Part of the A Gender Study: The Real Lives of Women and Men in the Bible series

The Reality of Gender in the Ancient Israelite Household

People in the church (both historically and in the present day) often use the so-called “biblical worldview” of gender to justify their own preconceived notions on the roles of women and men in society at large. When we read the Old Testament/Hebrew Bible, it is very easy for us to view the biblical world as if it were like our own—with the same accepted standards of social behavior, customs, and attitudes. In actuality, the world of the ancient Israelites was very different from our world today; some might even say they are quite opposite of each other. One could even go so far as to say that it dishonors the text, its authors, and its audiences when we take the text out of its world only to place it in our own.

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Instead, we should first investigate the issue of gender in the world of the Bible, which includes ancient Israel. My angle into this investigation will focus on the social world of the ancient Israelite household and how it can help answer gender-related questions. My hope is that a deeper understanding of this topic will not only help us understand the world of ancient Israel better, but will also help us to better answer the “so what” question for today. 

Ancient Israelite Households

Before we can delve into the roles of average women and men in ancient Israel, we must first look more broadly at the stage where daily life occurred—the home. Household archaeology has helped tremendously in our understanding of the ancient Israelite household, suggesting that there are three main aspects of a household on which to focus. 

The first aspect is the material aspect, which includes all of the actual physicality of the house, its features, any secondary buildings, agricultural installations, and the orchards, vineyards, and fields. 

Israelite house mockup, Iron Age, 1200–586 BC. Harvard Semitic Museum, Cambridge, MA.

The second aspect is the social aspect, meaning the household members and their relationships to each other. It is appropriate to point out here that the term “household” is preferred over the term “family.” The term “family” is more narrow and is defined as people who are related to each other by kinship, descent, and marriage; whereas the term “household” is a broader term that is defined by co-residence and/or the sharing of domestic functions. A family would consist of the patriarch and matriarch, their married sons and their families, their unmarried daughters and possibly other unmarried female family members, and any secondary wives and their children. A household would include the family, but would also include other non-related members who live and/or work at the household; this would include any slaves, guests, or hired workers. 

The third and final aspect is the behavioral aspect, which includes the activities household members performed and the possible behaviors behind them. 

Other Tools for Examining Gender in Ancient Israel

Other tools, such as ethnography, ethnoarchaeology, and gender archaeology, also help make the social world of Israel visible. Ethnography is the study of contemporary cultures through direct observation, while ethnoarchaeology is the observation of contemporary cultures to understand the behaviors and relationships that underlie the production and use of material culture.1Cynthia Shafer-Elliott, “Gender Archaeology,” 165–169 in The Five Minute Archaeologist in the Southern Levant; edited by Cynthia Shafer-Elliott (Sheffield: Equinox, 2016), 167. Observing modern, traditional societies that are also geographically related to the society in question provides valuable insights into human behavior in the past.2Jennie Ebeling, “Ethnoarchaeology”, 154–156 in The Five Minute Archaeologist in the Southern Levant; edited by Cynthia Shafer-Elliott (Sheffield: Equinox, 2016), 156. For instance, archaeologist Jennie Ebeling observed baking practices in traditional villages in Jordan to draw inferences about baking in ancient Israel.3See Jennie Ebeling’s ethnoarchaeology of baking in Jordan videos on her youtube channel: Jennie Ebeling. 

One of the important tools in our study of gender in ancient Israel is Gender Archaeology. Gender archaeology considers the relationships of women and men to the social, economic, political, and ideological structures of particular societies.4Shafer-Elliott, “Gender Archaeology,” 166. Gender archaeology and the social/behavioral aspects of household archaeology cannot be physically seen; rather, they are inferred from the material aspect. This is where the concept of “habitus” or “performance” is very helpful. “Habitus” can be defined as “the practical logic and sense of order that is learned unconsciously through the enactment of everyday life.”5Roberta Gilchrist, Gender and Archaeology: Contesting the Past (London: Routledge, 1999), XV. 

In other words, the world of ancient Israel is visible through the material aspect; the material aspect leaves us clues to the daily activities of the household engaged in. Those daily activities in turn leave us clues to behaviors and attitudes of the household. The habitus or repetitious activities conducted on a daily basis can tell us a lot about what a society values and devalues including those related to identity, class, and gender. Utilizing all tools at our disposal such as the Hebrew Bible, other ancient Near Eastern texts, household archaeology, gender archaeology, and ethnographic/ethnoarchaeology will help us better understand the world of ancient Israel. 

The Social Structure of Ancient Israelite Households

The social structure of ancient Israel was based on kinship. The nucleus was the household, or what the Hebrew Bible refers to as the betʾav (“house of the father”; Gen. 46:31) and occasionally as bêt ʾēm (“house of the mother”; Gen. 24:28). The middle kinship group was the mishpachah meaning extended family or clan (Exod. 6:14, 25; Num. 1:2), followed by the largest kinship group, the shebet or tribe (Gen. 49:28; Num. 1:16).6Cynthia Shafer-Elliott, “All in the Family: Ancient Israelite Families in Context.” Pages 33–43 in Mishpachah: The Jewish Family in Tradition and in Transition. Edited by Leonard Greenspoon. Studies in Jewish Civilization series (West Lafayette, IN: Purdue University Press, 2016), 34. In ancient Israel a person was not viewed as an individual but always considered as part of their kinship groups.7Elizabeth H.P. Backfish and Cynthia Shafer-Elliott, The Theology of the Old Testament in its Cultural Context (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, in contract), 4. 

The household was the center of these kinship groups. Israelite households were agro-pastoralists that lived in rural farmsteads, hamlets, and villages with the minority living in fortified cities (but were still agro-pastoralist in nature). The dwelling served as both a shelter and workplace. Household archaeology has demonstrated that Iron Age households in Israel were engaged in domestic activities centered around production, preparation, distribution, and storage. The household economy ranged in levels of subsistence but was always primarily concerned with surviving off the land, with every able-bodied member participating in the maintenance and continuation of the household. 

Consequently, one could argue that gender roles are a luxury rarely found in subsistence-level domestic economies—that the survival of the household was so imperative that each member was expected to participate regardless of sex, age, or other differentials. However, Carol Meyers argues that households were dependent upon three coinciding factors where gender does seem to play a role, even if it stems from biological or reproductive causes. These three factors are: protection, procreation, and production.8Carol Meyers, “Procreation, Production, and Protection: Male-Female Balance in Early Israel,” Journal of the American Academy of Religion 51:4 (1983), 569-593 (here pp 574–576).

Protection, Procreation, and Production

The household males, in particular the patriarch, oversaw the protection of the household land, members, and animals. This role of protection can be seen in the accepted cultural norms of hospitality. In a world where the appearance of a stranger could be a potential threat and competition for resources, ancient Israel developed strategies to determine and/or manage the potential threat. These strategies include the patriarch of the household being solely responsible for offering hospitality to the stranger, often by inviting them to “stay, rest, wash their feet, and eat (Gen 18).” Once the stranger’s feet are washed, they are technically considered part of the household, and as such the patriarch is obligated to protect the guest and the guest’s honor.9Anne Katrine de Hemmer Gudme, “Invitation to Murder: Hospitality and Violence in the Hebrew Bible,” Studia Theologica – Nordic Journal of Theology, 73:1, 89–108, 91. 

For instance, in Genesis 19, two divine messengers arrived in Sodom and Lot offers them hospitality, which they first refuse and then accept—per the custom. The divine messengers’ acceptance of Lot’s invitation not only communicates that they are Lot’s guests, but are also now considered part of his household for the duration of their stay. When the men of the Sodom come to Lot’s house and demand that he hand over the guests so that they could violate the guests’ honor, cultural norms obligate Lot to protect his guests and their honor at all costs—even at the expense of his daughters. 

The household females, in particular the matriarch, managed the procreation aspect.10Victor H. Matthews and Don C. Benjamin, Social World of Ancient Israel: 1250-587 BCE (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 1993), 12. The procreation of the household cannot be underestimated considering that the survival of the household was dependent upon the fertility of the household’s members, land, and animals. The human procreation factor fell under the female domain, mainly because procreation was predominated by the female reproductive role and concerns (such as menstruation, conception, birth, lactation, and weaning). The demands of the female’s reproductive role often necessitated that her daily household activities were conducted within or near the dwelling (Meyers 1983, 574). 

There was a great deal of honor attached to motherhood. P. Bird writes that in ancient Israel, motherhood was the only position of honor generally available to women, and the highest status most women could achieve.11Phyllis A. Bird, Missing Persons and Mistaken Identities: Women and Gender in Ancient Israel. Overtures to Biblical Theology. (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1997), 35. The matriarch of the household was expected to give birth to her own children, but also presided over the reproductive roles of the other women of the household. For instance, in Genesis 16, Sarah (Sarai), the matriarch of the household, is unable to have children; consequently, she provides Abraham (Abram) with a surrogate (Hagar) who would bear children for him. Designating a surrogate was a legal action that not only helped the household survive, but also preserved the honor of the barren woman.12Matthews and Benjamin, Social World, 25, 33.

Both the protection and procreation factors seemed to be firmly placed as male and female gender roles in ancient Israel; however, it was the production factor that joined the household together. As was mentioned earlier, the daily activities of the household were dominated by tasks related to agriculture, animal husbandry, and the making of various goods, such as pottery and fabric. There were also seasonal activities that required “all hands on deck,” such as planting and harvest. 

Archaeology and ethnographic studies emphasize the importance of agricultural production to the rhythm and survival of the household. The Gezer Calendar (or almanac) was found during the excavations of Tell Gezer, Israel in 1908. The calendar is a small tablet dated from the end of the 10th century BCE and is inscribed with seven lines that outline the seasonal agricultural activities of a typical year. The agricultural year (and thus the calendar) begins in the autumn with the olive harvest, followed by seven more periods of grain planting, late planting, barley harvest, harvest and feasting, vine-tending, and summer fruit.13Jennie Ebeling, Women’s Lives in Biblical Times (London: T&T Clark, 2010), 38. The household’s production activities, and thus their economy, were centered around the cycle of the agricultural year.

Furthermore, ethnographic studies of traditional villages in 1970s–80s Palestine show that the men, women, and children of the household collaborated to bring in the barley and wheat harvest. 

In the fields, men reaped the crops using sickles, while women and older children gathered the sheaves of wheat and tied them into manageable bundles. . . . Women and young girls also carried bundles on their heads as the whole family headed towards the village threshing floor.14Suad Amiry and Vera Tamri, The Palestinian Village Home (London: British Museum Publications, 1989), 35. 

Every able-bodied member of the household was expected to participate in the daily domestic chores regardless of age, sex, or any other differentials—especially those tasks related to production. It must be noted, however, that when the men of the household were called to war, the household women were required to bear the full burden of production (Meyers 1983, 574). Social scientific research of subsistence level households demonstrate that the average ratio of female-to-male household contribution is 2:3, with women contributing 40 percent of the labor. C. Meyers reasons that societies who sustain this ratio value the contributions of the household females just as much as the males, which affords them greater power and prestige within the household.15Meyers, “Procreation, Production, and Protection,” 574–576.

Gender and Productivity

Gender roles related to production was a luxury that average households could rarely afford, which is evident in the Hebrew Bible. Leviticus 27 is seen as an appendix to the book and focuses on the funding of the sanctuary through pledges or vows.16Baruch A Levine, The JPS Torah Commentary: Leviticus, edited by Nahum M. Sarna (Philadelphia: JPS, 1989), 192. More specifically, Leviticus 27 addresses how an Israelite made a vow or dedication at a local sanctuary, how the value of that vow and dedication was determined, and whether or not the vow and dedication had an acceptable monetary substitute. Leviticus 27 provides a list of monetary equivalents for vows or dedications to the sanctuary divided into categories based on age and gender. See the chart below.17Hilary Lipka, “B’chukotai” pp. 765–779 in The Torah: A Women’s Commentary, edited by Tamara Cohn Eskenazi, (New York: URJ, 2008), 773–775. 

As you can see,18Meyers, “Procreation, Production, and Protection,” 585. the females in each age category have a lower value than males, which has traditionally been interpreted as communicating worth, indicating that in ancient Israel men were seen as more valuable than women; however, recently scholars have reevaluated this list through the lens of social scientific approaches. They argue that the monetary value listed in Leviticus 27 does not illustrate the worth of an actual person; rather, it indicates the worth of the production capacity of the individual in terms of service to the sanctuary. In other words, it is the productivity potential of the person at various stages of life that is being emphasized.19Lipka, “B’chukotai,” 773–775; Carol Meyers, “Another View of B’chukotai,” pp. in The Torah: A Women’s Commentary, edited by Tamara Cohn Eskenazi, (New York: URJ, 2008), 780; Meyers, “Procreation, Production, and Protection: Male-Female Balance in Early Israel,” 582–586. 

The youngest age category and thus the lowest in economic productivity is one month to five years old (Lev 27:6), which accounts for the high infant mortality rate. The 5–20 years old age group has a low economic value for women (10 shekels; Lev 27:5) and reflects women’s preoccupation with reproduction, which made them unable to contribute as much to the household economy. The third age group, 20–60 years old (Lev 27:3–4), is when both males and females are at the height of their production capacity and thus their production worth is also at its highest (50/30 shekels). The females’ production capacity increases as their reproductive role diminishes. 

It is interesting to note that the final age category (60 years old and older), presents a sharper decrease in men’s economic value (50 shekels to 15) than in women’s (30 shekels to 10) (Lev 27:7). Whereas the contribution to the household economy by women only decreases minimally, the production contribution by men decreased more drastically, likely as a result of warfare and the high physical demand upon them in the 20–60 years old range.20Lipka, “B’chukotai”, 773–775; Meyers, “Another View of B’chukotai,” 780; Meyers, “Procreation, Production, and Protection: Male-Female Balance in Early Israel,” 582–586. The monetary value listed in Leviticus 27 illustrates the worth of the production capacity of the person at various stages of life and further demonstrates the importance of all household members for the survival of the household—regardless of gender.

The Complexity of the Israelite Household

My hope is that this brief look into the household roles of Israelite women and men has demonstrated what a complex topic this is. The social world of ancient Israel was not the massively patriarchal system we typically imagine, nor was it an egalitarian system. Rather, it seems that the social world of ancient Israel was more like a heterarchy where power and authority, at least on a household level, is more fluid. Heterarchy is made up of the Greek words heteros, meaning “the other,” and archein, meaning “to rule” and can be best described as: 

A form of management or rule in which any unit can govern or be governed by others, depending on circumstances, and, hence, no one unit dominates the rest. Authority within a heterarchy is distributed. A heterarchy possesses a flexible structure made up of interdependent units, and the relationships between those units are characterized by multiple intricate linkages that create circular paths rather than hierarchical ones.21Miura, Satoshi. “Heterarchy”. N.P in Encyclopedia Britannica, 2014. Accessed on 11 May 2018. https://www.britannica.com/topic/heterarchy.

The heterarchy model discourages us from over-simplifying or romanticizing the social world of ancient Israel, especially in relation to gender. Rather, heterarchy allows us to see the fluid nature of the household where numerous factors, such as seasonal and life-cycle events, dominate the social structure hierarchy of the household and its members. The cultural and social context of ancient Israel, especially as it relates to gender, power, and authority, matters for our understanding of gender in Scripture, and how it bears on our modern Western worldview.

End Notes

1. Cynthia Shafer-Elliott, “Gender Archaeology,” 165-169 in The Five Minute Archaeologist in the Southern Levant; edited by Cynthia Shafer-Elliott (Sheffield: Equinox, 2016), 167.

2. Jennie Ebeling, “Ethnoarchaeology”, 154–156 in The Five Minute Archaeologist in the Southern Levant; edited by Cynthia Shafer-Elliott (Sheffield: Equinox, 2016), 156.

3. See Jennie Ebeling’s ethnoarchaeology of baking in Jordan videos on her youtube channel: Jennie Ebeling.

4. Shafer-Elliott, “Gender Archaeology,” 166.

5. Roberta Gilchrist, Gender and Archaeology: Contesting the Past (London: Routledge, 1999), XV.

6. Cynthia Shafer-Elliott, “All in the Family: Ancient Israelite Families in Context.” Pages 33–43 in Mishpachah: The Jewish Family in Tradition and in Transition. Edited by Leonard Greenspoon. Studies in Jewish Civilization series (West Lafayette, IN: Purdue University Press, 2016), 34.

7. Elizabeth H.P. Backfish and Cynthia Shafer-Elliott, The Theology of the Old Testament in its Cultural Context (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, in contract), 4.

8. Carol Meyers, “Procreation, Production, and Protection: Male-Female Balance in Early Israel,” Journal of the American Academy of Religion 51:4 (1983), 569-593 (here pp 574–576).

9. Anne Katrine de Hemmer Gudme, “Invitation to Murder: Hospitality and Violence in the Hebrew Bible,” Studia Theologica – Nordic Journal of Theology, 73:1, 89–108, 91.

10. Victor H. Matthews and Don C. Benjamin, Social World of Ancient Israel: 1250-587 BCE (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 1993), 12.

11. Phyllis A. Bird, Missing Persons and Mistaken Identities: Women and Gender in Ancient Israel. Overtures to Biblical Theology. (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1997), 35.

12. Matthews and Benjamin, Social World, 25, 33.

13. Jennie Ebeling, Women’s Lives in Biblical Times (London: T&T Clark, 2010), 38.

14. Suad Amiry and Vera Tamri, The Palestinian Village Home (London: British Museum Publications, 1989), 35.

15. Meyers, “Procreation, Production, and Protection,” 574–576.

16. Baruch A Levine, The JPS Torah Commentary: Leviticus, edited by Nahum M. Sarna (Philadelphia: JPS, 1989), 192.

17. Hilary Lipka, “B’chukotai” pp. 765–779 in The Torah: A Women’s Commentary, edited by Tamara Cohn Eskenazi, (New York: URJ, 2008), 773–775.

18. Meyers, “Procreation, Production, and Protection,” 585.

19. Lipka, “B’chukotai,” 773–775; Carol Meyers, “Another View of B’chukotai,” pp. in The Torah: A Women’s Commentary, edited by Tamara Cohn Eskenazi, (New York: URJ, 2008), 780; Meyers, “Procreation, Production, and Protection: Male-Female Balance in Early Israel,” 582–586.

20. Lipka, “B’chukotai”, 773–775; Meyers, “Another View of B’chukotai,” 780; Meyers, “Procreation, Production, and Protection: Male-Female Balance in Early Israel,” 582–586.

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