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Material Culture Report: Family

by Emma Hayes

In comparison to modern usage, the term “family” carries a broader meaning in reference to the agriculturalists of early Israel. The Hebrew word mispahah more closely refers to a “protective association of [nuclear] families” or a “kinship group,” than it does a small family of parents and children (13). Smaller family units – family households – consisting of a patriarch and matriarch, their several married adult children with their younger children, as well as a few cousins or aunts, each lived in a house that was part of a compound for the whole kinship group (19). This larger grouping was necessary for each household’s survival, as each member had specific tasks, some of which were undertaken collectively in the inner courtyard of the compound (16).

Few imported items have been found at family sites from the Iron I period, implying that the kinship unit was indeed wholly self-sufficient (15). Their crops were mainly wheat or barley, olives that thrived on dry conditions, and grapevines whose deep roots grew well on hillsides. They also grew some combination of legumes, figs, dates, nuts, herbs, and onions in small gardens (11). For adult males, everyday life was centered on tending to agricultural needs, which included plowing, clearing new fields, building outbuildings, cutting terraces and making or fixing tools. At harvest time, the whole household would be involved in bringing in the crops (24). Although women’s work generally took place closer to the home, it was every bit as important as field work. Women’s numerous tasks included caring for the home, childcare, tending gardens and small animals, making clothing, textiles, baskets, and ceramics, food preparation and preservation, collecting firewood, and grinding grain into flour from which they could prepare their staple food (25). Many of the women’s tasks were technologically sophisticated and required a high degree of expertise (25).

Bearing children was certainly an important aspect of women’s work, as well, although it was not separate from the rest of their daily work. Because there was such a high infant mortality rate and the life span was so short (30 years for women, 40 for men), it was imperative to bear children. Such a reality may explain the Biblical divine mandate to “go forth and multiply,” since tasks that “people are reluctant to do or apt not to do is presented as a divine mandate if such actions are for the overall stability or survival of the group” (28). Children often began to participate in household labor at age 5, when they collected fuel or watered the garden, and by age 13 most children did the same amount of work as the other adults.

Since everyone in the family played an important role, male dominance was probably less pronounced than modern Biblical readers assume. The man did not act as a breadwinner; rather all the members contributed work that allowed the household to eat and live (33). Without either the women’s productive contributions and the men’s field labor, the family couldn’t survive. Therefore, it is perhaps a misnomer to say that early Israel was patriarchal. It was patrilineal, in that lineage was traced through the male line and patrilocal because newlyweds moved into the household of the husband’s parents. This explains why the Bible often refers to one living in “the father’s house” (17). While androcentric is the best descriptor of the culture, other issues of power and dominance may have been just as or even more problematic. Women who entered their husband’s house as outsiders may have struggled against the older adult women, while the reality of grown children living in their parents’ home may have caused tension, as well (35-36).

Finally, there was no public/private distinction in the family setting (39). Giving birth was a public affair and the group dynamic had private implications for the living situation. There was also no individual identity in the family, but only corporate family identity (21). Everything that people did was for the benefit of the group and not for personal gain. This collective aspect marked daily life and ensured the family’s survival over the longer term.

Meyers, Carol. “The Family in Early Israel,” in Families in Ancient Israel, eds. Leo G. Perdue, Joseph Blenkinsopp, John K. Collines, and Carol Meyers. Louisville, KY: John Knox Press, 1997.

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