Ancient Israel: Social Structure & Political Organization

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  • 0:04 Society & Politics
  • 1:49 Leaders & Places
  • 3:16 Groups & Classes
  • 4:28 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Tommi Waters

TK Waters has a bachelor's degree in literature and religious studies and a master's degree in religious studies and teaches Hebrew Bible at Western Kentucky University.

Ancient Israel was not just a political entity, but also a religious one run by a religious monarchy along with a priesthood. This lesson will discuss this duality and the classes and roles of other members of society.

Society & Politics

Ancient Israel was not just a typical politically motivated nation; it was religiously motivated as well. Religion was ingrained in the monarchy, the rule of one sovereign king or queen, so the king was supposed to rule in a certain way to uphold specific religious ideals. The social classes reflected this: there was a social class for priests, while the rest of the civilization was essentially divided between rulers, those in the military or royal court, and working class people, such as farmers and artisans.

The king of Israel was responsible not just for ruling the nation and defending it from or interacting with other nations, but also for ruling on behalf of Yahweh, the Israelite god. Ancient Israelite religion was heavily based on covenants, or contracts between the people and Yahweh, so the king was responsible for upholding these covenants. The covenants governed who the Israelites were supposed to worship, how they were supposed to interact with non-Israelites, and matters of everyday life. The king would try to make connections with other nations, often through marriages, but would frequently end up worshiping the gods of other nations - something that violated the covenant with Yahweh and caused the prophets to object to the way the kings ruled.

In addition to kings and queens and other government officials, the royal court had other positions. One of these was a scribe. The scribe was essentially a secretary who was also involved in judicial and accounting affairs. The king also had a royal cupbearer. The cupbearer was someone who would fill the king's goblet with wine and bring it to him. For both the scribe and cupbearer positions, a loyal and trustworthy person would have to be chosen, since any mistakes or tampering could have terrible consequences.

Leaders & Places

While the political leaders ran the society, the priests were the religious leaders who worked alongside the king in this religious society. Not anyone could be a priest, though - priesthood was passed down through lineage and any true priest had to be from the tribe of Levi. The priests were in charge of offering animal sacrifices at holy places. In the southern kingdom of Judah, this took place exclusively at the Temple in Jerusalem, which was built under Solomon's reign before the kingdoms split. The Temple was the only place animal sacrifices could be made, and it contained the presence of Yahweh and the Holy of Holies where the high priest would make a yearly sacrifice on the Day of Atonement. The Israelites in the northern kingdom of Israel didn't have this temple, so they built a temple in Samaria and created 'high places' as alternate places to sacrifice.

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