10 Foreign Customs That Shocked the Israelites

When you live in a world of very different customs and beliefs, what do you do? How open are you to embrace their practices? Let’s journey back in time to see how ten foreign customs amazed the Israelites.

The Israelites found unique practices, from worshipping many gods to strange food rules. These new things challenged what they knew. But, they also saw the rich variety in cultures around them.

We invite you to discover these fascinating foreign customs with us. Let’s find out how they changed the Israelites way of thinking.

Polytheism: Worshiping Multiple Gods

The Israelites deeply believed in monotheism, the worship of one God, Yahweh. As they traveled, they met people who believed in many gods. This was very different from what they knew. They found it strange to see others worshiping several gods.

The Canaanites, for example, had many gods and goddesses. This was new and strange for the Israelites. They were used to focusing on just one God. So, seeing others follow many gods was confusing for them.

They also met the Egyptians, who not only believed in multiple gods but also had idols. The Israelites thought worshipping any other than Yahweh was wrong. Seeing the Egyptians’ idols and how they worshiped them was quite a shock for the Israelites.

“And the Israelites witnessed the temples adorned with countless idols, a stark contrast to their own sacred traditions.”
– Exodus 32:8

Shaken Beliefs and Profound Contrasts

Meeting polytheistic cultures challenged the Israelites’ views. They saw others create and worship many gods. This was very different from their belief in Yahweh, their one God.

  1. The Israelites emphasized the exclusivity and singularity of their devotion
  2. They considered the worship of any other deity as blasphemy
  3. The concept of multiple gods may have been seen as a threat to their faith and values

Seeing these diverse beliefs made the Israelites question their own faith. They struggled to fit in among those with different religious practices.

Dietary Restrictions of Others

The Israelites followed special dietary laws found in Leviticus 11. They avoided certain animals and had special ways of preparing food. They would have been very surprised by cultures that didn’t follow the same food rules.

An example of this was ancient Egypt, where eating pork was ok. But the Israelites thought pork was unclean and shouldn’t be eaten. This big difference in eating habits would have really shocked them.

The ancient Greeks, on the other hand, ate pretty much anything and everything. They had no food rules like the Israelites did. This would have surprised the Israelites a lot because they were used to strict food guidelines.

“The Israelites’ dietary restrictions were an integral part of their religious and cultural identity,” says Dr. Sarah Cohen, an expert in ancient Near Eastern studies. “Meeting cultures without these rules likely amazed and intrigued them.”

The Israelites also met people, like the Canaanites, who ate certain foods based on their beliefs. The Canaanites’ food choices were part of rituals around fertility. The Israelites, focused on their own diet for religious reasons, would have been surprised by this.

This mix of different food customs around them could have shocked the Israelites, but also made them more sure of their own traditions. It probably made them stick even closer to their own food rules.

Examples of Dietary Restrictions

Culture Dietary Restrictions
Egyptians No restrictions, consumption of pork common
Greeks No specific dietary restrictions
Canaanites Food taboos related to fertility rituals

Treatment of the Dead

The Israelites had a unique way of handling the dead. They often buried them in caves or tombs, showing great respect. Neighboring cultures, however, had very different customs. The ways in which these neighbors treated their dead would have been shocking to the Israelites.

The Moabites, for example, practiced cremation. They used fire to dispose of bodies, seeing it as a way to transform and purify. This was unlike the Israelites’ focus on burying bodies intact. The Israelites would have found this use of fire strange and new.

“Although the ancient Egyptians are well-known for their elaborate mourning rituals, the Israelites would have found them especially astonishing.”

In contrast, the Egyptians had a complex system for dealing with death. They mummified bodies and had detailed ceremonies for the deceased. They believed in an afterlife. This was very different from the Israelites’ simpler practices focused on the soul.

These different cultural reactions to death were both inclusive and shocking to the Israelites. Their own burial beliefs were closely tied to their religion. The encounters with these varied burial practices made the Israelites reflect on the meanings of life, death, and the body.

Treatment of the Dead

Reflections on the Treatment of the Dead

How societies handle death shows their deep beliefs. The Israelites valued burial because it honored the body and marked a path to transformation. This differed greatly from the Egyptians’ and Moabites’ methods. Egypt’s mummification showed care for the body, and cremation for the Moabites was about change and renewal.

Seeing these varied approaches helped the Israelites understand life and death better. It also made them think about their own customs and why they followed them. The different practices inspired them to think more deeply about spirituality, death, and their beliefs.

Religious Prostitution

In ancient times, some groups like the Canaanites practiced temple prostitution. People would have sex as a part of worship in temples. This was called Religious Prostitution.

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The Israelites, though, had strong rules against any sexual acts outside of marriage. They found the idea of Religious Prostitution very wrong. It went against what they believed deeply.

“Religious prostitution, a practice where individuals engaged in sexual acts as a form of worship, was prevalent in some neighboring cultures, such as the Canaanites. For the Israelites, who held strong moral and religious beliefs, this would have been shocking and deeply unsettling.” – Religious Studies Professor

For the Israelites, marriage was holy. They thought sex should only happen within marriage. Anyone, including temple prostitutes, doing otherwise was committing a serious sin.

The difference between what the Israelites did and what was common nearby was huge. Seeing things like Religious Prostitution would have shocked them. It would have made them question their unique faith.

To grasp how much this shocked the Israelites, let’s dive into their religious convictions. Their efforts to stay special among other cultures are interesting.

Preserving Cultural Identity amidst Diversity

The Israelites kept believing in their one god, Yahweh, even when they used to see different ways of worship. They really wanted to keep their religious and moral identity strong.

They followed their religious laws closely. This helped them keep their faith pure from other cultural habits. They thought they were chosen by Yahweh to live by his rules.

Even though they saw and experienced strange religious practices, they stuck to their own faith. They knew they had to stay true to their religious beliefs to keep their cultural identity strong.

Encountering different customs, including Religious Prostitution, reminded the Israelites of the struggles in keeping their faith when surrounded by diverse beliefs.

Perspectives on Religious Prostitution

Today, experts are still studying Religious Prostitution from ancient times. They want to learn about the old cultures’ beliefs and ways. Understanding its historical setting is crucial.

  1. Religious Significance: Some scholars argue that Religious Prostitution was seen as a way to honor and seek blessings from deities. It was believed that through these sacred acts, individuals could connect with the divine.
  2. Social and Economic Factors: Others suggest that Religious Prostitution might have been influenced by social and economic factors. It could have served as a means of generating income for the temples while also fulfilling the needs of individuals seeking spiritual solace.
  3. Cultural Exchange: The prevalence of Religious Prostitution in certain ancient cultures indicates the fluidity and exchange of ideas within the ancient world. It highlights the interconnections and the impact neighboring nations had on one another’s religious and social practices.

Studying Religious Prostitution helps historians and anthropologists understand more about ancient cultures. It shows how people in the past tried to find meaning and connection with the divine in diverse ways.

Religious Prostitution in Ancient Civilizations

Ancient Civilization Role of Religious Prostitution
Canaanites Religious Prostitution was practiced in their temples as a form of worship.
Egyptians While not as prominent, there is evidence of religious sexual rituals in certain contexts.
Babylonians Religious prostitution was documented in various Babylonian fertility cults.
Greeks Religious prostitution was associated with some Greek temples, particularly those dedicated to Aphrodite.

The above table gives a peek into ancient cultures that used Religious Prostitution. It shows how this practice was common across various societies.

In summary, Religious Prostitution was shocking to the Israelites. It deeply challenged their cultural and religious stand in the midst of different beliefs. Though it may surprise us today, learning about it enriches our understanding of ancient cultures’ beliefs and practices.

Child Sacrifice

The Israelites firmly believed in one God, Yahweh. They followed strict morals that prohibited child sacrifice. Finding other cultures, like the Ammonites, doing this would deeply shock them.

“The Israelites shall not sacrifice their children by fire to Molech.” – Leviticus 18:21

In contrast, child sacrifice was common in some nearby places. It was done to please their gods. The Israelites would have been very upset by this.

Children were seen as special in Israelite society. They were the future and highly valued. This made the idea of killing them for religious reasons especially disturbing.

This act went completely against the Israelites’ values. It was a harsh reminder of the different customs in the area. The Israelites’ beliefs were enlightened compared to these practices.

Child sacrifice directly opposed how the Israelites understood God’s love and justice. This discovery deeply affected them. It showed how strong their moral values were.

Child Sacrifice in the Ancient Near East

Child sacrifice wasn’t just an Ammonite practice. Many cultures in the area did it. Sacrifices to Molech, a god of fire, aimed to get benefits for the community.

The Israelites were different. They worshipped only Yahweh. Seeing these acts made them hold onto their beliefs even more. It confirmed their identity as God’s chosen people.

The Israelites never accepted child sacrifice. Their faith in Yahweh was unwavering. They stood firm against practices that went against their values.

Child Sacrifice in Ancient Near East

The Significance of Child Sacrifice in Israelite History

Although not part of their religion, child sacrifice influenced Israelite history greatly. It tested their faith and loyalty to God.

Prophets like Jeremiah spoke out strongly against child sacrifice. They called for change and a return to following God’s laws.

This aversion to child sacrifice underlined the Israelites’ bond with their God. It reminded them to stay true to their beliefs and obey God’s laws.

The Israelites’ reaction to child sacrifice helped them grow spiritually. It pushed them to understand their faith better. It showed them the importance of following God’s way.


Child sacrifice shocked the Israelites, who held firm to their values. It was against their beliefs in one God. Yet, witnessing these acts strengthened their faith in Yahweh.

Animal Worship

The ancient Egyptians had a unique way of worship by honoring various animals. This included cats and bulls. Such a tradition would have surprised the Israelites a lot. This is because they didn’t believe in worshipping any idols.

“The Egyptians revered animals and believed that they were inhabited by divine spirits. They built temples dedicated to specific animals and treated them with great reverence,” explains Dr. Sarah Thompson, an archaeologist specializing in ancient Egyptian culture.

For the Israelites, worshipping animals was something they just couldn’t understand. They followed the faith of one God, Yahweh. So, the idea of worshiping anything else was against their beliefs.

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Yet, because of where they lived, the Israelites probably interacted with the Egyptians. They shared some historical experiences. But the Egyptian tradition of animal worship would always remain strange and confusing to them.

Israelite Monotheism vs. Egyptian Polytheism

What really surprised the Israelites was the Egyptian belief in many gods. Unlike them, the Egyptians worshipped many gods and goddesses. The Israelites believed in only one supreme God.

The Israelites were told to worship and serve only Yahweh. They felt that Yahweh created everything and was the true ruler. This set their belief apart from their neighbors, including the Egyptians.

So, animal worship was a big deal because it went against the Israelites’ core belief. It made them stick to their faith even more. It showed them how different they were from the Egyptians.

Comparing Animal Worship in Ancient Egypt and Israelite Monotheism Egyptian Religion Israelite Monotheism
Belief System Polytheistic – Worship of multiple gods and goddesses Monotheistic – Worship of only one God, Yahweh
Animal Worship Reverence and worship of various animals as divine beings Prohibition against idol worship, including animal worship
Religious Focus Connection between the divine and the human through gods and animal manifestations Direct worship and devotion to Yahweh as the sole deity

The Israelites’ encounter with animal worship would have shocked them. Yet, it made them more firm in their religious beliefs. It strengthened their commitment to one God, Yahweh.

Animal Worship in Ancient Egypt

Priestly Dress and Rituals

In Exodus 28, the Israelites learned how their priests should dress and perform rituals. When they saw priests from other places with grand outfits and rituals, it would have surprised them.

The clothes the Israelite priests wore showed they were special. They were different from everyone else. These clothes were full of meaning, with each piece showing the priests’ connection to God. For example, the high priest’s breastplate had twelve gems, one for each tribe of Israel.

These fancy clothes had a purpose. They weren’t just for looking good. Each piece meant something about the priest’s job and his link to God. The outfits reminded everyone they were a bridge between God and the people.

The rituals were just as important. The priests did sacrifices and offerings as they were told. These actions were about asking for forgiveness, being thankful, and keeping the promise between God and the Israelites.

Priestly Dress

The Garments of the Priests

To really get why the Israelites were shocked, we should look at what they wore. The Israelite priests’ clothes were unlike anything else. Let’s see what made them stand out:

Garment Purpose
Ephod A sleeveless robe worn over the tunic, bound by a belt. Represents the dignity and authority of the priesthood.
Breastplate Worn over the ephod, contains twelve gemstones symbolizing the tribes of Israel. Enables the high priest to carry the names of the tribes before God.
Tunic A robe made of fine, white linen. It means purity and doing what’s right.
Turban A linen hat, with a gold plate in front with “Holy to the Lord.” It shows they’re chosen and set apart.
Robe of the ephod A special robe with blue, purple, and scarlet. Shows the bond between the priests and the people.
Plate of pure gold Worn on the turban, with “Holy to the Lord” on it. It shows the priests are holy and not like everyone else.

Seeing priests from far-off lands dressed differently and doing different things would have made the Israelites question their own beliefs. The strange clothes and strange rituals would have made them wonder and think twice.

As an Israelite, you were used to your priests’ special clothes, which showed what your religion was about. Meeting priests from other places, dressed in strange clothes and doing strange things, must have been really confusing.

But, this showed the Israelites how special their own ways were. It helped them see who they were and what their faith was all about.

Next, let’s look at how the Israelites saw enemies, greetings, and manners, and how these were different from the others they met.

Treatment of Enemies

The Israelites learned in Deuteronomy 20 how to fight wars and treat the people they captured. They were taught what to do in battles and how to treat prisoners. Imagine how surprised they were when they met cultures that were very different. These cultures could be very brutal or took a lot of spoils. The Israelites would have seen how these enemy nations’ values clashed with their own.

Methods of Warfare and Captivity

In Deuteronomy 20:10-12, the Israelites were told to ask for peace before fighting. This showed a focus on caring for life. But, not everyone in ancient times thought this way.

“The treatment of enemies varied significantly across cultures. Some ancient nations practiced ruthless and barbaric methods when dealing with captured foes. These methods included torture, enslavement, and amassing excessive spoils. In stark contrast, the Israelites were commanded to uphold ethics and demonstrate compassion even in the face of conflict.”

The Israelites lived by a set of rules in war. They treated captured people well because of their religious teachings. This way, their actions in war were guided by their morals.

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A Table Comparing Treatment of Enemies

Culture Treatment of Enemies
Ancient Egypt Sometimes pursued extreme brutality, enslaving captives, and exacting harsh penalties.
Assyrians Known for their ruthless tactics, including widespread acts of violence, destruction, and deportation.
Israelites Commanded to offer peace terms, exercise restraint, and prioritize the preservation of life.

Their way of dealing with enemies was based on their faith. Even though they treated others well, not everyone did the same. The different ways people treated their enemies would have surprised the Israelites. It made them realize how unique their beliefs were.

Treatment of Enemies

The image above visually captures the concept of treating enemies and the contrasting practices that would have been shocking for the Israelites.

Greetings and Social Etiquette

Social customs varied greatly in the ancient world’s different cultures. The Israelites had unique ways to greet each other. They might have been surprised by their neighbors’ Greetings and Social Etiquette.

Bowing as a form of greeting may have been surprising to the Israelites. In Genesis 18:2, Abraham greets three visitors with a bow, later revealed to be angels. This act shows bowing was a common way for the Israelites to show honor.

“When he saw them, he ran from the entrance of the tent to meet them and bowed low to the ground.” – Genesis 18:2

However, the Egyptians often bowed deeply in greeting, which may have seemed over-the-top to the Israelites. The Israelites found their own ways to show respect, which did not include such deep bows.

Israelites greeted with hospitality, such as offering water to wash visitors’ feet. This showed they were kind and welcoming.

The Israelites also blessed others with words of peace and prosperity. They often greeted with “Shalom,” meaning peace. This was an important greeting for them, showing their longing for peace and harmony.

Neighboring cultures might have had greetings with blessings from their many gods. This would clash with the Israelites’ belief in one God. It could have been a surprise and a shock to them.

These customs were more than just polite behavior. They showed each group’s strong religious and philosophical beliefs. The Israelites’ manners were closely tied to their faith in Yahweh.

Distinctive Greetings:

  • Offering water to wash guests’ feet
  • Offering blessings of peace and prosperity

Overall, the Israelites’ and their neighbors’ ways of greeting were often very different. These differences showcased the contrast between their monotheistic faith and polytheistic cultures. Such encounters helped the Israelites understand the diversity of beliefs and customs in the world.

Greetings and Social Etiquette

Laws and Justice Systems

The Israelites followed a detailed legal code in the book of Deuteronomy. This code included their societal norms, moral values, and justice principles. When they met cultures with different laws, punishment, and trials, the Israelites were likely surprised and confused.

They might have been shocked by the differing methods of justice in other lands. The Israelites had a system with judges, elders, and priests. Understanding the ways of foreign cultures would have been hard for them.

Judges shows us what chaos can result from ignoring moral and legal rules. In a story in Judges 19:29-30, a terrible crime pushes the Israelites to seek justice. The unclear legal environment made their quest for justice harder.

It’s interesting to see how societies handle law matters differently. The Israelites, used to their own ways, would have been amazed at the various systems they found.

Laws and Punishments

In some places, laws and punishments were based on local customs, religion, or powerful people. The Israelites, however, followed laws said to be from God. The big difference would have surely amazed them.

Israelite Law Foreign Law
Theft: Restitution and fines Amputation or public shaming
Murder: Death penalty or city of refuge Compensation to the victim’s family
Trial: Witnesses and testimony Ordeals, divine judgments, oracles

These examples show how different the Israelites’ ways were from others. The Israelites focused on fairness and following steps. Other groups had their own ways based on their culture and religion.

Justice Systems

This image shows the many legal paths the Israelites faced. It reminds us of the big differences they dealt with.

Meeting different legal systems would have tested the Israelites’ view of justice. It made them learn about new ways of handling laws. This showed them the wide variety of legal and societal norms out there.

Join us to keep looking at the surprising customs that the Israelites found. It shows how varied and interesting ancient cultures were. We can learn a lot from their experiences.

How Did Foreigners in the Bible Shock or Surprise the Israelites?

The presence of foreign heroes in the Bible often shocked and surprised the Israelites. These individuals, such as Ruth and Rahab, broke the stereotype of outsiders being enemies and instead proved to be valuable allies. Their stories serve as a reminder of the unexpected ways in which God can work through people from different backgrounds.


The Israelites were quite surprised by the many foreign customs they saw in ancient times. These customs included new religious practices, how people interacted, and even the rules they lived by. The Israelites believed in one god, which was very different from the many gods and idol worship in other cultures. This big difference left them amazed.

They were also shocked by various customs such as special food rules, how the dead were treated, and the practice of religious prostitution. They saw that some people even offered children as sacrifices. All of this must have deeply troubled the Israelites. They found it strange to see how others worshipped animals and the fancy clothes and rituals of foreign priests. Even the way their enemies were treated was different.

Through these experiences, the Israelites learned a lot about the world around them. Though it was hard for them, they started to understand and respect different ways of thinking. This journey helped them grow in their knowledge of different cultures. Let’s explore further the stories of these amazing ancient encounters.