the "holy land" - quarterly published by the franciscan custody of the holy land

1999 - online version

Daily Life in the Days of Samuel

By Dr. Robert D. Miller II, SFO
Assistant Professor of Scripture Mt. St. Mary’s Seminary Emmitsburg, Maryland

The Bible calls the period of time before Kings Saul and David set up a monarchy over the Israelites the "Period of the Judges." The Book of Judges and much of 1 Samuel deal with this period. Archeology can also provide a great deal of information about this time, which roughly covers from 1200 to 1000 B.C. Beyond reconstructing the history of the time, archaeology and its interpretation provide a glimpse into what kind of society it was. The following is a summary of some of these findings.

The Israelites in the period of the Judges and Samueal were really confined to what is now the West Bank. Both the places in the stories from the Bible and the sites that exist from this time are primarily in the West Bank, extending slightly farther west in the north. The powerful Canaanites and Philistines had control of the lowlands and the coastal plain. Additionally, it is difficult to say anything about the area south of Jerusalem, the land of the tribe of Judah. Bethlehem, Hebron, and Beersheba were all there at the time, but aside from these the population was very sparse. Yet in the land north of Jerusalem, as far as Jenin, a great deal of lifestyle can be reconstructed.

The Israelite villages in the days before the monarchy were on the hilltops. As they continued to be for many centuries to come, valleys were always dangerous, dark places. The Israelite towns were small, possibly 400 people in the largest of these, as for example at Khirbet Seilun (Biblical Shiloh) or el-Jib (Biblical Gibeon). The towns usually did not have walls, and for defense the builders just clustered the houses together. The Israelites did not know how to tame horses or camels, and they did not have iron, either. They were using flint and bronze tools and weapons, especially slings — as the story of David and Goliath maintains. All of this was in contrast to their neighbors, who had iron, horses, and walled towns.

The Israelites lived in nucleus families, but often in clusters of houses around a common courtyard with their relatives (as the Arab Hosh). The average nucleus family had two or three children that lived past infancy.

The house would be made of mud bricks, with a stone foundation and perhaps a second story of wood — tamarisk or poplar or palm. It was possible to build a stone house. There was plenty of stone. However, the area was earthquake-prone, and so it was dangerous to construct out of field stones. They lived in houses with three or four rooms, and likely often slept on the roof or a covered roof loft. One of the first floor rooms was a court for the animals, similar to the Arab Qa’ or Rawieh.

The Israelites did raise animals — sheep and goats, but not much cattle — and animals were primarily for dairy products, not meat. The boys of the village would take the animals out in the morning up to ten or fifteen kilometers away from the village. But the hills were at that time much more densely vegetated. They were not forested, but were covered with a very thick shrub — lots of evergreen shrubs with short pine and oak and pistachio trees — no more than four meters high, with orchids and peonies and lilies and crocuses; plus it was often too rocky for the sheep, and so animals were always secondary in the economy. They were not the main source of livelihood. Instead, the practice was to burn off some of the bush, and then terrace the hillsides and farm. They would farm a distance of about an hour’s walk around the town.

The main crop was wheat. Everything else was secondary. From wheat they would make bread, animal fodder, macaroni-type foods, beer, mulch for gardens, straw for baskets and mats. They did eat other foods — other crops they grew: lentils, chick peas and broad beans they would grind up and likely make falafel, barley and millet were primarily grown to make beer. We tended to always picture wine as the beverage of the Bible, but for everyday use, it was more likely beer.

And they did have orchards as well on these terraces. Olives grew wild and were easily domesticated, and so olives and grapes were prevalent, plus sometimes apricots and figs.

These little villages were self-sufficient. They did not really need anyone above them to provide them with anything. Yet they were not "egalitarian" by any means. There were rulers and subjects.

Now, from closely reading the text of Judges, one sees that the Judges, like Samson, Deborah and Gideon, were not the standard rulers of the people. That is the point, in fact, of the book: the Judges were raised up by God at certain occasions. Additionally, even when there were Judges around, they were only active in one part of the country at a time, and on the other side of the land, they may have never heard of a given Judge: it is obvious from the text that Israel was not a united political entity at any point before the monarchy. Even a single tribe was often not one unified community.

Each town had its rich and poor. Each town had a ruling family of town elders, or a chief and his family. They were legally the owners of all the land, although in practice the average person farmed what his own family managed without really being a tenant. But elite families did exist. These had a separate neighborhood in the town — usually in the northwest so that the prevailing winds kept unpleasant smells away. Their houses were larger than the commoners’, and maybe had walled yeards and paved courts, but these were not palaces. The elders or chiefs likely wore distinctive clothing, jewelry made of silver or gold or exotic stones like carnelian, and possessed luxury items such as mirrors, iron weapons and tools, and salted or smoked marine fish to eat. They likely intermarried with their own extended relatives or with elder families of other towns.

These town chiefs or elders were responsible to tribal or regional chieftains, as well. One may generalize that all villages within a thirty kilometer diameter circle were subject to the paramount chief, who lived at the major town of the area. Some of these chiefdoms were large. There was one centered around Tell Balatah (Biblical Shechem), likely the one that Abimelech of Judges 9 was the chief over, that was fairly big. Another one around Tell Dothan was also pretty large. But around Ramallah they were smaller, maybe a chiefdom of an eight-kilometer radius around Tell el-Ful (Biblical Gibeah), another of the same size around Beitin (Biblical Bethel), and so on.

These chiefs were not kings, as Judges tells us. There were no standing armies or police to enforce laws. But the chieftains were able to muster armies, or laborers, and were in all likelihood seen as the ones with the most interaction with God.

Because of that, it was important for the people to support them. So the people would provide tribute, first to their local elder and then on up to the regional chief. This tribute consisted of olive oil or wine, transported in deerskins. The chiefs were also given enough wheat and so on to live on. The people would also provide luxuries. Glass beads or salt or honey or resin from the trees, or even that expensive food delicacy: locusts!

The regional chieftain would trade things like this with neighboring Israelite chiefdoms, or the Philistines or Phoenicians on the coast. They would trade them for jewelry, iron and fish. The chiefs kept much of these new imports, but also redistributed some of it to the local village elders in order to ensure their continuing support and to show that there was a chief keeping up good relations with foreigners (and being granted prosperity by God).

There are many things that archaeology cannot yet tell us. Religion is one of them. The Book of Judges makes it appear that religion was very confused in those days. There are no large temples that have been found from that period. There are some small ones, but those could easily be for the worship of God. There are no idols except for small hand-held ones, and no evidence of human sacrifice. But beyond this, archaeology remains mute on the issues of faith.

copyright 1999

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