Eastern Villages in the Bible

Wall at the city of Dan

[This article was taken from Chapter Six of Bible Manners & Customs by Rev. G.M. Mackie, M.A, 1898 (which we have revised and reprinted)].

 

Thick, high walls and fortified gates do not pose much of a deterrent to modern armies, but in the biblical era they were very effective, even against large, well equipped armies. For example, it took the Assyrians three years to break into the city of Samaria (2 Kings 17:5).

Walls and gates came into biblical language as figures of strength and protection. Because David and his troops protected the shepherds in southern Israel from bandits and raiders, the shepherds said that, “They were a wall unto us both by night and day, all the while we were with them keeping the sheep” (1 Sam. 25:16). The strength of a wall gave a city confidence and independence, and the Beloved in Song of Solomon asserts her strength and independence from her protective brothers, as well as points to her maturity, by stating: “I am a wall, and my breasts like towers…” (Song of Sol. 8:10). Psalms portrays a person who is helped and empowered by God when it states, “For by thee I have run through a troop; and by my God have I leaped over a wall” (Ps. 18:29).

Gate and entryway at the city of Dan

(A) Their origin. The landscape of the East shows no farmhouses scattered here and there over the plains and valleys. Those who cultivate the soil build their houses beside each other in a village. As already mentioned, a primary reason for this was the unsettled and therefore dangerous state of the country. The produce and various possessions of the farmers, and their own lives also, had to be protected against the wandering shepherd tribes.

A second reason people built beside each other is that the leading sheikhs of the different clans were constantly at war with each other, and the peasantry who tilled the property of their local prince had to make common cause with him. These local feuds meant constant exposure to attack, and the village became offensively and defensively the home of the clan, as the house was of the family. The enemies of the local sheikh were the enemies of the local people. This submission may be inferred from the recent remark of an old sheikh, who maintained that government on the present national plan was not as good as that of the old system of ruling families. When asked what he meant by good government, he pointed to a large gray rock and said: “When I said to one of my people, ‘That stone is red,’ he used to answer ‘It is red’; if I said ‘No, it is green,’ he would answer ‘It is green.’ That is good government, but it is lost now.”

A third reason people lived so close together was the necessity of water. This was required not only for the inhabitants and their animals, but also for vegetable gardens: In this way the village often got its name from the spring (‘ayin) or well (beer) beside which it was built, coupled with the cliff, tree, meadow, castle, or some such natural feature in the vicinity.

Bible examples of this were Abel-ma-im, Beersheba, Endor. [1]

(B) Appearance. The small peasant villages in the wheat plains are mere mud brick hovels, allotted by the proprietor to those who till the surrounding fields. Those on the hillsides are built of limestone; their inhabitants have more independence and greater variety of occupation, and the whole appearance of such villages is much nicer. The houses with their flat roofs look like so many large boxes that have rolled down from above and suddenly stopped their descent. They are often so near each other that the door of one leads out to the flat roof of the house below it. The white walls gleam out of the surrounding mulberry foliage, the monotony being usually broken by the larger dimensions and better architecture of the sheikh’s house. Sometimes the houses cluster round the prominent nucleus of the village church, leaving a few to straggle up the slope towards the ridge where the old shrine tomb under its oak tree gives a picturesque outline to the background.

(C) Village life. The farmers go out to their work in the fields, which are often at a considerable distance, and usually they do not return until sunset. This is the going forth referred to in the Bible in connection with the labors of the field (Ps. 104:23, 126:6; Luke 10:2, 15:25). It is village life that is also referred to in Isaiah 1:3, which says, “The ox knoweth his owner, and the ass his master’s crib….” At sunset, the village cattle and donkeys that have been out all day in the neighboring common and bare fields are brought by the herdsman to the entrance of the village. There they all leave him, and find their way through the village lanes each to its own place of rest for the night. [2]

Some of the trades that receive their fullest development in the towns have their beginning among the peasantry of the village. The village oven is heated on alternate days; one of the inhabitants does simple carpenter work; another shoes the horses, mules, and donkeys, and is resorted to when branding is considered necessary; once a week, or more often, according to the size of the village, the butcher has meat for sale from the sheep or goats, and the muleteer transports merchandise between the village and the neighboring towns.

Life is very simple, kindly, and laborious. There is intimate knowledge of each other’s affairs, and ready sympathy in all times of family rejoicing and sorrow. The arrival of any stranger is immediately known through the village, and any of its residents returning from a journey is courteously waited upon and welcomed (Ruth 1:19). The women have much to speak about at the well or spring as they wait their turn to fill the jar, and the elders meet in the evening to discuss village matters and receive and give the latest news. Feuds abound between rival sects, between the older and the more recent residents, and between the families that compete for the place of chief influence and honor. Everyone, however, unites in standing against any affront put upon the village by those who do not belong to it. [3]

The annual capitation tax, or sum paid by each adult to the government, is reckoned and paid in the village in which he is born. His relatives are there, and any ancestral land he may have inherited. If he goes elsewhere he must first appoint someone who will be responsible for the payment. Though his employment may make him live in another village, and his children and grandchildren may have been born and brought up away from the original home, their tax also must be paid there. Thus Joseph returned to Bethlehem because he was of the lineage of David (Luke 2:4).

Endnotes

[1] It is hard for Westerners to appreciate the value that drinkable water had to the Easterner. Natural springs were extremely rare in Israel, and most of the riverbeds were dry in the summer. Wells were both difficult and dangerous to dig. Water was so valuable that it was a show of distress, repentance or love to pour it out to Yahweh (1 Sam. 7:6; 2 Sam. 23:16; 1 Chron. 11:18). Ownership and use of wells was a common source of contention in the East (Gen. 21:25, 26:15,19-22; Exod. 2:15-17).

A proverb that reflects the importance of finding drinkable water is Proverbs 25:26 (NIV): “Like a muddied spring or a polluted well is a righteous man who gives way to the wicked.” The essence of the proverb is this: travelers, who depended on springs and wells for water, knew where they were located, and expected drinkable water to be there when they arrived. For a traveling man to arrive at a spring and find the water polluted and undrinkable was much more than just an inconvenience, it was dangerous—he might die of thirst. Similarly, people expect that a righteous man will stand up for what is right and prevent wicked people from having their way. When the righteous person gives way to the wicked, it is not just inconvenient for the society, it is dangerous.

A standard way to increase the available water supply was to dig large cisterns in the ground. These were usually bottle-shaped cavities or pits that could hold hundreds and even thousands of gallons of water and which, hopefully, would fill up during the rainy season. The size and shape made them dangerous to fall into, and getting out by oneself can be impossible. Joseph was thrown into a cistern by his brothers (Gen. 37:20-24), and Jeremiah was thrown into one by his enemies (Jer. 38:6). God reproved the people of Israel for forsaking Him, the spring of living [running] water, and hewing themselves out cisterns, cisterns with cracks that could not hold water (Jer. 2:13).
[2] This should not be thought of as strange. Western dogs and cats often are out and about all day (sometimes wandering great distances) but show up at home at night.
[3] A sad example of this occurs in Judges 19 and 20. A man and his concubine were traveling through the tribal area of Benjamin and stopped for the night in the town of Gibeah. That night some of the wicked men of the city raped the woman to death, a capital crime. Upon hearing what happened, the men of the other 11 tribes of Israel demanded that the men who raped and murdered the woman be given up to be executed, which is what the Law of Moses commanded. Instead of obeying the Law, however, the tribe of Benjamin rallied in defense of the wicked men of Gibeah and went to war, an act that nearly cost them their existence, because they were eventually slaughtered so completely that only 600 Benjamite men survived.

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