It’s easy to read the Bible as if it contained disembodied doctrine, eternal truths about the divine being and the cosmos floating above the mundane concerns of human living. But biblical materials were shaped by the people who wrote them–not only by their beliefs but also by the economies in which they lived. And as ancient Israel’s economy changed over time, so too did the assumptions and the agendas of the writers of the documents that we now have in the Bible.
Many scholars of the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament trace three main phases of ancient Israelite economy:
Before the development of monarchy, agriculture was carried out by extended families, each headed by the oldest male of the unit. In this type of economy, the family was largely independent. It either thrived on its own or starved on its own.
In this agricultural setting, children were considered assets, not dependents. Anthropologists estimate that by the age of eight, children in a farming economy can contribute more calories to the family’s income than they consume. Given the estimated infant mortality rate of 1 out of 2 for the ancient world, it’s clear that children were highly valued.
During the monarchy, land ownership shifted into fewer hands. Unsuccessful farming families rented out their labor and/or their land to more successful farmers, and these “patrons” continued to accumulate large landholdings. The monarchy itself owned large estates and demanded tribute/taxes from citizens.
In this system, people were encouraged to rely not on extended family but on their patron and the state. In turn, the state also had an interest in weakening family ties, so that those struggling financially would serve in the military and/or rent out their labor to others instead of turning to relatives for a bailout.
During the Persian period, the time period in the Bible described as the return from exile, large private and monarchical estates were gone. Most land was again farmed primarily by extended families, though the Persian officials demanded significant taxes. As in an earlier period of the nation’s history, people’s financial well-being was largely dependent on the success of its extended family.
The Hebrew Bible/Old Testament reflects these different periods of Israel’s economy.
An extended family system seems to be reflected in the Covenant Code (Exodus 20:22-23:33), in the story of Samuel’s birth (1 Samuel 1), and in some of the stories of Israel’s matriarchs (Genesis 27, 30). In stories like this, women strive to have male children, often die in childbirth, and the family seems largely on its own for survival. Procreation matters.
The existence of large estates is reflected in the books of Samuel, Kings, and several of the prophets. When Samuel scolds Israel for wanting a king, he warns that a king will take people’s sons for warriors, make men into overseers of his own lands, and seize land and stock to give to his courtiers: “you shall be his slaves (I Samuel 8:11-17). Micah rails against those who “covet fields, and seize them; and houses, and take them away; they oppress a man and his house, a man and his inheritance” (Micah 2:2), and Amos accuses the rich of trampling the poor and taking from their extractions of wheat (Amos 5:10). Books like Deuteronomy, which may reflect the thinking of those within the monarchy, downplay the role of the extended family–partly by making the husband-wife bond more important than other family ties. Punishment for crimes is no longer the prerogative of the victim’s family but a matter of law. The account of Adam and Eve in Genesis 2 likely reflects the monarchic interest in stressing the unique bond between husband and wife: while in earlier periods women joined the family of their husbands, in Genesis 2 a man leaves his family and cleaves to his wife.
The return to the extended families is reflected in Genesis 1 and Leviticus. In both, procreation takes high priority. Although the story of Adam and Eve (Genesis 2) focuses on the relationship between the man and female and doesn’t mention procreation as the reason for their union, the creation account in Genesis 1 charges the humans to “be fruitful and multiply.” The regulations for sexual relations in Leviticus increase the likelihood of procreation by forbidding sex during menstruation, male-male sex, and sex with animals. And the elaborate incest prohibitions regulate the interactions of family members living in close proximity.
I draw several important conclusions from this kind of analysis:
1. The Bible gives us humans’ reflection on God from within their own contexts. No less than modern people, ancient writers were affected not just by ideas but also by the way they ate and lived.
2. When people claim that there is only one version of the “biblical family,” they aren’t reading the texts carefully enough. The Bible actually reflects different versions of the family. I’ve discussed the economies that shaped the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament, but economics during the New Testament period deserve attention as well.
3. Modern people need to pay attention to how our own assumptions arise from the economies, politics, and world in which we live. Many readers to assume, for example, that ancient women were “housewives.” That model doesn’t fit an agricultural setting, in which women not only work long hours preparing food but also toil in the fields. Everybody worked in ancient Israel.
4. We need to pay more attention to the social factors that affect families today. Sociologist Stephanie Coontz offers an fascinating study of the way the changes in the American economy has affected families in The Way We Never Were: American Families and the Nostalgia Trap. Basic Books, 1992 /2000.