{This comes from an old course called "Biblical Backgrounds" and has been largely unchanged}

Broad Cultural Shape

- Patriarchs were ass nomads

- lived in tents moving to different pastures as the grass finished

- might camp near a city - cf Gen 34

- religion was carried out by the head of the household - Gen 22

- however this meant that at times a number of other Gods were worshiped cf Gen 35

- During the wilderness/exodus period the distinctive cultus was formed

- In the wilderness the tent of meeting/tabernacle formed the center of the life of Israel

- It is important to realise that the Israelites were basically nomadic when they entered the Land.

- It is only once they are in the Land that they begin again to live in a settled city life.

- Exodus, numbers, leviticus and Deuteronomy all contain laws for living in a settled city society

- conservative answer would be God preparing his people. Liberal that they were projected back in time to the time when God was molding his people so that they gained authority.

- Israel very hot and dry - although dryer now than then

- water scarce with low rainfall

- Two main times of rain - former rains in autumn and latter rains in spring

- poor lived in 1 room houses made of mudbrick.

- in this they slept ate and kept their animals.

- on top there was a flat roof that could be accessed by an external stair - a place to store things or to rest in the cool

- the richer had bigger houses - sometimes of two stories or including courts and gardens.

- Most of the cities were small by our standards, although Nineveh is recorded as having a circumference of 10 miles.

- cities were either walled or unwalled.

- the walled cities formed a secure safe place to retreat for the surrounding countryside

- each city had a series of villages surrounding them.

- The walls while seeming formidable may have been mainly show

- In Jericho before Joshua took it the walls were also made of mud brick.

- the foundations were built on an older wall and not very well evened out - the gaps being partially filled with field stone

- Then they built houses against the walls and on top of the narrow cross walls tying the abutments together (cf Garstang p114)

- The staples of the poor were Goat's milk, olives and barley bread.

- the peasant families life consisted of work

- The man farmed or worked at a craft

- the women did house work - drawing water, milling seed to make bread etc

- during harvest they were also involved in the harvest tying the bundles as they were cut by the men cf Ruth

- seed was either popped or ground and made into bread

- rising was added in the form of a part of the previous days dough allowed to ferment - leaven

- farming was central to the life of the settled Israelites

- In autumn after the former rains the farmer ploughed the field and sowed the seed

- the latter rains in spring were essential in giving a good crop

- The seed was threshed by running a wooden sledge or simply oxen over it

- winnowing where the corn was thrown into the wind to allow the straw to be blown away was then done

- Other major crops included grapes, olives and figs.

- grapes were crushed and fermented into wine

- olives mainly for their oil

- a small amount of fishing was done. Mainly in the rivers and lakes

- Note the sea itself was seen as evil - a place of terror

- Apart from these the other main method of gaining food was livestock

- Generally the flocks had to travel large distances because the pasture was poor.

- they also had to be brought into a well at the beginning and end of the day to be watered cf Gen 29

- The flocks were a mix of sheep and goats. There was very little distinction.

- The job was dangerous because of the predators - lions and jackals.

- a noted shepherd was of course David. The themes of shepherd and sheep are used throughout the old and new testaments as illustrations of God's relationship with his people as well as the relationship between leaders and followers among God's people

- crafts included carpentry - the making and repairing of farm tools.

- mason who quarried limestone for building

- the potter and the tanner.

- it was considered a disgrace for a woman to not have children.

- she was considered under the curse of God. Hence the situation of Hannah mother of Samuel 1Sam 1, and the shenanigans with Rachel Gen 30

- After the time of the exodus, the sons were circumcised on the eigth day. Before exodus, this custom was not always carried out

- circumcision symbolised the covenant with YHWH made between Abraham and YHWH


- Israel's religion was molded in her experiences with her God

- firstly there were the successive covenants with the patriarchs. God Slowly revealed himself as the God who chose them to be his people

- Then the major formative event was exodus.

- God by his powerful hand led his people out of slavery.

- This is reflected in the continual reference to the event as validation of legal requirement eg the preface of the exodus version of the ten commandments

Ex 20:2

I am the Lord your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. You shall have no other gods before me

Temple and Tabernacle

- It was in this experience that the temple cultus was set up.

- the tent of meeting or the tabernacle.

- this and later the stone version, the temple, was to be the center of their experience of God

- This was where God dwelt - the footstool of God, the place where his name dwelt etc

- The temple was later sited at Jerusalem, although other places hosts the tabernacle and the Ark eg Shiloh 1Sam 1-3

- The Holy of Holies was where the earthly realm ended and the realm of God began.

- In the holy of Holies was the ark of the covenant. This ark contained the proofs, the touch stone of the covenant and the experience of God in the wilderness - manna, the rod of Aaron, the tablets with the ten commandments.

- because of the sin of the people, the holy of holies needed cleansing every year.

- this happened on the day of atonement - Yom Kippur

- this was a peril filled process - the high priest used to enter and sprinkle the mercy seat - the top of the ark - with the blood of the sacrifice

- Lev 16. To carry out this task the high priest had to take special precautions - covering the mercy seat with the smoke of incense and cleansing himself etc. In later times it is said that they used to tie a rope around the ankle of the priest in case God struck him down, then they would be able to pull him out again.

Feasts and Festivals

- There were a series of festivals in which the pilgrims went to the temple

- The festival of passover and unleavened bread celebrated the exodus event

- the dedication of the firstborn is also related

- the passover celebrated the final act of God in making the Egyptians let the Israelites go.

- There is a sense of mercy in that the angel of death passed over the Israelites houses.

- The reason they were passed over was the blood of the lamb placed on the lintels of the door.

- The passover meal consisted of a young sheep or goat. It seems likely that the animal was under 12Mths

- NDB suggests that there was a preference for a lamb rather than goat - but there was little difference in the eyes of the people in general life

- No bone was to be broken - Ex 12:46, Nu 9:12. This is later seen as a type of christ - none of his bones were broken either

- although Dt 16 doesn't mention it, the doorposts and lintel were daubed with the blood of the victim

- The blood is applied with a sprig of hyssop (ie fronds of majoram).

- Hyssop is used elsewhere in symbolic purification cf Ps 51:7

- The beast is roasted whole and eaten completely before morning

- included in the meal is unleavened bread and bitterherbs

- the meal is eaten in an attitude of haste - they gird their loins and have their staff in their hands ready to depart

- If a person was not clean ie they were ritually impure, they could celebrate the passover in the next month Num 9.

- during the meal the eldest son was to ask the meaning of the feast so that the event could be rehearsed.

- The passover evolved from something done in the home to something done at the temple

- The mishnah tractate Pesahim (quoted in NDB on Passover) describes the practice in Herodian times - 44 - 4BC

The common people gathered in the outer temple court in companies to slaughter the passover victims. The priests stood in two rows; in one row each man had a golden, in the other each man had a silver, basin. The basin which caught the blood of the expiring victim was passed from hand to hand in continuous exchange to the end of the line, where the last priest tossed the blood in ritual manner on the altar. All this was done to the singing of the Hallel (pss 113 - 118)

- by new testament times, the victim was slaughtered in the temple but the meal was held elsewhere

- companies with common bonds tended to eat the meal together eg Jesus and the disciples

- with the destruction of the temple in 70AD all sacrificial parts were ended and the meal reverted to a more home based event

- although jews today finish the meal with the toast - next year in Jerusalem.

- The feast of unleavened bread was closely related. Passover in effect was the first day of the week long feast.

- Because of the haste in which Israel had to leave Egypt, they didn't have time to leaven their bread.

- to commemorate this they didn't eat leaven for seven days. During this time no servile work was done.

- The jews today celebrate it. The house is cleaned from top to bottom and then ritual crumbs of leaven are left out. The head of the house with son in tow searches and removes these crumbs.

- The offering of the first born was also related to the passover.

- because the angel of death passed over the Israelites, all their first born were forfeit to God. In the case of the animals this mainly meant death - clean animals were sacrificed (Num 18:17,18; Dt 12:6,17) if they were blemished they were killed and eaten - DT 15:19-23. Unclean animals were redeemed ie paid out Nu 18:15 and in the case of an ass it was either redeemed by a lamb or have its neck broken Ex 13:13,34:20

- humans in the first instance ie after exodus were redeemed by God taking the Levites for himself. Those afterwards were redeemed by the cost of five shekels to the priests.

- After the feast of unleavened bread came the feast of first fruits/harvest/weeks.

- seven weeks after the first sabath of passover.

- celebration of the goodness of God.

- in direct competition with the nature religions of the canaanites which the Israelites dabbled in

- the feast of weeks of course was later known as pentecost

- in the seventh month - Tishri (september/october) were the blowing of trumpets, the day of atonement mentioned previously and the feast of tabernacles.

- It is not clear why they blew trumpets but they did - rams horns to the reading of scripture Num 29:1

- Yom Kippur of course was when the temple was rededicated

- Tabernacles or the feast of booths was again a reminder of the exodus where Israel lived in booths for 40 years

- the booths were created out of branches and they lived in them for seven days.

- during the time sacrifices were made starting with 14 bullocks and one less each day.

- on the eigth day a bullock, ram and seven lambs are offered

- On the 25th of Kislev - Nov/Dec, is the feast of lights or Hanukkah.

- this feast celebrates the rededication of the temple by Judas Maccabaeus.

- the temple had been dedicated to Zeus by Antiochus Epiphanes.

- an altar had been erected to Zeus on the site of the great altar and even unclean animals such as pigs had been sacrificed there.

- blameless priests carried out the defiled stones and the temple was rededicated on the third anniversary of its defilement

- This feast is mentioned in John 10:22 called the feast of dedication.

- This is celebrated by the jews to this day - the term lights from the practise of lighting up their houses as part of the feast.

- The final festival was that of purim - the jewish version of Guy Fawkes night

- Purim was instituted to celebrate the salvation of the Jews from the plot of Haman the Agagite that he formed in the court of King Ahasuerus (usually identified with Xerxes 1)

- for the biblical equivalent of Mills and Boone check out the book of Esther - make sure you include the apocryphal extensions though!

- There were three major feasts. In these feasts all the jewish men were to present themselves in Jerusalem. They were the passover/unleavened bread, Weeks/firstfruits/harvest and tabernacles.

- this had a real effect on the life style - three pilgrimages a year broke up the year nicely.

- it is to be presumed that some were not too heavily involved especially when the diaspora came


- during the Exile the temple was unavailable to the Jews so they built the concept of the Synagogue.

- The exiles missed the religous activity surrounding the temple.

- The synagogue was a little temple though dispersed everywhere

- there was no sacrifice this being replaced with prayers and reading of the Torah

- it also formed a community centre where people could gather to discuss issues

- there is no record of the beginning of the synagogue but it is thought to have developed in the exile.

- by new testament times everywhere there are jews there are synagogues.

- with the reestablishment of the temple there is some contention between the synagogue and the temple

- the synagogue managed to survive the destruction of the temple in AD 70 and the Romans allowed its continued operation

- The method of evangelism in Acts was largely based on the network of synagogues. Paul first went to the jews and then the gentiles.

- in many cases his new church was built from the proselytes attached to a synagogue and the jews who defected.

- The central feature of the synagogue was an ark in which the scrolls of the torah were kept.

- The synagogue was there for worship, instruction and civil government

- the congregation was governed by elders who could punish members by scourging or excommunication

- The service was similar to church services including prayer, readings and preaching.

- It was largely because of the existence of the synagogues that Judaism survived the fall of Jerusalem in AD70

- other wise the temple would have been irreplaceable.

- the synagogue was also formative in the worship life of the young church

- the worship and activity were initially based on the familiar synagogue pattern.

High Places:

- The problem with the worship life of Israel was who they were to worship.

- the habits of the nation tended to be ecclectic.

- there was a real tendency to worship the Baals and the Asherith.

- then there were the other deities like Molech who was probably phoenician or ammonite. this idol had children sacrificed by fire to it

- This going after other Gods was especially strong when either there was a religios power vacuum or when the leaders were actively promoting it.

- In Judges there was continual apostasy - cf Micah Jud 17.

- during the monarchy - if the king was orthodox then there was a tendency for YHWH to worshiped alone

- if the king was not then apostasy resulted

- A major area of problem were the high places.

- these existed before the temple as locations of worship.

- some were devoted to YHWH others to other Gods. The good Kings actively stamped out the latter

- even those devoted to YHWH were a problem since they were not regulated - it was everyone for themselves.

- finally Hezekiah banned them.

God etc:

- the customs and society had an influence on the way the people responded to YHWH

- because the lifestyle was very close to the land, the response was in terms of lets get the crop growing God.

- There was also thus an opening for the Canaanite fertility gods.

- the three great feasts were a time of holiday however you can imagine the hard bitten farmer refusing to leave his fields.

- The temple was both the solution and a problem

- because it was centralised, it was inaccessible to the ordinary person - try having church three times a year and see how relevant it is

- The temple was also very much a look and see experience. Teaching of heritage and the Law was left to the families themselves

- this has always been somewhat of a failure even in our times

- The high places were an alternative but then the ones belonging to other gods were the Kings Cross of the Old Testament world cf Gen 38

- they were unregulated and easily became a source of unorthodoxy

- The synagogue finally took this role. Because they were set up by presumably the priests in exile and because they were literacy based - the law was read they fulfilled the need.

- they also survived the temple - Judaism became about lifestyle rather than persecuting goats.


This essay was developed as a lecture and so the references are not as good as they should be. As far as I am aware the material of the course was based on the following books:

"The New Bible Dictionary" (InterVarsity Press 1962)

"The Interpreter's Dictionary of the Bible" (Abingdon Press 1962)

"The Lion Handbook of the Bible" (Lion Publishing 1973)

"The Story of Jericho" 2nd Ed. by J. Garstang and J.B.E. Garstang (Marshall Morgan and Scott 1948)

"How to Read the New Testament" by Etienne Charpentier (SCM Press 1981)

"A Way into the Old Testament" by C.R. Biggs and A.L.G Catlin (Uniting Church Press 1983)

"The New Testament Environment" by Eduard Lohse (SCM Press 1976)

"How to Read the Old Testament" by Etienne Charpentier (SCM Press 1981)

"The Background of the Gospels" by W. Fairweather (T & T Clark 1911)