Introduction: Bible Manners & Customs


“For I am become like a bottle in the smoke; yet do I not forget thy statutes” (Ps. 119:83).

[This article was taken from the introduction of Bible Manners & Customs by Rev. G.M. Mackie, M.A, 1898 (which we have revised and reprinted)].

The above illustration shows skin-bottles, and one large earthenware jar, in the corner of a house. Skin-bottles were made from animal skins and used to contain different liquids in biblical times, including water, wine, and milk (more on skin bottles in Chapter 4). They were often hung on hooks or nails on the wall of the houses, or on the posts of a tent. Over time, the smoke from the fire in the house would dry them out, turn them black, and cover them with soot. As they got old and dry they became the perfect example of something tossed aside and forgotten. The psalmist says that even though he feels “…like a bottle in the smoke…,” i.e., forgotten and rejected, he still keeps God’s commands. What a great illustration of faithfulness! We all have “dry times” with God when we do not feel His presence and suspect He has tossed us aside and gone on to work with other, more worthy people. The psalmist says that even in those dry times when he felt far from God he was faithful to obey God, and we can be too.

1. The Subject. The purpose of this book is to reveal the meaning of the Bible by explaining some of the manners and customs of the people of biblical times.

In Palestine and Syria there are a great many things that are the same as those alluded to in the Bible. In many cases the climate and landscape, the plant and animal life, the habits and occupations of the people, and even their modes of dress and forms of speech are similar to what one would have seen in biblical times. [1] This continuance of unchanged custom for so long a period, is chiefly due to the following causes:

(A) The Eastern kinship of the present inhabitants with the ancient Israelites;
(B) The close resemblance between the Hebrew language and the Arabic that is now spoken; [2]
(C) The suitableness of the customs to the climate and industries of the land;
(D) The reluctance to allow changes under what is called the patriarchal form of government, where the sheikhs or heads of chief families, from father to son, rule over their individual districts.

So great is this resemblance with regard to natural surroundings, dress, and occupations, with reference also to common opinion and sentiment about life, work, home, and religion, that if the same events were to happen again in Palestine, and the truths of Scripture were now to be told for the first time, the description and statement of them would inevitably take the mold and form with which we are already familiar in the Bible.

Israel is very small. In this illustration it is compared to Florida.

2. Its Importance. There are three principle advantages gained from the study of biblical manners and customs:

(A) It helps us to understand better the life and character of the men and women of the Bible. In the scientific study of plants and animals it is a recognized principle that while ultimately ministering to our needs, they, in the first instance, exist for their own. Thus, the color and scent of flowers, the honey of the bee, the iridescence on the bird’s wing, the tusk of the elephant, the “recognition marks” of the dove and deer, can only be accounted for on the principle that they are first of all useful to those they belong to; after that they are prized in the human market and serve us for food and clothing.

Similarly, we should recognize that those people about whom we read in the Bible had the first right to their own lives. They have served as encouragements and warnings to other generations, but they had actual personal lives that were lived in their own day, and were affected by the opportunities and difficulties that belonged to it. We want to speak of them, not merely as book names, but as living people. They would not have lived for us if they had not first lived in and for their own generation. The more we know about their life and its conditions, the better we shall understand what the Word of God did for them and through them. One of the advantages, therefore, of this study is to impart to our reading of the Bible that sense of reality that Shakespeare coveted when he said, appealing to the sympathy of his audience:

“Think when we talk of horses that you see them,
Printing their proud hoofs i’ the receiving earth.”

(B) It explains and emphasizes the figurative language of Scripture. Thus, when Christ said in John 15:5: “I am the vine, ye are the branches…,” and then, “…without me ye can do nothing,” he expressed, in both cases, the same fact of dependence. However, in the first instance a figure is used, a metaphor: the vine and its branches. If we want to understand and teach its rich clusters of spiritual truth, we would do well to visit a vineyard and watch what the husbandman does as he plows, prunes, stakes and ties up the vines, cares for the vineyard, picks the grapes, etc. By carefully observing the husbandman we will be in a position to best understand the meaning that passed from Jesus to his listeners when the words were first used.

Figurative language is widely used and appreciated by Easterners. They can employ technical and abstract terms where exactness is required, but they turn to figures when they wish to arouse thought, create interest, and carry conviction. Thus when we say, “Necessity has no law,” they say “Hunger is an infidel,” that is, has no moral scruples. Instead of saying man “has influence with his master,” they say that “his hand is strong.” The most persuasive form of argument in the East is to show that something in conduct or character corresponds with something in nature.

Both in Hebrew and in Arabic, a proverb means a resemblance, and this fact of resemblance lies at the root of all Eastern wise sayings. The quotation of an appropriate proverb of this kind in a missionary address always wins for the preacher attention and confidence with regard to what he infers from it. It was this charm of resemblance, and the authority of proverbial form that Christ made use of when he taught and influenced the people by his wonderful parables. He pointed to the objects in nature and the customs and occupations with which his hearers were familiar, and those who had eyes and ears found with delight that something inside was like something else in the world outside.

Apart from the power of his own holiness and love, it was an intellectual act that produced an intellectually illuminating result. While their attention and sympathy were given to some tale of human life and labor, there rose before them the vision of Salvation, Sainthood, and Service. In some way, one was like the other. Because the Bible abounds in figurative language, it is important that as we read it we should know the objects, occasions, and customs from which it was originally drawn.

This study of ancient Bible manners and customs will constantly show a modern face. While we study the Eastern life in which the Lord Jesus found the resemblances he needed, we must seek to imitate him by finding them in our own. Such illustrations will flash only upon a heart full of love for him and surrendered to his service. Then things that lay unnoticed at our feet will rise up and walk in parable, and many of the common details of our own daily life will be touched with new spiritual light and begin to take on new meaning for us.

(C) It explains the relationship of the Divine and human elements in the Bible. This is important because of two mistakes that are commonly made. The fact that there is so much in the Bible that is Eastern, has led some to declare that it is entirely and only man’s writing, and that its claim to be the Word of God is like the clothing of the Gibeonites, professing to have come from afar when it was really manufactured close at hand (Josh. 9:3-15). Others have regarded the human factor in the Bible as the Israelites regarded the Canaanite in the Land of Promise: an element to be shunned and eliminated. This has tended to make the Bible unreal and uninviting, and a mystery in the hands of a special class. The truth is that the Word of God has always been, as it was in the days of the wilderness journey, a holy place and presence encircled by the comings and goings of men, and meant for them. There was indeed a center that few could reach, but it was in the Tabernacle of the Congregation. It is with the Bible as it was with the Living Word, and as the Christian is commanded to be—in the world, but not of it.

As the fitly spoken word of man must have suitable conditions of time, place, and circumstance, so it is with the Word of God addressed to man. The apples of gold are placed in a dish of carefully crafted silver (Prov. 25:11). The silver is a noble metal, and to make the dish, many threads are bent and blended together into a design, and the design is repeated to form a vessel of usefulness and beauty, but nevertheless, the dish is inferior to the fruit, which is gold, and its purpose is service. Thus, the Word shines in a setting of human disposition, domestic incident, social customs, and amid special surroundings of climate, country, and race.

We may take another illustration and go a step farther. The relationship of the Divine and human in the Bible is like what happens when olives are put in a new earthenware jar. Some of the oil and preserving salt penetrates the material of the vessel, and in turn a slight taste of the earth is noticed in the fruit. After a few seasons of continuous use, the inner pores are filled with the oil of the olive, and the jar ceases to tell what it is made of. Thus God was with Peter at Joppa (Acts 10:28), and with the Church at Antioch when it met to hear the first missionary report (Acts 14:27), but the joy over the discovery of His purpose to save the Gentiles was still a shock to Jewish prejudice. The Bible shows how this taint of former associations was eventually removed.

When the limits of the human element are recognized, then at the same time there is a clearer recognition of the spiritual power that is at work in and with the Bible no matter what our names, definitions, and theories about it are, which already has behind it a great cloud of witnesses, and still sustains and sanctifies the children of God. In this endeavor to know more about the people of the Bible, to understand its spiritual language more clearly, to learn how God’s grace was entrusted to earthen vessels, and how His power passed through human channels, it will be both interesting and helpful to study the climate, surviving habits, familiar folklore, and popular proverbs of the people now living in the land.

Large earthenware jar used for storage

3. Arrangement. In exploring this field of parable and Scripture illustration, there will be something to learn from both the land and the people. The chapters discuss different aspects of Eastern life and land.

Chapter 1: Climate, Seasons, and Weather of Palestine.
Chapter 2: Shepherds and Peasants, and an examination of pastoral and agricultural life.
Chapter 3: The various Trades and Professions.
Chapter 4: Food and Clothing.
Chapter 5: Home and Family Life.
Chapter 6: The Social, Political, and Religious life of Palestine.

4. Holy Life. There is an important prerequisite without which this excursion into the Bible will neither be pleasant nor profitable. An interest in living a holy life must go along with its illustration of the Holy Land. It is told of the great painter, Turner, that once, when visited by two friends who had come to see his pictures, he kept them in a tightly shuttered room for a short time before he told the servant to show them upstairs to his studio. He then apologized for the apparent discourtesy, by telling them that they had to get their eyes emptied of the common outside glare before they could see the colors of his pictures. Let us seek our own preparation in the shaded room of prayer and meditation upon the life of holiness.


[1] This is not nearly as true today as when Mackie wrote. As was noted earlier in “Why Revise An Old Custom’s Book?,” Palestine has not escaped the revolution that occurred in the 20th century and is still continuing. I have left many of Mackie’s statements about the time when he wrote in the book because it allows the reader to get a better feel for the situation at his time.
[2] The reader must remember that Mackie wrote before Israel became a nation again, and the language spoken all over Palestine was Arabic. Now Hebrew has been resurrected, but Arabic still is widely spoken and in many ways preserves the ancient thought processes better than the Hebrew, which has been modified and modernized in many ways.

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  1. This is priceless to teachers, students of the Bible and growing Christians. CAN I AFFORD IT?

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