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Jan
24

The Home in Ancient Israel

With Tim Harmon

As westerners, we invest bundles of money each year in our homes, whether through paying for, maintaining, or remodeling them.

But it’s not just about having a roof over our head. No, the style, size, and street address of our home are often as much about status as pragmatics. You can learn a lot about someone from his or her home, and how it is furnished.

So then, what about homes in ancient Israel? Do we know anything about the structures that people lived in then? If so, what can we learn from them?

Cottage with garden and white picket fence

Acquiring a Home

After leaving Egypt, the people of Israel abandoned the nomadic life and settled in the Promised Land. Initially, the homes that they dwelt in included those of the people they had defeated and dispossessed (a much more aggressive form of the modern-day foreclosure sale).

Sometime later, after being taken into captivity in Babylon, and then returning from it, the Israelites moved back in – though more as renters than owners, seeing that their former homeland was controlled by a foreign power.

Home Design

Archaeological excavation has given us a fairly good idea of what the typical ancient Israelite home would have looked like – although these may better represent the homes of the upper classes, as those of poorer citizens were likely made of materials that did not stand the test of time.

Evidence suggests that although a variety of home plans existed, three or four room houses were the most prevalent. These rooms would have been configured for different functions, including a central area, stable rooms (yes – inside the house), and storage rooms. Sleeping quarters were typically up above the main level.

The entry of the house was usually in the center of the front wall. This led to a large central area off which other rooms would be accessed (at least by the time of the Iron II age, between about 1000 – 550 BC). Rooms in the home would have been divided by pillars, which were set upon short stub walls.

Building materials were mainly stone, plaster or whitewash, and wood. The floor was generally made from hard, trampled down earth, although stable areas may have been paved with cobblestones.  Roofs were flat, and made from beams, slats, and poles, which were covered with mud and chaff plaster. Some homes had windows, but it is not clear if all did. Stairways or ladders to the roof were often found on the outside of the house. Ovens were sometimes found in the central area or in an enclosed outside setting.

Just like today, regular home repairs were an ongoing reality for the ancient Israelite. In particular, roof maintenance was needed in order to retain its waterproof qualities.

Home Furnishings

The text of 2 Kings 4:10 gives us insight into typical ancient Israelite home furnishings. In this passage, a Shunammite woman provides the prophet Elisha with a room that is furnished with a bed, a table, a chair, and a lamp. However, it seems that beds were more common among the wealthy, while the poorer classes slept on mats (see Psa. 63:6; 132:3; Job 17:13; 1 Chron. 5:1).

Tables were most often three legged – well suited to stand on the uneven dirt floors of the typical home. The legs of the table were often decorated. Chairs, stools, or benches were placed around tables. Some chairs were decorated, and even had back support. Seats would be made out of leather or some other flexible fiber. Footstools were also common.

Various containers were used to store goods, food, and liquids within the home. Among these would be bowls, goblets, pots, baskets, sacks, jars, flasks, chests, cups, and kettles.

Bringing It Home

So then, what can we learn from our tour of real estate in ancient Israel?

Well, for starters, the Israelite housing situation was, in many ways, quite similar to our own. These were people who faced the less desirable aspects of housing, like patching leaky roofs; and well as the more appealing ones, like having a familiar place to retire at the end of a difficult day. In these homes, lives began and ended. Babies cried, and mothers soothed them. Fathers made fumbling attempts at home repairs, while sons looked on in admiration.

But perhaps even more, we are confronted with the fact that, for all we invest in our physical homes, they are only temporary. We may find ourselves jettisoned from our homes for any number of reasons: losing a job, finding a job in a new city, or natural disaster.

However, even if we manage to remain at the same address for the bulk of our natural lives, we cannot escape the reality that the ruins of ancient Israelite houses reveal: one day, the bodies that our homes now shelter will expire. And, should this world continue, it might be the ruins of our own home that is someday unearthed by a future generation.

Yes, we are more like those ancient Israelites than we might imagine. For us, as with them, our quest for a lasting home will not be found in acquiring the finest residence that our financial status can afford, but in our status as children of the living God.

For all of the ways that we work to construct a space that feels like home now, sticks and stones will never finally do the trick. Home, as Moses knew (Exodus 33:15), and as described in John’s apocalypse (Rev. 21:3), is ultimately found in God’s presence…a presence that God’s people will experience eternally in the new heaven and new earth.

About Jan Verbruggen

Dr. Jan Verbruggen is a Professor of Old Testament Language and Literature at Western Seminary. He originally came from Belgium, where he taught for 6 years at the Evangelische Theologische Faculteit, Heverlee and ministered as a pastor for 3 years. He has published a number of articles in Dutch at various magazines and journals in the Netherlands and Belgium. Jan Verbruggen serves as an elder at Hinson Memorial Baptist Church, Portland Oregon. His most recent publication is "Deuteronomium" (commentary on Deuteronomy in Dutch), Groen, Heerenveen, 2008.