THE HOUSEHOLD. Though there is much disagreement about the nature of early Israelite society, there is substantial agreement that the household—and not the clan or tribe—deserves attention as the primary or basic social unit. The Hebrew terms “house” (bêt) or “father's house” (bêt 'āb), as is the case with other such Hebrew terms, e.g., “clan” (mišpāḥāh), do not have singular or simple meanings. Moreover, the term “father's house” in the postexilic period develops an entirely new meaning, namely, a group whose forebears had been part of the Babylonian exile. For our purposes, the term will mean what it does mean in many Old Testament texts, the residential household. Literary, social scientific, and archaeological evidence help us understand this entity. To the reader of the Old Testament, the literary material will be the most familiar. For example, Gen. 36.6 provides a convenient description of a “house,” in this case Esau's, in which lived Esau, “his wives, his sons and daughters and all the members of his household, his livestock, all the animals.…” Social scientists have determined that nuclear families in rural, peasant cultures would include, on average, five to seven members. Esau's household would be on the upper side of the average, but hardly abnormal, especially because of the high mortality rate of children. In this case, the two social worlds—in and behind the text—appear to coincide.
It might seem difficult to comprehend how seven or eight people might live as a residential unit, along with their livestock. Here data provided by archaeologists have helped us understand the physical setting of the household. One may speak of a typical house in non-urban Iron Age Israel. It was a rectangular structure, often, though not necessarily, with two stories, which fronted on a courtyard. The layout of the floor level is much clearer than is that of the upper level, which probably served as a sleeping area. There were three, sometimes four rooms, set apart from each other by pillars which could be hung with textiles. The small rooms apparently served multiple purposes, including use as stables for goats and sheep. By contrast, the large room, which extended the length of the back side of the house, included the hearth. This kitchen area would have served as the primary gathering place. The overall size of these houses would have been small for a “nuclear family,” a grouping made up of one married couple, their children, and the rare grandparent who had survived or a stray sibling related to one member of the constitutive couple, along with their livestock. These buildings were truly multifunctional structures. Agricultural produce, both edible and dry goods (wool), was processed there; grain was stored; food was prepared and consumed. Although certain goods such as weapons or pottery were probably obtained by trade, the notion of a “self-sufficient” economic unit is not wide of the mark.
Such households did not normally live in isolation. Two or three houses might be built together, sometimes, though not always, around a courtyard. These compounds may provide physical evidence for one type of extended family structure for which the term “lineage” is used (perhaps a better term than “clan”), the size of which provided the kind of labor pool appropriate to farming terraced land. A compound of four houses might provide a work force of between twenty and thirty individuals.
Early Israelites engaged in various agricultural practices appropriate to the land on which they resided, including the clearing of land by removing trees and moving rocks, the latter of which were used in the creation of terrace walls behind which soil was filled and leveled. Such terraces increased the amount of land available for agricultural purposes and also enabled the population to make better use of limited rainfall. When terracing was coupled with the use of cisterns cut into bedrock and lined with plaster to enhance their ability to keep water from dissipating, the hill country became a much more viable setting for human settlement, though one highly dependent on appropriate temperature and rainfall. These labor-intensive forms of agriculture exerted demands upon women to bear a relatively large number of children and also encouraged various households to work cooperatively to create and maintain the system of terracing.
The land itself was typically owned by the male member of the married couple. He inherited it from his father and would pass it on to one of his sons, though not always the eldest one, as seen in the inheritance of Isaac over Ishmael or Jacob over Esau (cf. Deut. 21.15–17 ). Should it become necessary to sell the land, members of the extended family had right of first refusal. To this extent it is possible to speak of land owned by the family as well as by its individual members. Such customs preserved land plots of a size large enough to sustain at least one household and thus insured the integrity both of individual land holdings and of the labor forces that “created” (by terracing) and farmed them. The sale of non-urban land (cf. Lev. 25.29–31 ) was more difficult than the sale of urban real estate. Numerous laws and customs assisted the lineage in maintaining agricultural real estate (see Jer. 32.6–14; Lev. 25.25 ).
The “household” depended upon a marriage, which was itself constrained by certain prerequisites. According both to genealogies and to narratives in Genesis, Israelite males married only certain females, those from the patrilineage of Terah. Marriages were endogamous, that is, they occurred within this patrilineage but outside the direct lineage or family compound. The marriages of both Isaac to Rebecca and Jacob to Rachel and Leah fit this pattern. By contrast, Esau married outside the patrilineage and in so doing created a household which was ineligible to participate in Israelite inheritance.
Various pictures of the household in the Old Testament, e.g., the family of Abraham with one wife, one concubine, two sons and numerous slaves, do not easily fit the picture of the central highlands in the pre-state period. Here the distinction between the social world in the text as opposed to the social world behind the text is important: the social world narrated in the text, though clear, cannot always be directly related to its would-be historical context in the Middle or Late Bronze Age. It is difficult to know when and where such conditions as those described in the narratives associated with Abraham and Sarah might have obtained, but they almost certainly postdate the inception of monarchy in Israel and likely reflect either urban residence or dependence on the mercantile activity of Iron Age cities.
SOCIAL STRUCTURE BEYOND THE HOUSEHOLD. Various terms—tribe (Hebrew, šēbeṭ, māṭṭeh) and clan (mišpāḥāh)—occur so regularly and are of such symbolic importance (e.g., the twelve tribes of Israel) that one is forced to think that Israelite society was, at some point, made up of groupings larger than the individual household (and clan—if that term refers to the multi-house compound) and different from the town or city. How can we best think about the nature of these social entities? It has recently become a commonplace to speak of segmentary society, a term which refers to a society in which a number of relatively similar entities, e.g., clans or the larger entities known as tribes, exist on a similar footing but without any centralized leadership. The clans or tribes may trace their heritage to a figure, e.g., Jacob, but one who does not symbolize a structure of political authority. In its ideal form, there is a branching structure, the connections of which are legitimated by the notion of blood and/or marriage ties. The traditional picture involves a symmetrical chart leading from families at the bottom to people or nation at top:
This chart, however, based on such texts as Josh. 7.16–18 , does not reflect in a straightforward way the social world portrayed in the text. For example, the Hebrew phrase “house” or “father's house” may be used for various levels of social organization. In addition, there is both archaeological and literary evidence for a grouping larger than the household, the family compound, which some would call the lineage, but for which there is no single Hebrew noun. There is some, though ambiguous, literary evidence for an even larger grouping, which in Hebrew can be called a mišpāḥāh or clan. Scholars have suggested that this grouping had land ownership, defensive, religious, and economic functions.
The nature and function of the third level unit, the šēbeṭ or tribe, is even more ambiguous. They, like some “father's houses,” were often associated with specific territories, e.g., Joshua 13–19 . Alliances of tribes might provide for defense, relief during food shortages, and labor demands created by major agricultural tasks (terracing fields or harvesting). However, neither the internal functioning of the tribe nor the mechanisms of inter-tribal action are clear. Finally, the existence and character of “the people” or “Israel” is probably linked inextricably to the development of political and territorial identity under the monarchy, since there is minimal evidence for all Israelite tribes acting in concert before the tenth century. In sum, the chart above presents a highly idealized picture of the Israelite kinship structure.