Biblical Archeology

Life in an Old Testament Town. How did the average person live? What kind of house did he have? How did he work?

Larry G. Herr received his Ph.D. from Harvard in June of 1977 in the field of Near Eastern languages and literature.
Within the past few years archeologists have uncovered so much material from towns and cities of Old Testament times that they can now offer a good picture of urban life in those days. Moreover, implications can be drawn from these finds to illuminate the general life style of the average village dweller.

In order to present a single, unified picture, we will restrict our time frame in this article primarily to the seventh century B.C., a period roughly paralleling the reign of King Josiah of Judah, and one of the most prominent, affluent eras in Biblical history.

Some very important excavations have been taking place during the past six years on the edge of the Negev, or southern, desert, at the site of Biblical Beersheba. Since it has been more thoroughly excavated than most other Judean towns, a study of its city plan is perhaps the best way of entering into daily Israelite life.

The site occupies a man-made mound thrown up prior to the building of the city (to provide better defense) next to a large wadi, or dry riverbed, from which the occupants obtained their water sup ply. A traveler to the town in the seventh century B.C. would first have been able to distinguish a solid mud-brick city wall built atop stone foundations which in turn rested on a sloping rampart paved with stones from the base of the wall to the bottom of the mound. No enemy's battering ram would find purchase on this fortification.

On top of the wall he would see such evidences of habitation as stored piles of straw or grains waiting to be winnowed (Rahab hid the two spies under similar piles at Jericho), stacks of dried dung for oven fires, or even growing grass. (At several sites large, cylindrical stones have been found for rolling and smoothing the mud and sod.) A dog might be seen sitting on the wall, barking at passers-by, or perhaps children would even be playing, guarded by a mud-brick railing.

If our traveler were coming from Gaza to the west, he would have to walk a third of the way around the city before arriving at the city gate on the southeast side, probably the only public entrance into Beersheba. From one of the small rooms flanking the gate, a guard would have inspected the visitor to make sure he represented no trouble (especially if he were from the Philistine city of Gaza). The gateway no doubt smelled strongly of sewage, for the city's drainage system, only partially covered with flat stones, made its combined exit through the gate after having collected the runoff from the whole city.

Inside the gate, our visitor would have encountered a small square, or plaza, in which much of the public life of the town took place. Here the town's elders gathered for judgments and to witness con tracts; a visiting dignitary would have been feted here, political or social issues would be hotly debated, and arriving travelers would spread news from abroad among the locals.

If our traveler were to have taken a walking tour of the town, he would not find it too large, being able to circumnavigate its walls in about ten minutes, or less if he hurried. From the plaza it would be easy to tour the center of the town via the circular street that followed the general contours of the city wall, but one house width inside. For access to the very middle of the city, parallel cross streets connected with the outer circular street. Between these streets the people built their houses, and the everyday life of the Israelites had its crowded, noisy focus. In general most Israelite cities seem to have had similar layouts.

Not surprisingly, wealthier families tended to build their houses upwind, far from the industrial areas where the poorer people were forced to live. Conditions for these poorer classes must have been quite unsanitary and crowded, judging from the floors and streets archeologists have uncovered.

At the beginning of the outer circular street, the first building on the left, with its door opening on the square, would appear at first glance to be a typical Israelite house. But a closer inspection would reveal a small L-shaped stairway in the first room. As mentioned in "Ancient Temples and Altars" (MINISTRY, August, 1978, pp. 21, 22), this could have been a stairway to the top of an original altar (now missing) in the courtyard of a sanctuary. If this building were Beersheba's infamous sanctuary that the prophet Amos denounced, its location abutting the public square by the gate would have been ideal, adding an interesting religious aspect, unorthodox as it was, to public life in the square.

Continuing his tour of Beersheba along the circular street, the traveler would find himself surrounded by the walls of private dwellings and shops, two building types that archeologists find difficult to separate. In the northwest corner of the town the ample remains of three typical Israelite houses lie between the city wall and the street. Richer families had homes with four basic rooms on the ground floor (the so-called "four-room house") that could be subdivided into several smaller rooms, while homes of poorer families (the majority) lacked one of the side rooms.

A series of columns often characterized the Israelite house, helping to sup port the second floor, where the family slept out of reach and smell of the chickens, sheep, goats, and donkeys that populated the lower section. In those homes with four basic rooms, the central one of the three long rooms was almost always an open-air court where much of the daily chores of domestic life took place. Here the women baked the bread in clay ovens fired with straw and dung; storage bins contained items of domestic use and food in sealed ceramic jars; pits kept other items cool and fresh.

The floor of the house was dirt rendered hard by traffic and moisture; the foundations of the walls were stone, but the walls themselves were constructed with mud bricks; the second floor was supported by wooden beams (frequently found in excavations) held up by the first-floor walls and a row of columns. The flat roof was probably just as lively a place as the rest of the house, especially during the cooler parts of the day.

The man of the house no doubt did very little actual work in the home, leaving most of that to the women and children. Although obtaining water was the most vital element of any town's existence, archeologists are not quite certain how or where it was done at Beersheba—possibly in the eastern corner of the village, or even outside the city walls. Great waterworks are known from several other Israelite cities in which large shafts were dug down into the bedrock until the water table or a spring was reached. Then it became simply a matter of descending the steps and bringing the water up in a jar, prob ably carried on the head. Much of the female communication must have been carried on at the water shaft. Meanwhile the men spent their time in the fields or in the square, discussing issues of the day.

In view of the close quarters in which everyone lived, the social aspects of life in an Israelite town must have been lively and animated. It would have been difficult not to have known everyone at least passively in a town of perhaps 2,000 inhabitants at the most. Most Israelite cities were similar in size to Beersheba.

Having followed the circular street al most all the way around the town, including the industrial and poorer regions in the east, our traveler would have passed a series of buildings on the left containing long, narrow rooms divided by columns. Solid walls divided these rooms into three groups of three long halls each. Conveniently close to the city gate and filled with hundreds of storage jars that originally contained wine, oil, and other products, these rooms must have been the official municipal store houses. Thus we naturally wonder about this aspect of Israelite life. Just how did the public economy and interchange of goods operate?

Most Israelite cities had storehouses (with long rooms similar to those at Beersheba) where items brought in by the local farmers and inter-city caravaneers were deposited awaiting distribution to the shops of the city for retail sale or shipment to other parts of the country. Private citizens may have made most of their purchases at the storehouse as well, since with money not yet in use it would have been easier for the central store house to coordinate exchange in kind.

Public scribes kept track of the goods received on broken pieces of pottery they could pick up anywhere in the streets. Hundreds of these ostraca have been found, recording the name of the person involved in the transfer along with the amount of his goods. Some of the receipts may even have served as legal tender to use in exchange for other goods, thus providing a primitive monetary system.

The central government in Jersualem stretched its fingers throughout the country in the economic area. To prevent farmers or officials from cheating by altering the size of jars their goods came in, storage jars were made in a single authorized size with a stamp on the handle, certifying it to be in harmony with the official royal measure. Hundreds of these stamps have been found, all made in four Judean cities— Hebron, Ziph, Mamshit, and Socoh.

Some cities, possibly these four, were known as "royal cities" and seem to have been dedicated more strongly to the centralized control of the distribution of goods. These royal cities were centers for donkey and camel caravans, and more of the town was dedicated to the storehouses. Fruits from the north might arrive in one of these cities, such as Hebron, where the produce would be transferred to a small caravan heading toward Beersheba. There it would be deposited in the storehouse and later distributed to local merchants or families. The opposite process brought grains and ores back to the north.

What did the ancient Israelites eat? Recent excavations have been concerned with recovering seeds from the soil (if the ancient dirt is placed in water and stirred, the seeds will float to the top; one need only scoop them off). By far the most frequent seed found is barley, a grain that grows easily in the semiarid conditions of the Holy Land. Various forms of wheat, emmer, rye, olives, dates, apricots, apples, chick peas, and lentils have been found as well. No doubt such a diet would seem severely limited to many of us today.

Thus, in general, archeological finds have tended to amplify in tangible ways the information already available from Biblical allusions to daily life.

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Larry G. Herr received his Ph.D. from Harvard in June of 1977 in the field of Near Eastern languages and literature.

February 1979

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