The Meaning Behind Biblical Culture

Book Review:  Everyday Life in Bible Times
John A. Beck. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2013. 319 pp. $29.99

A person can’t read and understand Shakespeare without some understanding of the times and culture in which he lived and wrote. That is why anthologies of his writings often include footnotes which provide brief explanations of Shakespeare’s allusions. Without them the casual reader will have difficulty being able to understand and appreciate his 15th century stories. Similarly, a basic understanding of biblical backgrounds and culture is essential to a proper understanding of the ancient world and writings of the Bible.

Everyday LifeJohn Beck’s recent publication, Everyday Life in Bible Times, provides students of Scripture with a valuable resource to assist them in appreciating and better understanding the world of those who lived and wrote the stories of the Bible.

Beck has taught courses in Hebrew and Old Testament at various colleges and universities for more than twenty years. He is currently an adjunct faculty member at Jerusalem University College in Israel. His previous books include The Land of Milk and Honey: An Introduction to the Geography of Israel; God as Storyteller: Seeking Meaning in Biblical Narrative; A Visual Guide to Bible Events; A Visual Guide to Gospel Events; and Understand Your Bible. I met John (he goes by “Jack”) several years ago when I was leading a group of Western Seminary on a study program in Jerusalem. We had a great time discussing our common interest in biblical geography and culture and sharing about our hobbies. With the help of his wife Marmy, Jack built his own airplane in his garage and enjoys flying it to various wilderness areas and national parks for backpacking trips.

Everyday Life in Bible Times consists of a collection of one hundred well researched articles on important aspects of biblical culture including such topics as Armor-Bearer, Birth, Bridegroom, Concubine, Crucify, Dance, Famine, Greet, Inherit, Kiss, Lay on Hands, Lots, Name, Plow, Sadducee, Scribe, Stranger, Thresh, Widow, Winnow and Yoke.

The stated goal of the book is “to restore clarity and vitality to those portions of God’s Word that speak of the activities and social stations of the past.” The articles illustrate the ways in which the biblical authors used both literal and figurative references to communicate God’s truth. A better understanding of these cultural institutions and images provides fresh insights that will deepen one’s understanding of the biblical text.

The book contains over 300 color photographs, many of which were taken by the author during his extensive travels in the Holy Land. The articles contain footnotes which provide additional information and references for further study. The Scripture index provides easy access to the cultural background of a particular biblical text.

Every student of Scripture needs at least one book on biblical backgrounds and culture. Everyday Life in Bible Times is the most well-researched and up to date resource currently available. I highly recommend that it be included in every pastor and teacher’s library.

About J. Carl Laney

J. Carl Laney teaches Biblical Literature at Western Seminary and is an instructor for Western's Israel Study Program. Carl has authored numerous books, including most recently, “Loving Your Enemy: A Biblical Alternative to Revenge” (Ministry: International Journal for Pastors, July 2011).