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Ancient Israelite households

Education, work and leisure were concentrated in and around the household. According to the Bible, the ideal family in Ancient Israel was large and patriarchical. The extended family or beit 'av (father's house) consisted of three generations living together: father, married sons and grandchildren. Excavated houses from the Bronze and Iron Age are small and suggest an average family size of four to eight people. Although extended families might have occupied more than one house, high mortality rates probably kept most families from achieving the biblical ideal.

One typical type of dwelling in the Iron Age was the four-room house. This style is extremely common throughout the Iron Age, especially in Israelite and Judean territory. Numerous finds along modern Israel's Mediterranean coast and in Jordan's highlands show that it was also common in Ammon, Moab, Edom and Philistia. Rooms had distinct functions. One room would have been used as a stable and for short-term storage. Another room served for food processing and other household tasks. A room was also needed for long-term storage. There was also a room for entertaining, and perhaps a separate room for entertaining. The sleeping and entertaining rooms would have been located on the second floor.


The main meal was eaten in the evening. In the hearth on the ground floor a stew of lentils or other vegetables seasoned with herbs like cumin, black cumin, or coriander would have been a common sight, prepared in a blackened cooking pot. The meal would have been served on the upper floor along with bread, goat cheese, olives, green onions and other goods. Fruits include fresh figs and melon, as well as dried pomegranates and dates. Wine, water, and curdled milk, similar to liquid yogurt, accompany the meal. Meat, typically mutton, was eaten only on special occasions.

Small bowls are used for both eating and drinking. Juglets contain condiments like olive oil, vinegar, and honey. Wide-mouthed pitchers held water and milk. Decanters with narrow, ridged necks were used for wine, and had built-in strainers to remove dregs from the wine as it poured.


In the Bronze and Iron Age, bread was the staple food. Undertaken almost every day, bread-making was one of a household's main activities.

By the sweat of your face shall you eat bread... Genesis 3:19

People in Canaan and Ancient Israel consumed between 330 and 440 pounds of wheat and barley annually. An individual typically consumed 50-70% of his calories from these cereals, mostly eaten as bread.

The grain was ground on a coarse surface to break down the soft center of the kernel into flour. Basalt, a volcanic stone, was preferred for grinding because it is rough and lightweight.

Archaeologists have excavated ancient ovens, usually made from clay coils or re-used pottery from jars. The oven was heated on the interior using dung for fuel. Flat breads were baked against the interior side walls.

She gets up while it is still night and provides food for her household. Proverbs 31:15

Bread was eaten with every meal, and making bread was a daily task. Women of the house would scoop up some of the family’s store of wheat or barley to make flour for bread. A scoop is sitting in the basket of grain by the grinding stones. The grain was ground on a saddle quern consisting of a large lower stone (the saddle) and a smaller upper stone (the rider). The flour was then mixed with water and kneaded. Thin, flat circles of dough were slapped onto the hot interior wall of the bread oven in the courtyard. When done, the bread came loose from the wall and fell into the ashes below.


The white dove cast from the window of Noah’s Ark returned with an olive branch in its beak. It was the goddess Isis that taught the Ancient Egyptians how to cultivate olives. In Greek mythology Athena presented the city of Athens with an olive tree and thus became the protector of the city. The Quran refers to olives as the food of heaven and in the Surat An-Nur it is said that the oil of the olive would almost glow even if untouched by fire. Throughout the history of mankind the olive has been the symbol of abundance, peace, victory, wisdom and rebirth. An olive tree can live for thousands of years, and even if its trunk rots and dies its roots can send out new shoots and come to life. It is for this very reason that the olive tree is immortal, that it is the tree of life. JetLife, 2014 Dec

Olive trees and grapevines grew well in the hill country of Israel and Judah, and, as a result, the production of olive oil and wine was important to the economy. Surpluses of both products were exported to Egypt and elsewhere.

Olive oil played a part in almost every aspect of daily life in ancient Israel. It served as a major source of dietary fat, as fuel for lamps and as a base for cosmetics, perfumes and ointments. Oil was also important in rituals. In the Jerusalem temple it was used for libations, and at coronations it was poured over the heads of new kings as a symbol of divine election.


Animals provided food, and their care and feeding was investment and a hedge against hard times. People in the Bronze and Iron Age lived in close contact with domestic animals. Sheep and goats were the principal herd animals. They are mobile and provide meat, milk, wool, manure and leather. Cattle serve these functions, too, but sheep and goats are more drought-tolerant and better adapted to dry, rocky terrain.

Pigs were rare in the Iron Age. Beginning at the end of the Middle Bronze Age, rasiing pigs declined steadily. Avoiding prok was already a widespread cultural pattern before kashrut ויקרא Lev. 11:7. In the Hellenistic period ( BCE - BCE) pork consumption regained popularity, but the long-standing regional prohibition held some effect and pork became a means of marking an ethnic division between Jews and Greeks.

Iron Age houses usually included space for stabling animals. Small flocks were housed in and around the village, but large flocks had to travel considerable distances for sufficient water and pasture. For at least part of each year, full-time shepherds were nomadic.

Where there are no oxen, there is no grain. Wealth comes by the strength of the ox. Proverbs

Sheep, raised primarily for their wool, were the most important animals in the rural economy. Goats, frequently herded with sheep, provided hair and milk. Both were sometimes killed for food. Goatskins were commonly used as containers for water, milk, and wine; goatskin churns suspended from tripods were commonly used for curdling milk.

Then, as now, cows were a source of milk, while oxen were the main draft animals. They were too valuable to be slaughtered. However, young bulls were sacrificed daily in the Jerusalem Temple, and veal from fatted calves was an expensive delicacy.

Donkeys and mules were widely employed as beasts of burden, but kings and princes also rode them in preference to horses. The primary use for horses was to pull chariots in battle.

Weaving and textiles

She reaches for wool and flax, and keeps her hands busy. Proverbs 31:13

Most families in the Bronze and Iron Age wove their own cloth and made their own clothing. In antiquity, the southern Levant was famous for the weaving of luxurious patterned and colored textiles. For average households, however, weaving was a means of producing simple everyday garments. Excavators at Tell es-Sa'idiyeh discovered burned wooden frames of looms and rows of clay loom weights in many houses. These looms were warp-weighted — the threads on the long axis of the weave (the warp) were suspended vertically with weights. The passing of thread (the weft) horizontally in and out of the warp created the weave.

The principal fibers used for weaving were sheep wool, goat hair and flax -- a fibrous plant used to make linen. Most of the cloth woven in a hill-country household would have been made from sheep’s wool, though the more resilient goat hair was particularly suitable for materials that needed to be durable, like tenting, sackcloth, and rope. Before it could be transformed into a thread, wool had to be washed, picked clean and combed straight. Next, it was time to make yarn. The fibers were spun to entwine them and draw them out into a long, even strand. Usually a spindle, a weighted stick suspended in the air and spun on the thigh, was used. Yarn was made by drawing wool fibers from a mass of wool and spinning them together on a hand-held spindle. The spindle was weighted with a small stone or ceramic weight called a spindle whorl.

Weaving was women’s work. Weaving was time-consuming, but the tasks allowed for socializing and could be started and stopped as needed. Spinning could be done almost anywhere and at almost any time. Therefore, weaving activities could be matched to the rhythm of the house. After being spun, the yarn might be dyed. Attractive and distinctive patterns could be woven from yarns dyed different colors.

Dyes were produced from a variety of plant, mineral, and animal sources. Madder root and pomegranate rind yielded red. Saffron and safflower were used to make yellow. Green came from copper ore and also from lichen. Black was made from hematite. Murex mollusks, found along the Phoenician coast, produced a range of colors from red-purple to blue-purple to blue. These were the most expensive colors in the ancient world. Murex-dyed fabrics were used in the Jerusalem Temple and were worn only by elite members of society, including royalty and the priesthood.

Pieces of cloth from the loom were stitched together using metal or bone needles to make clothing or other large items. Linen was made from the fibers of the flax plant. Flax was not grown in the hill country, but in marshy or irrigated lowland areas. Because it was expensive, linen was regularly worn only by the rich and by priests, though others might wear it on special occasions.

Looms were used to weave wool into cloth. The vertical yarns – the warp – were suspended from the cloth beam at the top of the loom and held taut by clay loom weights to which they were fastened in groups of ten to twelve strands. The weaver threaded the horizontal yarns – the weft or woof – over and under the warp yarns to form patterns in the weave.

Storage and survival

In Canaan and Ancient Israel, people depended on storing sufficient food, fodder and seed to sustain them from one harvest to the next -- and a little beyond.

My people have committed two sins: They have forsaken me, the spring of living water, and have dug their own cisterns, broken cisterns that cannot hold water. Jer 2:13

Being able to store water and food over the long term was critical for a family’s survival. Rainwater from roofs and courtyards was collected in cisterns to supplement natural sources like springs and wells. In the Bronze and Iron Age, people in the southern Levant never developed the kind of centralized storage and redistribution systems common in Egypt and Mesopotamia. Families dedicated a good amount of time and floor space to storage. Post-harvest loss to rot, infestation and vermin, which could be as high as 20% of the yield, was one of the most serious problems.

Farmers tried to provide dry and relatively air-tight storage space. This was done by using ceramic storage jars or clay jars and sealing them to keep in carbon dioxide. Under the dry environmental conditions in the southern Levant, it was necessary to store more than was needed between harvests. With poor harvests coming as frequently as one year in every four, farmers always had to keep a reserve of seed stock on hand.

Fermentation, oil extraction and drying were all ways of converting food into more stable, and hence storable, products. Feeding harvested crops to livestock was a means of storage on the hoof -- the animals converted the fodder into meat or milk.

Underground silos were used for bulk storage of grain. Large pottery jars with grain, wine and oil could also have been stored in a back room on a home’s ground floor. Properly protected wheat, barley, legumes (lentils, chickpeas), and nuts (pistachios, almonds) could be kept for long periods. Dates, figs, and grapes were dried and compressed into cakes to preserve them.

Hospitality and luxury

Please, let a little water be brought, and wash your feet and rest under the tree. I will bring some bread, so that you may refresh yourselves. Genesis 18:4-5

Hospitality – feeding and offering protection to people outside one’s family – was a sacred duty, and foot washing was a social necessity since people normally walked barefoot or in open sandals. A footbath on the ground floor was an exigency for hygiene and hospitality: visitors would have been invited to wash their feet before being led upstairs to their meal.

Communal festivals provided opportunities for relaxation and sumptuous eating and drinking, necessary counterpoints to the strenuous labor and frugality that characterized most people’s lives. On such occasions, musical instruments like the double flute, resting against a pillar upstairs, would have accompanied singing and dancing.


Several board games were played, including a game with twenty squares (first attested nearly two thousand years earlier in Ur). A twenty-square board game could be easily played or an actual board, or etched onto a surface. The players threw sheep knucklebones (astragali) like dice to determine the movements of the game pieces.

Toys included dolls of straw and wood, which have not survived, and many, though not all, of the ceramic animal figurines found in excavations.

Tops could be made by inserting a pointed stick through a pierced disk.

The buzz was a small ceramic disk that spun and whirred/buzzed on a twisted string drawn between the hands, looped over the fingers.


Israelites probably adopted the use of cosmetic eye paint from the Egyptians. Black eye paint, or kohl, was composed of powdered galena, a lead ore; green eye paint was made using malachite, a copper ore. The dry powder was combined with olive oil in a small stone palette using a cosmetic spoon or kohl stick. A highly polished metal mirror was essential to apply the makeup properly. Eye paint was a luxury which only wealthier people could afford.

[Jezebel] painted her eyes with kohl, and adorned her head, and looked out the window. 2 kings 9:30

Biblical writers associated eye paint with immorality. Thus Jezebel, whom the Bible depicts as an evil and manipulative queen, was remembered as having taken the time to paint her eyes before confronting the usurper who had murdered her family and would presently kill her too.

Domestic cults

In order for the patriarchal family to prosper and survive, the primary goal in marriage was to have and raise children, especially boys. During childbirth, expectant mothers were attended by female relatives and, if possible, by midwives, who were important members of the community. Talismans promoting fertility and prosperity have been found in houses and burials of the 8th CENT BCE and 7th CENT BCE. Model beds were associated with sex and conception, the realm of the Queen of Heaven, whose worship was condemned by Jeremiah.

The men who knew that their wives had been burning incense to other gods said to Jeremiah, We will not listen to you! We used to have plenty of food and prospered and saw no evil. But since we stopped burning incense to the Queen of Heaven and making libations to her, we have lacked everything. Jeremiah 44:15-18 (abridged)

Asherah was another of the deities, besides Adonai, that families might turn to for aid. Pillar figurines with prominent breasts, representing a mother goddess, perhaps Asherah, were connected with birth, lactation, and child survival. The rattle and small lamp were used in domestic rituals, which probably took place on the roof of the house. The figurine, bed, lamp, and rattle (along with small bottles of oil for libations) were likely kept in a wall niche, though they have never been found in situ.

Children owed respect to their parents in life, and in death their parents were owed a proper burial in the family tomb. Pottery vessels, food, and a variety of other items like jewelry, figurines, and lamps provided the deceased’s wellbeing in the afterlife. Funerary banquets celebrated by the family expressed the continuing relationship between the living and the dead.

The tomb represented the family’s claim to the land, and would have been located on the acreage cultivated by the family. It also served to remind the living of their obligation to preserve the patrimony. They did this for the afterlife well-being of their ancestors, but also for themselves so that they would set an example for how they, too, ought be treated and so they too would one day gather with their ancestors in peace.