Daily Life in Ancient Israel

What was life like for the settlers of Canaan during the time of the Biblical Judges?

According to author Robert D. Miller, archaeological surveys and excavations of the central hill country have provided a much clearer picture of daily life in ancient Israel during the time of the Biblical Judges and the early Israelite settlers of Canaan.

What was life like for the tribes of Israel in the time of the Biblical Judges, the period archaeologists call Iron Age I (1200–1000 B.C.E.)?

The evidence for the early Israelite settlers of Canaan comes from two sources: archaeological survey and excavations. Much of the area of the central highlands, where most of the settlers of Canaan established their villages, was archaeologically surveyed in the 1980s and 1990s. These surveys provided much useful information about daily life in ancient Israel during the period of the Biblical Judges, including the arrangement and size of tribal villages and even the nature of early Israelite economic and political systems. Excavation data, both from recent excavations (Shiloh, for example) and from digs long past (such as Bethel), also provide evidence of daily life in ancient Israel, including the society’s wealth, warfare and housing.

From this evidence, the following portrait emerges of daily life in ancient Israel during the time of the Biblical Judges.

The free eBook Life in the Ancient World guides you through craft centers in ancient Jerusalem, family structure across Israel and articles on ancient practices—from dining to makeup—across the Mediterranean world.

The Israelite villages built by the settlers of Canaan were on hilltops. They were quite small, possibly 400 people in the largest of these—Shiloh or Gibeon, for instance. These towns were mostly unwalled, though they were part of larger political units or regional chiefdoms that provided security. The Israelite villages within a given region were subjects of the major town of the area, some of which, like Shechem, were very large and controlled considerable territory.

Israelites lived in nuclear households during the time of the Biblical Judges, often with their relatives in clusters of houses around a common courtyard. Houses were made of mudbrick with a stone foundation and perhaps a second story of wood. The living space of the houses consisted of three or four rooms, often with sleeping space on the roof or in a covered roof loft. One of the first-floor rooms was probably a courtyard for domestic animals, mostly sheep and goat.

At that time of the Biblical Judges, the hills were densely overgrown, covered with a thick scrub of pine, oak and terebinth trees. And it was often too rocky for the sheep, so raising animals never stood at the forefront of the economy. Instead, the early Israelite settlers of Canaan would burn off some of the brush, terrace the hillsides within an hour’s walk of the village, and plant grain, primarily wheat. Other lesser crops included lentils, garbanzo beans, barley and millet. They had orchards on these terraces as well.

BAS Library Members, read more about daily life in ancient Israel during the time of the Biblical Judges in Robert D. Miller, Archaeological Views, “Israelite Life Before the Kings,” Biblical Archaeology Review, March/April 2013.

Not a BAS Library member yet? Sign up today!

The free eBook Life in the Ancient World guides you through craft centers in ancient Jerusalem, family structure across Israel and articles on ancient practices—from dining to makeup—across the Mediterranean world.


Related content in Bible History Daily:

Does a Jordan Valley Site Reveal the Origin of Ancient Israel?

Ancient Worship in Israel—Before the Israelites

The Oldest Hebrew Script and Language

Tel ‘Eton Excavations Reveal Possible Judahite Administrative Center

You Are What You Eat: The Israelite Diet and Archaeology

Scorched Wheat May Provide Answers on the Destruction of Canaanite Tel Hazor

This Bible History Daily feature was originally published in March 2013.


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  • lygkhiiygb says


  • Paul says

    There is an interesting pdf; “Depiction of the Status of Women in Israel During the Iron Age.” We may fill in the gaps of our knowledge of women’s role in Iron Age Isrealite society by examining the small hand-held figurines (mentioned by Miller in his article on page 68 of BAR). Among them are “terracotta figurines of female musicians” which are depicted “standing and holding a hand drum” (pdf p.8). Around the beginning of the Iron Age we have the oldest known Hebrew account (and also the earliest known Hebrew text) of the ceremonial function of female musicians in the Song of Miriam, performing a drum-dance-song (Exodus 15:20,21, see also Judges 11:34, 1 Samuel 18:6, and Jeremiah 31:4).
    Miller also mentions that villages were subject to major towns in the area, the largest of which is Shechem, controlling an area about 20 miles across. In the Bible it is Abimelech who decieves the inhabitants of Shechem into making him king, whereupon he hires worthless and reckless men to go on a killing spree (Judges 9:4). The carnage is finally checked by a woman who drops a millstone on Abimelech’s head (Judges 9:53). This is clearly a reference to women’s empowerment because grinding stones were usually the tool of women to process grain so that “women’s control over food consumption gave them power and prestige in society” (pdf p.13).
    It should be remembered, too, that our human ancestors, Homo Sapiens, replaced the Neanderthals because of the way both male and female Neanderthals invested all of their efforts on hunting big game, even the children. Humans, on the other hand, introduced a division of labor with males doing the hunting and females doing the gathering of what grows naturally.

  • Enopoletus says

    I’ve been reading Miller’s book (“Chieftains of the Highland Clans”). It’s extremely information-dense (and slim) and should be required reading for anyone interested in Israel in the Iron I. You (and I mean you) should buy it. I might post a review or two of it at my blog (“Against Jebel al-Lawz”). Did you know Gibeon was destroyed at the end of Iron I /beginning of Early Iron IIa and Middle Iron I Shiloh was fortified with a city wall? I didn’t either (before I skimmed the book). The maps are useless if one does not have Google Earth or a similar software. Over half the book is filled with short bits of filler and a very, very long bibliography. The core of the book (chapters 3, 4, 7, and especially 5) is worth reading by anyone interested in Iron I Israel.

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