Ancient Lifestyles in the Bible

Their Religion, Customs, Politics - and Ours

We read the Bible over the shoulders of those for whom these words were first written. We need to translate the language God's message was written in, and we have to learn about the lifestyle this message was trying to correct.

Historical documents and archaeology can help us understand the world of the Bible. Apparent problems in the Bible are often be cleared up by exploring historical accounts or artefacts left behind in the earth.

Historians rewrite history when new facts come along, and Biblical scholars have to do the same. This does not mean that the Bible changes, but our interpretations sometimes need revising. We must not let our interpretations of the text become more important than the text itself, as corroborated by historical evidence.

Sexual immorality, violence, racism, inequality and intolerance are as old as the Bible. Principles and solutions proposed thousands of years ago can work (or fail) just the same as before, because we humans haven't changed nearly as much as we think.


• Blood and Sacrifices

Animal sacrifices are much less common in Israel than in surrounding nations. They were still important because of the symbolism of blood. This is understood better by contrasting the use of blood in Egyptian mummification. 
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• Child Sacrifices

Israel took a stand against the local custom of burning babies on altars. God engraved the prohibition into Abraham's brain by first ordering he kill his son, and then stopping him at the last minute. We need to know the limits to religious toleration. 
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• Circumcision

Romans considered circumcision a defilement of one's body but for Jews it was compulsory. For Christians it didn’t matter, so why did it cause such problems when they decided to get circumcised?
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• Concubines and Prostitutes

The Old Testament didn’t criminalise sex-workers or concubines (i.e. ‘living together’ mothers without legal rights), but nudged society away from these practices. Why do they still continue?
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• Death Penalty for Minor Crimes

Walls were too weak to build prisons, so punishments were death or fines. In contrast with other nations, theft was never punished by death, and a rich murderer  couldn't escape with a fine. In Israel's law, people were more important than things.
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• Did Joshua commit genocide?

Secular archaeologists say only four towns were destroyed, and the Bible text agrees. Why didn't Joshua obey God's order to "kill everyone"? The key lies in the language used. 
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• Esther - the Best in Bed

Esther knew the Emperor would spent a night with each girl, and marry the one he wanted for a second night. From this unlikely start, Esther protected Israel from the new foreign law which would have made "every man master" over his wife and household (Esther 1.22).
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• Headship and Honour

In Eastern honour cultures, the 'head' of a family is responsible for their welfare, but a Western 'head' is the boss. Paul commended the Roman model where the man was the head of the household in public, and the woman was the head inside the home.
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• Husband of One Wife

This is similar to a commendation found on tombstones: "Wife of one man", which indicated faithfulness, not monogamy. Church leaders had to be faithful to their wives – unlike most other men in that society.
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• David's Protection Racket and Murder

When a farmer refused to pay up, David (while still an outlaw) decided to teach him a lesson. And when he was king, he murdered a man to marry his wife. David shows us how to repent, not how to live.
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• Nehemiah's Political Manipulations

His methods of influence included political manipulation, money, public humiliation, bullying, anger and even violent assault. His personal diary records all this honestly, and asks God to understand his good motives.
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• Noah's Drunkenness and Racism

Struggles between black and white go back to a drunken curse by Noah against Ham, the son that settled in Africa. It was revived as Bible support for Apartheid and is still quoted by the Klu Klax Klan. But it was never used this way in the Bible itself.
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• Oaths and Cursings

Calling on the gods to hurt your enemies, or to hurt you if you break your word, were very common in Bible days. We unwittingly continue that practice with phrases like "Blimey" (short for "God blind me if").  Jesus condemned even such euphemisms.
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• Sabbath for Rest and Recreation

The OT didn't assign any religious component to the Sabbath. Its purpose, of rest and recreation, was expanded in 1908 by the invention of the Weekend. This has benefitted the consumer economy, charity work, and freedom to worship.
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• Female Leaders in the Earliest Church

A surprising number of women are named in the New Testament in important roles. But they aren’t given any prominence because of the cultural suspicions about female leaders. Do we need to continue hiding them?
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• Samson, the Thug and Suspected Pimp

A life full of X-rated violence and prostitutes made his new father-in-law protect his daughter from being pimped by Samson. But children can still learn a lot from this story.
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• Slavery in Israel and Other Nations

Slavery wasn't abolished in Israel, but their slaves had legal rights if harmed. The NT taught everyone was equal, but Christians tolerated their slavery in order to spread the gospel more effectively.
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• Obedient wives

Ideal Jewish women confidently led their household, but in Roman society only immoral Roman acted this way - so what should Christians do? And what pattern is best followed today? 
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• Tithing for the Poor and Holidays

Religious leaders were supposed to get a tithe but an equal amount was supposed to be given for the poor and saved for holidays. The church taught only one tithe, which has made God's wise provisions seem self-serving.
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• Undemocratic Rulers

Israel tried all kinds of leadership: theocracy, nomocracy, theocracy, monarchy. They even tried democracy once, but they experienced all of its inherent problems which we live with today.  Which works best?
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