The Israelite town or home (Jeremiah 9)

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Illustration: Ancient Israelite house

The typical Israelite town followed the same basic design throughout the Iron Age (1200-600 B.C.). Examining its layout, a Westerner might feel bewildered by an evidently unorganized array of walls and streets. But this was no labyrinth; the paths and walls first joined together families and only secondarily connected all the family units into a single community.

Each home probably housed a nuclear family but was also part of an extended family compound. This familial structure, a patriarchal social unit based upon patrilineal descent, was based on the concept of a “father’s house” (Hebrew bet av). The larger family unit consisted of the paternal head, along with his wife, his sons and their wives, the grandchildren and finally the slaves. When David was a youth his grown brothers were still part of the bet av of Jesse in Bethlehem (1 Samuel 16). Similarly, in Genesis 12:1, God commanded the already aging Abraham to leave his bet av.

The four-room house was the most common type of Israelite residence. Most  were two-story, rectangular structures, but the distinctive feature was the layout of the rooms. The main floor was entered through a door at the centre of the (short) front wall, which led into a long hallway flanked on both sides by other corridor-like rooms. Across the back of the house was the fourth room. Actually, the four rooms could be subdivided into a number of different configurations. Even so, this basic design, along with a modified version called the three-room house, set the standard for Israelite architecture.

Such houses often had internal pillars of stone or wood. Walls were composed of sundried mud bricks (with plaster on the outer walls) and were built up on a few courses of foundation stones. Wooden beams served as the base for the second story, as well as the ceiling for the ground level. The roof consisted of compressed, mud-caked twigs placed over wooden beams and topped with plaster, a combination in constant need of maintenance. Windows were possibly slits in the walls necessary for ventilation, since chimneys were not used, but still kept small for security purposes. The annexes or subdivisions located by archaeologists within some of these houses may have been “widow’s quarters” for grandmothers. Servants shared the family compound.

The function of the four-room house within Israelite culture remains debated, but it was well suited to the agricultural nature of Israelite society. The three parallel rooms may have been inspired by the need to accommodate stalls for domestic animals. In the coldest months livestock would have remained in these stalls, providing some warmth not only for the animals, but also for the family upstairs. The cross-room at the back probably functioned as a storage compartment (a house excavated at Shechem included a storage pit in this area). The flat roof served as a kind of summer patio (cf. Acts 10:9), as well as a place to bathe (2 Samuel 11:2).

Most towns were surrounded by a wall for security. Many had double or casemate wall, often with homes integrated into it. Sometimes the backs of houses served as the outer defensive wall of the city, an arrangement especially common during the Iron II period. The main gate in the outer wall was not just the place through which people could exit and enter, but also the primary meeting place. Inhabitants would continuously see one another going and coming and would meet there after a day in the fields. Traveling merchants encountered the townspeople at the gate, which became the site for the city market. Legal issues were discussed there as well. There are countless references in the Bible to “the gate” as the social, commercial ang judicial hub of a city (e.g. Ruth 4:1, 2 Kings 7:1, Psalm 127:5).

The design of Israelite towns and houses in many ways mirrored Israel’s social values and customs. These traditional structures endured through many historical changes. Tragically, the remains of these cities often attest to violent destruction and to chaotic upheavals that brought recurrent disruption and turmoil to a settled, agrarian society. Jeremiah 9 anticipates such a scenario.

See also The ancient city under Acts 12.


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