24 June 2010

Of Hearth and Home: Common Houses in Ancient Israel

Of Hearth and Home:
Common Houses in Ancient Israel
By Timothy S. Wilkinson

                The design of houses in the Middle East has remained fairly uniform through the centuries, so that even today one can find families living in houses that are virtually identical (in architecture, at least) to the homes of three millennia ago.
                The Israelites started out living in tents, as did many of the peoples of the Levant—and even after they had built more substantial homes, it was not uncommon for families to live in tents during the summer harvest season. Cave homes were also relatively common, like the one Lot lived in (Genesis 19:30) or the more elaborate caves of the Edomites at Petra (Obadiah 3).
                The standard house within the borders of a town, though, was blockish in design, comprised of a single rectangular room for the very poor, or a larger square with an open courtyard in the center for the wealthier. The roof was flat and typically reached by means of an external staircase—either outside the home or within the courtyard.
                Inside was usually a single room, around 10 feet square. The thick brick walls had niches carved in them for storing food and utensils, and a single, narrow window to let in light and let out smoke; it might be covered with a wooden lattice (Proverbs 7:6) in summer and a skin or wool curtain in winter. The door was nothing more than a curtain in poorer homes; wealthier citizens could afford a wooden door with a bar.
                The floor was packed earth, often in two levels: a lower section into which one entered when coming through the door, and a raised portion at the back where the family slept and ate. Historians speculate that one of the reasons for this raised section was to keep livestock from walking on the sleeping family when the animals were brought inside at night during winter. In any case, to our modern noses the houses would have been redolent with the smell of animals and smoke.
                Furniture was a luxury. Common people had a straw mat for a bed, and their “table” was simply a rug laid on the floor during meal times. The wealthier had couches, divans, tables, and chairs—sometimes exquisitely carved.
                Homes were constructed of bricks of sun-dried mud or fired clay until the time of King David. Then, with the availability of iron tools, houses of cut stone became more common. Unless the home was of finished stone, it was sealed with mortar or whitewash, designed to protect it from the weather. The idea was only moderately successful—these homes required constant maintenance. The walls provided a warm, protected environment for vermin—no doubt the rustling of rodents, birds, and snakes were common noises in the Israelite home.
                Homes in Galilee were typically built using black basalt. Those constructed along the Mediterranean coast were made of yellow sandstone, and the rest of the country used white limestone.
                The roof of the Middle Eastern home served many purposes and was, in some ways, the most important area of the house. It was constructed by laying brushwood across sycamore (cedar or cypress for the wealthy) beams, then binding and covering it with layers of mud. These roofs were, as you can imagine, particularly susceptible to rain. A heavy roller was kept handy to pack the mud down again after precipitation had softened it.
                In spite of this precaution, roofs leaked. Since the mud that made them was full of seeds and roots, plants began to sprout after each rain; roofs must have turned green during the wet season.
                The roof provided a cool, quiet place for the family to gather, for women to do their work, and for crops to be dried for storage. The Torah required that family heads install a parapet around the roof—no doubt because so much time was spent atop it that falls could have been common.

For more information about life in Bible times, check out my novels Prophet of Israel and Judge of Israel, available from www.timothywilkinson.net.

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