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TitleLife in Ancient Biblical Lands
Publication TypeMagazine Article
Year of Publication1981
AuthorsLundquist, John M.
Issue Number12
Date PublishedDecember 1981
KeywordsAgriculture; Babylon; Jerusalem (Old World); Jordan River; King Cyrus; King Solomon; Kingdom of Israel; Kingdom of Judah; Olive Culture; Samaria

Israel—ever-changing, yet timeless. Indeed, some of Israel’s scenes have succumbed to time and history; yet others have remained constant and are as familiar to modern inhabitants as they were to the ancients. Following is a look today at yesterday’s Israel, with a glance at a conqueror, Babylon—a glimpse of sites, objects, and scenes that tell part of the story of Israel’s past.


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Life in Ancient Biblical Lands

By John M. Lundquist

Israel—ever-changing, yet timeless. Indeed, some of Israel’s scenes have succumbed to time and history; yet others have remained constant and are as familiar to modern inhabitants as they were to the ancients. Following is a look today at yesterday’s Israel, with a glance at a conqueror, Babylon—a glimpse of sites, objects, and scenes that tell part of the story of Israel’s past.

It is hoped that this orientation will be helpful to readers of this year’s adult scriptural reading assignment, 1 Kings to Malachi.

A Plan of Jerusalem

Jerusalem, as with many other great cities of the world, did not remain static during the long period of its ancient occupation. From the time that it was captured by David and made the capital of his new kingdom about 993 B.C., to the time that it lay a tragic and barren ruin following the Babylonian destruction of 587 B.C., to the time of its resettlement and rebuilding in the days of Zerubbabel and of Ezra and Nehemiah, Jerusalem underwent many changes in area and in population. Combining data from population studies with results of excavations, archaeologists and Bible scholars have attempted to reconstruct the area of settlement and the population of Jerusalem at various times during the Biblical period.

It is generally believed that the fortress of Jerusalem which David captured from its Jebusite inhabitants and renamed the “City of David” (2 Sam. 5:6–9) is the eastern ridge which extends southward from the modern-day temple mount. The “fort” that David then dwelt in and expanded (2 Sam. 5:9) would have been located on the Ophel, an area encompassing about 12 acres with an estimated population of about 2,400.

We learn from 2 Chronicles 3:1 [2 Chr. 3:1] that Solomon built his temple on Mount Moriah, which was the place where David had earlier purchased the threshing floor of a Jebusite man and had there been instructed by the Lord to build an altar. The Jewish historian Josephus identified this site, on the modern-day temple mount, as the location of the rock on which the Lord had commanded Abraham to sacrifice Isaac. Solomon’s builders would have had to build a wide and deeply founded platform over the ridge that forms Mount Moriah for the placement of his palaces and the temple. Archaeological investigations have shown that the area west of the temple mount was probably outside of the city walls in Solomon’s time, and was probably used as a cemetery. The extent of Solomon’s city is therefore estimated to have been about 32 acres, encompassing a population of some 5,000 people. The Israelite population of Solomon’s kingdom as a whole has been calculated at about 800,000, with the Canaanite populace bringing the total up to well over a million.

Most scholars assume that Jerusalem, and the southern kingdom in general, experienced major influxes of population as refugees fled south from the kingdom of Samaria following the destruction by Assyria in 721 B.C. Furthermore, when the Assyrian King Sennacherib was besieging and capturing many cities of Judah during the time of King Hezekiah, around 701 B.C., Jerusalem would doubtless have received many refugees from this danger. Thus, 2 Chronicles 32:5 [2 Chr. 32:5] tells us that Hezekiah built up a formerly broken section of the city wall and built “another wall without.” This “wall without” could well have been the massive, 23-foot-wide wall uncovered by Professor N. Avigad in excavations in the Jewish quarter of the old city of Jerusalem, west of the Western (Wailing) Wall plaza. The area of the city in Hezekiah’s day is estimated to have been 125 acres, with a population of about 25,000.

Following the destruction of Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon in 587–86 B.C., the site of Jerusalem lay as a wasteland for almost seventy years. Following King Cyrus’s decree of 538 B.C., a group of Jews returned under the leadership of Zerubbabel and the prophets Haggai and Zechariah. The temple was completed in 515, and the walls were finally rebuilt under the leadership of Nehemiah in about 445 B.C. The circuit of rebuilt and repaired walls and gates described in Nehemiah 3 [Neh. 3] is presumed to correspond roughly to the area originally encompassed by Davidic and Solomonic Jerusalem, although slightly less because the eastern wall in Nehemiah’s time was located a little higher up on the Kidron slope. The extent of this last period of Jerusalem’s habitation before the Old Testament period ends is thus estimated to have been about 30 acres, including approximately 4,500 people.

The Solomonic Gate

We read in 1 Kings 9:15 [1 Kgs. 9:15] that King Solomon built “the house of the Lord, and his own house, and Millo, and the wall of Jerusalem, and Hazor, and Megiddo, and Gezar.” And indeed, archaeological investigations at the sites of Hazor, Megiddo, and Gezer have uncovered city walls and gateway complexes of identical construction that date to the time of Solomon. The typical Solomonic gateway consisted of two massive towers standing at the entrance to the city, followed by three sets of piers or buttresses that formed six chambers. The chambers are often found with benches along the walls, and could have served as guardrooms or for other activities associated with city life.

The gates, along with the courtyards that were often built adjacent to them, served as centers of the ancient Palestinian city’s commercial life. A good example of this practice is found in 2 Kings 7:1 [2 Kgs. 7:1], where, during the famine that had befallen Samaria as a result of the siege by King Ben-Hadad of Syria, Elisha prophesied that “tomorrow about this time shall a measure of fine flour be sold for a shekel, and two measures of barley for a shekel, in the gate of Samaria.”

The city gates also served as gathering places where the king or one of the prophets could address large groups of people, and as places where legal transactions, including trials, could take place. Jeremiah was told by the Lord on several occasions to stand in one of the city gates of Jerusalem and preach to passersby, and his great message on keeping the Sabbath day holy was given “in the gate of the children of the people,” and “in all the gates of Jerusalem.” (Jer. 17:19.)

The Jordan River

The area that comprised ancient Palestine is a land of striking geographical and climatic contrasts—a land highly dependent on one special resource: water. Between Jerusalem on the west and Amman, Jordan, on the east flows the Jordan River from the Sea of Galilee on the north to the Dead Sea. Fed by its two major tributaries, the Yarmuk and the Zarqa (biblical Jabbok), the Jordan anciently provided water for irrigation and seepage agriculture, as well as for culinary purposes and for animals. However, for the majority of the population living in the highlands on either side of the Jordan Valley and on the coastline, the staple crops of wheat, grapes, and olives would have been watered primarily by the area’s scanty rainfall, and water for drinking and culinary purposes would have been taken from the wells and springs that are so abundant in the country. Major cities were founded either in well-watered valleys or near permanent, fresh springs.

One of the major dangers to the inhabitants of a Palestinian city in wartime was that their water supply, typically a spring located just outside the city walls, could be cut off by the invading army. Two methods were developed to overcome this danger. First, large cisterns would be cut into rock formations within the city and lined with lime mortar. These would be used to store rainwater. Second, elaborate waterworks were devised to connect the city via tunnels and aqueducts with the springs located outside the city walls. The springs would then be camouflaged. The waterworks discovered by archaeologists at Jerusalem, Megiddo, Hazor, Gezer, and Gibeon testify to the extraordinary engineering skill of the ancient Israelites in their attempts to ensure an adequate water supply during siege.

Samaria and Its Culture

Samaria, chosen as capital of the northern kingdom of Israel by Omri in about 870 B.C. (see 1 Kgs. 16:23–24), subsequently gave its name to the hill country area north of Jerusalem, and also to the kingdom founded by Omri. Located on a hill about 35 miles northwest of Jerusalem, it lay on the major north-south trade route and was thus open to the corrupting cultural influences of Phoenicia. The whole of the summit of the hill was taken up with the royal buildings of Omri and, following him, of his infamous son Ahab.

Deep-rooted cultural and ethnic differences separated the northern and southern tribes of Israel—differences that can be traced back to the days of the division of the land in the time of Joshua, and perhaps even earlier. David was originally king over the tribe of Judah while he lived in Hebron, while Saul’s son Ish-bosheth reigned over Israel (that is, the remaining tribes). Following Ish-bosheth’s death “all the tribes of Israel” came to Hebron and there anointed David king over Israel. (2 Sam. 5:1–5.) When the united kingdom again broke apart following Solomon’s death, we read that “all Israel” (that is, the northern tribes) said to Solomon’s son and successor, Rehoboam, “What portion have we in David? Neither have we inheritance in the son of Jesse: to your tents, O Israel.” (1 Kgs. 12:16.) Thus the northern tribes viewed the house of David as pertaining only to the tribe of Judah, hearkening back to the days before David’s united kingship when division, and not unity, characterized the relationship between the two groups of tribes.

Once the split had occurred, Jeroboam set about introducing Canaanite religious practices and symbols into the religious life of the northern kingdom. One of his main purposes in introducing golden calves and “high places” was to divert the feelings of devotion that the northern tribes continued to feel for the temple in Jerusalem. From the time of Jeroboam until the destruction of Samaria in 721 by the Assyrians, Canaanite/Phoenician religious influence streamed into the north. This influence brought the northern kingdom to a low point of corruption during the reign of Ahab and Jezebel. It was against the background of this apostasy that calls came to such great prophets as Elijah, Elisha, Amos, Hosea, and Micah.

Assyrian policy decreed that conquered peoples be deported from their homelands and replaced by people from elsewhere in the Assyrian empire. This policy effectively defused possible rebellions. The Assyrians, following their capture of Samaria in 721 B.C., carried away the tribes of Israel into various parts of the Assyrian empire. (See 2 Kgs. 17:6.) In their place, “the king of Assyria brought men from Babylon, and from Cuthah, and from Ava, and from Hamath, and from Sepharvaim, and placed them in the cities of Samaria instead of the children of Israel.” (2 Kgs. 17:34.) Later the Assyrians brought back one of the Israelite priests who had been deported, so that he could instruct the new inhabitants in “the manner of the God of the land.” (2 Kgs. 17:27.) The result was that “they feared the Lord, and served their own gods, after the manner of the nations whom they carried away from thence.” (2 Kgs. 17:33.) It was in these years that the seeds of the distrust and animosity that would characterize the relationships between the Samaritans and the Jews of Jesus’ day were sown. But as the Bible makes clear, this discord and disharmony did not begin at this time, but was based in part on deep-rooted and ancient cultural influences.

Pottery Burial Urns

The inhabitants of the two kingdoms of Israel and Judah were in intimate contact, both culturally and religiously, with their Canaanite neighbors. Following their failure to completely drive out the Canaanites from the land, the Lord told the Israelites: “Wherefore I also said, I will not drive them out from before you; but they shall be as thorns in your sides, and their gods shall be a snare unto you.” (Judg. 2:3.)

For a time, the northern kingdom was in more direct contact with the Canaanite/Phoenician civilization and its corrupting influence than was the kingdom of Judah. In fact, the northern kingdom actually served as a kind of buffer, keeping a certain amount of the Canaanite influence from Judah. With the destruction of Israel in 721, however, this buffer relationship was removed, and Judah was then in a position to receive the full forces of Canaanite/Phoenician influence.

The abominable practice of burning children, presumably the firstborn, in the fire in honor of a certain deity is widely attested among the neighbors of ancient Israel. The Assyrians themselves practiced this custom, and among the peoples they imported into Samaria we read that “the Sepharvites burnt their children in fire to Adrammelech and Anammelech, the gods of Sepharvaim.” (2 Kgs. 17:31.) In addition, archaeological and historical studies of the ancient Phoenician city of Carthage, in modern Tunisia, have demonstrated similar customs. Hundreds of funerary urns have been uncovered from the “Precinct of Tanit” (Tanit was the chief Carthaginian goddess, the equivalent of the biblical Tophet). These urns contain the bones of sheep and goats, but also in many cases the bones of premature or newborn children and older infants. Evidence suggests that in the fourth and third centuries B.C., as Carthage’s population increased, wealthy families in the city provided most of the children for the sacrifices. These sacrifices were seen as having religious significance, but also served to limit the growth of the population, and to limit the number of potential heirs to the wealth of the parents.

The Bible indicates that the inhabitants of the northern kingdom engaged in the practice of sacrificing children in fire (see 2 Kgs. 17:17), and also that during the reigns of Ahaz, Manasseh, and possibly in the time of Jeremiah, such practices were carried out in a place called Tophet, which was located in the Valley of Hinnom, south of Ophel or the City of David. During the reign of King Josiah of Judah (640–609 B.C.) an attempt was made to rid the kingdom of this corrupt influence: “And he defiled Topheth, which is in the valley of the children of Hinnom, that no man might make his son or his daughter to pass through the fire to Molech.” (2 Kgs. 23:10.) “Molech” was the name of a deity to whom some of these sacrifices were dedicated by the Judahites. It is the opinion of many scholars that the death of the child was actually brought about by burning, rather than the child having been killed by exposure or some other means and then burned.

An Olive Grove on the Lebanese Coast

“Wine to gladden the heart of man, and oil to make his face shine, and bread to strengthen man’s heart” (Ps. 104:15). These products—grapes, olives, and wheat—were the staple produce of the eastern Mediterranean lands, and in fact it has been said that the Israelites did not colonize any area where these three products would not grow together. (Denis Baly and A.D. Tushingham, Atlas of the Biblical World, New York: 1971, p. 30). Other main types of produce grown in Israel anciently are mentioned in Deuteronomy 8:8 [Deut. 8:8]: barley, figs, pomegranates, and honey. Wheat was grown successfully in the fairly well watered highland areas of Samaria and, east of the Jordan River, in Gilead. In areas of less rainfall south of Jerusalem, barley was grown.

Dairy products would have consisted primarily of sheep and goat milk. Cattle were scarce, and were a sign of wealth which the ordinary Israelite would not have possessed. (Amos’s denunciation of the indolent, wealthy inhabitants of Samaria as “kine of Bashan” is an image derived from the rich pasture lands of Bashan, east of the Sea of Galilee, famous for its fattened herds of cattle.)

Since we can assume that the great majority of Israelites lived in small towns and villages and were directly dependent upon the produce of the land, we may not be far wrong if we compare their ordinary living habits and their diet with that of peasant villagers in the Middle East today. This means that their diet would have consisted largely of grains, olive oil, and dairy products, with smaller amounts of meat and fruits, but with substantial portions of commonly grown vegetables.

A Family Harvesting Grain in the Fields

Many of the important aspects of life in ancient Israel tended to be family affairs. Whether the family was involved in the common work of the fields (Ruth 2), in grief (Job 1), or in happiness (Job 42), we can assume that family closeness, including love between husband and wife and between parents and their children, was typical, even though there are many instances recorded in the Bible where family relationships were characterized by animosity, hatred, intrigue and bloodshed. We get two relatively rare views of domestic life in the book of Job, with descriptions of his first family in the first chapter [Job 1], and of his second in chapter 42 [Job 42]. The first family, which came to a very grievous end, may have been characterized by some degree of thoughtless disobedience on the part of the children. (See Job 1:4–5.) His second family, on which he lavished much affection, must certainly have provided him with much joy in his later years. In each case it seems that Job was a conscientious and loving father.

A Threshing Floor

One of the most important of ancient Hebrew inscriptions is the so-called Gezer Calendar, a small limestone tablet found at the site of Gezer in the Judean foothills northwest of Jerusalem. The tablet, which dates to the latter years of Solomon’s reign (late tenth century B.C.), consists of eight lines in archaic Hebrew letters which outline the yearly agricultural calendar. The year is comprised of twelve months, beginning in the fall, with two months assigned to the olive harvest (approximately mid-September to mid-November), two months to the planting of grain, two months to late planting, one month for harvesting flax, one month for harvesting barley (mid-April to mid-May), one month for the wheat harvest, two months for vine tending (mid-June to mid-August), and one month devoted to summer fruit. (See Pritchard, Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament, p. 320.) It is clear that the average Palestinian family would have spent much of the year in the fields engaged in backbreaking labor. It is no accident that the Bible, both the Old and New Testaments, is filled with the imagery of this way of life, with references to planting, tilling, harvesting, names and characteristics of specific crops, names of tools and of specific planting and harvesting strategies, and references to the successes and joys and the failures and grief that accompany the agricultural life in an area of limited and often uncertain water supplies and of rocky and intractable soil.

One of the principal references to agricultural activity in the Bible is the threshing floor. Often located in a broad public place near or even in the city gate (see 1 Kgs. 22:10, with the corresponding footnote in the new LDS edition of the King James Bible), the threshing floor was the place where grain was brought, placed in stacks, and threshed.

The purpose of threshing is to separate the kernels from the husks—usually accomplished in ancient times and in many modern Middle Eastern villages by pounding the stack of grain in some fashion. One of the laws in the book of Deuteronomy indicates that threshing could be accomplished by having the oxen trample the grain (see Deut. 25:4), as illustrated here. Isaiah 28:23–29 [Isa. 28:23–29] mentions some of the methods and tools of planting, tilling, and threshing. Among these are two types of threshing sledges, the “threshing instrument” of verse 27 and the “cart wheel” of the same verse. The threshing sledge was a wooden board, with its underside set with “teeth” (stones of basalt), to which an ox would be yoked. The ox would then walk slowly around the stack of grain, with a person “riding” the board and guiding the ox. The stack would be reduced in this way, following which winnowing would take place. Winnowing was accomplished by throwing the threshed substance into the air with a pitch-fork-like implement (see Isa. 30:24) and letting the chaff blow away. More delicate grains and other plants would be threshed with a stick. (See Isa. 28:27–28.)

Reconstruction of the City of Babylon

Babylon, the city that would have been known to such Jewish exiles as Daniel, was the product of the building activity of Nebuchadnezzar II, the greatest neo-Babylonian king, who conquered Jerusalem in 586 B.C. and carried most upper-class Jews into exile. The ancient city was located on the Euphrates River, about fifty miles south of modern-day Baghdad. Bisected by the Euphrates, its system of massive double walls encompassed an area approximately one mile north and south by three quarters of a mile east and west.

Within the city, excavators have found evidence which, when coupled with written remains, bears testimony of Jeremiah’s statement: “It is the land of graven images, and they are mad upon their idols.” (Jer. 50:38.) The evidence indicates that Babylon had hundreds of temples, chapels, and street altars. There were precincts within the city where male and female prostitution were readily available to passersby. Fabulous processionals would wind their way north from the Temple of Marduk, along the processional way, and through the famous Ishtar Gate at the time of the New Year Festival. The Ishtar Gate and other structures within the city were faced with beautiful, colored, glazed bricks.

The city of Babylon and surrounding regions received major influxes of population during the time of Nebuchadnezzar’s conquests—principally deported peoples brought into Babylon from other areas. We have very little information indicating where the Jewish exiles would have lived. Daniel and his associates lived at the palace of the successive Babylonian kings (Nebuchadnezzar’s palace was located along the Euphrates River, on the east side of the city, and just to the west of the Ishtar Gate. Its throne room has been compared in size with the Gallery of Mirrors at Versailles—about 150 by 45 feet). It was in the northeast corner of this palace, in an underground vaulted crypt, that excavators recovered a number of clay tablets dating to the reign of Nebuchadnezzar. These tablets include, among other things, lists of corn and oil rationed to a number of individuals bearing Jewish names, among them “Jehoiachin, the son of the king of Judah.” Another of these ration tablets mentions an allotment given to “the five sons of the king of Judah.” (Pritchard, Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament, p. 308.)

Many of the exiles would doubtless have lived outside Babylon proper, in one of the smaller towns or villages built along the numerous irrigation canals that directed water from the Euphrates. Ezekiel received his prophetic call “as I was among the captives by the river of Chebar” (Ezek. 1:1); and we are later told that he “came to them of the captivity at Tel-Abib, that dwelt by the river Chebar” (Ezek. 3:15). The River Chebar and Tel-Abib have been identified as sites near Nippur, south of Babylon. The Chebar would have been one of the canals, and Tel-Abib one of the towns where the exiles lived. Other towns in Babylonia from which exiles returned to Jerusalem are listed in Nehemiah 7:61 [Neh. 7:61]: Tel-melah, Tel-haresha, Cherub, Addon, and Immer.

The Cyrus Cylinder

In 539 B.C., Cyrus, King of Persia, entered Babylon as a conquering hero and was acclaimed king of Babylon by the priests of the Babylonian god Marduk. Although Cyrus had become the king of the Persians already in 557 B.C., it was his entry into Babylon that marked the beginning of his reign as universal ruler, “king of the four quarters of the earth.” We thus read in the book of Ezra, “Now in the first year of Cyrus king of Persia, that the word of the Lord by the mouth of Jeremiah might be fulfilled, the Lord stirred up the spirit of Cyrus king of Persia, that he made a proclamation throughout all his kingdom.” (Ezra 1:1.) This “first year” would have been 539 B.C., and the proclamation which follows in Ezra 1:2–4 charges the people of Judah to return from their Babylonian exile to their homeland, where they should build a temple to the Lord God of Israel in Jerusalem.

Even though the decree quoted in the first chapter of Ezra is not found in the preserved royal inscriptions of Cyrus, the sentiment contained in that decree, that of returning exiled peoples to their homelands and to the worship of their own gods, is an authentic reflection of Cyrus’s policy. The Cyrus Cylinder, which is an account in the Babylonian language of Cyrus’s conquest of Babylon and his subsequent policy, states: “I gathered all their former inhabitants and returned to them their habitations. Furthermore, I resettled upon the command of Marduk, the great lord, all the gods of Sumer and Akkad whom Nabonidus [the last king of Babylon, defeated by Cyrus] has brought into Babylon to the anger of the lord of the gods, unharmed, in their former chapels, the places which make them happy.” (James B. Pritchard, Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1955, p. 316).

Cyrus thus reversed the policy of preceding rulers: instead of deporting conquered peoples, he restored them to their homelands. The Assyrians had deported the people of the kingdom of Israel in 721 B.C., and the Babylonians had deported the Jews in 587/6 B.C. But Cyrus was broad-minded in his dealings with conquered peoples and was detached enough in his adherence to his own religion that he was able to grant concessions to others. He established a remarkably farsighted and effective administrative system for the far-flung Persian Empire. The books of Ezra and Nehemiah give us a number of fascinating glimpses into the workings of this system. Cyrus, one of the most remarkable rulers in history, was thus able to carry out a mission that had been foreseen two hundred years earlier by the prophet Isaiah: “Thus saith the Lord to his anointed, to Cyrus, whose right hand I have holden, to subdue nations before him; and I will loose the loins of kings, to open before him the two leaved gates; and the gates shall not be shut.” (Isa. 45:1.)