'Life in Biblical Israel' Philip J. King and Lawrence E. Stager. Library of Ancient Israel Westminster, John Knox Press 2001 (0-664-22148-3) pp. xxiii + 440. Hb UK Pounds 25.00.
King and Stager's expansive study recreates the lifeways and mental attitudes of ancient Israelites, devising dioramas of daily life, through a prism of topical headings such as gender, food, dress, power and sex - even religion.
Life details are drawn from stories, laws, historical accounts, songs, prophetic critiques, and wisdom stories, sketching a picture of everyday life in an agrarian community.
As an example of daily life, the authors explore the fertile narrative of premonarchic family and its societal setting contained in Judges 17-18. The foundation of Israelite society was the family, and about 80-90% of the people lived in small villages. Their houses were built of stone, wood, reeds and mud. Typical homes were rectilinear with three-four rooms on two levels. Windows did not contain glass. Roofs had parapets for safety.
Life expectancy was less than 40, lower still for women if there were gynaecological complications. Men were exempted from military service during the first year of marriage, marrying in the late twenties, their wives about ten years younger.
King and Stager note that the biblical family had six main features - it was endogamous, patrilineal, patriarchal, patrilocal, and even polygynous. Property was held in common under the control of the male head. It was within this family that education, - religious vocational and military - took place as well as socialization.
Hospitality was rooted in kinship, and was a sacred duty. Table fellowship implied trust, with Psalm 23 a locus classicus of biblical hospitality - food, drink and protection were implied. Dining together created a bond among the participants, to which a moral obligation was attached, diners sitting or reclining. Main meals were eaten in the evening, with meat only on festive occasions.
In addition to everyday life in Biblical Israel, the authors delve deeply in many other aspects, including the means of existence, the patrimonial kingdom, culture and expressive life, as well as religious institutions.
Trivial details make the book come alive, eg Israelite priests wearing linen underwear, fulling and dyeing aspects, warfare, exports of cereal olive oil and wine, metrology, and money (which became important after the exile as they were no longer dependant on agriculture with its in built barter system). The 'Black Obelisk' of Shalmaneser III is one of the copious illustrations in the book, showing Jehu King of Israel presenting tribute accompanied by solders wearing shoes with turned up toes !
King and Stager write simply and profoundly about life in Biblical Israel, adopting more the stance of cultural historians than theologians. This alone makes their work refreshing and necessary for private and institutional libraries of all denominations. It is suitable as a text book for young and old, clerical and lay, to make the Bible 'come alive'. I enjoyed it.