The Bible is completely interwoven with the culture and the customs recorded in it. While the references were well known to those who lived back then, we must become familiar with their idioms, customs, and culture in order to arrive at the proper understanding of Scripture as it would have been understood in Bible times.
Customs changed over time, and from place to place. The Bible mentions many different countries, such as Israel, Egypt, Syria, Assyria, Babylonia, Persia, Greece, and Rome, and each had some unique customs. The New Testament can be very interesting because there is often a mix of the Greco-Roman customs with the customs of Israel.
One clue that a verse or section may contain a custom is if the words in the verse are plain, but the meaning of the phrase is not. Learning biblical customs has many advantages.
1. It makes reading the Bible more enjoyable when we know about the people and how they lived.
2. It clarifies things in the Bible we would otherwise not readily know, or that would not seem to make sense.
The following list is a tiny sampling of how understanding the culture and customs of the Bible can help clarify its meaning.
Biblical countries and people. The Bible mentions the countries around it, with which the biblical characters would be familiar, such as Egypt, Aram (our Syria), Assyria, Babylonia, Persia, and Rome. It also mentions many of the leaders of those countries by name, expecting the people to be familiar with them as we are with George Washington. For example, Sennacherib of Assyria, Nebuchadnezzar and Belshazzar of Babylon, and Cyrus and Darius of Persia.
We can read the Bible without knowing anything about these countries or men just as we can learn a lot about the United States without knowing about George Washington, Mexico or Canada. But if we will take the time to learn a little about them, our enjoyment of the Bible will increase dramatically.
An example of how understanding a local custom can help us understand the Bible is that before Joseph would go to meet Pharaoh, he shaved his beard (Gen. 41:14). Israelites were very proud of full beards, but Egyptians did not like them, so Joseph, not wanting to offend Pharaoh, wisely shaved.