudbrick wall whose base was roughly 46 ft above the ground level outside the retaining wall. This is what loomed high above the Israelites as they marched around the city each day for seven days. Humanly speaking, it was impossible for the Israelites to penetrate the impregnable bastion of Jericho.

Within the upper wall was an area of approximately 6 acres, while the total area of the upper city and fortification system together was half again as large, or about 9 acres. Based on the archaeologist’s rule of thumb of 100 persons per acre, the population of the upper city would have been about 600. From excavations carried out by a German team in the first decade of this century, we know that people were also living on the embankment between the upper and lower city walls. In addition, those Canaanites living in surrounding villages would have fled to Jericho for safety. Thus, we can assume that there were several thousand people inside the walls when the Israelites came against the city.[2]

Mark 2:1-4 Updated American Standard Version (UASV)
1 And when he returned to Capernaum after some days, it was reported that he was at home. 2 And many were gathered together, so that there was no more room, not even at the door. And he was preaching the word to them. 3 And they came, bringing to him a paralytic carried by four men. 4 And when they could not get near him because of the crowd, they removed the roof above him, and when they had made an opening, they let down the bed on which the paralytic lay.

WATTLE AND MUD ROOF Reconstruction of the roof of a typical rural home. Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds

While the homes of our Western world have roofs that were built on a slant, the ones of Bible times were often flat. In the image above, you can see the roof with larger wooden beams running from wall to wall, with smaller beams wooden rafters running across the beams. These wooden rafters, in turn, were covered with branches, reeds. Then, a layer of earth several inches thick was added, followed by a thick coating of plaster of clay or clay and lime. It would have been quite easy for the four men to climb up on the flat roof, pull of the paralyzed man, and dig through such a roof and lower in him in on the cot, so that Jesus might heal him. Rather than be angry at such an intrusion, Jesus was moved by such great faith.

Acts 1:13 Updated American Standard Version (UASV)
13 And when they had entered, they went up to the upper room, where they were staying, Peter and John and James and Andrew, Philip and Thomas, Bartholomew and Matthew, James the son of Alphaeus and Simon the Zealot and Judas the son of James.

While most have likely not given any serious consideration, as to why the disciples met in an upper room, aside from the fact it was likely the home of someone that was sympathetic to their needs; it also accommodated their needs in size as well.

A historical tradition locates the “upper room” in the Cenacle on Mount Zion. Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds.

To accommodate a crowd of this size (later 120 people meet in the room), the home was probably owned by a fairly wealthy person. Archaeologists have recovered the remains of a few homes in the Herodian quarter from this period owned by wealthy citizens. One of these homes, the so-called “Palatial Mansion,” had a room that measured thirty-six by twenty-one feet (nearly seven hundred square feet). Early Christian tradition, however, identifies this home with the “Cenacle”.[3]

is-the-quran-the-word-of-god UNDERSTANDING ISLAM AND TERRORISM THE GUIDE TO ANSWERING ISLAM.png

Food and Meals

Bread

Matthew 16:6, 11-12 Updated American Standard Version (UASV)
6 Jesus said to them, “Watch and beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees.” 11 How is it that you fail to understand that I did not speak about bread? Beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees.” 12 Then they understood that he did not tell them to beware of the leaven of bread, but of the teaching of the Pharisees and Sadducees.

Leaven in Scripture often denotes sin or corruption. Initially, the disciples did not understand that Jesus was speaking symbolically to them. He was warning them about the hypocrisy of the Pharisees and false teachings of the Sadducees. Jesus would also mention Herod and his followers, saying, “Watch out; beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and the leaven of Herod.” (Mark 8:15) He was exposing the hypocrisy and political deceitfulness of Herod and his followers. He also bravely condemned the Pharisees as hypocrites concerned only with superficial displays of devotion.―Matthew 23:25-28.

Jesus Paul THE EVANGELISM HANDBOOK

Milk

Exodus 23:19 Updated American Standard Version (UASV)
19 “The best of the firstfruits of your ground you shall bring into the house of the Lord your God. “You shall not boil a young goat in its mother’s milk.

What would be the reason for God prohibiting the Israelites from boiling a kid (young goat) in its mother’s milk? This prohibition appears three times in the Mosaic Law. (Ex 23:19; 34:26; Deut. 14:21) This prohibition helps the reader to appreciate Jehovah God’s decency, his concern for his created beings, and his sensitivity.

If we pause for a moment and consider what God created the milk for; to nourish the young goat and help it grow. Therefore, to boil a young goat in its mother’s milk would be contrary to the arrangement that God had set in place.

There are other suggestions as to why God established this prohibition: (1) it was an idolatrous practice, (2) it was an occult practice to improve the productivity of the land, (3) the belief that milk and meat were difficult to digest, (4) it would be disrespectful to the feast of ingathering, (5) and so on.

In reality, the Law had a number of comparable restrictions against brutality toward animals and protections against working in opposition to the natural order of things. For example, the Law encompassed instructions that prohibited sacrificing an animal except when it had been with its mother for at least seven days, sacrificing both an animal and its young on the same day, and taking from a nest both a mother and her eggs or young.—Leviticus 22:27, 28; Deuteronomy 22:6, 7.

AN ENCOURAGING THOUGHT_01

Honey

Proverbs 16:24 Updated American Standard Version (UASV)
24 Gracious words are like a honeycomb,
    sweetness to the soul and health to the body.

Proverbs 24:13-14 Updated American Standard Version (UASV)
13 My son, eat honey, for it is good,
    and the drippings of the honeycomb are sweet to your taste.
14 Know that wisdom is such to your soul;
    if you find it, there will be a future,
    and your hope will not be cut off.

In Scripture, the healthful properties of honey are likened to gracious words and wisdom for the soul, because it is sweet to the taste, but also because it is good for the health as well. Certainly, we benefit spiritually from the gracious words of our Creator, in the same way, that honey is beneficial for our soul (body).

Ezekiel 3:2-3 Updated American Standard Version (UASV)
2 So I opened my mouth, and he gave me this scroll to eat. 3 And he said to me, “Son of man, feed your belly with this scroll that I give you and fill your stomach with it.” Then I ate it, and it was in my mouth as sweet as honey.

Revelation 10:9 Updated American Standard Version (UASV)
9 So I went to the angel and told him to give me the little scroll. And he said to me, “Take and eat it; it will make your stomach bitter, but in your mouth it will be sweet as honey.”

Scripture also uses honey illustratively for its sweetness and the pleasure of eating it, as we can see from the above Ezekiel 3:2-3 and Revelation 10:9. Honeycomb is frequently talked about because it is thought of as being superior in flavor, sweetness, and richness to honey that has been out in the air for some time. Solomon stresses the goodness and satisfaction of the words spoken by the Shulammite girl, her shepherd lover says, “Your lips drip sweetness like the honeycomb.” (Song of Solomon 4:11) ‘The rules of Jehovah are true, and righteous altogether … sweeter also than honey and drippings of the honeycomb.’ (Ps 19:9-10) “How sweet are your words to my taste, sweeter than honey to my mouth!”—Ps 119:103.

The Epistle to the Hebrews Paul PAUL AND LUKE ON TRIAL

Fish

Ecclesiastes 9:12 Updated American Standard Version (UASV)
12 For man does not know his time. Like fish that are taken in an evil net, and like birds that are caught in a snare, so the children of man are snared at an evil time, when it suddenly falls upon them.

Scripture also likens men to fish. Solomon likened men to fish from the perspective of their being “snared at an evil time.” Jesus Christ views his disciples as “fishers of men.” (Mark 1:17) On another occasion, he likened righteous ones to good fish, and unrighteous ones to bad fish.―Matthew 13:47-50.

Mealtime

In Bible times, it was an indication of bonding in fellowship, to eat food together. (Gen. 31:54; 2 Sam. 9:7, 10, 11, 13) If someone refused to eat with another, this was an indication of anger, or some feeling or attitude against the host. (1 Sam. 20:34; Ac 11:2, 3; Gal. 2:11, 12) In addition, food was used, at times, as a gift, to acquire or make sure of the friendliness of another. For one to accept food as a gift, it then obligated the receiver to remain at peace with the giver.—Gen. 33:8-16; 1 Sam 9:6-8; 25:18, 19; 1 Ki 14:1-3.

APOSTOLIC FATHERS Lightfoot APOSTOLIC FATHERS

Hand Washing

Mark 7:2-5 Updated American Standard Version (UASV)
2 they saw that some of his disciples ate with hands that were defiled, that is, unwashed. 3 (For the Pharisees and all the Jews do not eat unless they wash their hands properly, holding to the tradition of the elders, 4 and when they come from the marketplace, they do not eat unless they wash. And there are many other traditions that they observe, such as the washing of cups and pots and copper vessels and dining couches.) 5 And the Pharisees and the scribes asked him, “Why do your disciples not walk according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?”

Matthew 15:2 Updated American Standard Version (UASV)
2 “Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders? For they do not wash their hands when they eat.”

It is not that Jesus’ disciples did not wash their hands at all, but rather did not partake of the ceremonial washing that the Scribes and Pharisees attached great importance. The Scribes and Pharisees were not washing their hands for hygienic reasons but were following the traditions of former men (elders), washing their hands up to the elbows. The Babylonian Talmud, Sotah 4b, views eating with unwashed hands (the ceremonial way), as being equal to having sexual relations with a harlot, and whoever does not take hand washing serious, will be “uprooted from the world.”

RECLINING AT THE TABLE A model of a table, eating utensils, and terracotta pottery typical of the Roman period. Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds

Eating

John 13:23, 25; 21:20 Updated American Standard Version (UASV)
23 One of his disciples, whom Jesus loved, was reclining at table at Jesus’ side, 25 So that disciple, leaning back against Jesus, said to him, “Lord, who is it?” 21:20 Peter turned and saw the disciple whom Jesus loved following them, the one who also had leaned back against him during the supper and had said, “Lord, who is it that is going to betray you?”

bringonthegoodnews.blogspot.com

Generally, guests at banquets and feasts reclined on their left side using a pillow to support their elbow. Typically, there would be 3-5 persons occupying each couch. The back of a person’s head would be toward the breast, or bosom, of the person behind him. The person who had no one behind him would have been considered the one holding the honorable position at the dinner, with each succeeding person as the next position of honor. As you will notice from the image above, this required persons to be very close to one another, and so the custom was to place friends next to friends. This undoubtedly made conversation much more lively, as well as private comments if preferred. The person who was in the bosom position of the most honored one at a banquet or feast was viewed as one having a favored position with that honored one. In the Gospel of John, we repeatedly see that it is the beloved Apostle John in this favored position with Jesus.

John 13:23-25 Updated American Standard Version (UASV)
23 One of his disciples, whom Jesus loved, was reclining at table at Jesus’ side, 24 so Simon Peter motioned to him to ask Jesus of whom he was speaking. 25 So that disciple, leaning back against Jesus, said to him, “Lord, who is it?”

John 21:20 Updated American Standard Version (UASV)
20 Peter turned and saw the disciple whom Jesus loved following them, the one who also had leaned back against him during the supper and had said, “Lord, who is it that is going to betray you?”

BIBLE DIFFICULTIES

Viewpoint, Feelings, Thinking, Expressions

Kneeling

Luke 22:41 Updated American Standard Version (UASV)
41 And he withdrew from them about a stone’s throw, and knelt down and prayed

Kneeling was a common position when praying, but not the only position. In addition, while many times a Scripture may have the plural “knees,” this does not exclude that it could be the person is on one knee. 1Ki 8:54; Ac 9:40; 20:36; 21:5; Eph. 3:14

Bowing

It was a common practice for the Jews to bow before authority to show respect. It was also a common practice within the Persian Empire for people to bow down or do obeisance before the king. Obeisance is not necessarily an act of worship (dependent on the heart of the person), it is more of a gesture of respect or deference shown to another, especially royalty, in which one bows, kneels, or prostrates the body before another. “The Persian scholar P. Briant raises some questions about the exact meaning of proskynesis (Gr., obeisance), and notes that on the Persian monuments the gesture of obeisance is not prostration but a slight inclination of the body and a hand-kiss.”  King Ahasuerus gave a command that Haman was to be shown this honor. The entire account of Esther hangs on the fact that Mordecai will not bow before Haman. It is not stated why Mordecai refuses to do so, because as was stated above, this is not an act of worship for the Israelites (e.g., 1 Sam 24:8; 2 Sam 14:4; 1 Ki 1:16). However, some history says that that Persians saw the king as being divine.

THE LIFE OF JESUS CHRIST by Stalker-1 The TRIAL and Death of Jesus_02 THE LIFE OF Paul by Stalker-1

What is the most likely reason for Mordecai refusing to bow before Haman?

It is obvious from this, that Mordochai had declared to those who asked him the reason why he did not fall down before Haman, that he could not do so because he was a Jew,—that as a Jew he could not show that honour to man which was due to God alone. Now the custom of falling down to the earth before an exalted personage, and especially before a king, was customary among Israelites; comp. 2 Sam. 14:4, 18:28, 1 Kings 1:16. If, then, Mordochai refused to pay this honour to Haman, the reason of such refusal must be sought in the notions which the Persians were wont to combine with the action, i.e., in the circumstance that they regarded it as an act of homage performed to a king as a divine being, an incarnation of Oromasdes.[4]

While the possibility of Mordecai’s failure to bow before Haman might be because the king was viewed as divine, it seems that there is a more likely reason. There had to be occasions for Mordecai to have to do obeisance to King Ahasuerus; otherwise, he would have never received the promotion that comes later in the account. Unquestionably, what motivated Mordecai is the fact that Haman was an Agagite, probably a royal Amalekite, an enemy of the Israelite people in the extreme. Mordecai’s Jewish ancestry stands in opposition to Haman’s Agagite ancestry. Jehovah had declared the subsequent execution of the Amalekites as they had revealed their hatred of God and his people by attacking the Israelites at Rephidim in the wilderness. (Ex 17:8–16; Deut. 25:17–19; 1 Sam 15:17–20) Therefore, righteous Mordecai faithfully rejected the notion of prostrating himself before Haman. Bowing would symbolize not only respect, but also would have possibly sent the message that there was to be peace and perhaps reverence to the point of a worshipful attitude toward this Amalekite.

Placing Hand Under Thigh

Genesis 24:2 Updated American Standard Version (UASV)
2 And Abraham said to his servant, the elder of his house, that ruled over all that he had, “Put, I pray thee, thy hand under my thigh. 3 And I will make thee swear by Jehovah, the God of heaven and the God of the earth, that you will not take a wife for my son of the daughters of the Canaanites, among whom I dwell. 4 But you will go to my country, and to my kindred, and take a wife for my son Isaac.

A method of making an oath was to place one’s hand under the other’s thigh, as Abraham’s servant did in swearing that he would not take a wife for his son of the daughters of the Canaanites, but would go to Abraham’s country, and to his relatives, and take a wife for Isaac. (Gen. 24:2, 9).

Throwing Dust on the Head

Joshua 7:6 Updated American Standard Version (UASV)

6 And Joshua tore his clothes, and fell to the earth upon his face before the ark of Jehovah until the evening, he and the elders of Israel. And they put dust upon their heads.

There were many signs in ancient Israel that would tell others that one is going through grief. For example, throwing dust on the head, tearing clothes, wearing sackcloth, cutting off or shaving, or pulling out one’s hair, and beating one’s breast, to name just a few.

Today’s Bible student has a plethora of priceless Bible study tools that will allow them to easily gain access to the geographical and historical setting of any Bible person, place, topic, or event. The Holman Old and New Testament Commentary Volumes are filled with such information, Holman also has a one-volume Bible handbook, and especially valuable is their Holman Illustrated Bible Dictionary. Of course, you have books that are written specifically for Bible background information, like Nelson’s New Illustrated Bible Manners & Customs, or Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds volumes of both Old and New Testament. If finances are not what you would like, you could turn to the one volume IVP Bible Background Commentary Old Testament and the one volume IVP Bible Background Commentary New Testament. There is no shortage of Bible study tools, and eBook technology is making them even more affordable.

[1] http://astore.amazon.com/bibletranslat-20?_encoding=UTF8&node=9
[2] http://www.biblearchaeology.org/
[3] Clinton E. Arnold, Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary Volume 2: John, Acts., 227 (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2002).
[4] Carl Friedrich Keil and Franz Delitzsch, Commentary on the Old Testament, Es 3:3–4 (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1996).

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