Ancient national Israel, from its beginnings in the wilderness through the Divided Kingdom and Exile right up to the time of Christ, was a world very different from our own. Its members were people who struggled with the same sins and had the same hopes and dreams we do today, people we could probably relate to over a cup of coffee, but the way that struggle played out and the way those dreams were expressed is foreign to us. The Bible is a transcendent text inspired by the immanent God; its truths are applicable to every time and place. Nevertheless, we cannot understand a book like Zephaniah without coming to grips with the surroundings in which it was written.
We already touched on the fact that the economy of ancient Israel (united and divided) was based on a system of bartering. Coinage existed and was certainly in use by the Roman period, but the change from “good for good” to “money for good” was gradual. The average person living in one of the many villages wasn’t going to have access to pouches and pouches of coins. He would trade a portion of whatever crop he had grown (remember, this was an agrarian society) with someone who had what he needed or wanted.
Water was a necessity, so groups of families would cluster around wells and from there villages grew. There were a handful of walled towns outside of Jerusalem, but these weren’t much bigger than the villages. Homes were small, made of baked clay, wattle-and-daub or straw brick materials. Often an outside staircase led to the roof, providing more living space during mild weather. Most families had a few animals, such as sheep or goats, who lived in the home with them (unless they were dedicated to the keeping of livestock, in which case the animals would have been too numerous, requiring a separate shelter, such as the one that served as a maternity ward the night Jesus entered the world in His Incarnate form [Luke 2:7]).
The average home looked something like this:
Here families would live and love and work and play and eat and sleep, just as we do today.
Men engaged in commerce, farming and the day-to-day governing of the towns. (The “town gate”in Ruth 4 alludes to this; this was where what we would think of as the “city council” would meet). Women had a lot to do in order to keep the home running:
…most of the women who lived in a village would probably have had some sort of garden as a source of food, flowers and pleasure.
Needless to say, the homes of the rich were more spacious and made of better material. A poor woman would have swept a beaten clay floor, while a rich woman would have had a servant sweep a tile floor. Only the richest would have been fortunate enough to live in a stone house despite the parable stressing the importance of stone for the foundation. The less wealthy would have had to do without a fireplace, but a simple brazier supplied all the heat that was necessary in such a pleasant climate; except for the supper rich all cooking was done in the outdoors.
The market was located just outside the walls of the town. Unless she were rich enough to have servants, every woman would have to pay regular visits to buy the necessities. Civic business was conducted there also, but unless the woman herself was involved she would have no reason to be present.
While having children was a woman’s most important achievement, the bulk of her day to day life was spent in raising them, keeping the house clean and cooking meals. The Jews were by and large light eaters, but they enjoyed their food and were happiest when guests were present. Bread was a part of every meal. Without modern preservatives, fresh loaves had to be baked every second day or so. Since flour did not come in a bag from the supermarket it had to be freshly ground between two stones every time new loaves were desired. Whether it was barley bread for a poor family or wheat bread for a well off one, it was the woman’s job to grind the grain and kneed the dough. The loaves were usually round and placed directly on the coals of an open fire. The best flour was mixed with oil, mint, cumin, cinnamon and even locusts to make a cake. A sort of honey doughnut was made by frying it in a pan.
Cow’s milk was known but it was not used very much. Sheep and goats were preferred and their milk could also be used to make butter or cheese. Honey was the most common sweetener, but juice from grapes or dates could also be used. A special treat was a meal of locusts. When boiled in salted water they tasted somewhat like shrimp. If dried in the sun they could be kept for use at some other time of the year, when they would be ground into a powder and mixed with wheat flour for biscuits or simply moistened with honey or vinegar.
Dinner was expected to include lots of vegetables, beans, lentils, cucumbers and onions being the most common. Middle-income families might supplement their bread and vegetables with some fish, kid or lamb. Chickens were rare but pigeons were plentiful. Only the very rich could afford “a fatted calf.” Food was strongly seasoned: pepper was expensive but they used mustard, capers, cumin, saffron, coriander, mint, dill and rosemary. There was almost always a local wine to wash it all down. (1)
Both men and women would educate their children, largely through an oral tradition. The average person may not have been able to write well or at all, but literacy was widespread enough so that at least a few in the village, always the rabbi (they weren’t called that until roughly the time of Christ), would have been able to read the Torah, for it was important to know and understand its precepts so they could be lived out and passed on to others.
Village life cannot be understood apart from the Tribes.
Jacob, whose story takes up several chapters of Genesis, had 12 sons: Reuben,Simeon, Levi, Judah, Dan, Naphtali, Gad, Asher, Issachar, Zebulun, Joseph, and Benjamin. (He also had at least one daughter, Dinah [Genesis 34]). As those sons had families, those families began to identify themselves as descending from a particular son, and thus the tribes were born (except Joseph; his descendants identified with his sons, Manasseh and Ephraim, because Jacob blessed them on his death bed [Genesis 48]. They were “half-tribes,” keeping the total number at 12. Just go with it).
After leading them out of slavery and through the years of wandering, God divided the Promised Land among the tribes, ensuring that each one had an appropriate amount of land. (Except for the Levites, who were the priests. They would be engaged in the business of worship instead of farming, so they got some cities instead). Numbers 32-36 records God’s commands regarding this process and Joshua 14-22 records how the commands were carried out, resulting in a map that looked something like this:
Extended families living together were the norm:
Within the tribal structure, the family served as the core of Israelite life. It defined the way each individual fit into society. These kinship relationships could be biological or forged. For example, land was passed down from one generation to the next, with one son–usually the firstborn–receiving an extra portion. In the event that a male heir was lacking, the patriarch of the family had the option of adopting a son who would become the heir to the family estate.
In addition to adoption, kinship ties were also forged through marriage. Such familial ties served as a means for Israelites to interact with one another, exchange goods, and settle or prevent conflicts.
As ancient Israel was a patriarchal society, the role of women was circumscribed. While women’s experiences varied according to the communities and centuries in which they lived, ordinary Jewish women’s lives centered on their families. Jewish women married in their teens (the average age varies according to geography and time period, from 13 to 18) and went to live with their husband’s families. (2)
Above all, ancient Israel (and the Kingdom of Judah, to whom Zephaniah wrote and among whom he ministered) was a place of religion. There was no distinction between the sacred and the secular. God ruled over all. There were instructions, carefully laid out in the book of Leviticus, for how a person was to live her life. The calendar was governed by a cycle of sacrifices and celebrations, outlined in Leviticus 23.
Though it turns our stomachs, the people would have been very accustomed to the sights and smells associated with animal sacrifice. (There were grain and drink offerings as well). (3) Though we may not fully understand the reasons for eating kosher, they knew nothing else. Every part of their lives was lived according to God’s standard.
Well, was supposed to be lived according in God’s standard. In Deuteronomy 28, part of Moses’ lengthy farewell sermon, the blessings for obedience and the curses for disobedience are clearly laid out. In chapters 29 and 30, he calls on his audience to reaffirm the covenant made at Sinai. Unfortunately, it took only the death of Joshua and his generation (those who succeeded Moses in shepherding the people) for the nation to turn away from the covenant (Judges 2:10-11). Though there were always those who were faithful to God, the rest of Israel’s history as recorded in the Old Testament is one of back and forth and eventual slide into total rebellion before the Exile in Babylon.
Zephaniah ministered during the last upward movement toward God that the Kingdom of Judah experienced under the leadership of Josiah. His words, and those of Jeremiah, were God’s final offer before the destruction of Jerusalem. (4)
- There are many differences between our world and that of ancient Israel. What similarities do you see?
- Read Deuteronomy 28-29. Was God, speaking through Moses, unclear? Could the people ever truly claim they “didn’t know?”
- Read Hebrews 9-10:18. What were the animal sacrifices meant to convey? To Whom did they point? Why are these sacrifices no longer necessary?
- Read through Zephaniah again, this time imagining yourself a member of that society. What stands out to you?
Until next time.
(1) Daily Life in Ancient Israel
(2) Ancient Israelites: Society and Lifestyle
(4) Note: God did not completely abandon His people, as seen in the during-Exile books of Daniel, Ezekiel and Esther, and the post-Exile books of Ezra, Nehemiah, Haggi, Zechariah and Malachi. He is faithful to His covenant. Nevertheless, His glory or felt presence left the Temple (Ezekiel 10) and would not return until the presentation of Christ (Luke 2:22-38).
Image: House in Ancient Israel
Map: Division of the Promised Land
For all entries in The LORD Your God in Your Midst series, go here.