My current reading and blogging project is Avraham Faust’s Israel’s Ethnogenesis.
Faust so far has suggested that Israel’s ethnic identity goes back to the highland village culture of Iron Age I, which archeologists have discovered in the area where the Bible also suggests that Israel existed at that time.
As ethnic markers for early Israel he has named the ban on eating pork, which we know both from the biblical text and the distribution of animal bones. Pig bones are nearly absent from the highland villages.
Another ethnic marker is the simple undecorated pottery that we have found. Also we know that in Iron Age II, there was a surprising lack of imported pottery in Israel. Faust traced this back to a religious or ideological bias against foreign pottery, which must have arisen during the transition from the Late Bronze Age to the Iron Age.
Much of this is based on what we have not found in ancient Israel. We have not found pig bones. We have not found fancy, decorated pottery. And we have not found imported pottery.
Now he discusses something we have found, four-room houses. He explains that this is a confusing term in English. It comes from a Hebrew word meaning a house with four spaces. But not even that quite describes these houses. The spaces were divided into several rooms. Sometimes there was a fifth space. And we think there was often semi-open space on part of the roof.
Archeologists have found a particular style of house that was used in Israel from the twelfth century village culture down until the Babylonian Captivity in the sixth century. The houses he describes have two or three long spaces with a broad space at the back. They are made of mudbrick. The entrance in the front opens into central space with no roof. Residents enter all the other spaces from this central space. There is sometimes also an upstairs or roof plaza. Wooden pillars divide the downstairs spaces and support the roof. Originally, these houses supported agricultural families. Part of the downstairs stabled animals, and part of it stored produce. The upstairs seems to have functioned for sleeping and dining.
Of course, what archeologists see is just the base of a ruin. See here.
In the Iron Age I villages the houses were crude, reflecting a very poor material culture. Later the houses became larger and more comfortable. (I have read elsewhere that some of the Iron I village houses had very low ceilings indicating the people then were short.) But the style of the houses remained easily recognizable and distinct throughout the Iron Age.
Faust talks about the distribution of these houses and illustrates it with a map. The houses are absent n Gaza. In the central hill country from Hebron north, this kind of house predominates. There are still a lot of them, but they become less common in the Jezreel Valley and Galilee. We have found a few across the Jordan.
Some scholars have downplayed these houses as an ethnic marker. They have claimed that houses like this occur in Edom and Ammon and so are not distinctly Israelite. Faust disputes most of these identifications. He believes the “four-room” houses we have found in the Transjordan are Israelite. And the point of his map seems to be to show the overwhelming distribution of the houses in the hill country of Judea, Samaria and Galilee.
Faust proposes to do an analysis of the meaning of the four-room house plan in relation to other near eastern houses. But I did not really understand this from what he says. He does not go into enough detail to satisfy me. Basically, he argues that the four-room house plan is 1) egalitarian and 2) conducive to ritual purity.
He says it is egalitarian because there is only one entrance and everyone, equally, has to enter that way. Apparently Phoenician houses could be entered from several doors. Probably they had servant entrances or different doors for men, women and children. He doesn’t discuss this. He just says that because of the one entrance, Israelite houses are egalitarian.
He says that the houses were conducive to purity. Men and women could stay in different areas at the times the month when that was necessary in line with the ritual impurity associated with menstruation. (People often forget that normal male nighttime ejaculation rendered men temporarily impure as well.) The rooms in the house could be entered from the central space. He says this means an unclean person could still live in the house without contaminating other rooms.
Again, I have questions about this. Wouldn’t it be better from a purity standpoint for men and women to have separate entrances?
I don’t think we can tell from the ruins whether the roof top cooking and sleeping spaces were segregated. They would have to be for the purity idea to work. Wouldn’t they?
There is some sign the he plans to return to this topic later in the book. I hope so.
It is worth pointing out again he is taking what we know of Iron Age II practice, mostly from the biblical texts, and saying that those practices must have originated earlier so that earlier pottery and building styles reflect them.