L. Purdue, et al., Families in Ancient Israel

L. Perdue, et al., Families in Ancient Israel (Louisville, KY, Westminster / John Knox:: 1997) 285 pp.

 

This book is a collection of essays on the topic of the family in ancient Israel from Iron I to the first century C. E.

Carol Meyers’ essay is rooted in ethnoarchaeology, the discipline that combines ethnology and archaeology. She presents clearly the situation of the rural family in the Judean and Samarian highlands: a series of two storied houses, each with the bottom floor for livestock and tools and the upper floor for family, grouped to form a compound and inhabited by a patrilocal family (bet av). A series of such compounds comprised a village (mishpahah). Everyone worked in this subsistence economy with roles clearly divided by gender and age. Marginal people in the household might include indentured servants, strangers, etc.; they too worked and were provided for. The land was transferred patrilineally.

Joseph Blenkinsop presents the same data from the point of view of the literary sources. This allows him to place emphasis on such trends as the stringent protection of the marital bond, the strict chain of authority in the household and village, and the role of gender distinction within the larger framework of a cosmic order. He also contrasts the village milieu with the royal statist milieu, the latter substituting centralized institutions, hierarchy, and loyalty for local patterns.

John Collins follows the data of the rural family into the period of second temple times, showing great continuity together with an increase in patriarchal conceptions and behaviors.

Leo Perdue, in his first essay, summarizes the previous material with a good synopsis of the impact of statist institutions during the monarchy. In his second essay, Perdue shows the centrality of the household as a formative set of metaphors for biblical religion: the use of terms such as bayit, benei, bat, eshet, eved, ger and so on for the people of Israel and the use of such terms as go’el, ba’al, etc. for God. The centrality of ancestors, land, productivity, and caring for marginals in biblical religion also derives from the household milieu. Perdue then moves to extract the principle of covenant and obligation rooted in an ethic of solidarity as the ethical / theological principle to be derived for modern living.

This book is authoritative but would have been much better if it had not been so insistently Protestant. The Hebrew Bible is systematically referred to as the “Old Testament.” The priestly motif is implacably set in post-exilic Israel, a half-century after the work of Y. Kaufmann and a quarter of a century after anthropology showed that priestly behavior is among the earliest of human patterns. Similarly, the prophetic &endash; monarchic contrast, while true, represents two modes of religious consciousness not necessarily causally linked. The paradigm of “good” primal religious consciousness of God which is later “corrupted” by statism and theocracy may apply to Protestant historiography but should not cloud biblical studies.

 

Appeared in Cross Currents (Winter 2003) 565-66).

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