Why Read a Customs Book?

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


When you meet someone for the first time and therefore do not know much about him, there is a natural distance between the two of you. Friendships develop over time. In order for you to more intimately know the person, and eventually become a friend, it is important to know about him and his life. Where does he live? What does he do for work? Is he married? Does he have children? What does he do when he has time off? What are his attitudes about life? Usually women, much more than men, know many intimate details about the lives of their friends, and in fact would not consider them friends if they kept those details secret.

If we feel the need to know details about people’s lives before we consider them as friends, and know how they think and why they do what they do, is it not true that this same principle applies to the people in the Bible? How intimate can we become with Abraham and Sarah, Moses and Zipporah, David and Bathsheba, Ahasuerus and Esther, or Zachariah and Elizabeth, if we do not know what they wore, what they ate, how they traveled, what they knew of the world, or what they did in their day-to-day lives? The people in the Bible ate and drank, laughed and worried, had weddings and funerals, had children that made them proud and children that disappointed them, and had dreams and broken dreams just as we do in our lives. The biblical characters that we know and love, as well as the parables, proverbs, and prophecies, become much more real and interesting if we know how the people lived their day-to-day lives, which is one of the great goals and purposes of the study of manners and customs.

The manners and customs of the Bible are a field of study unlike other exegetical fields such as the translation or transmission of the text. When it comes to the study of customs, what the text says is clear, but what it means is not. Ecclesiastes says to “Cast thy bread upon the waters…” (Eccles. 11:1), but who would throw bread into water? After the Philistines revealed the solution to Samson’s riddle he said, “…If ye had not plowed with my heifer, ye had not found out my riddle” (Judg. 14:18), but what did plowing have to do with discovering the meaning of a riddle? Psalms says, “They that sow in tears shall reap in joy” (Ps. 126:5), but why would the people planting cry as they sowed? The Beloved in Song of Solomon referred to herself as being dark in color. She said, “Dark am I, yet lovely, O daughters of Jerusalem, dark like the tents of Kedar, like the tent curtains of Solomon” (Song of Sol. 1:5-NIV). Our tents are beautifully colored. Why would Eastern tents, including the tent curtains of Solomon, be dark in color?

The list of customs could easily be expanded into several books. Learning the customs of the people is the only way to understand these verses and all those like them, and we will miss a lot, and even, sadly, misunderstand a lot, if we do not take the time to learn the customs of the Bible. Furthermore, it is exciting to see passage after passage of Scripture open up as the customs are learned and understood. It should also be pointed out that learning customs is quick, especially when compared to the years of intensive study it takes to learn Hebrew, Greek, or Aramaic, the original languages of the Bible.

Mackie wrote this book more than 100 years ago so that people would better understand the Bible and God who authored it, and it is the purpose of this edition to continue in that lofty goal. It is my prayer that God and His wonderful Son, Jesus, will bless us all as we endeavor to get to know them, and the Bible, better, and that they will empower us as we then strive to live out in our own lives what it teaches us.

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