Families and houses

I lived in Jerusalem for two years between college and grad school. In fact, that’s the reason I went to grad school for biblical studies. The geography, the archaeological remains, and the living cultures made the Bible come alive, as has happened for pilgrims for two thousand years. Take, for instance, Theodosius, a sixth century pilgrim (On the Topography of the Holy Land, J. H. Bernard, trans.; Palestine Pilgrims’ Text Society, 1893):

For round the Jordan there are many little mountains; and when the Lord went down to baptism, the very mountains walked or as it were skipped before him, and they look to this day as if they were leaping.

I’ve never seen leaping mountains; maybe Theodosius visited during an earthquake? But I do remember how experiencing a very ‘thirsty land,’ or walking from the temple steps to the Pool of Siloam, and bargaining for fruits and vegetables or taxis made me read Isaiah 44, John 9, and Genesis 18 differently. Of course society, culture, politics, even the land itself have changed over the years since the biblical authors wrote, but there are continuities that provide valuable contextualizations for biblical texts.

The topic of my doctoral dissertation (biblical family violence) can be traced back to my experience in Jerusalem. While it took me years to connect my interest in violence in the Bible with living in Israel during the first year of the most recent intifada (who said all introverts have to be self-aware?), I knew all along that my interest in family in the Bible came from observing and participating in Israeli and Palestinian family life. It’s one thing to read about kids celebrating Passover and Sukkoth with the adults in the family; it’s another thing to see kids helping build Sukkoth tents, or to listen to their participation in the Passover seder. It’s one thing to read about sons bringing their wives into the family home when they marry; it’s another thing to walk through the apartment being built above the parents’ home in anticipation of a son’s marriage.

The centrality of family life to society, economy, and religion in modern Israel and Palestine is a helpful model of the kind of family life envisioned in the Bible—and for a modern American, the centrality of family life in Israel and Palestine is an important corrective for a American interpretive lens. Take the way God is called ‘Father’ in Matthew and John. I have often heard Americans (and Europeans, for that matter) talk about how this is their favorite way to think of God—as a loving, caring Father, perhaps cuddling a child for story time before bed. But of course this interpretation of fatherhood is very modern and very Western, involving as it does an understanding of family as a place of intimacy and relationship. It’s a view of family that owes more to the Victorians than the Bible.

In the ancient biblical worlds, families—and fathers—could be loving and caring, and likely often were. But the primary role of the family was not psychological or emotional. Rather, households were economic units with the responsibility of survival in a harsh land and society. Everyone, including the kids, the women, and the grandparents, had to help out with daily work in the fields and house to make life possible for the members of the ‘family’—which included much more than parents, two and a half kids, and a dog. When a son married, his wife moved into the family household; when daughters were widowed or divorced, they might need to return to the household; people without family connections might also be taken in by a household for mutual support.

From a sociological perspective, this is why the fifth commandment demands honor for parents. Young kids were responsible for learning the work that kept the family household going. Sons would one day inherit the land, and they would need to know how to work it to provide for the family, and daughters had the important job of bearing the next generation to carry on their husband’s family name. Older kids—I mean grown-ups with living parents—still had to obey and honor their parents, because the parents wouldn’t survive if the kids kicked them out; the fifth commandment held sway over children and adults. The Bible adds theological reasons to the fifth commandment by making kids responsible for carrying on the covenant with God to the next generation. Sons and daughters had an important place in the family in the biblical world. (Of course, their very importance made them the objects of violence in laws like Deut. 21:18-21 and 22:13-21: when sons and daughters fail to uphold their roles in the family, the parents have the dubious responsibility of executing them.)

So certainly fathers cared for members of their households, and the gospels draw on this part of fatherhood (see Matt. 6:30-32, 7:9-11, etc.). But fathers were also patriarchs, with absolute authority over the lives of the members of their households, and the gospels associate this part of fatherhood with God as well: note Matt. 12:50, Mark 14:36, or John 3:16, for that matter. God as Father in the gospels is not a teddy bear, but a patriarch who provides for the members of the household, in return expecting obedience.

The remains of biblical-era houses at various archaeological sites in Israel give a glimpse of how biblical-era families lived. Basically, they were together all the time. Houses were small, and lacked private bedrooms; most family life happened in the open, in courtyards and on roofs, with indoor rooms used for storage and sleeping only. There’s a remarkable lack of diversity in house design: from the ancient Israelite remains at Hazor or Megiddo to the Roman-era houses at Capernaum, poor families—and that would be most families—lived on top of each other in small houses built around shared courtyards, piled higgledy-piggledy around narrow twisting alleys.

Many families still live this way today, in modern Israel and Palestine—including my ‘family’ for the year here in Beit Sahour: upstairs, there’s an older couple in one small apartment, with their son, his wife, and their son next door; behind my little apartment is my landlady with her adult son. This particular housing complex isn’t big enough for additional family members, but they do come in and out of the complex all day long. (I was really confused about just who lived here for several months!) As you walk through the twisty alleys of Beit Sahour, the doors you pass are entries into complex family households in which members of the family are expected to work together to support their common life, to eat breakfast and lunch and dinner together every single day, to be with each other. It’s a different way of doing family than many Europeans or Americans experience, and one that is a bit closer to the kind of family depicted in biblical texts.

I’ve been researching and writing about these kinds of living situations for years; it’s been interesting to inhabit my research in a different way this year. I am very glad, though, that it’s no longer customary to keep animals in the ground-floor rooms, even if a flock of sheep would keep my apartment warm!