Unusual Bible Customs: Old and New Testaments
The benefit of learning Bible customs
Researching Bible customs is fascinating, but more than sating curiosity, it helps us to understand the Scriptures and their context more succinctly. Jesus often used the culture and customs of the day to use as illustrations in his messages. The Old Testament is full of intriguing customs as well. Come with me on this journey of exploration and understanding of the customs in the Bible.
Wailing and lamenting
When there was a death, the Jews would wail and lament for days. There was an initial death wail which was loud, long, and shrill, to let neighbors know there had been a death. They used certain phrases in their lamentations, and actually hired professional mourners to wail and lament on behalf of the dead. This wailing is done at the time of death and leading up to the funeral, but not after.
Rending of garments
This was a Jewish custom practiced for thousands of years, and can be found in both Old and New Testaments. The tearing of garments was an expression of grief or mourning of someone who had died.
- Jacob tore his garment when he saw the bloody garment of Joseph, thinking he had been killed by a wild animal (Genesis 37:33-34).
- David and his men tore their garments at the news that Saul and Jonathan had been killed in battle (2 Samuel 1:11-12).
- Job tore his garment when he received news that his ten children had all died at once (Job 11:18-20). His closest friends also tore their garments when they saw Job's physical suffering (Job 2:12).
It is notable that the rending of the garment was done before the funeral, as was the wailing and lamenting. It was, in fact, the second step in the mourning process.
Rending the garments was also a sign of righteous indignation. The Pharisees tore their garments when they thought Jesus was committing blaspheme. Paul and Barnabas tore their garments when idolaters tried to worship them. It was a way of rejecting what the men were doing. What the idolators were doing was a form of blaspheme.
Sackcloth and ashes
Sackcloth was a rough, burlap type fabric that people in mourning wore. This was done while pouring ashes over their heads. It occurred after the initial rending of the garment.
Rather than wearing fine, comfortable clothing, they wore coarse sackcloth that chafed and was uncomfortable. Rather than washing, they poured ashes over themselves. Putting on sackcloth and ashes was also a sign of humility. It was also practiced as a sign of repentance or performing penance.
The washing of feet was a practice extended to guests in the Hebrew home. This action was usually performed by a lowly servant, and was a show of humility and honor to the guest. Sandals were worn for thousands of years and roads were hot and dusty, and muddy during the wet season. The feet were always in need of refreshment and cleaning when entering a home. The first time we read of this ritual is when Abraham offered to wash the feet of his three guests in (Genesis 18:4).
Jesus washed the disciples feet during the last supper. Since this was usually the duty of the lowliest of slaves or servants, Peter rebuked Jesus for attempting to wash his feet. The Lord, in Peter's mind, was too great to stoop to such a lowly act. Jesus answered him,
“If I do not wash you, you have no part with Me.” Peter then replied, “Lord, not my feet only, but also my hands and my head!” What happened next was quite telling: "Jesus said, 'He who is bathed needs only to wash his feet, but is completely clean; and you are clean, but not all of you.' For He knew who would betray Him; therefore He said, 'You are not all clean.'
"After washing their feet, he put on his robe again and sat down and asked, “Do you understand what I was doing? You call me ‘Teacher’ and ‘Lord,’ and you are right, because that’s what I am. And since I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you ought to wash each other’s feet. I have given you an example to follow. Do as I have done to you. I tell you the truth, slaves are not greater than their master. Nor is the messenger more important than the one who sends the message. Now that you know these things, God will bless you for doing them" (John 13: 12-17).
If you remember, the disciples were always arguing about which of them was going to be greatest in God's kingdom; who was going to sit at His right hand and rule with Him. So this was a very purposeful and necessary lesson for them; namely, to be as humble servants to God and one another.
Greeted with a kiss
In many nations, Israel being one, it is customary to greet someone with a kiss on both cheeks. Thus, this expression of welcome was particularly practiced when a guest entered a home. The master of the house would greet his guest, then seal it with a welcome kiss, first on the right cheek, then the left.
In Luke 7, Jesus was invited to dine with Simon the Pharisee. There were many religious hypocrites there as well. A woman entered and wept tears on Jesus' feet. She then dried them with her hair, and kissed His feet over and over. The Pharisees were appalled because she was a known woman of ill repute. Jesus reminded them that they did not kiss Him when he entered, nor wash his feet, nor anoint His head with oil, as this humble woman had done.
Anointing the head with oil
I mentioned above that the host, Simon the Pharisee, did not anoint Jesus' head with oil. Anointing oil was olive oil mixed with fragrant spices. This also was a common custom when a guest entered a home. To omit this practice, and the others above, was a sign of rudeness and insult to the guest. As a guest in Simon the Pharisee's home, Jesus was not honored by these basic acts of hospitality. It brought them up short when He reminded them that this sinful woman had done for Him what they did not do, meaning she was the one with a right heart.
A Strange marriage proposal
In Ruth 3 we see a strange custom that has caused many Bible scholars to disagree on the meaning and intent of Ruth's actions. Ruth went to Boaz at the threshing floor in the middle of the night and lay at his feet.
So she went down to the threshing floor and did according to all that her mother-in-law instructed her. And after Boaz had eaten and drunk, and his heart was cheerful, he went to lie down at the end of the heap of grain; and she came softly, uncovered his feet, and lay down.
Now it happened at midnight that the man was startled, and turned himself; and there, a woman was lying at his feet. And he said, “Who are you?” So she answered, “I am Ruth, your maidservant. Take your maidservant under your wing, for you are a close relative.”
In the days of Ruth and Boaz, it was not unusual for a servant to lay crossways at his master's feet and be allowed to have some of his covering. The clothes worn by day were also worn during sleep, so there was no indecent behavior or intent; and so it was with Ruth and Boaz that night. By laying crossways at Boaz's feet, Ruth was showing submission and humility. She lay there quietly waiting for God's timing for Boaz to awaken. When he woke up, she asked for him to take her under his wing (spread his garment over her, indicating she wanted him to marry her), for she was a widow, and he her relative. He understood this to mean she was seeking him to take her as his wife. The Hebrew custom was that if a man died, the closest male relative was to marry the widow and care for her. Boaz went through the process of finding the closest kinsmen that was next in line to marry Ruth and offered her to him first, as was lawful. The man was not interested, leaving Boaz to marry her.
A read of the entire book of Ruth reveals that Boaz was impressed by Ruth's virtuous character, and sought to protect her in every way. In no way was this act of Ruth's an attempt to make sexual advances. Because Boaz did not try to take advantage of Ruth, we can see he was an honorable man and truly cared for Ruth.
In ancient Israel the parents of a male child chose his mate. Since the law mandated that the Hebrew men were to marry only Hebrew women, the parents of the son sought out only a Hebrew girl they felt would fit in with the family, rather than just be pleasing to the son.
Sometimes the girl was given a choice to marry the man chosen. Rebekah's family asked if she would be willing to marry Isaac (Genesis 24:57-58). Ultimately, it was up to the parents to make the final decision. It was not unusual for the bride and groom to have never met. It also was not unusual for a young girl to have to marry an older man. Marital love was meant to follow, not precede the nuptials; however we do see exceptions in the Bible. Jacob loved Rachel and waited for her for 14 years.
The betrothal was a binding covenant to marry. It could not be broken. Papers were signed. There was a ceremony for the betrothal in which the families of both bride and groom met, along with two witnesses. The groom gave the bride a ring, or some other token of value, and said to her, "See by this ring [or this token] thou art set apart for me, according to the law of Moses and of Israel." Betrothal is not a wedding. The wedding was not performed for at least a year after the betrothal. We read in the Gospels that Joseph and Mary were betrothed when she became with child. Their betrothal was a legal and binding covenant, but they were not yet formally married, thus it presented a quandary for Joseph. We know, however, that God came to him in a dream and told him to wed Mary.
The perspective groom was required to offer the bride's family compensation, called a dowry. The idea behind this is that losing the daughter causes some inconvenience to her family. She usually helped the family with shepherding or working the fields, and thus the family was losing a worker.
If the groom could not give the bride's family cash, he would work it off in service. This is what Jacob did when he sought to marry Rachel (Genesis 29).
Methods of Punishment
Crucifixion was a capital punishment executed by the Romans. Of course we know that Jesus was crucified. Not only was death by crucifixion slow, and extremely painful, but it was meant to humiliate and let people know that his would be their fate should they defy or sin against Rome. The one being crucified was stripped, and hung in a prominent place, on display to all the world. The Apostles Peter, Andrew, Bartholomew and Philip are said to have been crucified as well.
The Old Testament law commanded stoning as punishment for many wrongdoings, everything from adultery to disobeying one's parents. In Acts 6:11, we find stoning in the case of Stephen, whom the religious leaders accused of blaspheme. Also, in John 8:1-11, they brought a woman caught in adultery to Jesus and said, "Moses said to stone one caught in adultery, what do you say?" They were right. The law of Moses commanded that women (and men) caught in adultery were to be stoned (Deuteronomy 22:22). Fortunately for this woman, Jesus forgave her instead and turned it around on the Jewish leaders by saying "He who has never sinned, cast the first stone."
Paul was stoned on one occasion in the city of Lystra. They found him dead, but prayed for him, and the next day he left town with Barnabas.
In the case of Paul and Stephen, they were stoned unjustly; however God proclaimed throughout the Scriptures that He is holy, and that his people, too, ought to be holy. The act of stoning someone for a grave sin was meant to send a message to the people to fear God and His laws. The community was involved in the stoning as a message of intolerance to sin and to be holy.
Stoning was also done by other societies.
In the Old and New Testaments, whippings were a common punishment. The whips were most often made with leather with little bits of metal or bone tied onto the ends. This shredded the skin and made whipping even more painful. For a serious crime, the criminal was given forty lashes minus one. Some did not live through the scourgings. I would imagine there was a terrible problem with infection afterward as well.
Paul and Silas were similarly beaten with rods on their back in Acts 16:22. In 2 Corinthians 11:25, he states that he was beaten with rods on three occasions.
John the Baptist was beheaded by command of Herod Antipas. John was beheaded for calling out Herod for his sin of taking his brother's wife. The Apostle James, brother of Apostle John, was beheaded in Acts 12:2. Beheading was most often done with a sword.
Many times we find in the Bible that once a person was killed in war, his head was cut off. This happened after David killed Goliath (1 Samuel 17:51). King Saul also had his head cut off by the Philistines the day after his death on the battlefield.
Gouging out the eyes was also a punishment used by many countries in the Bible; such was the case with Sampson in Judges 16:21. His lover, Delilah, whined and pouted until he told her the secret of his supernatural strength, which was his long hair. While he slept, she sent a message to her Philistine cohorts to come, and as she waited for them, she ordered a servant to cut his hair, rendering him weak. His strength was gone and he was captured and they gouged out his eyes.
Which custom mentioned here would you like to see today?
Gnashing of teeth
The most well-known verse about the gnashing of teeth is from Matthew 8:12 where Jesus described what it will be like in the outer-darkness of hell. He said, "...where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth." Gnashing of teeth often accompanies weeping in the Scriptures. It indicates that one is in severe pain or suffering, as with eyes squeezed tight, and teeth clenched or grinding. Have you ever had that happen when you've hit your funny bone, or something much worse?
Nearly every time "weeping and the gnashing of teeth" is mentioned in the New Testament, it is in context of hell, and the person who rejects Jesus Christ.
We find this ancient custom in Ruth 4:8. Boaz found Elimilech's next of kin and asked if he wanted to buy Elimilech's land and take Ruth as his wife. The man declined; therefore Boaz, as next in line as kin, redeemed the inheritance and Ruth, and sealed the deal by taking off his sandal and handing it to the kin who forfeited. The full custom actually went that both men traded sandals. Although it does not state that the other kinsmen gave his sandal to Boaz, it is presumed he did. They did this in the company of witnesses.
The custom of trading sandals was used in land sale transactions. Land was sold in triangles, and whatever size of the triangle the purchaser could walk off in the agreed upon amount of time was his. Since the walking was done in sandals, the trading of the sandal was like a title to the land.
Shaking the dust of their feet
This is an interesting custom and actually makes perfect sense when you put it in context. In Luke 9:3-5 Jesus is sending out his disciples to minister in His name:
He said to the apostles, "When you travel, don't take a walking stick. Also, don't carry a bag, food, or money. Take for your trip only the clothes you are wearing. When you go into a house, stay there until it is time to leave. If the people in the town will not welcome you, go outside the town and shake the dust off of your feet. This will be a warning to them."
In Acts 13, Paul and Barnabas were expelled from Antioch when certain Jews became jealous and angry for the huge, positive response Paul and Barnabas got for their good news message. As they left, Paul and Barnabas shook the dust off their feet against them.
The act of shaking the dust off one's feet when leaving a town had several meanings. In both the Luke 9 and Acts 13 scenarios, the disciples were being rejected by the city or a large contingent. Jesus told them to shake the dust off their feet in warning. Acts 13 says Paul and Barnabas shook the dust off their feet against them.
In both cases they had done what they had come to do - preach the Gospel. In both cases, they were rejected and they realized they had done all they could do and chose to move on. The warning was because they had refused the message from God, their chance to find salvation was gone, and they could expect judgment. Paul and Barnabas were saying, "We're done with you. Suffer the consequences for your rejection of Jesus Christ."
More customs can be found
There are many more customs from the Bible to research. As we learn about them our understanding of passages, stories, parables, and idioms will grow.
© 2012 Lori Colbo