For most of the Old Testament era the majority of people lived a rural life. This was certainly the case in the time of the judges, which extended roughly from the 1370s, after the death of Joshua and the elders who ruled with him, to David’s provision of a united monarchy around 1000 b.c. Even afterIsraelbecame a united nation, daily life changed little for most men and women. The majority lived in small village settlements, not in cities. Most people grew their own food and met other needs within the household. A few developed household industries such as making pottery or catching and drying fish.
Life in the age of the judges was difficult inIsrael. Hebrew armies under Joshua had put down organized resistance inCanaanand divided the land among the twelve Hebrew tribes, but pagan strongholds still existed. God ordered the tribes to drive out the remaining Canaanite peoples as their own population grew and they needed additional land. However Judges 1:19 sums up in a single verse the reality of the situation.
So the Lord was with Judah. And they drove out the mountaineers, but they could not drive out the inhabitants of the lowland, because they had chariots of iron.
Archaeology has confirmed the significance of this verse. During the age of the judges, the Israelites were largely confined to the rocky highlands while the Canaanites occupied the fertile valleys. During the age of the judgesIsrael’s primary enemy, the Philistines, held prime land along theMediterraneanand knew the secret of working iron. This knowledge provided both an economic and military advantage. Not until David’s day did the Israelites gain access to iron-working technology.
The restriction of the Israelites to the highlands and their lack of access to iron largely defined economic conditions during the time of the judges. These two factors kept God’s people in relative poverty.
Life during the time of the judges was hard for men and for women. Yet daily life was hard for most men and women throughout the world in Old Testament times. In most families, men and women simply had to work as a team if the family was to survive.
MR. OUTSIDE, MRS. INSIDE
In general, this describes the way tasks were divided in the typical Israelite household. The husband was responsible for tasks outside the house, the wife for tasks inside. This meant that the woman prepared the food, made the family clothing, cared for young children, and trained their daughters in the skills needed to run a household. The husband worked the fields, planted and cared for crops, maintained stone fences and grape or olive presses, and trained the boys for their future role as husband and provider.
The house itself: The typical Israelite house was built of stone or mud brick on a four-room plan. A room ran across the back, with three open rooms running perpendicular to it. Inside walls were coated with plaster, while the floors were clay. The roof was typically about six feet from the floor. It was made with wooden beams layered with branches and packed mud. The rooftop was flat and could be reached by an outside staircase. The roof provided extra space where the family could work or sleep in the summer, and where flax could be laid out to dry. Doorways in the four-room house were low; a few windows were placed high in the wall.
Household furnishings: The Israelite home had few furnishings—a few cooking utensils, a raised platform for sleeping, food storage jars or sunken storage pits, and perhaps a brazier for heating. Most cooking was done outside the home, in a small beehive-shaped oven. Each day the women ground grain to make bread, which was formed into flat cakes and slapped against the outside of the oven to cook, or was formed into loaves the size of our dinner rolls to be cooked inside the oven after the fire’s ashes had been swept out.
Family meals: Meals were simple—a bit of bread and some fruit was eaten in the middle of the morning, and a larger meal in the evening. The evening meal was generally eaten with the family seated on the floor, with one or more common dishes placed on a circular leather or skin mat. Family members ate with their hands, soaking up any juices with bits of bread. Meat was a rarity in the Israelite daily diet; protein came from milk or cheese, and occasionally from dried fish.
Indoor cisterns: About the time the Israelites invadedCanaan a means of storing water in porous soil was invented. Bell-shaped hollows were dug in loose rock and sealed with a waterproof plaster. Rainfall was sparse in the hills where the Israelites settled, so this invention was essential to the people’s survival. A complicated system of channels collected rainwater and fed it into an indoor reservoir. The channels were filled with traps designed to filter out impurities.
Most household cisterns of this period held twenty to thirty cubic yards of water, enough to provide a year’s drinking water for six to twelve people. Because children were so highly valued, large families were the norm, and the four-room house was normally crowded.
Making clothing: A major task of women in Old Testament times was clothing the family. Most wore woolen garments. The women and girls carded the wool to strip fibers from it. They then spun the fibers together to create threads. Then they wove the threads together on a loom to create cloth. Women frequently wove cloth on a ground loom. Parallel rows of pegs were driven into the ground. Threads were tied between the pegs to form the warp of the cloth, and other threads were then interwoven.
Upright looms also were used. To create an upright loom poles were driven into the ground and a crossbeam was set between them. Threads weighted with stones were hung from the crossbeam to create the warp of the cloth. Other threads were interwoven and tied to the vertical poles. Linen clothing was made from flax. The plant was dried, beaten to extract fibers, and the same process used in weaving woolens was then followed. It is no wonder, given the work involved in making cloth, that most Israelites used the heavier outer robe they wore on colder days as a blanket at night.
Helping outdoors at harvest time: hile these in-house tasks kept women and girls busy, when harvest time came they worked beside their men in the fields. While the men cut grain with hand sickles, the women followed closely behind to tie the stalks into bundles that were then tented upright for drying. When grapes or olives were harvested, the women also worked beside the men. Harvest time involved hard outdoor work, but it provided a break from normal routine and a time for feasting and celebration.
Today we would hardly call the lifestyle I’ve just described as fulfilling. It was a hard life, with none of the stimulating advantages we appreciate so much today. Yet there was no question about the significance of women in this society. While there were undoubtedly both happy and unhappy marriages, few marriages existed in which people were uncertain about their roles or in doubt about the importance of their contribution to spouse and family.