Let’s Learn : Inferring Customs from the Bible : Genesis – Article

1) Burying the dead

While today we have the means of burial or cremation, it is from Abraham’s account of burying Sarah after her death and Isaac and Ishmael burying Abraham after his death we can infer that burial was the common way of laying to rest of one who had passed away among the Hebrews

Genesis 23:3-4,19-20
[3] And Abraham stood up from before his dead, and spake unto the sons of Heth, saying, [4] I am a stranger and a sojourner with you: give me a possession of a buryingplace with you, that I may bury my dead out of my sight. [19] And after this, Abraham buried Sarah his wife in the cave of the field of Machpelah before Mamre: the same is Hebron in the land of Canaan. [20] And the field, and the cave that is therein, were made sure unto Abraham for a possession of a buryingplace by the sons of Heth.
Genesis 25:9
[9] And his sons Isaac and Ishmael buried him in the cave of Machpelah, in the field of Ephron the son of Zohar the Hittite, which is before Mamre;

Abraham at Sarah's burial

Abraham at Sarah’s burial

2) Taking an oath

We have different means of taking an oath – a hand across the heart, or a hand held up palms facing outward or the right hand placed on a holy scripture or even the pinky swear which is a favorite with the kids. In biblical times taking an oath involved the opposite party putting their hand under the thigh of one who is requiring them to swear. We see this when Abraham makes his servant put his hand under his thigh and swear that he will not take a wife for Isaac from the daughters of the Caananites as well as later when Jacob was about to pass away he asks his son Joseph to put his hand under his thigh and swear that he will not bury him in Egypt but he should be taken and buried in his father’ buryingplace back in Caanan

Genesis 24:2-3
[2] And Abraham said unto his eldest servant of his house, that ruled over all that he had, Put, I pray thee, thy hand under my thigh: [3] And I will make thee swear by the Lord, the God of heaven, and the God of the earth, that thou shalt not take a wife unto my son of the daughters of the Canaanites, among whom I dwell:
Genesis 47:29-31
[29] And the time drew nigh that Israel must die: and he called his son Joseph, and said unto him, If now I have found grace in thy sight, put, I pray thee, thy hand under my thigh, and deal kindly and truly with me; bury me not, I pray thee, in Egypt: [30] But I will lie with my fathers, and thou shalt carry me out of Egypt, and bury me in their buryingplace. And he said, I will do as thou hast said. [31] And he said, Swear unto me. And he sware unto him. And Israel bowed himself upon the bed’s head.

Taking an oath

Abraham’s servant taking an oath

3) Tithing

The practice of tithing that is prevalent in churches first originated with Abraham. The then named Abram had just come victorious out of a battle smiting the king of Elam – Chedorlaomer and all the kings that were with aligned with him and rescued his nephew Lot who had been taken captive by them. Abram after the battle brought back all the goods, and also brought again his brother Lot, and his goods, and the women also, and the people. The king of Salem and high priest of the most high God called Melchizedek met with Abram, he blessed Abram and blessed the most high God who had given Abram victory over his enemies. Abram gave the high priest Melchizedek tithes of everything. Decades later, we see Abraham’s grandson Jacob setting up a pillar in the place where he had a dream of heaven – of angels coming up and down a ladder that joined heaven and earth – the next morning Jacob called the stone which he had set for a pillar to be God’s house and then says to God that surely everything that God gives him that he will give a tenth to God

Genesis 14:18-20
[18] And Melchizedek king of Salem brought forth bread and wine: and he was the priest of the most high God. [19] And he blessed him, and said, Blessed be Abram of the most high God, possessor of heaven and earth: [20] And blessed be the most high God, which hath delivered thine enemies into thy hand. And he gave him tithes of all.
Genesis 28:18-22
[18] And Jacob rose up early in the morning, and took the stone that he had put for his pillows, and set it up for a pillar, and poured oil upon the top of it. [22] And this stone, which I have set for a pillar, shall be God’s house: and of all that thou shalt give me I will surely give the tenth unto thee.

Abraham and Melchizedek

Abraham giving tithes to high priest and king of Salem Melchizedek


Jacob and pillar of stone

Jacob and the pillar of stone – he tells God that he would give a tenth back to God of everything God gives him

4) Hebrew women wore jewelry

The Hebrew woman wore jewelry consisting earrings and bracelets. When Abraham’s servant was sent to find a bride for Isaac to the city of Nahor he finds Rebekah the daughter Bethuel and grand-daughter of Nahor who is Abraham’s brother. The servant presents Rebekah with a golden earring and two bracelets also in gold.

Genesis 24:22
[22] And it came to pass, as the camels had done drinking, that the man took a golden earring of half a shekel weight, and two bracelets for her hands of ten shekels weight of gold;

Rebekah and Abraham's servant

Abraham’s servant presenting Rebekah with a gold earring and gold bracelets

5) The marriage of the older before the younger

It was not the custom to give away the younger woman to be married before the older was married. We see this custom still in place in many countries even now. Jacob worked for Rachel’s hand for seven years but Laban her father performs a switcheroo and gives Leah her older sister to be Jacob’s wife instead. When Jacob realizes the next morning that he had laid with Leah, he asks Laban why he had been deceived. Laban coolly replies that in their country it’s not the custom to give the younger before the older! He asks Jacob to be with Leah for a week and then he would give him Rachel in return for an additional seven years of labor!

Genesis 29:25-30
[25] And it came to pass, that in the morning, behold, it was Leah: and he said to Laban, What is this thou hast done unto me? did not I serve with thee for Rachel? wherefore then hast thou beguiled me? [26] And Laban said, It must not be so done in our country, to give the younger before the firstborn. [27] Fulfil her week, and we will give thee this also for the service which thou shalt serve with me yet seven other years. [28] And Jacob did so, and fulfilled her week: and he gave him Rachel his daughter to wife also. [29] And Laban gave to Rachel his daughter Bilhah his handmaid to be her maid. [30] And he went in also unto Rachel, and he loved also Rachel more than Leah, and served with him yet seven other years.

Jacob, Laban, Leah and Rachel

Jacob confronting Laban on being deceived with marriage with Leah instead of Rachel

6) Not eating the sinew in meat

This is a reference to a custom where it’s mentioned in the verse itself that its followed through unto his day – orthodox Jews continue to uphold this custom which is namely not eating the sinew or tendon of the thigh on the hip socket in meat in remembrance of Jacob wrestling with a man through the whole night until the breaking of day. The man wrestled with Jacob and touched him in the hollow of his thigh which then went out of joint. Jacob mentions that he has seen God face to face and his life is preserved – since Jacob says that he has seen God, the man that Jacob wrestled with may have very well been  the Son of God, Jesus of the Godhead! Jacob walks away limping with a blessing received and a physical remembrance to serve him his entire life that he had wrestled with God who touched him in the hollow of his thigh

Genesis 32:24-32
[24] And Jacob was left alone; and there wrestled a man with him until the breaking of the day. [25] And when he saw that he prevailed not against him, he touched the hollow of his thigh; and the hollow of Jacob’s thigh was out of joint, as he wrestled with him. [26] And he said, Let me go, for the day breaketh. And he said, I will not let thee go, except thou bless me. [27] And he said unto him, What is thy name? And he said, Jacob. [28] And he said, Thy name shall be called no more Jacob, but Israel: for as a prince hast thou power with God and with men, and hast prevailed. [29] And Jacob asked him, and said, Tell me, I pray thee, thy name. And he said, Wherefore is it that thou dost ask after my name? And he blessed him there. [30] And Jacob called the name of the place Peniel: for I have seen God face to face, and my life is preserved. [31] And as he passed over Penuel the sun rose upon him, and he halted upon his thigh. [32] Therefore the children of Israel eat not of the sinew which shrank, which is upon the hollow of the thigh, unto this day: because he touched the hollow of Jacob’s thigh in the sinew that shrank.

Jacob wrestles with a man

Jacob wrestles with a man

7) Widow’s clothes

Tamar is Judah’s daughter-in-law and she is widowed after being married to his older son Er and after his death (he was slain by God because he was wicked) she was married to his second son Onan who also was slain by God because he displeased God by spilling his seed. Now that Tamar is widowed we see that she has to wear a specific set of clothes to identify her as a widow. We don’t know if there is a specific color or style of wearing clothes that marked a woman as a widow, but we see in Genesis 38:14 that Tamar puts away her widows garments

Genesis 38:13-15
[13] And it was told Tamar, saying, Behold thy father in law goeth up to Timnath to shear his sheep. [14] And she put her widow’s garments off from her, and covered her with a vail, and wrapped herself, and sat in an open place, which is by the way to Timnath; for she saw that Shelah was grown, and she was not given unto him to wife.

8) Face covered with a veil – tagged a woman as a harlot/prostitute

Tamar, Judah’s daughter-in-law puts away her widows garments and puts on a veil that covered her face and wraps herself and sits in an open place where Judah was about to pass. Judah when he sees this woman identifies her as a harlot because he saw that her face was covered. In today’s world there are certain cultures that cover their faces for modesty sake but in Biblical times amongst the Hebrews, covering the face with a veil would have tagged a woman as a prostitute/harlot

Genesis 38:14-15
[14] And she put her widow’s garments off from her, and covered her with a vail, and wrapped herself, and sat in an open place, which is by the way to Timnath; for she saw that Shelah was grown, and she was not given unto him to wife. [15] When Judah saw her, he thought her to be an harlot; because she had covered her face.

Tamar and Judah

Tamar and Judah – Judah thinks her a harlot since her face was covered with a veil

9) Paying for sex

An acceptable form of payment for a sexual encounter with a prostitute/harlot was livestock

Genesis 38:15-16
[15] When Judah saw her, he thought her to be an harlot; because she had covered her face. [16] And he turned unto her by the way, and said, Go to, I pray thee, let me come in unto thee; (for he knew not that she was his daughter in law.) And she said, What wilt thou give me, that thou mayest come in unto me? [17] And he said, I will send thee a kid from the flock. And she said, Wilt thou give me a pledge, till thou send it ?

10) Hebrew men wore jewelry

Hebrew men in those times wore jewelry – Judah had on him bracelets and a signet

Genesis 38:16-18
[16] And he turned unto her by the way, and said, Go to, I pray thee, let me come in unto thee; (for he knew not that she was his daughter in law.) And she said, What wilt thou give me, that thou mayest come in unto me? [17] And he said, I will send thee a kid from the flock. And she said, Wilt thou give me a pledge, till thou send it ? [18] And he said, What pledge shall I give thee? And she said, Thy signet, and thy bracelets, and thy staff that is in thine hand. And he gave it her, and came in unto her, and she conceived by him.

Judah and Tamar

Judah gives Tamar his signet, bracelets and staff as a pledge

11) Punishment for a harlot

Playing the harlot / sex outside of a marriage/ whoredom was not kindly looked upon within the family life in those times and the punishment ranged to an extreme of burning the person. Judah was ready to burn Tamar even though he knew she was pregnant with child. It’s a scandal that Tamar was suspected of playing the harlot, but the fact that she got pregnant by her father in law was not considered so weird by Judah! In fact, Judah calls her more righteous than himself in that he did not give her Shelah his son to bear seed in the place of his oldest brother Er who had died

Genesis 38:24-26
[24] And it came to pass about three months after, that it was told Judah, saying, Tamar thy daughter in law hath played the harlot; and also, behold, she is with child by whoredom. And Judah said, Bring her forth, and let her be burnt. [25] When she was brought forth, she sent to her father in law, saying, By the man, whose these are, am I with child: and she said, Discern, I pray thee, whose are these, the signet, and bracelets, and staff. [26] And Judah acknowledged them, and said, She hath been more righteous than I; because that I gave her not to Shelah my son. And he knew her again no more.

12) Washing feet

We see for the first time the custom of washing feet taking place in Egypt at Joseph’s house

Genesis 43:24
[24] And the man brought the men into Joseph’s house, and gave them water, and they washed their feet; and he gave their asses provender.

Washing feet

Washing feet

13) Segregated eating in Egypt

The Egyptians considered eating along with the Hebrews an abomination! So we see three sets of seating arrangements – one set for the brothers who are Hebrews, one set for the Egyptians and one set for Joseph who the Egyptians knew was a Hebrew but the brothers did not. We do not know if Hebrews are the only group of people that the Egyptians considered eating together an abomination or if there was some rule that says an Egyptian could not eat with particular sets of people groups or an Egyptian cannot eat with any other people group except if it was an Egyptian? Even in these present times there are cultures that do not eat with other people, an example of high caste vs low caste in some countries being one and the other being segregated because of skin color

Genesis 43:31-32
[31] And he washed his face, and went out, and refrained himself, and said, Set on bread. [32] And they set on for him by himself, and for them by themselves, and for the Egyptians, which did eat with him, by themselves: because the Egyptians might not eat bread with the Hebrews; for that is an abomination unto the Egyptians.

Joseph and his brothers

Joseph eating separately from his brothers

14) Detested jobs in Egypt

Egypt may have followed some sort of caste system either based on occupation or on some religious setup. It looks like the Egyptians looked down on people who reared livestock and it specifically says that shepherds are an abomination to Egyptians. Joseph asked his brothers to say that they were livestock rearers when Pharoah was to ask them their occupation so that they get to stay in the land of Goshen which may have been further off from main Egyptian cities. This decision of choosing Goshen which is away from main Egyptian cities will pay off later when the plagues descend on Egypt during the time of Moses, Goshen will be severed and spared by God and the rest of Egypt would be impacted by the plagues

Genesis 46:31-34
[31] And Joseph said unto his brethren, and unto his father’s house, I will go up, and shew Pharaoh, and say unto him, My brethren, and my father’s house, which were in the land of Canaan, are come unto me; [32] And the men are shepherds, for their trade hath been to feed cattle; and they have brought their flocks, and their herds, and all that they have. [33] And it shall come to pass, when Pharaoh shall call you, and shall say, What is your occupation? [34] That ye shall say, Thy servants’ trade hath been about cattle from our youth even until now, both we, and also our fathers: that ye may dwell in the land of Goshen; for every shepherd is an abomination unto the Egyptians.

Joseph and Pharoah

Joseph and Pharoah

15) Priests special status in Egypt

The priests in Egypt held a lofty and special position. The land where they lived was given to them by Pharaoh and they ate what Pharaoh had set for them. When Joseph bought all the land from the people and had them give a fifth part of what was cultivated in the land back to Pharaoh, these laws did not apply to the priests. Joseph did not buy the priests land and they did not have to give one fifth of the land back to Pharaoh

Genesis 47:20-26
[20] And Joseph bought all the land of Egypt for Pharaoh; for the Egyptians sold every man his field, because the famine prevailed over them: so the land became Pharaoh’s. [21] And as for the people, he removed them to cities from one end of the borders of Egypt even to the other end thereof. [22] Only the land of the priests bought he not; for the priests had a portion assigned them of Pharaoh, and did eat their portion which Pharaoh gave them: wherefore they sold not their lands. [23] Then Joseph said unto the people, Behold, I have bought you this day and your land for Pharaoh: lo, here is seed for you, and ye shall sow the land. [24] And it shall come to pass in the increase, that ye shall give the fifth part unto Pharaoh, and four parts shall be your own, for seed of the field, and for your food, and for them of your households, and for food for your little ones. [25] And they said, Thou hast saved our lives: let us find grace in the sight of my lord, and we will be Pharaoh’s servants. [26] And Joseph made it a law over the land of Egypt unto this day, that Pharaoh should have the fifth part ; except the land of the priests only, which became not Pharaoh’s.

16) Embalming the dead in Egypt

Jacob dies when he was 147 years old in Egypt and Joseph his son commands his physicians to embalm Jacob – the Egyptians seem to be a masters in embalming back then itself – forty days are needed to be fulfilled for one who is embalmed

Genesis 50:2-3
[2] And Joseph commanded his servants the physicians to embalm his father: and the physicians embalmed Israel. [3] And forty days were fulfilled for him; for so are fulfilled the days of those which are embalmed: and the Egyptians mourned for him threescore and ten days.

Jacob being embalmed

Jacob being embalmed by Egyptian physicians


– By SAP for almondtreerod.com

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