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TitleHebrew Manners and Customs
Publication TypeMagazine Article
Year of Publication1972
AuthorsSperry, Sidney B.
Issue Number5
Date PublishedMay 1972
KeywordsAncient Near East; Culture; Family; Jews

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Hebrew Manners and Customs

Sidney B. Sperry

Professor of Old Testament Languages and Literature, Brigham Young University

Rudyard Kipling was certainly right when he said: “Oh, East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet.”

As Latter-day Saints, we should keep Kipling’s saying in mind when we read the scriptures. We ofttimes read our Bible as though its peoples were English or American and interpret their sayings in terms of our own background and psychology. But the Bible is actually an Oriental book. It was written centuries ago by Oriental people and primarily for Oriental people.

To be sure, the New Testament has come down to us in Greek, a European, western language; but Jesus and his apostles were Oriental, and they spoke in Aramaic, an Oriental tongue. Not only should we know something about the language of the Bible, but we should also know something about the manners and customs of its peoples if we are to understand it properly.

The penetration of Palestine by people from the West is rapidly changing the area, but even now in the far interior one may find areas where life continues much as it was in the days of Abraham. The country boy and the village girl still wear the same style of clothing worn by generations of their ancestors. There has been little change in agricultural life; even salutations are nearly identical with those of Bible days.

Many other traditions and customs are still to be observed in primitive Palestine. In gesturing, for instance, the Westerner beckons another to come to him by turning his palms upward and bending his index fingers; the Palestinian turns his palms down and draws his four fingers toward themselves. We express a negative view by shaking our heads from side to side; the Palestinian throws his head backward. As a sign of respect when we enter a sacred place or a home, we remove our hats; the primitive Palestinian removes his shoes.

Western sheepmen drive their sheep; Eastern shepherds lead their sheep. How many times, while in Palestine, have I watched sheep follow their master over a narrow trail in single file! And how often on such occasions have I remembered the words of our Lord: “… he calleth his own sheep. … he goeth before them, and the sheep follow him: for they know his voice.” (John 10:3–4.)

Western newlyweds try to set up their own home as soon as possible after marriage; a Palestinian couple live with the groom’s family. Notice that when Abraham’s servant brought Rebekah back from her homeland, “Isaac brought her into his mother Sarah’s tent, and took Rebekah, and she became his wife. …” (Gen. 24–67.) Rebekah thus became a member of Abraham’s clan.

It may be of interest to contrast the speech of modern and ancient Palestinians with our own. In thought and speech the Oriental is an artist; the Occidental, on the other hand, may be thought of as an architect. When speaking, the Oriental paints a scene whose total effect is true, but the details may be inaccurate; the Occidental tends to draw diagrams accurate in detail. When our Lord spoke of the mustard seed as “less than all the seeds that be in the earth,” and the plant as “greater than all herbs” (Mark 4:31–32), he was speaking as an Oriental. Any good botanist knows that the mustard seed (sinapi) of which Jesus spoke, though small, is not the smallest of all seeds, nor is the plant greater than all herbs.

From the days of Abraham until they settled down in Palestine as a nation, the Israelites lived as nomads or seminomads. Even after their settlement in Palestine in later times, they retained many characteristics of their earlier way of life.

From contemporary Arab life in the desert we may reconstruct many ancient Hebrew customs. In the desert, I have been entertained by Arab sheikhs and have had occasion to be reminded of certain biblical accounts of the ancient patriarchs.

The ancient Hebrew family was patriarchal by nature. The Hebrew term to describe it was beth’ab, the “house of one’s father.” The father was the supreme authority over the family. When his children grew older and his sons married, they and their children came also under his control. If he had more than one wife or if the children were the offspring of concubines or servants, these all assumed a position on a common basis with his other children. Thus, the sons of Jacob by four different mothers were all accepted on equal terms. The family also included those of no blood kin who had entered into a covenant relationship, not to mention servants and retainers.

In earlier times the father’s authority even included power over life and death. For example, Judah condemned to death his daughter-in-law Tamar when she was accused of lewd conduct.

The Hebrew family was also known as a house. The founding of a family was to build a house. The use of the term house was very flexible and could include the entire nation (the house of Jacob or the house of Israel) or a segment of the people (the house of Judah or the house of Joseph).

In a Hebrew family the father administered justice between household members, and his words were not to be disputed. The duties of children and the whole household required obedience and reverence. A son did not sit in the presence of his father without an invitation, nor did he express opinions without permission.

When a father died, his place was usually taken over by the eldest son, who then became the father of the whole household, including its aged members. Unless he proved unworthy of his position, he received all the rights, loyalty, and privileges of his father before him. However, there are cases cited in the Bible where the father has designated a successor other than his oldest son. For instance, Joseph became the father of the tribes in Jacob’s stead after Reuben had proved unworthy, and Solomon was appointed by David to be his successor.

Some authorities assert that marriage among the ancient Hebrews was a legal and not a religious institution. Among some Hebrews that may have been true, but as Latter-day Saints, we know that among the great patriarchs, religion played a very important role.

When sons in a Hebrew family were to marry, their wives were chosen by their parents. This custom still prevails among Arabs in certain Bible lands. Children usually married at a very early age among the Hebrews. Dr. Ludwig Kohler, one of my former professors and an avid student of Hebrew manners and customs, used to say that an average Hebrew man was a father at nineteen, a grandfather at thirty-eight, and a great-grandfather at fifty-seven. Occasionally a Hebrew man would marry at a more advanced age. Such was the case with Isaac, who was forty years of age when he took Rebekah to wife. Even so, Abraham, his father, chose Rebekah through the inspired agency of the foreman of his estate.

When a girl was chosen to be the wife of a young man, the fiancé was expected to pay a mohar or sum of money to the bride’s father or even to the bride herself. In case of divorce, the dowry became a source of protection to her. The dowry that was paid may be looked upon as compensation to her family for loss of valuable services that she gave by tending flocks or working in the fields.

Among the Jews in New Testament times there were usually three steps in marriage. First, there was the engagement, which could be made even if the couple were only children. The match might be arranged by the parents themselves or by a professional go-between. Often the couple involved had never seen each other. This fact may astonish young people today, but marriage was looked upon as a very serious step and not as something to be left to human passion and hasty action. Second, there was the betrothal. In this step the engagement would be ratified unless the girl was unwilling to accept it. But if she accepted it, the Jews regarded the betrothal as absolutely binding. For one year the couple were regarded as man and wife but without the rights of marriage itself. Betrothal could be terminated only by divorce. Third, the marriage proper took place after the year of betrothal.

Not to be married was considered a reproach among Hebrew women. The prophet Isaiah reflected this feeling when he quoted unmarried women as saying to a man, “take away our reproach.” (Isa. 4:1.)

Newly married Hebrew couples looked anxiously for the coming of children, especially sons. Notice these words in the poetry of the psalmist: “Lo, children are an heritage of the Lord: and the fruit of the womb is his reward. As arrows are in the hand of a mighty man; so are children of the youth. Happy is the man that hath his quiver full of them. …” (Ps. 127:3–5.)

Women who were barren considered that the curse of God was upon them and were grieved in their hearts. “And when Rachel saw that she bare Jacob no children, Rachel envied her sister [Leah]; and said unto Jacob, Give me children, or else I die.” (Gen. 30:1.)

Another Oriental custom is that of bargaining. One evening a good friend of mine, a Jerusalem shopkeeper, told me that he didn’t get a bit of fun out of charging Americans, unschooled in bargaining, many times more than an article was worth. He appreciated their money, but he would rather bargain with them.

As an illustration that the first price asked by a merchant is almost never the final price accepted, let me tell about two of my own experiences. I went into a Jerusalem shop to buy some typical Palestinian costumes. When I had made my selections, the Arab shopkeeper quoted me a price of $15.00 in American money. By bargaining for about ten minutes, I came out of the shop with the merchandise, for which I had paid $5.00.

On another occasion, while I was aboard a steamer in the harbor of Algiers, a lone Arab came on deck with a number of pairs of field glasses on his shoulder. One pair was of beautiful German make, and I decided to buy it if I could get it at a favorable price. So we bargained vigorously for half an hour. He asked in succession $52.50, $32.50, $27.50; but finally I came away with it, including a beautiful leather carrying case, for $20.00. Don’t misjudge me. The Arab made a profit or he wouldn’t have let me have it.

Westerners may be surprised to know that the account of Abraham’s purchase of the field of Ephron, with the cave in which to bury Sarah, is in reality a description of an ancient bargaining scene. When Abraham assured his Hittite friends that he would pay Ephron “as much money as it is worth,” Ephron stepped forward and said, “Nay, my lord, hear me: the field give I thee, and the cave that is therein, I give it thee; in the presence of the sons of my people give I it thee: bury thy dead.” (Gen. 23:9–11.)

Most readers think that Ephron was a most kind and generous man in offering the field and cave to Abraham for nothing. Actually his words were nothing but a polite gesture to a customer. Observe that Abraham finally paid the four hundred shekels proposed by Ephron for his property. (See Gen. 23:13–16.)

Yes, knowing the manners and customs of the ancient Near East is necessary if one is to understand and appreciate the Bible.