Home Life in the Bible

Rolling up a bed

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


John 5:2, 3, 5, 8 and 9
(2) Now there is at Jerusalem by the sheep market a pool, which is called in the Hebrew tongue Bethesda, having five porches.
(3) In these lay a great multitude of impotent folk, of blind, halt, withered, waiting for the moving of the water.
(5) And a certain man was there, which had an infirmity thirty and eight years.
(8) Jesus saith unto him, Rise, take up thy bed, and walk.
(9) And immediately the man was made whole, and took up his bed, and walked….

If Jesus asked most Westerners to pick up your bed, and walk, they could not do it. Our beds are far too big and bulky. However, the beds of the biblical culture were usually thin mattresses stuffed with cotton or wool. Sometimes they were only layers of blankets. Therefore, they were easy to carry, as the record in John 5 indicates, and they were easy to roll up for storage, as the illustration at the top of the article shows.

The fact that Eastern beds did not take up much space during the day was important, because houses in the Eastern culture did not have separate bedrooms as Western houses do. At bedtime the mats were taken from where they had been stored and simply laid out on the floor and the family slept together.

Most modern translations read “mat” or “pallet” instead of “bed” in John 5:8. This is acceptable, but can lead the reader to the false conclusion that the man was not actually lying on his regular bed while he was at the Pool of Bethesda, but rather on a mat he brought to rest on during the day just as we Westerners might take a blanket to a park or to the beach. The mat or pallet was in fact his bed.

This chapter focuses on important relationships and incidents of family life, as well as the house and its arrangements. We will then be prepared to see, in a later chapter, how these conditions and customs are repeated and expanded in public affairs, giving a unique character to the social, political, and religious life of the East.

As in other lands, one’s home is a place of privacy and protection against cold, but in the East it is also, and very importantly, a place of shelter from the heat. There are traces here and there of the caves in which prehistoric man dwelt, and shepherds take their sheep to similar caves; they were the retreats of fugitives in times of oppression in Israel, and at the present day the deserted stone dens of Bashan and the rock cut cells of Christian monks have this primitive cave type of architecture.

1. The tent. This is the simplest form of dwelling in general use. It has been used throughout the East for millennia, and it is the defining characteristic of the Bedouin class of wandering shepherds. It is a low shelter made of black goat’s hair, with its open front kept up by two poles. Goat hair is now, and always has been, the standard material for tents. It is tough and readily available. The most important reason that goat hair is used, however, is that the hair has the marvelous quality of shrinking when dry and expanding when wet. When the air is dry, the diameter of the goat hair shrinks and the particular weave that forms the cloth lets the tent breathe. Air moves through the fabric so the tent stays comfortable. As soon as the hair comes in contact with water it begins to swell, and the weave tightens up and becomes very water resistant.

Black goat hair tent

The tent is held in position by ropes of goat hair tied to rough wooden pegs driven into the ground by a mallet (Judg. 4:21, 5:26). Bedouin tents can be quite large, and the wind strong at times, so the tent pegs can be very large and thick. Traditionally it was the job of the women in the household to take down and set up the tents. [1] A curtain hangs down in the middle of the tent, separating the women’s apartment from the public room. While thus screened from view the women can easily hear what is being said in the public room or at the door of the tent (Gen. 18:10). [2]

A typical black goat that provided the hair from which the tents were made, such as one that Abraham would have had.

The tent remained in use after Israel had largely settled down to agriculture. It was the emblem of a simple, unfettered life, and when any national measure was to be rejected, the cry was raised, “To your tents, O Israel” (2 Sam. 20:1; 1 Kings 12:16). [3] The dignity of ancestral associations gave the tent a place above the stone built house in the language of poetry and prophecy (Ps. 84:1-10; Song of Sol. 1:5; Jer. 4:20). At the present day those who are brought up in the tent are very reluctant to leave it. It is a social degradation in their eyes, and a sacrifice of personal preference.

A large family tent. As children were born, more tent fabric was added and the tent enlarged. To accommodate the larger tent, the stakes were cut stronger and longer, and the tent cords strengthened (Isa. 54:1-3).

A few years ago the young wife of a Bedouin sheikh in Damascus died of longing for the life she had left behind her. Her husband had been previously married to an English lady of aristocratic family, who used to live part of the year with him in the desert, and the rest of the year he lived with her in Damascus, where she had adorned the house with many articles of taste and beauty, and laid out the garden with a choice variety of plants and flowering shrubs. When she died the sheikh married a young princess of his own people and took her to his city house. In a very short time she began to lose health and spirits, and though her husband bought her beautiful dresses and jewelry, and Eastern ladies visited her and invited her to their houses, she drooped and died.

Her heart was with the gatherings around the well, the camels and kids around the tent, and the simple free life of the wilderness.

Artist’s rendition of “…the tabernacle of the congregation…” (KJV) or, as it is better translated, “the Tent of Meeting.” [4]

2. Houses of the village and town. The ordinary house of the peasant often consists of one room. The Arabic word for house also means room. In the middle of the room a wooden or stone pillar supports the large cross beam of the flat roof, and on this pillar there is usually a small shelf for the oil lamp, which thus gives light to all in the room or house (Matt. 5:15. A “candle” in the KJV is an oil lamp). If the house has two rooms they are not built side by side, but with the breadth of a room left between them. Two walls are built connecting the rooms and forming an open courtyard between them.

If the house is to have three rooms, a room takes the place of the wall at the end of the court. If more than three rooms are needed, additions are made to those at the side, thus increasing the length of the court. For a large family of the wealthy class, where the grandparents have several married sons staying with them, there may be several courts leading into one another with rooms around each, set apart for the individual households. The rooms do not usually directly connect to each other, but have their doors opening into the court. As a protection against sun and rain, a roofed colonnade often runs round the area, or a verandah projects from the wall. In a small house of one or two rooms, an awning of leaves and brushwood or of old boarding casts its shade over the door, or partly covers the court to protect the entrance to the room at the end of it. This may have been the part of the roof removed when the sick of the palsy was lowered and laid at the feet of Christ (Mark 2:4).

(A) The roof. This is composed of one or more large logs or beams, with smaller pieces of wood set on top of them. The wood is then covered with a layer of broom, heath, and reeds, and then several inches of dirt is spread on top. When this has been trodden, rolled, and pressed down, the surface of the flat roof is finally made waterproof with a coating of lime or cement, with openings in the low parapet wall by which the rain may flow off. [5]

Grass and weeds would grow on the flat dirt roof, but lacking depth of soil, would wither quickly in the heat. This is the basis for the psalmist’s wish that the wicked “…be as the grass upon the housetops, which withereth afore it groweth up” (Ps. 129:6; cp. 2 Kings 19:26; Isa. 37:27). The flat roofs often leaked during the rainy season, which was a source of great annoyance to the occupants, and the source of the proverb, “A continual dropping in a very rainy day and a contentious woman are alike” (Prov. 27:15).

(B) Parapet, Battlement, or wall around the roof. The Mosaic Law commanded that houses have a wall around their flat roofs to prevent people from falling off (Deut. 22:8). The regulations about the battlement wall are not as carefully followed now as they used to be, and neglecting this precaution is a frequent cause of accidents. Sometimes corner pieces are built about six feet high, and clotheslines are stretched between them. In Moslem houses the spaces between these corner pillars are often filled in with boards or perforated brickwork, so that the family may resort to the roof without their being seen by their neighbors.

Eastern flat roof with the required wall to keep people from falling off

It is regarded as unneighborly for men to walk around on the roof, as they might look down into the open courts of other houses. [6] Among the peasantry, one of the chief uses of the roof is for the drying of grain, summer fruits, and fuel for winter use (Josh. 2:6). Village proclamations are made from the roof, and at marriages it is often a place of assembly, where the guests sing songs and keep up a rhythmic stamping and clapping of hands (Judg. 16:27).

(C) The upper room, or upper chamber (2 Kings 1:2, 23:12; Mark 14:15; Acts 1:13, 9:37, 20:8). This is a familiar feature of Eastern houses. It is an adaptation to the climate. In summer, people put up booths or arbors of leaves and branches on the roof as sleeping places so they can take advantage of the cool night air. The upper room is the same idea but in a permanent form. When several rooms were built on the roof it became what the Bible calls the summer house, in contrast with the winter house downstairs (Judg. 3:20; Jer. 36:22; Amos 3:15). A similar effect is obtained in large houses by occupying the eastern side in winter and the western in summer. The roof is reached by a rough wooden ladder, or flight of stone steps, passing up one of the walls of the court, or occasionally along the outside wall of the house. The upper room, as a place of quiet retreat and refreshing coolness, is usually better built and furnished than the ordinary rooms, and a guest spending the night, as distinguished from a mere visitor, is accommodated there. The room on the roof (KJV = “wall”) built for the man of God (2 Kings 4:10) was meant to be a place of rest in keeping with his sacred office and habits of prayer.

(D) The guest room. Easterners do not usually set apart a room for a guest, as this would be considered discourtesy almost amounting to dismissal. Easterners intensely dislike being left alone, and at night prefer to have a small light in the room. Because they sleep with their clothes on there is not the same need for privacy as we have in the West. If a bed for a guest is spread in the upper room, some of the sons of the family usually have theirs spread beside his for the sake of companionship. An Easterner feels himself deserted when “made at home” in a European family, and conversely, a European finds himself oppressed by the constant presence and attentions of his Eastern host. [7]

In small houses, the ordinary guest room for the reception of casual visitors is the room at the end of the court. It is usually more open than the other family rooms of the house. It corresponds to the raised divan at the end of the one-roomed house as the place of honor to which guests are conducted. In larger houses an especially large and well-furnished room is assigned for this purpose conveniently near the door, so that visitors will not be kept waiting, and so that the family will be disturbed as little as possible. Since refreshments are usually offered to guests, the guest room is also the banqueting hall.

(E) The floor. Wooden floors are rarely seen. In villages the usual floor is of mud pressed down by wooden stamps, and rubbed smooth by a large flat stone. A more clean and durable form is that of cement composed of lime and small pebbles stamped down in the same way. The best floor is of square slabs of limestone. In good town houses the public rooms are paved with white marble relieved by bands of black slate, or designs in marble of different colors. Large open courts are often paved in this way, with an ornamental marble fountain in the center, and spaces are left in the pavement for orange, lemon, and fragrant evergreen trees and shrubs.

(F) Furnishing and ornament. The walls are usually made of plaster coated with a wash of lime, but in the houses of the rich, especially in Damascus, the walls of the more public rooms are adorned with beautiful mosaic of wood, marble, mother-of-pearl, crystal, and ivory. [8] The decoration is usually in the form of intricate geometrical designs, but flowers and animals are occasionally introduced. Swords, daggers, and guns often adorn the walls. There is no attempt to wallpaper, and no desire for small, busy patterns to be stamped upon it. The warm climate, with its relaxing influence, creates a demand for the restfulness of blank spaces. In the richly adorned reception rooms there is little to suggest the harmonious surroundings of a cultivated mind. The impression is not of something needed and naturally enjoyed by the owner in his beautiful home, but of something that a rich man wants to announce to his visitors. Beautiful carpets of wool, camel hair, and silk lie on the marble floor; a divan runs round three sides of the room, the cushions having coverings of cotton, wool, silk, and gold thread from the native looms. These, with a large mirror at one end of the room, a glass candelabra suspended from the roof, and a marble fountain sometimes placed below it, with a few small inlaid tables here and there, are the usual ornaments of the Eastern drawing room. [9]

(G) Doors. The door is a place of peculiar sanctity and importance. The difference between the outside and inside is that of two different worlds. In large houses the doorkeeper sits at the entrance to answer inquiries and conduct visitors within, and at night he sleeps in a small room just inside the door, keeping guard over the premises. He corresponds to the watchman of the city gate and the vineyards. He is charged with the protection of the family but is not included in its membership, and after conducting guests to the door, retires to his post of duty. This menial and external position of the doorkeeper is mentioned in Psalm 84:10: “For a day in thy courts is better than a thousand. I had rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God, than to dwell in the tents of wickedness.” In smaller houses that have no doorkeeper, a servant or member of the family looks over the balcony, or calls out, “Who?” If the visitor is one of the family, he answers, “Open!” If he is a well-known friend he exclaims, “I!” The recognized tone of the voice is sufficient (Acts 12:14).

(H) Windows. Windowpanes of glass are a recent introduction. The usual Eastern window has wooden bars for protection against intrusion and theft, while a frame of lattice screens the lower half of the window, so that those within may look out without being seen. At night windows are closed with wooden shutters, chiefly for privacy and safety, and partly to ward off the light and heat of the sun in the early morning. Hence the reference to “opening” the windows in Malachi 3:10. In upper rooms the bars are not needed, since they are above the reach of passers-by, hence the possibility of such incidents as those alluded to in Joshua 2:15;1 Samuel 19:12 and Acts 20:9, when people went out of the windows.

Latticed window

In the city, houses usually do not have windows in the lower story for safety and privacy reasons, but in the upper stories balconies often project over the street, with windows commanding a view, and catching a breeze of air from either side. In these, the lattice-work is frequently of a highly ornamental character. The mother of Sisera is described as looking anxiously from such a window waiting for the son who never returned (Judg. 5:28).

Pitchers of water for drinking are placed beside these latticed windows to be kept cool by the draft of air. Because of this the ornamental lattice-work is called mashrabiyeh, from the Arabic mashrab, a place for drinking. The pitcher by the window is a common subject of drawings and paintings in the West, but there is rarely an understanding of the reason why it is there. Over city gates, and at the entrance to fortresses, a small window is placed in the wall or the watch turret from which anyone approaching can be seen without danger to the observer.

(I) Sleeping arrangements. Easterners assemble to rest, rather than disperse and go to their own rooms as Westerners do. Thus the father in the parable pleads that his children are with him, sleeping on their mattresses on the floor around him (Luke 11:7). When the time for sleep arrives, the bedding materials are taken out of the wardrobe, box, or recess in the wall where they have been lying rolled up during the day.

Mattresses are stuffed with cotton or wool, and have a thick quilt covered with colored calico or silk, and sewn in longitudinal or diagonal stripes. Easterners sleep with both their body and head covered with the quilt. It belongs to the sanctities of Eastern life not to disturb sleep or interrupt a meal. The rule about not disturbing sleep is ancient, as can be seen by the verse, “He that blesseth his friend with a loud voice, rising early in the morning, it shall be counted a curse to him” (Prov. 27:14). It is with the greatest difficulty that a Syrian servant can be persuaded to wake up his master at an early hour. When a Moslem has to arouse a fellow believer from sleep he does so by calling to him, “God is one!” The statement of this supreme truth is always in season to the believer, and only an infidel could object to its utterance!

Artist’s rendition of an Eastern family gathered for sleeping— although they usually covered their faces also



[1] T. E. Lawrence, “Lawrence of Arabia,” wrote of one Arab leader: “When he was to march, his women rose before dawn, and footing noiselessly overhead on the taut tent cloth, unskewered the strips of it, while others beneath held and removed the poles till all was struck and divided into camel-loads, and loaded. Then they drove off, so that the Pasha awoke alone on his pallet in the open air where at night he had lain down in the rich inner compartment of his palace-tent. He would get up at leisure and drink coffee on his carpet: and afterwards the horses would be brought, and they would ride towards the new camping ground. …at sunset they would find the women waiting in the erected tent, as it had been on the evening before.” Lawrence, op. cit., Seven Pillars, p. 150. The strength of the woven goat hair is attested to by the fact that the women could walk on the top of the tent with no danger of falling through.
[2] Knowing about the curtain that separates the women’s quarters from the rest of the tent helps us to explain the record of Jael in Judges 4. Jael, with typical Eastern hospitality, invited Sisera into the tent, yet she later killed him (Judg. 4:18-21). This has caused no small amount of debate among Western scholars, who brand Jael a liar and murderer. Knowledge of the Bedouin tent clears up the issue. The women of the family and the husband who owned the tent would be the only ones allowed in the women’s part of the tent. If a strange man were found inside the women’s quarters, she would be immediately accused of infidelity and stoned to death. Barbara Bowen writes: “Sisera wanted a good hiding place, and of course, no place could be safer than the woman’s part of the tent, for no Israelite would intrude there. Sisera, no doubt, pushed his way into the woman’s section of the tent against Jael’s wishes, for entering here was the greatest insult and exposed her to dishonor and also death. She is placed in an exceedingly hard position. If she ordered him to leave, he would likely kill her to save his own life, while to allow him to stay would have exposed her to the anger of her husband, who would at once condemn her as unfaithful, and stone her to death as the common law provided. She decided she must protect herself, and when he fell asleep, she pinned him to the ground with tent pins. She knew well how to use the tent pins, for the women take down and put up the tents.” Barbara Bowen, Strange Scriptures that Perplex the Western Mind (Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, Grand Rapids, MI, 1951), pp.102 and 103.
[3] The original cry in 2 Samuel 20:1, 1 Kings 12:16, and 2 Chronicles 10:16 was not “To your tents, O Israel” but “To your gods, O Israel.” It was a cry raised in defiance of David and his dynasty (and, sadly, to the true God whose Temple stood in Jerusalem). The term “gods” was changed to “tents” by copyists because the original cry offended them. E. W. Bullinger, Companion Bible, (reprinted; Zondervan, Grand Rapids, MI, 1974), note on 2 Samuel 20:1, and Mark Graeser, John Lynn, and John Schoenheit, One God & One Lord: Reconsidering the Cornerstone of the Christian Faith (Christian Educational Services, Indianapolis, IN, 2003), p. 327.
[4] There has been much debate over whether the roof was flat or peaked, but the ancients did not know of a flat roofed tent, and the wording “…tent over the tabernacle…” (Exod. 36:14, 40:19) is good evidence that it had a peaked roof.
[5] In biblical times cement was not used, and the references to “grass” on the roofs in the biblical text shows us that they were generally left as just packed dirt.
[6] This was not as much the case in biblical times as in Arab culture. The reason God commanded the battlement, or small wall, around the roof was that it was a place people commonly went. The breeze and openness of the roof were refreshing. Samuel and Saul met on the roof (1 Sam. 9:25), and Peter went to the roof to pray (Acts 10:9). In times of trouble people got on their roof to hear the news, which was shouted from rooftop to rooftop (Isa. 22:1; Matt. 10:27).
[7] The need of Eastern people for companionship is the source of some very amusing incidents that are told by Westerners such as Burton, Lawrence, and others who lived in the Middle East. T. E. Lawrence, “Lawrence of Arabia,” tells of his efforts to stop Turkish trains. He and the Arabs he commanded would blow up a train and then attack it. On one occasion the train was dynamited, but the crew got out, fixed it, and drove away, to the astonishment of Lawrence. He later found out that the two Arabs he had posted with the machine gun had gotten lonely and gone back to camp. Lawrence, op. cit., Seven Pillars, pp. 202-203.
[8] In biblical times, if the house was built of mud brick, an inside wall of plain mud brick was common, and if the house was made of stone then that would also be the inside wall. It was always a possibility that a snake or other creature would make a home in between the rocks or bricks of the wall: “As if a man did flee from a lion, and a bear met him; or went into the house, and leaned his hand on the wall, and a serpent bit him” (Amos 5:19).
[9] The glass candelabra, mirror, etc., were missing from the room in biblical times, but the point is the same: men of the East want to make an impression on their invited guests.

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1 comment

  1. I learned several things here. Very eye opening.

    Thank you!

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