This Bible History Daily feature was originally published in 2013. It has been updated.—Ed.
Through most of the Iron Age (1200–586 B.C.E.), the heartland of Biblical Israel was the rugged central hill country, from northern Samaria to the Hebron hills south of Jerusalem. While this area has revealed many material signs of Israelite occupation, it is what archaeologists have not discovered that may provide the most insight into Israelite beliefs.
Tombs and evidence of ancient burial customs are rarely found among the Israelite settlements of the hill country, as observed by archaeologist Avraham Faust in “Early Israel: An Egalitarian Society,” in the July/August 2013 issue of BAR. As Faust explains, this “lack of burials phenomenon” is unique to the early Iron Age; in both the preceding Late Bronze Age (1550–1200 B.C.E.) and the later phases of the Iron Age (eighth–seventh centuries B.C.E.), tombs are common and ancient burial customs well known. How then can we explain this striking gap in the archaeological record of Biblical Israel?
Given that neither cremation nor exposure to the elements are supported by the archaeological or Biblical evidence, the most likely explanation is that in Biblical Israel the dead were buried well outside settlements, in areas where archaeologists rarely excavate. These burials were simple inhumations without grave goods or adornments. But while this explains the lack of Israelite burials known to archaeologists, the more difficult question is why the dead were buried so simply in Biblical Israel in the first place?
Faust argues that ancient burial customs in Biblical Israel reflect the ideology of an egalitarian society in which simplicity and equality are highly valued. Israelites used simple inhumations to distinguish themselves from surrounding cultures that tended to bury their dead in elaborate tombs, accompanied by more ostentatious displays of wealth and burial goods.
This emphasis on simplicity is found in other aspects of the material culture of Biblical Israel as well. The undecorated, utilitarian pottery so typical of Israelite settlements, for example, stands in marked contrast to the elaborately painted wares of the Canaanites and Philistines. Similarly, the characteristic Israelite “four-room house” offers easy access between rooms and lacks an obvious hierarchal arrangement, another sign of the ideology of an egalitarian society.
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It must be stressed, however, that Biblical Israel was far from a pure egalitarian society. There is no such thing as a truly egalitarian society, and the kingdoms of Israel and Judah were quite hierarchical, as demonstrated by history, archaeology and the Prophets. Biblical Israel, however, appears to have had an egalitarian ideology in which people were expected to live by a code of simplicity and equality, even if the social reality was quite different.
Learn more about the significance of ancient burial customs in Biblical Israel in Avraham Faust, “Early Israel: An Egalitarian Society,” Biblical Archaeology Review, July/August 2013.
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This Bible History Daily feature was originally published on July 12, 2013.