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Thursday, May 10, 2012

Manners and Customs of Bible Part I.

~ Manners and Customs ~

This week I have been reading on the  Manners and Customs of Bible Times and thought I would share a few of the ones that I thought were quite interesting- especially the one about the broken tile.

"There are different kinds of gifts, but the same Spirit. There are different kinds of service, but the same Lord. There are different kinds of working, but the same God works all of them in all men".
1 Corinthians 12:4-6 

Removing the Shoes

Exodus 3:5. When one entered a house it was the usual practice to take off one's shoes, because otherwise the dirt from the unpaved streets and pathways would defile the house. If the floors were carpeted by canvas, the canves would be ruined. Removal of shoes was therefore a mark of consideration and respect, and since God can be given no less respect, the removal of shoes is a mark of respect toward God. This practice continues in contemporary society- or at least in my house it does. If your shoes are dirty then take them off please before entering!

This custom of removing your footwear before entering a home has many benefits. Let's look at a few:

First, it makes for a much quieter environment, one without all kinds of footgear clanging around.

Second, it makes for a much cleaner home because you leave the dirt of the outside world where it belongs - outside.

Third, it puts everybody at their real height and does away with all this three-inch-heel intimidation.

Fourth, it provides a sensuality in walking about that the hard soles of a shoe deny you. There is something that is just so completely awesome about digging your toes in a rich thick carpet.

Fifth, it lets your feet breathe. Some may not really appreciate this if your feet smell really horrid but there is a simple solution that everyone can live with. Simply wash your feet. Know what I mean?

Sixth, it gives you a chance to show off your socks, a part of our dresswear that seldom gets seen otherwise. Not to mention that over priced nail polish you sprang for that looks completely divine on your toenails.

Seventh, you can tell who is already in the house by giving the shoes outside a quick once-over, thereby avoiding contact with a person(s) you may want to avoid. I could continue, but I think you get the point.

Entering Women's Quarters

Judges 4:17-22. The story is normally told as an example of Joel's treachery, for when a person was at rest in a tent, he/she was supposed to be completely safe. But there may be more to the story than meets the eye. A guest in a tent slept in the porch area- kind of a entrance area of the tent that had a canvas floor and a small piece of canvas suspended overhead to keep the sun or rain off of you but! it was Not actually part of the tent itself. The actual tent was sheltered by a heavy hanging canvas door. A man was never allowed behind the canvas door, which were the women's quarters. Invasion of women's quarters was punishable by immediate death or at the very least the eyes were gouged out of the one unwise enough to peek behind the canvas door- rather he actually ever entered inside or not.

The Drink of Water

Mark 9:41. One of the first things done for a guest was to give him a drink of cool water. It was a pledge of friendship (Abraham's servant Eliezer looked for a welcome by waiting for a drink of water. (Genesis 24:17-18). When Jesus said, "Whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because of your name as followers of Christ" he was saying that if we pledge a person our friendship for Christ's sake we shall not lose our reward- give him/her a glass of water!

The Broken Tile

Revelation 2:17. Christ tells the angel of the church at Pergamum that to him who overcomes.. I will give... a white stone, and a new name written the stone which no one knows but him who receives it." 

A tile was taken and broken in half. One friend wrote his name on one of the halves, and the other friend wrote his name on the other.  The two halves were then exchanged. Often the pieces were handed down from generation to generation. To be able to produce the counterpart of a piece of tile, was to guarantee friendship and hospitality for life between the two parties.

Tent Dwelling
A look inside the Tents of the ancient Israelites

From the very earliest of Bible times up to the present day the tent has been a major feature of the Palestinian landscape. Today it is the Bedouin Arabs that dwell in the black goat's hair tents that dot the barren desert; yet the Bible shows us that for hundreds of years tent dwelling was a regular part of Hebrew life. Thus if one wishes to visualize and comprehend the living conditions in which much of the Old Testament it set it is wise to understand the extent to which tent-dwelling pervaded Hebrew life.

There can be no doubt that tent dwelling was prevalent during the earliest stages of the Bible. In Genesis 4:20 Jabal is described as the father of those that live in tents. Post flood we read of Noah retiring to his tent (Gen 9:21) and then of Japheth dwelling in the tents of Shem (Gen 9:27). We are told repeatedly of Abraham pitching his tent (Gen 12:8, 13:18, 18:1) and that Lot had one too (Gen 13:5).

A rather more interesting question is: when did Israel stop dwelling in tents?

The stay of Israel in Egypt weaned them from tent life and trained them for their fixed home in Canaan. Tent dwelling diminished steadily as the Israelites took up residence in Canaan although it remained a part of life when viewing the society as a whole. For example tents were a feature of all the recorded Israelite wars. The last reference he gives is 1 Kings 16:15-16 which documents the reign of Zimri: showing tents used during war well into the divided kingdom. Tents were still used East of Gilead during Saul's reign (1 Chr 5:10) and that in the time of Isaiah shepherds' tents were still a common site (Isa 38:12).

It is the reign of David however that gives us the keenest insight into the tipping point between tent and house dwelling. David was a shepherd and a soldier and thus he would have been a tent dweller on many occasions. It was David though that felt that as he was now dwelling in a building it was time for God to move out of a tent too (2 Sa 7:1-10).

It was also during David's reign that Uriah made the statement:

2 Sa 11:11  "And Uriah said unto David, The ark, and Israel, and Judah, abide in tents; and my lord Joab, and the servants of my lord, are encamped in the open fields; shall I then go into mine house, to eat and to drink, and to lie with my wife? as thou livest, and as thy soul liveth, I will not do this thing".

It would appear that by the reign of David camping in tents, or even under the stars, was still a common condition amongst the Jewish population. In contrast the rich and elite had largely transitioned to buildings and this was considered the preferable alternative for those that could do it.

Most of the information we have regarding the construction of tents comes from observation of the ones that are being used today. The Arab bait shaer (house of hair) is made from black goat's hair which has been woven into strips about twenty seven inches across which are then sewn together and laid parallel to the length of the tent. This goats hair roof is then suspended from a number of poles which may be as few as one but which generally number nine clustered into three groups of three.

When first woven these roofs are not waterproof, but once sodden and shrunk they offer good protection against the elements. The sides of the tents, used mainly in winter, are made either from 'old' pieces of roofing material or from woven rushes. The partitions within the tent are also made from matting material. The tent is secured to the ground by ropes which are attached to pins which are driven into the ground using a mallet. It is probably just such a fastening that Jael used in Judges 4:21 to kill Sisera.

Tents were not generally 'made new' and then 'replaced'. Rather a new strip is made from a year's worth of goat clippings; this strip then replaces the oldest and most worn strip of the existing tent. Thus at any given time a given tent will be from one to about seven years old. For this reason expansion is achieved not by buying a bigger tent but by adding strips to the existing one. This is almost certainly the process alluded to in Isa 54:2. These tents are essentially a family heirloom: in Gen 24:67 we a see a tent passing from Sarah to her daughter-in-law.

For a small family a single tent could provide accommodation for the whole family unit. In such a situation the tent would be divided into three sections. The outer section nearest the door contained the men's quarters. This would also double as the reception area for sharing hospitality with guests. The second compartment, screened from the first, is the women's quarters. The third compartment, if it existed, contained the servants or livestock and sometimes both. This arrangement explains how Sarah was able to overhear the conversation between Abraham and the Lord even though she was not a part of it (Gen 18:10-17).

As a family grew in size, wealth or stature it was possible that one family would own multiple tents. As we have already seen Rebecca took the tent of Sarah. By the time of Jacob his two wives each had their own tents and the two maidservants had a tent too (Gen 31:33).

Second Chronicles 14:15 even details a case where livestock were allocated a tent to themselves. Today when multiple tents form an encampment they are generally encircled to construct a safe enclosure for livestock. It is possible the patriarchs followed a similar pattern. In contrast we know that the Israelite encampment in the wilderness was aligned in orderly rows and is compared to lines of trees in a formal garden. (Num 24:5-6)

As any hiker will attest it is vital to keep weight to a minimum; for this reason the furnishings inside a tent are typically Spartan. The ground may be covered with rugs or matting during the day with softer matting brought out at night. The clothes worn during the day typically function as the bed-spread during the night. Foodstuffs are stored near the center of the tent with a few cooking utensils and pots and pans available to cook food and some leather skins for storage of liquid. Light is provided by an oil lamp and potentially by the light of the fire. There would generally be two of the latter: one inside the men's quarters and the other outside close to the women's area. The closest one might approach luxury would be having a camel saddle to double as a chair; a situation Rachel found herself in in Genesis 31:34.

As can be seen tent life was a hard life with much work and few luxuries. It was the norm for the patriarchs and for the Israelites that left Egypt. It was probably the norm for most people right up until the time of David. From then it appears that those that could forsook the nomadic tent for a more permanent lifestyle. However the simplicity and pilgrim mentality that allowed man to move from place to place at a moment's notice held a charm and honor in Israeli thought that kept tent imagery prominent even amongst the later prophets (Zec 12:7).

One Room Houses
The peasant dwelling of the Israelites

For the poorer people, moving from tents to houses did not significantly increase the degree of comfort available from their living quarters - it did however raise the feeling of permanence and the sense of community. By modern standards it would almost be incorrect to describe these dwellings as houses; they were closer to what we would today term a 'hut'.

Nonetheless they were significant within Jewish society and the Bible is filled with references to them.

The opinions regarding the 'standard' floor plan of a peasant dwelling during early Biblical times are as diverse as the authorities consulted. Though most agree that the lowest classes had houses of one room with the living quarters raised within that room and that the livestock would sleep in the lower areas.

Additions were made as well as could be arranged on the cramped site, and in consequence, plans often became such a meaningless jumble that it was nearly impossible to identify the bounderies of adjoining houses.

In other words people probably started with a single bare room and then partitioned for privacy or extended to provide more space as and when the situation required and resources permitted. Ultimately; the result was just a mess of oddly shaped houses.

The commonest building material was mud which explains Job's comment that men live in houses made of clay. There were two principle ways for this mud to be used: either it was turned into a sun-burned brick or it was used as a form of mortar to bind together walls of irregular stones. Some had the resources to plaster their walls those that didn't faced the prospect of serpents inhabiting them! All faced the reality that mud walls could be dug through by robbers and that without constant maintenance they dissolve into heaps. Indeed Ezekiel 13:10-16 shows that a building might dissolve into heaps even with constant attention if the mud does not have the correct composition and has not been adequately tempered.

Given the potentially hazardous condition of the walls it was vitally important to build upon a strong foundation. As our Lord tells us the wisest built their houses upon rock. While not recorded in scripture the more industrious would dig down until they did reach rock and then build stone arches so that their walls could be built upon rock. A slightly easier and very common practice was to lay a great stone at the corner of the house that was at the lowest part of an incline. This 'corner-stone' was responsible for much of the stability of the structure and received great reverence. The floor of the building was rather less vital and compacted soil was generally deemed to suffice.

The roof itself would be made by stretching a main beam from the center of one wall to the center of an opposing wall. Rafters (smaller beams) would then be stretched at right angles across the main mean; again running from wall to wall. Upon this matrix of wood was then laid a carpet of rushes or brushwood. On top of that was spread a thick layer of dirt and straw which was then compacted down using a roller. The compaction phase was sufficiently important that many houses would have a smaller 'roller' which remained upon the roof for effecting running repairs as required.

The true nature of the Eastern roof is revealed by a Mosaic law which appears strange to Western eyes. In Deuteronomy 22:8 it states that when a new house is built a battlement (or low wall) has to be built around the end of the roof - to prevent bloodshed. The reason is that it was extremely common for people to go upon the roof of a house. For example Samuel met Saul upon the roof, David walked upon his roof and saw Bathsheba, and Peter went onto the roof to pray. The religious usage of the roof was indeed strong: Jeremiah and Zephaniah both record roofs being used to build altars. The roof was also a meeting place in time of calamity (Isa 15:3), fear (Isa 22:1) or even rejoicing. For this reason roofs were easily reached; access being granted by a staircase which ran up the outside of the house.

In many ways the 'dirt floor' which existed on the roof resembled the floor that would have existed at ground level; it could even grow a layer of grass from time to time (Psa 129:6). It is therefore not surprising that it should be a place that people would pitch booths (Neh 8:16). This probably led quite naturally to people building extra rooms or lofts onto the roof (or walls) of the house.

As stated earlier the interior of these houses would not be a significant advance, if any, upon a tent dwelling. The windows would be small and protected by wooden latticework. The door would probably be a wooden board that could be strapped to the doorway. Hinges, when they existed, would have been rudimentary and locks would almost certainly not have been available at all. The furnishings would have consisted of a series of cushions and mats. Perhaps the one 'luxury' that housing may have afforded was in the area of storage. The increased space and reduced requirement for 'lightness' allowed for storage chests, drying room for foodstuffs and a slightly wider array of pots and cooking utensils.

The Eastern house generally did not have a chimney; any smoke from inside having to vent through the small windows or through the other crooks and crevices afforded by the poor construction of the dwelling. While most houses would have had a small hearth in the center of the room cooking was done outside whenever possible. The fire would be made from kindling, sticks, dung, thorns or any other flammable material that came to hand.

I believe the general lesson of these one room homes is that the poor simply assembled what was around them to give themselves shelter and a sense of permanence as best as they could under the circumstances. Dirt was the principle ingredient in many homes; supplemented by vegetation and hard work as required. The ground floor was the 'business area' providing shelter from the elements and handling cooking, storage and even livestock. The roof was the area of relative peace and relaxation; recreating at least some of the freedom of living under the stars and yet also providing some peace and quiet from the activity going on below.

Houses of More than One Room
Larger houses and palaces

For those with the means, the house could move beyond the purely functional and could become a place of luxury and status. Rather than simply growing organically as necessity demanded and resources permitted these homes were designed to cater to the needs of the inhabitants. Of course even within this group the result would differ significantly between that of a prosperous craftsman and that of a king. For want of better classification these expanded dwellings are going to be discussed as the 'houses of more than one room'.

Quite literally the center of a grander eastern home is the courtyard. A two roomed home would be built with a room's width between the two rooms with an adjoining wall connecting the two rooms. The space left became the courtyard. A three room house would have the adjoining wall replaced with the front of the third room. Further ground-floor rooms would be added to the first and second away from the third room. The effect would thus be a U shape with the arms extending with the overall number of rooms. The very grandest houses would have 'courtyards of courtyards' each surround by their own cluster of rooms. When this was the case the women often had their own courtyard.

Across the 'open' end of the U is the door and gateway. These are essentially one and the same. The entranceway is fairly large yet blocked by an equally large and heavy gate which was opened only when need dictated. Set into the gateway was thus a smaller door which could be opened and closed rather more easily to permit the entrance of individuals. Privacy was usually enhanced further by building a small wall just in front of the door to prevent people in the street viewing the courtyard. If resources permitted then an individual would be nominated as the 'porter'; their job was to stand by the doorway and only permit entrance to those whose voice was recognized. In addition to vocal recognition it was not uncommon to have a projecting latticed window positioned above the gateway to allow for the inhabitants to see who was outside. It is quite possibly one of these from which Jezebel looked in 2 Kings 9:30.

To the inhabitant of the house the courtyard served as an idealized 'outside world' onto which the house fronted. Thus while the outside of the buildings which fronted on to the street might be of a mean and lowly appearance the decoration inside the courtyard would be as much as the occupants could achieve. In times of festivity they may even be carpeted. The courtyard could also contain trees, shrubs and flowers. This oasis naturally became the center of activity and would often be used for cooking and eating meals; in colder weather the hearth provided heat. It would have been such a hearth that Peter huddled around when denying the Lord.

One essential component of the courtyard was the cistern. These were essentially a bath set into the ground some four feet by two feet and maybe two feet in depth. Their purpose was to hold rainwater channeled from the surrounding buildings. It is probably one of these which hid David in 2 Samuel 17:18,19. The close proximity of water and fire and provision of privacy also explains why the courtyard could be used for bathing. Thus when Bathsheba bathed in her courtyard (2 Samuel 11:2) she would probably have been screened from anyone that didn't own a much taller building (but of course as we know King David did which is why he saw her).

The second and subsequent stories of the house served as a type of 'veranda' stretching out nine feet from the second and subsequent floors; the 'deck' covering a good portion of the courtyard. The upper rooms were one half of the width of the lower and that the remaining 'half' roof acted as a pathway between the higher rooms. Stone steps lead from the internal courtyard to the roof; though some had wooden ladders. Given that we know of at least two people falling from windows and we know of at least one collection of people supported on a verandah (Judges 16:27) Eutychus falling from the 'third loft' and David's ability to see Bathsheba strongly suggests that houses of three stories were not uncommon by the prosperious. Interestingly there is agreement that upper rooms had projecting windows; which may explain their somewhat lethal tendencies to fall!

It is likely that if a second story or even a third story existed then it would almost certainly be home to the 'guest chamber'. Considered the foremost chamber in the house the room would often have an open front and have a divan around the edge for people to sit. This would essentially allow the guest to 'hold court' from the center of the room with the assembled gathered around the outside. A room on the second floor may also be designated the 'summer house'; with the 'winter house' being more protected from the elements on the ground floor.

As may be expected the furnishings of a more affluent home would be plusher than those of a more modest one. We know that carpets and draperies were used widely; some even draped a shade-curtain over portions of the courtyard. Esther tells us with walls hanging with rich tapestries; in a Persian court. We know walls could be plastered and Jeremiah 22:14 tells us they could be painted; Ezekiel 8:10-12 shows that these paintings could sometimes be idolatrous. Amos 3:15 tells us the houses could be paneled with ivory. Jeremiah 22:14 again tells us that ceilings of wood were hung below the roof; presumably to improve the appearance and to prevent leakage and the droppings of dirt to lower floors. Some of the very wealthiest were actually able to switch to hewn stone as a construction material of the walls: something which would improve the appearance but also structural integrity of the building.

I think we can safe say that there was a class of buildings where the owners had the means to build for what they wanted rather than what they needed. Typically this resulted in a collection of rooms surrounding a well maintained and important courtyard. This courtyard was considered part of the house and the privacy and entrance to it were guarded. The second floor provided much of the higher quality living accommodation when weather conditions permitted it to be used. Much as today, houses tempted people to indulge in creature comforts, something that some of them did very willingly. Just as we do today.