Was Biblical Israel an Egalitarian Society?

Ancient burial customs and archaeology reflect ideology of simplicity

This Bible History Daily feature was originally published in 2013. It has been updated.—Ed.


Israelite four-room houses (such as this example from Izbet Sartah), together with evidence of undecorated, utilitarian pottery and simple ancient burial customs, suggests that Biblical Israel tried to maintain the ideologies of an egalitarian society. Image courtesy Israel Finkelstein/Tel Aviv University.

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?

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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.


More about ancient burials in Bible History Daily:

Daily Life in Ancient Israel

Tel ‘Eton Excavations Reveal Possible Judahite Administrative Center

Where Were the Old Testament Kings of Ancient Jerusalem Buried?

Have the Tombs of the Kings of Judah Been Found?: A Response

Jordanian Oasis Reveals Ancient Burial Customs

Two Burials of Jesus of Nazareth and the Talpiot Yeshua Tomb


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  1. Vasilis says

    It is very possible that the burial simplicity is in accordance with the absence of afterlife beliefs in the Hebrew Bible, an equally striking characteristic in contrast with the context the Near Eastern civilizations.

  2. James says

    ‘the kingdoms of Israel and Judah were quite hierarchical’

    But they were not early Israel, that for hundreds of years had only judges to settle major disputes and to lead in battle. Neither, when under monarchy, were they as advised by Samuel, by whom the first king was anointed.

    ‘So all the elders of Israel gathered together and came to Samuel at Ramah. They said to him, “You are old, and your sons do not walk in your ways; now appoint a king to lead us, such as all the other nations have.” But when they said, “Give us a king to lead us,” this displeased Samuel; so he prayed to the Lord. And the Lord told him: “Listen to all that the people are saying to you; it is not you they have rejected, but they have rejected me as their king.”‘ 1 Sa 8:4-7 NIV

    The intended polity of Israel was undoubtedly theistic democracy, or democratic theocracy. Monarchy was a sign that democratic theocracy did not and could not work properly until after the Messiah had completed his work, and the Holy Spirit operated to give people the mind of Christ, the keys to the kingdom of heaven; a condition of ‘monarchy’ that was intended from the very start.

  3. Matt says

    @James Surely the era of the Judges was Bronze age, when “tombs are common and ancient burial customs well known”. Also, democracy is a very loaded term to apply to the Biblical message don’t you think? Or do you see it as the core message?

  4. JAllan says

    There is a curious difference in attitudes on burial between Christians and Jews. The Torah makes contact with a corpse or proximity to a corpse ritually unclean until a specific rite of purification is performed, and a specific time has elapsed. Therefore, Jews, and I presume also early Israelites, buried people OUTSIDE city walls, and the burial grounds became “unclean” places. Even today, with no walled cities, the Jerusalem cemetery has a road running through it which is FORBIDDEN to the descendants of Levi (known as Cohanim, or priests); the road for Cohanim bypasses the cemetery. So, because cemeteries were ONLY visited by survivors for burials and (if the custom goes that far back in time) the JAHRZEITS, or anniversaries of death, and since the ancient Jews did not believe in a MATERIALIST afterlife as Egyptians did, there was no reason to decorate tombs.

    By contrast with Jewish isolation of the dead to “unclean” places, Christians began very soon to designate the land adjacent to a church as cemeteries (CHURCH yards), and even entomb their most illustrious dead INSIDE the church. Why? Possibly because the religion started at a tombsite (admittedly an empty one), and in some parts of the Empire they were FORCED to hold church meetings in the underground cemeteries. I have never seen any discussion of WHY this reversal of beliefs about the uncleanness of burial places into burial in HOLY ground took place.

    If anyone has any information about this latter historical change, please write about it. And it just occurred to me, does anyone know whether Orthodox Jews are allowed to visit Christian churches as guests if those churches have tombs in them (e.g. would the chief Rabbi of England be able to attend a coronation or royal wedding held in Westminster Abbey)?

  5. Brian says

    Frankly his egalitarian aspect of burial in the context of ancient world practices is striking. It’s latter modification into using an ossuary (bone box) hardly diminishes it, even in the case of Caiaphas. Certainly Jesus had no regard for it when in Matthew 8:22 he said to a prospective disciple in one of the ‘hard sayings’, ‘Let the dead bury their own dead’. Certainly the contrast in a ‘materialist’ belief in the afterlife is evident. But to suggest that either you believe that you ‘take it with you’ or you are a nihilist is just tweaking Christian’s and Jewish noses alike. The Germans loved to do that. They actually transported what they deemed to be ‘the throne of Satan’ to Berlin, actually the altar of Zeus, a magnificent artifice. But as we observed in 1945, a continuous gesticulation to God and man gets you nothing.

    The comparison of a conditional covenant God drew with the Children of Israel to a democratic theocracy is curious. No wonder the founders of the Constitution ran from the democratic notion to a representative form of government! As usual, the mob is always wrong. Had the Children of Israel responded to Moses in Ex 19.6 “all these things we have broken” and confessed their sins, the world would have been very very different. Instead they made an oath the could not keep – bad idea especially when it comes to divine holiness!

  6. Scott says

    Whether burials reflected egalitarianism or not ( I think they do), there was an effort in the Bible to keep Israel/Judah humble, modest, frugal. Kings were not to accumulate too much gold, horses, or wives. Since the priesthood and temple was to remain till the messiah should come and be installed, and Israel remain chaste and loyal to God, certainly being non-materialistic in focus as well as being compassionate and God-fearing. God bound Israel to its land and boundaries so that trade and mercantilism did not infect them with greed.

    but if there is one thing that has been consistent with those who try to follow God, it is that struggle with materialism overcoming the modesty and piety required by God. Both Christians and Jews have had their share of challenges in trying to keep the proper balance in pursuits. But the bar has always been set high for those seeking God and that has made it elusive for many.
    To JAllan on Christians getting cozy with tombs, I think the cause, written on by Isaac Newton, of all people, show the veneration of saints (not justified) to be the cause since turning the unclean into a veneration, if not worship, of those “saints”/relics, is the cause for turning the Bible upside down and inside out. Really, Christianity wasted no time in overturning nearly every doctrine passed on to them. By the mid 3rd century AD, Christianity was unrecognizable from say, late 1st or very early 2nd century doctrine and conduct.

  7. Stelio says

    Maybe this was a norm during the Judges Era, and the main reason for the initial reluctance of Samuel towards anointing a king..!

  8. Alex says

    Not just burial; the Lachish letters in the later kingdom of Judah reflect a remarkably egalitarian attitude in the army, unknown in the Middle East.

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