Family Life and Sexuality in Ancient Israel

In early Israel (c. 1200-1000 BCE), families lived in small villages of about 400 people. Houses were made of mudbrick with stone foundations and 3-4 rooms. Relatives maintained close connections by building homes in clusters around a common courtyard. This central area also held animals. The Israelites herded sheep and goats, tended fruit trees, and worked as farmers. Literacy rates were likely low to non-existent among these simple villagers. As urbanization began to develop in the 10th and 9th centuries, agriculture remained important, but advancements occurred in trade and commerce. Population growth developed in cities.

Women usually married around puberty. In the monarchic period the nuclear family probably included 2-4 children. A woman likely needed about 10 pregnancies to have 3 surviving children. In addition to caring for offspring, women labored alongside men to help the family survive. They engaged in weaving, grinding grain, making textiles, and tending animals. The biblical authors also describe women as sages (2 Sam 14:1-20; 20:14-22), prophets (Exodus 15:20-21; Judg 4:4; 2 Kgs 22:14), musicians and dancers (Exod 15:2-21; 1 Sam 18:6-7; 2 Sam 19: 35 [36]; Eccl 2:8; Jer 31:4), religious personnel (Exod 38:8; 1 Sam 2:22) and, in at least one case, a judge (Judg 4-5).  Continue reading

Archaeological Clues to Israelite and Judahite Religion

This post is part of an online Intro to Old Testament “class” for the person on the go. Check it out.

Those who grow up hearing Bible stories learn there is only one God, maker of heaven and earth, whom the Israelites worshiped at a temple in Jerusalem. This God revealed a personal name to Moses at a burning bush in the wilderness:

“Moses said to God, ‘If I come to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your ancestors has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ what shall I say to them?” God said to Moses, “I am who I am’” (Exod 3:13-14; NRSV).

In Hebrew, the letters of the verb used for the divine name are yhwh (יהוה).[1] Scholars typically refer to this as the “tetragrammaton,” a Greek term meaning “[with] four letters.” In English, Yhwh is pronounced Yahweh or Jehovah. Jews consider the name holy and do not speak it aloud, substituting “Adonai” (Lord) or “HaShem” (The Name). In English, Yhwh is usually translated and capitalized as LORD, while the generic term for God, “El,” is printed as “God.” Lower case “Lord” often translates “Adonai.” Thus, the impact of the personal divine name is obscured in the English translation.

Where Did Yhwh Come From?

The biblical authors say God revealed this personal name to Moses while the fugitive was living as a pastoralist in rural Midian (modern day NW Saudi Arabia; Exod 3). Interestingly, his Midianite father-in-law is described as a priest, raising questions about influence. In addition to Midian, the biblical authors also suggest Yahweh came from Edom (Judg 5:4-5; Deut 33:2; Psa 68:8-9, 18; Hab 3:3, 10a). Edom is next to Midian. Some scholars theorize Yahwism developed in this southern region (see map). This is also why the Israelites are sometimes associated with the Shasu, a term used in Egyptian records to refer to various groups of nomadic pastoralists. The Shasu are said to come from Edom, as well as other West Semitic regions. Continue reading

The Rise and Fall of Kings: Divided Kingdom to Exile (c. 928-586 BCE)

This post is part of an online Intro to Old Testament “class” for the person on the go. Check it out.

We have much more archaeological data for Israel and Judah going into the 9th and 8th centuries BCE. We even have a reference at the end of the 10th century: Egyptian pharaoh Sheshonq I’s campaign list (c. 925). He attacked various Israelite cities, including Beth Horon and Megiddo. Sheshonq’s invasion occurred around the time the biblical authors portray a split between Israel and Judah, otherwise known as “the divided kingdom.”[1] If there was ever a united kingdom under kings David and Solomon, it was short-lived (c. 1005-928 BCE).[2] Much of the Old Testament recounts the history of two separate entities, Israel (north) and Judah (south). According to the biblical authors, a total of 20 kings reigned in the north, while 20 (19 kings and 1 queen) ruled in the south.[3] Israel experienced frequent political instability because of coups. In contrast, Judah maintained the same Davidic dynasty throughout except for a few years during a hostile take-over (c. 840s BCE). Israel reigned for about 200 years before falling to Assyria between 722-720 BCE. Judah lasted for approximately 340 years until the Babylonians sacked Jerusalem in 587/86 BCE.   Continue reading

Villages to Statehood: Did a United Israelite Monarchy Exist? (c. 1025-928 BCE)

This post is part of an online Intro to Old Testament “class” for the person on the go. Check it out.

We know a people group called Israel was living in Canaan no later than the 13th century BCE. But, how did they grow into a powerful monarchy? The Merneptah Stele inscription, the earliest extra-biblical evidence for Israel, suggests that in 1207 BCE, this people was not yet a State. That dovetails with the portrait in the book of Judges. The biblical narrative portrays judges (i.e. village elders or tribal chieftains) ruling until the Israelites demand a king. A prophet, Samuel, reluctantly honors that wish and anoints Saul. However, Saul falters and David is chosen instead. In the Bible, king David is the exemplary king who unites the twelve tribes of Israel under one monarchy. His name becomes the benchmark for royal expectations. The question is: can archaeology provide further insight into these biblical stories? Continue reading

How Did Israel Become Israel? Origins in the Land (c. 1300-1025 BCE)

This post is part of an online Intro to Old Testament “class” for the person on the go. Check it out.

Where did the Israelites come from? That is a question scholars have investigated and debated for decades. According to the biblical story, Israel’s ancestors are Abraham and Sarah, a couple who travel from Mesopotamia to the land of Canaan. Their grandson, Jacob, and great-grandchildren go to Egypt to escape famine in Canaan and remain there for centuries, becoming enslaved to Pharaoh. Eventually, God raises up the leader Moses to deliver the people and bring them to Canaan where they conquer the land through violence. But, what does archaeology tell us about Israel’s origins, and how does it relate to these biblical narratives?

Archaeological Clues to Israelite origins

Currently the earliest evidence we have for Israel outside the Bible is the Merneptah Stele, a black granite monument that stands ten feet tall.[1] It recounts Egyptian pharaoh Merneptah’s war victories, including an attack on a people called Israel around 1207 BCE. The inscription reads: “Israel is laid waste and his seed is not.” This language is common ancient Near Eastern hyperbole for victory. Obviously, Israel was not actually annihilated. The hieroglyphics suggest Israel was a people group living in Canaan, but not yet a State. This means by the end of the 13th century BCE, a group sizable enough to get Egypt’s attention was living in Canaan, possibly as a loose confederation of tribes. How long they had been there, we don’t know. Continue reading