“In my Father’s house are many rooms.”
Jesus statement in John 14 is one of the most treasured verses in all of the Bible and for good reason. The picture of Heaven and the future he has in store for us is held close to our hearts, providing us hope and strength to carry on in the toughest of times. But more than that, Jesus is tapping into perhaps the most integral concept in ancient Israelite society: the Beth Ab or “Father’s House.”
The Beth Ab was the most basic social unit of Israelite society. For us, the most basic unit is the individual and thus we think in individualistic terms. Not so for the ancient Israelite. He or she thought of him/herself in terms of his/her Beth Ab. It formed the lens through which they viewed the world. When the Israelites formed a kingdom, they viewed him as the head of national Beth Ab. Hence King Mesha of Moab didn’t refer to Israel as “Israel” but rather as the “House of Omri.” In the famous Tel Dan Stele, Hadadezer, King of Aram, calls Judah the “House of David.” The kingdom was just a huge Beth Ab.
On a spiritual level, the Israelites and their neighbors viewed the cosmos as Beth Ab. Canaanite pantheons were structured as a Beth Ab. The Israelites looked to Yahweh as the head of their Beth Ab, even above the king. The Beth Ab provided the paradigm for the Israelites’ world view and therefore it is imperative for us to understand the Beth Ab to understand the Bible.
In essence, the Beth Ab was the family. This family was usually composed of a grandfather and grandmother, their sons and sons’ wives with their children, unmarried daughters, and servants or retainers, if any. Each nuclear family had its own house in the compound around a central courtyard with the whole compound enclosed in a low wall. This was a person’s Beth Ab and it provided them with everything: food, shelter, clothing, physical and legal protection, occupation, religion, value, and identity.
At the top of the Beth Ab was the patriarch, typically the oldest living male. In a three-generation Beth Ab, this would be the grandfather; in a two-generation home, it would be the father. The patriarch wielded virtually absolute authority over those in the house. In some cases, he could order the execution of members of his household.
Jacob and his family provide an example to how this worked. By the time they moved to Egypt, his sons all were married with children; some of them even had grandkids. Yet Jacob retained the ultimate authority and his sons, although adults bowed to his authority like a kid does today. Have you ever wondered why Benjamin, an adult in his own right, didn’t go down to Egypt on his own and get grain? Jacob was the patriarch and his word was law and he said Benjamin was not to go down to Egypt. That was the end of the discussion.
In a three-generation Beth Ab, the old Beth Ab was typically dissolved upon the death of the patriarch. Each of the sons would then branch off and form their own Beth Ab’s. Sometimes the inheritance would be divided up; most often it would go to the bekor or firstborn and the others would have to establish their own inheritance. Each son would then become his own patriarch. Esau and Jacob provide an excellent example of this. Jacob subverted the rights of the firstborn and therefore inherited Isaac’s Beth Ab; Esau went off to Edom (southern Jordan) and created his own.
But these new Beth Ab’s would still be connected; family still mattered. Now they formed a clan. Whole towns would spring up from a single Beth Ab, as cousins were often married to each other to preserve and strengthen these family ties. To us today, this seems revolting but the practice of endogamy (marriage within the family) was the norm and exogamy (marriage to non-relatives) was rare and often reserved to kings for political purposes.
The Beth Ab provided a person with everything necessary for survival: food, shelter, clothing, and protection. At the same time, the Beth Ab required everyone to take an active role in maintaining the health of the Beth Ab. Laziness was not allowed, as the law regarding the rebellious son in Deuteronomy 21:18-21 indicates. Dead weight could be the death of the whole Beth Ab and so everyone had a role and purpose.
Gender lines was the most common division of roles. Men and women each had specific yet equally integral roles. In the ancient world, gender roles were for survival, not necessarily for the oppression of one gender and the Bible reflects this particular reality. Unfortunately many have used the Bible to oppress women while ignoring the realities of the biblical world that shaped the writing of the Bible.
Even so, the ancient Near East was certainly patriarchal in nature and women were viewed below men. That is the reality of the biblical world and whether it was right or wrong, it shaped how the Bible was written. This is why studying archaeology and biblical cultural backgrounds is so important. The Bible was written in real time and space and in real cultures that of necessity had an effect on its composition. This does not mean the Bible is flawed; simply that to truly understand it and its message for us, we must make the effort to understand its world.
At any rate, the role of men was outside the family compound. They were quite literally the breadwinners of the family, as it was their responsibility to tend the fields and raise the flocks. This was a full time job as fields every year had to be cleared of stone, plowed, seeded, weeded, watered, guarded against thieves and wild animals, harvested and threshed. Flocks were just as demanding, requiring around the clock attention to protect against outside threats, as well as to protect the sheep and goats from themselves.
Additionally, men defended the Beth Ab against attacks from wild animals, thieves, bands of ‘Apiru (displaced raiders), other clans, and larger tribes and kingdoms. These raids and small wars were commonplace as it was easy to supplement one’s own stores by taking from another. The Bible reflects this with the statement “In the spring when the kings went out to war.” Spring was the time of threshing, when the harvest was ripe for stealing. As such, the men of the Beth Ab had to be competent warriors if the Beth Ab was to survive.
The household was the woman’s domain. Women of the Beth Ab were responsible for feeding and clothing the entire family, which is not nearly as easy as it might sound. Keep in mind, they couldn’t just hop down to Wal-Mart for all their needs. The women had to grind the grain into flour, a laborious process to say the least, dry fruit, haul their own water from the well or cistern, and churn their own butter and cheese, also highly laborious. After all that is when they actually go down to cooking, which was done in clay ovens or over open fires that didn’t have a temperature dial. Preparing the evening meal could legitimately take all day.
Clothing people was even worse. After the men sheared the sheep or goats, the women took the raw wool had to then clean it, spin it into yard by hand, dye it if they were wealthy enough, weave it through a loom into fabric, and then sew it into clothes. Alternatively, they could take flax and work it into linen threads and then go through the weaving process.
Finally, women functioned as the accountants of the family. It was their responsibility to ensure the Beth Ab had enough food for everyone to last the whole year with enough left over for planting. They had to make sure no one was eating too much. Gluttony could be a death sentence.
It should be noted these gender lines were not rigid, depending on the Beth Ab’s needs. Jacob is recorded as being someone who stayed close to home, perhaps helping out more with the woman’s side of things. Several women, Rebekah and Zipporah for example, were shepherds.
Children were key to the Beth Ab’s operation as well. Having children was of prime importance and was perhaps the most important task of a woman. Again, to us this is insulting, but producing children was seen as a gift from God. Motherhood was placed on a significantly higher pedestal than it is today.
The first thing children did was provide cheap labor. Harsh but true; the more kids on, the more could be done. It was actually economically advantageous to have more children as when they grew, one could have bigger flocks and more fields without expending more effort.
Initial education was in the hands of the women as the toddlers obviously stayed close to the family compound. As the kids got older, they were educated more along the gender lines. Boys learned farming, hunting, husbandry, and warfare from their fathers while girls learned cooking and weaving from their mothers so they could assume their roles when they got their own Beth Abs.
Children also provided a continuation of legacy, which meant everything to an ancient Israelite. Passing on one’s land and inheritance to the next generation was akin to achieving immortality. Think of how closely Naboth guarded his vineyard from King Ahab in 1st Kings 21.
The patriarch had a particular function in the Beth Ab as well and that was to provide legal protection for the family. Repeatedly the Bible refers to the city or town elders who sat in the gates. These were the heads of the various Beth Ab’s in the town.
When we read this, we often get a picture of a bunch of old guys sitting around drinking tea but in truth, the elders served in a crucial function. We must keep in mind, there was no official legal system until the time of the kings and even then, it wasn’t ubiquitous. Most towns were responsible for maintaining their own order and that task fell to the elders.
Therefore a Beth Ab provided legal protection, as well as physical protection. If there was a dispute of stolen sheep or boundary lines, your patriarch would go to the elders and plead your case. That was his responsibility and a huge one it was. If you weren’t part of a Beth Ab, especially if you were a woman or a child, there was no one to get you justice and thus you were at the mercy of everyone else.
Given that there was no police force, it was the responsibility of the Beth Ab to ensure justice was carried out. If someone in your Beth Ab was murdered, it was the responsibility of your Beth Ab to find the killer, track him/her down, and execute them. This is the “avenger of blood” talked about in Numbers 35. No one else would do it for you. Same thing with thieves and rapists, which makes Levi and Simeon’s massacre of Shechem make more sense.
The Beth Ab provided social protection. When a woman married, she joined her husband’s Beth Ab. If her husband died before she had a son, the Beth Ab would require a brother to give her a son so that the dead husband’s legacy carry on and the widow would have someone to care for her. To us this is strange, but sooner or later, the widow would find herself outside a Beth Ab otherwise. This is why Tamar went to such lengths to get a son from Judah in Genesis 38.
If you had a bad run in the fields, leaving you destitute your Beth Ab or your clan was to purchase your field and keep it until you could get your feet back underneath you. Then, once you were in better financial straits, they were to return it to you.
Clearly a Beth Ab was essential for life. Just in comparing men’s and women’s roles, it’s pretty clear no one person could do it all alone. This is why marriage and children were so important. Additionally, being part of a Beth Ab accorded you social standing and protection.
So what if you weren’t part of a Beth Ab? In short, you were probably toast. You had to do it all yourself, which was essentially impossible. You also had no one to represent you before the elders, which means you could be robbed blind and murdered with no repercussions. It was not a pleasant place to be.
Three groups of people are repeatedly seen as being outside the system: widows, orphans, and foreigners. It was almost impossible to survive as one of these. Given the high value placed on a woman’s virginity, widows were viewed as damaged goods and thus often considered ineligible for marriage. If she had no son, she could live in her husband’s Beth Ab until the patriarch died. But what then? The Beth Ab is disbanded and the other families go their separate ways. Where does that leave her? Out in the streets, where she can be raped or enslaved or molested or anything else with impunity because there is no one to defend her.
Quick side note: this view of virginity is why the rape laws we often find so abhorrent actually make sense. Regardless of how a woman’s virginity is lost (in the Bible’s view, rape does take away a woman’s virginity), she is now undesirable. She can live with her parents as long as they are alive but when they are gone, she’s in trouble. In the case of Absalom and Tamar, Absalom took his raped sister in and provided for her after Amnon refused to marry her. But he was a prince and could afford to do so; most siblings couldn’t. Therefore by forcing the rapist to marry his victim and not allowing him to divorce her, God was ensuring she was taken care of and wouldn’t end up in the streets. She was guaranteed of having a Beth Ab. Not ideal I’ll grant, but the best possible solution given the cultural context.
Children in general were seen as not really being people yet; orphans who had no land or wealth even more so. They were often too weak to provide for themselves and so often resorted to thieving and begging and prostitution for the girls. Like the widow, they were vulnerable to being taken advantage of because there was no legal protection for them. A kid could not take an adult before the elders. With no inheritance, there was nothing to look forward to.
A male foreigner might make it if he could claim some land to farm. Of course given the preference for endogamy, his chances of getting married were slim at best. Thus he was sentenced to toiling away at his little field while simultaneously trying to grind his grain, weave his own clothes, and all the other household chores of the woman. An impossible task really. Above all, even if he could go before the elders, he was alone. They were all related and had generations of family connections; the deck was decidedly stacked against him. If you were a woman, don’t even bother trying.
Granted, there are certainly cases of widows, orphans, and foreigners (sometimes all three at once) making it in the Bible but these are rare. Most often, they would starve to death or be murdered or something else horrible happened to them. Liminal women almost always became prostitutes; liminal men ended up as thieves and bandits.
God was keenly aware of this. While the Beth Ab system provided a great deal for those in it, it was death to those outside of it. With this culture in mind, the social laws of the Torah are astounding. Law after law after law is targeted at protecting those outside the Beth Ab system. Indeed, either exhortations to protect or condemnations for taking advantage of the widow, the orphan, and the foreigner occur 62 times in the Old Testament. God looks out for those who society tramples on.
But perhaps the most astonishing is the story of Ruth. With this culture in your mind, try to grasp what she did in leaving Moab with Naomi. She virtually became all three at once. Ruth knew she was going to a place where she would be at the absolute bottom of the social ladder, just a tick above pigs. She would have absolutely zero social standing or rights. Anyone could do literally anything they wanted to her with absolute impunity. Who would protect Ruth, the widowed Moabite? There is a reason Boaz repeats three times the command that no one harm her. And yet, knowing all of this, Ruth chose to take that risk to look after a despondent Naomi. It is arguably the greatest act of courage in the entire Bible next to Jesus and the cross.
The beauty of Jesus’ statement in John 14 is that we are a part of his Beth Ab with him as our head. He is providing us with all we need and one day, we are going go home to our Beth Ab. There is a place waiting for us in our Father’s house.
As always, if you have a question on this post or a topic on Biblical archaeology, Bible history, or backgrounds, please ask away in the comments section below. Also, I owe a great deal of this post to Life in Biblical Israel by Phillip King and Larry Stager.