Shabbat Shalom Magazine

Written by: Randall W. Younker, Ph.D.

Archaeology and the Family in Ancient Israel

Modern Ideas of Family

Ever since the socalled “Reagan revolution,” Americans have heard a considerable amount of discussion on the importance of the family in our society. This phenomenon has been commonly associated with the more religious folks within our society, especially within the Jewish and Christian communities. However, even a number of secular sociologists have come to recognize that the family forms the essential foundational building block of a healthy and stable society. In the last several elections all political parties have attempted to jump on the “family bandwagon.”

Nevertheless, in spite of this renewed interest in families, there is not total agreement as to just what a “family” is. In western societies, the idea of family tends to be vague. There are, of course, those who argue that any group of people that live under the same roof constitute a family regardless of biological or legal relationships. More traditional folks argue that a family is equal to what some classify as the “nuclear” family consisting of husband, wife and children. There is also an understanding of a more extended biological family that includes grandparents and a few aunts, uncles, and their children—cousins. However, because of the fact that Western societies are so mobile, it is not uncommon for members of this more extended family not to see each other for considerable periods of time. Many families count themselves lucky if they get together once a year—usually at Hanukkah, Christmas, or perhaps Thanksgiving. Thus, on a dayto- day basis most peoples’ family consists of that group of people (whoever they are and however they are related) who live under the same roof. This is admittedly a rather small number of people for most folks.

Families in the Middle East

The idea of family is quite different in the Middle East. Not only are nuclear families much larger, but also the extended family tends to live nearby and to be quite interactive with the nuclear family. It is not uncommon, especially in Arab society, for a large number of family members, even beyond the nuclear family, to live under the same roof or within the same physical compound. Certainly most neighborhoods within Arab villages consist of people who are related to each other.

There are a number of reasons as to why family loyalty is highly prized and maintained from generation to generation in Middle East cultures. At base is the idea that the members of the family need each other—there is no one else in the world whom you can count on or who is so reliable, who will come to your aid with no questions asked.

Anthropologists have proposed a number of reasons for this, most of which can be traced back to antiquity. One is the unique variegated climate, topography and environment that Palestine possesses. For a relatively small country, Palestine exhibits a large number of ecological niches, including everything from a stark desert environment, to tropical zones and temperate tree-covered mountains. Rain patterns are also variable and unpredictable in terms of timing, amount and location. Interestingly, while inland valleys may receive just the right amount of rainfall at just the right time to support a bountiful harvest for the farmers, the folks just over the mountain may be experiencing a drought. For this and other reasons, people in ancient Palestine found that it was important to maintain familial ties even with more distant relatives. The folks in a certain area never knew when they might have trouble eking out a living from an unpredictable land. It was nice to know that you could count on your neighbors if you experienced difficult times. For this reason, the ancient peoples of Palestine, including the Israelites, were quite generous in helping out their neighbors when the latter had rough times. You never knew when you might need that help in return some day. Anthropologists refer to this as the principle of reciprocity.

Reciprocity functioned not only in the realm of subsistence (food) sharing, but also in defense against enemies. In a marginal land where subsistence was uncertain, there would also be those who would obtain what they wanted or needed by forcibly taking it from others. In order to provide more adequate protection from such outside raiders, families would often band together in alliances. Naturally, it was easier to create and maintain such alliances with people who saw themselves as related to one another. The closer the relationship is, the stronger the alliance. In this regard, it is interesting to note that in the absence of a serious external threat there was often intertribal strife. On the other hand, in view of a major external threat by a strong power such as Assyria or Babylon, even people groups or tribes that were normally at odds with each other, such as the Israelites and the Ammonites, could reach back to ancient claims of relatedness to justify an alliance against a common enemy. (Of course, from Israel’s perspective, the story of the Tower of Babel showed that ultimately all people are related to each other and descended from the true God.)

Family Structure in the Bible

A careful review of the Hebrew Bible reveals quite a bit of information about ancient Israel’s family structure. Almost everyone is familiar with the expression the “tribes of Israel.” However, this is just one of several social organizational expressions that reveals a rather sophisticated kin-based social system. The smallest family unit was the individual household or nuclear family (Heb. geber). Beyond the individual or “nuclear” family unit was the beth ’ab (“the house of the father”) or the bayit, the family “lineage.” The next level was known as the mishpahah (“extended family” or “clan”). (For some scholars there is little difference between the lineage and the clan). The next level would be the shebet or matteh (“tribe”). Finally, there are several terms for the highest and most inclusive levels of family/ societal organization including ‘am (“people”), shebet-Israel (“tribes of Israel”), or bene-Israel (“sons of Israel”).

The Archaeology of Family

Archaeologists believe they can identify this literary description of ancient Israelite families in the archaeological record. The basic individual family house is equated with the pillared houses —sometimes called three- or four-roomed houses because of the number of rooms these houses typically possessed (see figure 1). These houses usually consisted of a central open court with a dirt floor, with a long room on each side of the court and another broad room going across the back. It is thought that many of these houses had an upper floor over the three “exterior” rooms. Cooking and other activities took place in the open courtyard, while animals might be stabled in one of the side rooms. The other side room might contain wood, food, or the equipment for various craft activities. The back room might have been for sleeping and living.

In many Israelite and Judahite villages, clusters of these pillared houses have been isolated that appear to correlate with the beth ’ab (see figure 2). Examination of the construction of these house clusters suggests that as the family grew, new houses were added to the cluster—that is, as a son took a wife, he might build a new house close to that of his father’s original house. It is estimated that anywhere from 10 to 30 people might occupy one of these house clusters. It is also believed that up to three, and occasional four, generations would be represented in these house clusters. That is, the typical beth ’ab compound would contain children, parents, grandparents, and occasionally even great-grandparents— each married couple living in their own “pillared” house, but with the house of their own children or parents immediately and physical attached to their own dwelling. Passageways that interconnect these clusters suggest that there was a fairly free flow of family members from one part of the compound or house cluster to another. Undoubtedly the wealth and resources accumulated by the members of the beth ’ab were usually shared by all.

It is further believed that the several house clusters that make up the typical small Israelite village would generally correspond to the mishpahah or “clan.” Occasionally a beth ’ab compound might become too crowded and some young man might decide to break off and establish a new house of his own. In this manner the house clusters don’t get too big, but the village nevertheless continues to grow. Stager (1985: 23) estimates that there may have been as many as 20 such beth ’ab house clusters in the village at Raddana, housing a population of as many as 200 individuals, probably all related. Similar house clusters have been found in ancient Israelite villages at Beit Mirsim, Tell Far‘ah (N), Tell en-Nasbeh, Tel Masos and elsewhere. Each settlement would undoubtedly be named after the leading family or patriarch of the clan.

Eventually even a village may become too crowded or the resources in the area around the settlement too scarce to adequately support the members of the village. In this case, some young man or men may decide to move into the country and establish a new nuclear house or a series of nuclear houses that will grow into new house clusters and villages. The numerous small settlements, villages and towns in a given geographical region would naturally comprise the tribal territory. The growth of houses, house clusters and villages has been documented by archaeologists throughout Iron Age Israel (as well as in the lands of her neighbors in Transjordan). Occasionally this growth would be interrupted by destruction and warfare and the survivors would have to start the process over. In some cases they may resettle the destroyed family village; in other cases they would establish a new settlement. Over the centuries, this rebuilding contributed to the formation of the tells that dot the landscape of Israel. While we usually think of these tells as marking great historical and political events, in reality they are, for the most part, a poignant record of common families—not too different from yours and mine— records of day-to-day activities of making a living, eating, drinking, mourning, rejoicing, and loving—all in the company of family.

A final thought to consider is the fluidity of ancient tribal families. In brief, it was quite easy for individuals or smaller family units to join different families or tribes if there was some advantage to be gained. This could be through adoption or some statement of allegiance to the new family. An example might be Uriah the Hittite, who faithfully served King David (although regrettably David returned this loyalty with treachery). The ancient concept of being able to easily be adopted into or join a new family was taken over by the early Christian community as well. Believers are all one family under God. Note how the early church members used expressions such as brothers and sisters in the Messiah. Indeed, until a few years ago it was quite common in American and European churches for folks to refer to fellow members of the church as “brother” or “sister” so-and-so. Nowadays, this form of expression sounds oldfashioned and odd to many. Nevertheless, the concept that we are all family is quite biblical. Think of how different the world would be if all humans saw each other as family! Perhaps this is a goal worth pursuing as the human family faces the challenges of the new millennium!


Holladay, John S., Jr. 1992 The Kingdoms of Israel and Judah: Political and Economic Centralization in the Iron IIA-B (ca. 1000-750 BCE). Pp. 368-398 in The Archaeology of Society in the Holy Land (ed. T. Levy). London: Leicester Press.

 LaBianca Ø. S. and Younker, R. W. 1992 Archaeology of Society in Late Bronze/Iron Age Transjordan (ca. 1400- 500 BCE). Pp. 399-415 in The Archaeology of Society in the Holy Land (ed. T. Levy). London: Leicester Press.

Stager, Lawrence E. 1985 The Archaeology of the Family in Ancient Israel. Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research 260: 1-36.

Younker, R. W. 1997 Moabite Social Structure. Biblical Archaeologist 60/4: 237-248.


Figure 1: A “pillared” house of a nuclear family from Tell en-Nasbeh, Israel (6/7th century BCE) (after Holladay 1992: 388 fig. 18).

Figure 2: A “pillared house cluster” or beth ’ab at Tell el-Far’ah (N), Israel (Iron Age) (after Holladay 1992: 388 fig. 18).



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