Daily Life in Ancient Israel

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.

While you might have heard tales of the kings and queens and important figures of ancient Israel, do you know what life was like for the everyday Israelite? This lesson will discuss how everyday Israelites lived from meals to occupations to clothing.

The Working Israelite

While we have tales of the kings of ancient Israel, what was daily life like for the commoner? The saying ''living off the land'' is a good way to explain the life and occupations of the ancient Israelites. While there were some Israelites who had jobs in the government or as religious leaders, most Israelites were working class people who were dependent on agriculture, livestock, or the sea to make ends meet. Most Israelites were probably farmers, whether wealthy enough to own their own farm or forced to work as laborers on a landowner's farm. The farmers would be responsible for planting, caring for, and, most importantly, harvesting crops like grapes, dates, barley, and wheat.

Many other Israelites were herdsmen, caring for sheep or goats. Notoriously, King David began his life as a shepherd and was viewed as a poor, working boy. Some Israelites were also fishermen who fished in the Mediterranean Sea or the Sea of Galilee. To make money, these laborers--farmers, herdsmen, and fishermen--would typically trade their goods to artisans like leatherworkers and tent makers or weavers and clothes makers. This clothing and wool--and armor produced by metal and leather workers--could then be traded to government officials for money. The government officials and soldiers were the highest up in the society and included jobs like king, scribe, advisor, or tax collector. Additionally, some Israelites were religious leaders, but these occupations were not open to anyone, only people of certain tribes and lineage.

Life at Home

While the men were typically involved in occupational work, the women usually raised children and took care of housework like cooking and sewing. The Israelites began as a nomadic people who traveled from place to place and lived in tents, but when they settled down, they built houses usually of stone, wood, and/or bricks made from mud. Often these houses would be grouped together and extended families would live in these groups with a shared courtyard.

Within the house, furniture was sparse for the common Israelite. Beds were often just quilts spread on the ground to sleep on, although some Israelites might have had couches that acted as places to sleep, sit, and even eat on. If there was a table, it was typically a piece of leather spread on the ground that people would sit around. Finally, Israelites would have had a menorah, or a multibranched candlestick, for light. Most of the furniture would have been made of wood or stone, depending on the area, though government officials would have had furniture inlaid with gold or precious stones.

Reconstruction of an Israelite home
Reconstruction of an Israelite home

At the end of the work day, there would not be much time for leisure activities. Leisure for the ancient Israelites typically consisted of festivals, of which there were many. At the end of every week, the Israelites observed the Sabbath, the day of rest, on which no work was to be done. There would typically be a large meal for the family to partake in together, which was prepared ahead of time. When the Israelites had time for leisure activities, as we might think of them today, they typically played musical instruments, like a lyre, or sang.

Walking a Mile in an Israelite's Shoes

The clothing of the ancient Israelites was similar to the surrounding nations of the time and changed slightly depending on the time period. Typically, the Israelites wore tunics which would have holes for the head and arms and loosely cover the rest of the body. Loincloths were also worn tied around the waist, and the Israelites typically had cloaks which would go around their shoulders over their tunics. Most would have some sort of head covering, whether a full piece of cloth or just a band of linen around the head. For shoes, most men wore sandals made of a cheap piece of leather strapped to the foot with another piece of leather.

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