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Biblical archaeology is the scientific study of ancient cultures by examining their material remains such as buildings, graves, tools, and other artifacts usually dug up from the ground. The biblical archaeologist in Bible lands removes the soil of the earth meticulously and methodically to examine rocks, ruined walls, buildings, and city remains. They discover such items as pottery, clay tablets, written inscriptions, coins, and other ancient remains, or artifacts, to record information that can aid in the discovery of what happened. This painstaking work has improved our understanding of 2,500 years of Bible times, from the days of Noah stepping off the ark in about 2370 B.C.E., to the death of the Apostle John in 100 C.E. We have gained immense knowledge of their languages, places of residence, food and meals, clothing, home life, marriage, health, education, the surrounding peoples, economy, cities and towns, recreation, and sports. Our knowledge of all the regions of Bible history has grown immeasurably: Palestine, Egypt, Persia, Assyria, Babylonia, Asia Minor, Greece, and Rome. Archaeology is a relatively new science, as it has only been around for about 200-years.
The Bible is filled with a rich history of people, places, and events, and God’s interactions with them, personally at times, through materialized angels at other times, but by far, interacting with human representatives.
All Christians desire a complete or accurate understanding of the meaning of the Bible. However, most are not aware that they must have knowledge of the historical-cultural and geographical background of the Bible. Without such, much of the Bible’s true message will be lost because the reader is attempting to impose their modern-day mindset on ancient societies, as opposed to bridging that gap, getting back to the Bible times setting.
Judges 16:2-3 Updated American Standard Version (UASV)
2 The Gazites were told, “Samson has come here.” And they surrounded the place and set an ambush for him all night at the gate of the city. They kept quiet all night, saying, “Let us wait till the light of the morning; then we will kill him.” 3 But Samson lay until midnight, and at midnight he rose up and took hold of the doors of the gate of the city and the two posts, and pulled them up, bar and all, and put them on his shoulders and carried them to the top of the hill that is in front of Hebron.
Every Christian is aware of Samson’s superhuman strength that he received through God. However, some biblical accounts come to life when the reader is aware of the background information. What Samson pulled out of the ground and threw on his shoulders at Judges 16:2-3, weighed a minimum of 400-500 pounds, with some suggesting closer to 2,000 pounds (0.91 t). If this feat of strength is not enough to grow our appreciation of Samson’s great strength, the simple statement that he “carried them to the top of the hill that is in front of Hebron” will do just that. Gaza, the city, mentioned here is at sea level, while Hebron is about 3,000 feet (0.91 km) above sea level, a severe climb indeed! However, there is more. Hebron is 37 miles (ca. 60 km) from Gaza, uphill all the way! Knowing the weight of the gate and posts, the distance traveled, and that it was uphill made Samson’s colossal feat take on an entirely new magnitude, does it not?
If most Christians were aware of the need to understand Bible backgrounds, they would eagerly find the appropriate books that would aid them in this area. When a pastor adds some Bible background into his sermon, it really enhances it. It is, then, generally, part of the conversation after the meeting is over by most of the congregants. Learning of the historical setting is paramount in much of the Bible if the reader is going to have an accurate understanding of the text. Many Christians are hungering for this sort of information, which will make their studies come to life.
Places of Residence
Amos 5:19 Updated American Standard Version (UASV)
19 as if a man fled from a lion,
and a bear met him,
or went into the house and leaned his hand against the wall,
and a serpent bit him.
Homes in Bible times were not the same as those of our modern-day Western world. They spent most of the day outside, using the house for protection from the weather and a place to sleep. In the plains, where one could find little good-quality limestone and sandstone, sunbaked or, sometimes, kiln-baked mud bricks were used for the walls of homes. Snakes could be found in the crevices of the walls because they too enjoyed the warmth of sunbaked bricks. (Amos 5:19)
Joshua 2:15 Updated American Standard Version (UASV)
15 Then she let them down by a rope through the window, for her house was built into the city wall, so that she dwelt on the wall.
Some houses were built on the top of wide city walls. (Josh 2:15) Some cities had double walls surrounding it. The space between the two walls was filled with dirt.
Jericho’s mound, or “tell,” was surrounded by a great earthen rampart, or embankment, with a stone retaining wall at its base. The retaining wall was some 12–15 ft high. On top of that was a mudbrick wall 6 ft thick and about 20–26 ft tall (Sellin and Watzinger 1973: 58). At the crest of the embankment was a similar mudbrick wall whose base was roughly 46 ft above the ground level outside the retaining wall. This is what loomed high above the Israelites as they marched around the city each day for seven days. Humanly speaking, the Israelites couldn’t penetrate the unassailable bastion of Jericho.
From excavations carried out by a German team in the first decade of this century, we know that people were also living on the embankment between the upper and lower city walls. Within the upper wall was an area of approximately 6 acres, while the total size of the upper city and fortification system together was half again as large, or about 9 acres. Based on the archaeologist’s rule of thumb of 100 persons per acre, the population of the upper city would have been about 600. In addition, those Canaanites living in surrounding villages would have fled to Jericho for safety. Thus, we can assume that several thousand people were inside the walls when the Israelites came against the city.
Mark 2:1-4 Updated American Standard Version (UASV)
1 And after some days he again entered into Capernaum, and the word spread that he was at home. 2 And many had gathered, so that there was no longer room, not even at the door, and he was speaking the word to them. 3 And they came, bringing to him a paralytic carried by four men. 4 And when they could not get near him because of the crowd, they removed the roof where he was, and when they had dug an opening, they let down the mat on which the paralytic lay.
While the homes of our Western world have roofs that were built on a slant, the ones of Bible times were often flat. In the image above, the roof has larger wooden beams running from wall to wall, with smaller wooden rafters running across the beams. These wooden rafters, in turn, were covered with branches, reeds. Then, a layer of earth several inches thick was added, followed by a thick coating of plaster of clay or clay and lime. It would have been quite easy for the four men to climb up on the flat roof, pull of the paralyzed man, and dig through such a roof and lower in him in on the cot, so that Jesus might heal him. Rather than be angry at such an intrusion, Jesus was moved by such great faith.
Acts 1:13 Updated American Standard Version (UASV)
13 And when they had entered, they went up to the upper room, where they were staying, Peter and John and James and Andrew, Philip and Thomas, Bartholomew and Matthew, James the son of Alphaeus and Simon the Zealot and Judas the son of James.
While most have likely not given any serious consideration as to why the disciples met in an upper room, aside from the fact it was likely the home of someone sympathetic to their needs, it also accommodated their requirements in size.
Archaeologists have recovered the remains of a few homes in the Herodian quarter from this period owned by wealthy citizens. One of these homes, the so-called “Palatial Mansion,” had a room that measured thirty-six by twenty-one feet (nearly seven hundred square feet). To accommodate a crowd of this size (later 120 people meet in the room), the home was probably owned by a relatively wealthy person. However, early Christian tradition identifies this home with the “Cenacle,” that is, a group of people such as a discussion group or literary group.
Food and Meals
Matthew 16:6, 11-12 Updated American Standard Version (UASV)
6 And Jesus said to them, “Watch out for and beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees.” 11 How is it you do not discern that I did not talk to you about loaves? But watch out for the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees.” 12 Then they understood that he did not say to beware of the leaven of loaves, but of the teaching of the Pharisees and Sadducees.
Leaven in Scripture often denotes sin or corruption. Initially, the disciples did not understand that Jesus was speaking symbolically to them. He was warning them about the hypocrisy of the Pharisees and the false teachings of the Sadducees. Jesus would also mention Herod and his followers, saying, “Watch out; beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and the leaven of Herod.” (Mark 8:15) He was exposing the hypocrisy and political deceitfulness of Herod and his followers. He also bravely condemned the Pharisees as hypocrites concerned only with superficial displays of devotion. – Matthew 23:25-28.
Exodus 23:19 Updated American Standard Version (UASV)
19 The first of the firstfruits of your ground you shall bring into the house of Jehovah your God. You shall not boil a young goat in its mother’s milk.
What would be the reason for God prohibiting the Israelites from boiling a kid (young goat) in its mother’s milk? This prohibition appears three times in the Mosaic Law. (Ex 23:19; 34:26; Deut. 14:21) This prohibition helps the reader appreciate Jehovah God’s decency, concern for his created beings, and sensitivity.
If we pause for a moment and consider what God created the milk for; to nourish the young goat and help it grow. Therefore, to boil a young goat in its mother’s milk would be contrary to the arrangement that God had set in place.
There are other suggestions as to why God established this prohibition: (1) it was an idolatrous practice, (2) it was an occult practice to improve the productivity of the land, (3) the belief that milk and meat were difficult to digest, (4) it would be disrespectful to the feast of ingathering, (5) and so on.
In reality, the Law had a number of comparable restrictions against brutality toward animals and protections against working in opposition to the natural order of things. For example, the Law encompassed instructions that prohibited sacrificing an animal except when it had been with its mother for at least seven days, sacrificing both an animal and its young on the same day, and taking from a nest both a mother and her eggs or young. – Leviticus 22:27, 28; Deuteronomy 22:6, 7.
Proverbs 16:24 Updated American Standard Version (UASV)
24 Pleasant words are like a honeycomb,
sweetness to the soul and healing to the bones.
Proverbs 24:13-14 Updated American Standard Version (UASV)
13 My son, eat honey, for it is good,
and the drippings of the honeycomb are sweet to your taste.
14 Know that wisdom is such to your soul;
if you find it, there will be a future,
and your hope will not be cut off.
In Scripture, the healthful properties of honey are likened to gracious words and wisdom for the soul because it is sweet to the taste and because it is good for the health as well. Indeed, we benefit spiritually from the gracious words of our Creator, in the same way that honey is beneficial for our soul (body).
Ezekiel 3:2-3 Updated American Standard Version (UASV)
2 So I opened my mouth, and he fed me the scroll. 3 And he said to me, “Son of man, feed your belly with this scroll that I give you and fill your stomach with it.” Then I ate it, and it was as sweet as honey in my mouth.
Revelation 10:9 Updated American Standard Version (UASV)
9 So I went to the angel and told him to give me the little scroll, and he said to me, “Take and eat it up, and it will make your stomach bitter, but in your mouth it will be sweet as honey.”
Scripture also uses honey illustratively for its sweetness and the pleasure of eating it, as we can see from the above Ezekiel 3:2-3 and Revelation 10:9. Honeycomb is frequently talked about because it is thought of as being superior in flavor, sweetness, and richness to honey that has been out in the air for some time. Solomon stresses the goodness and satisfaction of the words spoken by the Shulammite girl, her shepherd lover says, “Your lips drip sweetness like the honeycomb.” (Song of Solomon 4:11) ‘The rules of Jehovah are true, and righteous altogether … sweeter also than honey and drippings of the honeycomb.’ (Ps 19:9-10) “How sweet are your words to my taste, sweeter than honey to my mouth!”—Ps 119:103.
Ecclesiastes 9:12 Updated American Standard Version (UASV)
12 For man does not know his time. Just as fish are caught in an evil net and birds are caught in a trap, so the sons of men are ensnared in a time of evil, when it suddenly falls upon them.
Scripture also likens men to fish. Solomon likened men to fish from the perspective of their being “snared at an evil time.” Jesus Christ views his disciples as “fishers of men.” (Mark 1:17) On another occasion, he likened righteous ones to good fish and unrighteous ones to bad fish.―Matthew 13:47-50.
In Bible times, it was an indication of bonding in fellowship, to eat food together. (Gen. 31:54; 2 Sam. 9:7, 10, 11, 13) If someone refused to eat with another, this was an indication of anger, or some feeling or attitude against the host. (1 Sam. 20:34; Ac 11:2, 3; Gal. 2:11, 12) In addition, food was used, at times, as a gift to acquire or make sure of the friendliness of another. For one to accept food as a gift, it then obligated the receiver to remain at peace with the giver. – Gen. 33:8-16; 1 Sam 9:6-8; 25:18, 19; 1 Ki 14:1-3.
Mark 7:2-5 Updated American Standard Version (UASV)
2 and they saw some of his disciples eat their meal with defiled hands, that is, unwashed ones. 3 (For the Pharisees and all the Jews do not eat unless they wash their hands ritually, clinging to the tradition of the men of former times; 4 and when they come from the market place, they do not eat unless they wash themselves. And there are many other traditions that they have received and cling to, such as baptisms of cups, pitchers, and copper vessels.) 5 And the Pharisees and the scribes asked him, “Why do your disciples not walk according to the tradition of the elders, but eat their bread with defiled hands?”
Matthew 15:2 Updated American Standard Version (UASV)
2 “Why do Your disciples break the tradition of the elders? For they do not wash their hands when they eat bread.”
It is not that Jesus’ disciples did not wash their hands at all, but rather did not partake of the ceremonial washing that the Scribes and Pharisees attached great importance. The Scribes and Pharisees were not washing their hands for hygienic reasons but were following the traditions of former men (elders), washing their hands up to the elbows. The Babylonian Talmud, Sotah 4b, views eating with unwashed hands (the ceremonial way) as equal to having sexual relations with a harlot, and whoever does not take hand washing seriously will be “uprooted from the world.”
John 13:23, 25; 21:20 Updated American Standard Version (UASV)
23 One of his disciples, whom Jesus loved, was reclining at table at Jesus’ side, 25 So that disciple, leaning back against Jesus, said to him, “Lord, who is it?” 21:20 Peter turned and saw the disciple whom Jesus loved following them, the one who also had leaned back against him during the supper and had said, “Lord, who is it that is going to betray you?”
Generally, guests at banquets and feasts reclined on their left side using a pillow to support their elbow. Typically, there would be 3-5 persons occupying each couch. The back of a person’s head would be toward the person’s breast or bosom behind him. The person who had no one behind him would have been considered the one holding the honorable position at the dinner, with each succeeding person as the next position of honor. As you will notice from the image above, this required persons to be very close to one another, and so the custom was to place friends next to friends. This undoubtedly made conversation much livelier, as well as private comments if preferred. The person in the bosom position of the most honored one at a banquet or feast was viewed as having a favored position with that honored one. In the Gospel of John, we repeatedly see that it is the beloved Apostle John in this favored position with Jesus.
John 13:23-25 Updated American Standard Version (UASV)
23 There was reclining on Jesus’ bosom one of his disciples, whom Jesus loved. 24 So Simon Peter gestured to him, and said to him, “Tell us who it is of whom he is talking about.” 25 He, leaning back thus on Jesus’ bosom, said to him, “Lord, who is it?”
John 21:20 Updated American Standard Version (UASV)
20 Peter turned around and saw the disciple whom Jesus loved following them, the one who also had leaned back on his chest at the supper and said, “Lord, who is the one betraying you?”
Viewpoint, Feelings, Thinking, Expressions
Luke 22:41 Updated American Standard Version (UASV)
41 And he withdrew from them about a stone’s throw and knelt down and began to pray,
Kneeling was a common position when praying, but not the only position. In addition, while many times a Scripture may have the plural “knees,” this does not exclude that it could be the person is on one knee. – 1Ki 8:54; Ac 9:40; 20:36; 21:5; Eph. 3:14
ESTHER 3:2 What is the most likely reason for Mordecai refusing to bow before Haman?
The Israelites had no problem accepting the sovereignty of a nation that they may have been under if it did not violate their worship of their God, Jehovah. Thus, they had a history of bowing before leaders out of respect, not worship. The issue here between Mordecai and Haman is more involved. Haman was an Agagite, an Amalekite, to which the Scriptures below will address. Mordecai felt that his bowing before Haman was an act of disloyalty to Jehovah. His refusal is based on his being a Jew. (3:3-4)
Exodus 17:14-16 Updated American Standard Version (UASV)
14 Then Jehovah said to Moses, “Write this as a memorial in the book and recite it in the ears of Joshua, that I will utterly blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven.” 15 And Moses built an altar, and he called its name Jehovah Is My Banner; 16 and he said, “Because a hand is against the throne of Jah; Jehovah will have war against Amalek from generation to generation.”
Deuteronomy 25:17-19 Updated American Standard Version (UASV)
Revenge on the Amalekites
17 “Remember what Amalek did to you on the way as you came out of Egypt, 18 how he met you along the way and attacked among you all the stragglers at your rear when you were faint and weary; and he did not fear God. 19 Therefore it shall come about when Jehovah your God has given you rest from all your surrounding enemies, in the land which Jehovah your God gives you as an inheritance to possess it, you shall blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven; you must not forget.
Amalek was a grandson of Esau, who was one of the chieftains of Edom. (Gen. 36:15, 16) Amalek’s name also stood for his ancestral descendants, The Amalekites. The two sources below help us appreciate the level of hatred that Haman must have carried for the Jewish people, especially Mordecai.
[The Amalekites were a] Nomadic tribe of formidable people that first [led an unprovoked] attacked the Israelites after the exodus at Rephidim. Descendants of Amalek, the grandson of Esau (Gen. 36:12), they inhabited the desolate wasteland of the northeast Sinai Peninsula and the Negev. They were the first to attack Israel after the exodus (Num. 24:20). Israel won the initial battle (Exod. 17:8–16), but later was driven back into the Sinai wilderness by a coalition of Amalekites and Canaanites (Num. 14:39–45). Thereafter the Amalekites waged a barbaric guerrilla war against Israel (Deut. 25:17–19). Fighting continued after Israel settled in Canaan. Because of their atrocities, God commanded Saul to exterminate the Amalekites (1 Sam. 15:2–3). Saul disobeyed and the Amalekites were not defeated completely until late in the eighth century B.C. (1 Chron. 4:43). No archaeological data concerning the Amalekites has been discovered to date.
The Amalekites were a nomadic people descended from Esau (Gen. 36:12, 16). They typically ranged through the Negev and Sinai Peninsula, where they clashed with Israel during the Exodus (Ex. 17:8–13; Deut. 25:17–18). But during the reign of King Saul, the conflict became fateful. God ordered Saul to utterly destroy the Amalekites and to take no booty from them. But Saul saved some of the loot and took the Amalekite king, Agag, as a captive. The prophet Samuel killed Agag, but not before informing Saul that his disobedience would cost him his throne (1 Sam. 15). Since Mordecai is associated with the house of Saul, the clash between Mordecai and Haman is set up as a “rematch” of the Saul-Agag affair.
As one would expect, there is no love lost between the descendants of Amalek and the Jewish people, especially the house of Saul. Haman is filled with fury when he discovers that the one person, who fails to bow before him, is also a Jew and of Saul’s house. Haman has the perfect opportunity to exact revenge on the Jewish people.
Placing Hand Under Thigh
Genesis 24:2 Updated American Standard Version (UASV)
2 And Abraham said to his servant, the elder 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 Jehovah, the God of heaven and the God of the earth, that you will not take a wife for my son of the daughters of the Canaanites, among whom I dwell. 4 But you will go to my country, and to my kindred, and take a wife for my son Isaac.
A method of making an oath was to place one’s hand under the other’s thigh, as Abraham’s servant did in swearing that he would not take a wife for his son of the daughters of the Canaanites, but would go to Abraham’s country, and to his relatives, and take a wife for Isaac. – Genesis 24:2, 9
Throwing Dust on the Head
Joshua 7:6 Updated American Standard Version (UASV)
6 And Joshua tore his clothes and fell to the earth upon his face before the ark of Jehovah until the evening, he and the elders of Israel. And they put dust upon their heads.
Many signs in ancient Israel would tell others that one is going through grief. For example, throwing dust on the head, tearing clothes, wearing sackcloth, cutting off or shaving, or pulling out one’s hair, and beating one’s breast, to name just a few.
Today’s Bible student has a plethora of priceless Bible study tools that will allow them to quickly access the geographical and historical setting of any Bible person, place, topic, or event. The Holman Bible Atlas, Holman Reference. Then, there is the Holman Illustrated Bible Dictionary. Of course, you have books written specifically for Bible background information, like Nelson’s New Illustrated Bible Manners & Customs, James M. Freeman and Harold J. Chadwick, Manners & Customs of the Bible, or Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds volumes of both Old and New Testament. If finances are not what you would like, you could turn to the one-volume IVP Bible Background Commentary Old Testament and the one-volume IVP Bible Background Commentary New Testament. There is no shortage of Bible study tools, and eBook technology is making them even more affordable. We must offer the warning that not all books and not all authors are equal in that many do not believe in absolute Inerrancy of Scripture. They employ the subjective historical-critical method of biblical interpretation over the objective historical-grammatical method. So be extremely cautious as you select your Bible study tools. Know that Christian Publishing House has books and authors that can be trusted and will be growing their library of books, which will be affordably priced.
The cultural and historical background of the many Bible accounts that you have read hundreds of times will come to life with these tools and others that will give you those many details you have been missing. Every Bible passage has some extra insight that can be garnered from biblical times’ customs, culture, and historical settings. These Bible study tools will help you get at what the authors meant by the words that they used. We must never forget that the Bible was written by 40+ authors over 1,600 years that we are 2,000 to 3,500 years removed from, coming from hundreds of different cultural and historical backgrounds.
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 Clinton E. Arnold, Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary Volume 2: John, Acts., 227 (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2002).
 That is, not ceremonially cleansed
 That is, wash their hands up to the elbow
 That is, they self-righteously sprinkled themselves before eating
 That is, For ceremonial purposes, they baptized, or immersed in water, the cups, pitchers, and copper vessels they used at meals
 Deuteronomy 25:17; Judges 7:12; 1 Samuel 15:2
 LeBron Matthews, “Amalekite”, in Holman Illustrated Bible Dictionary, ed. Chad Brand, Charles Draper, Archie England et al., 54 (Nashville, TN: Holman Bible Publishers, 2003).
 John H Walton, Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary (Old Testament) Volume 3: 1 & 2 Kings, 1 & 2 Chronicles, Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther, 486-87 (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2009).