Lori Colbo loves to write about her Christian faith and the Bible to encourage and inspire others.
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 blasphemy.
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 the 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 prospective 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 it 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 the punishment for many wrongdoings, everything from adultery to disobeying one's parents. In Acts 7:54-60, 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 22:23-24). 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 (Acts 14:19-20).
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 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 16:20 -24. 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 a 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 (1 Chronicles 10:8-9).
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.
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 the 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 Elimelech'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. The 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.
Questions & Answers
Question: Is there a resource you recommend to learn more about Biblical customs?
Answer: I'd be happy to share. Bible History online https://www.bible-history.com/subcat.php?id=39
The Illustrated Guide to Bible Customs and Curiosities by George W Knight
You can also google Bible customs and manners and find things on there.
Question: Why do women wear a head covering?
Answer: The head covering was an illustration of the roles of authority. God has set up a rule of order - "But I want you to understand that the head of every man is Christ, the head of a wife is her husband, and the head of Christ is God." Corinthians 11:3. So the head covering is an outward acknowledgment of the woman/wife's role of being under the authority of the man/husband. And he is accountable to God.
The authority doesn't mean that men and women are not equal in the eyes of God. He says in Galatians 3:28 "There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus."
The husband is not to be authoritarian regarding mistreating his wife or in a punitive way, but simply that he is the leader and head of the home. The man is to love his wife as Christ loves the Church.
Question: I heard on the radio a pastor say that tradition in the time of Hagar and Sarah when she conceived Ishmael, Hagar would have sat on the lap of Sarah when they were having intercourse?
Answer: I can't say for sure but that sounds pretty far-fetched. Physically it seems impossible. You can do research about it online by reputable sites.
Question: In the Old Testament, blessings passed from father to son. I read somewhere (can’t remember the source) that the one being blessed placed his hand on the inside of the thigh of the one pronouncing the blessing. Is this true, and what’s the significance of this strange hand placement?
Answer: They did this practice for an oath, not a blessing. It is strange indeed. In Genesis 24 Abraham makes his servant swear to get his son Isaac, a wife. In Genesis 47 Jacob asks Joseph to promise to bury his body in Canaan, not in Egypt. Both Abraham and Jacob were dying soon, but I'm not sure whether that has relevance or not. I am going to give you the answer as I found it on GotQuestions.org (it's a great website to get answers about the Bible. Here it is:
The thigh was considered the source of posterity in the ancient world. Or, more properly, the “loins” or the testicles. The phrase “under the thigh” could be a euphemism for “on the loins.” There are two reasons why someone would take an oath in this manner: 1) Abraham had been promised a “seed” by God, and this covenantal blessing was passed on to his son and grandson. Abraham made his trusted servant swear “on the seed of Abraham” that he would find a wife for Isaac. 2) Abraham had received circumcision as the sign of the covenant (Genesis 17:10). Our custom is to swear on a Bible; the Hebrew custom was to swear on circumcision, the mark of God’s covenant. The idea of swearing on one’s loins is found in other cultures, as well. The English word testify is directly related to the word testicles.
Jewish tradition also offers a different interpretation. According to Rabbi Ibn Ezra, the phrase “under the thigh” means that. For someone to allow his hand to be sat on was a sign of submission to authority. If this is the symbolism, then Joseph was showing his obedience to his father by placing his hand under Jacob’s thigh.
Abraham’s servant kept his oath. He not only obeyed Abraham’s instructions, but he also prayed to Abraham’s God for help. In the end, God miraculously provided Rebekah as the choice for Isaac’s wife (Genesis 24).
In the New Testament, believers are taught not to make oaths, but rather to let their “yes” mean “yes” and “no” mean “no” (James 5:12). That is, we should consider all our words to weight an oath. Others should be able to trust our words without requiring an oath.
Question: What was the importance of having tombstones?
Answer: I have not done extensive research on that question in regard to Bible times but what I did research seems to indicate that they did not have tombstones as we have today but I can't swear to it. A year after they were buried they placed the bones into a box called an ossuary and sometimes inscriptions were made. But I think it's safe to say that generally tombstones are used to mark the grave with a tombstone in order to identify and honor the deceased.
Question: Did Jewish women whip their hair violently while praising God, or where did this custom originate?
Answer: I have never researched this but not likely. Women were required to wear head coverings.
Question: How were people fed in prison?
Answer: Unfortunately, they were not fed by the prisons. Prisoners had to depend of friends and family to provide for their basic needs.
Question: Why did Jesus roll up the cloth that covered his face instead of folding it with the other garment?
Answer: I have not found an answer to this question. There is a false internet story for this that was written and sent around in 2007 to this date. The story says that Jewish custom of that day was for the servant who served the meal, stood out of sight until the meal was finished. If the napkin of the eater was wadded up, it means he was finished. If it was folded, it means he was coming back so the servant would act accordingly. The conclusion of those who tell this story is that Jesus was saying, I will return. Jewish historians say this story is a myth, that there was no such custom. However, it sounds very convincing so the legend has spread.
Also, it seems that different versions use different terms for the cloth on his head. Some versions say napkin, others say burial cloth or face-cloth. The Greek word is saudarion, which comes from a Latin word for “sweat.” Wiping the sweat from a face for example.
The other issue is the word "folded." Some versions say folded, others say wrapped, or rolled up. The Greek word indicates it meant "twisted" or "entwined." I am not sure why John (the one who wrote about this) made the distinction between the head cloth being "folded" and the other garments draped. I could not find an answer to why. Sorry I couldn't be of more help.
Question: Why did Isaac not extend a blessing to both Jacob and Esau instead of only one son? Why could not the inheritance/blessing be shared between the sons?
Answer: The blessing Isaac gave to Jacob was one designated only for the firstborn who had a special status in the family. The firstborn was the one to inherit the father's estate upon his death. The firstborn was also given the status of head of household when the father dies. Esau was the firstborn but in Genesis 25 we read that Esau despised his birthright. He had come in from a day of hunting and was ravenous. Jacob gave him a stew if he would give him his birthright. Foolishly, Esau readily did so saying "What is a birthright to me?" I don't think it was taken seriously by Esau and it doesn't appear that Isaac knew about it because in chapter 27 Rebekah and Jacob contrived a plan to deceive the very old and blind Isaac into getting this firstborn blessing. Esau was devastated and wanted the same blessing. But there is only one blessing of this nature and it is a binding one in the eyes of the Lord regardless that it was given through deception.
Question: In Leviticus it is mentioned that payment must be made if someone was dedicated to God. What does it mean?
Answer: From what I can determine it was a redemption price. If you read, you'll notice different prices for different people. Men were the work to be done. One commentary said, "The redemption price had nothing to do with the inherent worth of men and women; it had everything to do with the practicality of production in an agrarian society."
© 2012 Lori Colbo
Lori Colbo (author) from United States on June 25, 2019:
Aderinsola, what a nice message you brought me today. Blessings to you.
Aderinsola Adelaja on June 25, 2019:
Lori, this is a wonderful and well-researched piece. I was having some confusion with some customs in the Scriptures, I googled and found this. I was elated. I also read your answers to some questions that were asked. Your answer on the head covering questions brought a smile to my face. I just did some study on that and your answer was the exact same conclusion I arrived at.
God bless you, Lori.
Lori Colbo (author) from United States on May 08, 2019:
Greetings Antonio, thanks for stopping by. The research is fascinating and fun. Blessings.
Antonio50S on May 08, 2019:
You are right Lori. They are unusual customs, but very interesting as well.
Never heard of that "hired mourners" before :) Well researched.
Lori Colbo (author) from United States on April 30, 2019:
I appreciate that Antonio. Blessings.
Antonio50S on April 30, 2019:
You write some interesting things Lori.
Not had the time to read this properly yet, but will do when i get the chance.
Lori Colbo (author) from United States on March 22, 2019:
Greetings Tim, thanks for reading along. I also find that passage most intriguing. Also, the trading of sandals to make a deal. Can you imagine how those would play out in this time?
Tim Truzy from U.S.A. on March 22, 2019:
Wonderful article filled with interesting information about biblical customs. I truly enjoyed it. Particularly, I found the servant resting at the end of the master's bed to be unusual. Thanks again. Respectfully, Tim
Lori Colbo (author) from United States on February 12, 2019:
Xoli, I don't know if you mean current day or back in Bible times, but biblically I don't believe slaughtering or if you mean sacrificing on behalf of ancestors was permitted let alone of any benefit. People who are no longer living cannot have their sin forgiven post mortem. You find that ideology in other false religions.
Xoli on February 12, 2019:
Is it a sin to slaghter for your ancesstors
Lambservant on June 26, 2018:
Hi unknown soldier, Thanks for dropping in. I am not always crazy about research, but sometimes it's interesting and fum and I learn a
lot. Thanks again.
Unknown soldior on June 26, 2018:
You put a lot of work into this
Piece.VERY curent for the times
We now live in .These customs
still exist today in the hood.keep
And fight the good fight of faith
In the understanding of your Lord
Lito Pabalan on November 26, 2017:
Thank you for sharing. I was looking for my lesson in my bible study bible custom and tradition and I stumbled upon your posting.Very helpful.
Lori Colbo (author) from United States on September 23, 2014:
Thanks for stopping by OhMe. I'm glad you enjoyed it.
Nancy Tate Hellams from Pendleton, SC on September 23, 2014:
This was such an interesting read. Thank you. I was familiar with all of these but sure enjoyed learning more.
Brenda Barnes from America-Broken But Still Beautiful on June 24, 2012:
You worked hard on this one. It is chock full of information. Like you, I love learning about other and old cultures. I find them fascinating. History is a wonderful thing to know, especially Bible history. Thanks for the Hub.
Lori Colbo (author) from United States on June 24, 2012:
Thanks LG. It's the kind of research I love to do. It's interesting learning about other times, cultures, and custums.
William Kovacic from Pleasant Gap, PA on June 24, 2012:
Thanks for the research necessary for this hub. You shared a lot of interesting stuff. Voted up, interesting, and useful.