Biblical Archaeology Review 28:2, March/April 2002

Of Fathers, Kings and the Deity

The nested households of ancient Israel

By Philip J. KingLawrence E. Stager

Ancient Israelite society was structured in a way that few of us in modern times experience. Its focus was on family and kin groups organized around agrarian activities. Family and kin groups, in turn, generated the symbols by which the higher levels of the social structure—the political and the divine—were understood and represented.

A three-tiered structure formed a series of, as it were, nested households. At ground level was the ancestral or patriarchal household known in the Bible as bêt ’aµb literally “house of the father” (Genesis 24:7; Joshua 2:12, 18; 6:25). As a social unit, the joint or extended family, not the biological family, was most important. Sometimes as many as three generations lived in a large family compound, comprising a minimal bêt ’aµb. This, the basic unit of Israelite society, was the focus of religious, social and economic spheres of Israelite life and was at the center of Israel’s history, faith and traditions.

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