Friday, 3 June 2011

customs in ancient Israel

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Answer to question No. 1.

The structure of the families, and the position of women among ancient Israelites was not a unique one in the Middle Eastern area where they had been resided, but it is very dissimilar to the modern Western concept. Further, the position of women in ancient Judah around the 7th century B.C.E. was also different in most parts from the situation of men in this area. The Israelites of this time had been a patriarchal society, with a patrilocal residence, where the lineage of a family was traced through a person’s father that is through patrilineage. All these cultural traits have an emphasis on the male members of the society thus almost entirely excluding the female members of the group. Although this is the main characteristic of the kin-based society of the Israelites depicted by the Hebrew Bible, there are examples portraying the everyday life of the women in a more private level as opposed to the more public position of the men. In addition, there are some exceptions, where women have an important role in the history of the Israelites and are key actors in a certain situation.

The society of the ancient Israelites was in fact a patriarchal society where the male members of the group occupied the public positions in everyday life, where the social organization was elder based that is men of certain age set the parameters of the standards of life. It was also a patrilocal society where dominantly the women came to live with their husbands’ family, and become a member of this family after marriage. This residence pattern is closely associated with the patrilineal descent system where family links traced through the male kin of the group. Under these circumstances women had a given place in society with rigidly constrained and expected behavioral patterns. Almost every aspect of their lives had been checked, first by their fathers, or brothers and later on by their husbands. Their positions in society are based on the positions of their above-mentioned male relatives and in a higher level by the elders of the patriarchal kin group.

The ascribed status of the female members of the Israelites is pretty self-explanatory. From birth they are the members of their father’s clan and representatives of this group not as individuals but as the future carriers of this patrilineage. After a previously arranged marriage they become the part of the husband’s kin group, which in most instances - because of the patrilineal descent rule � is part of the woman’s original family and kin group. Therefore it is not uncommon among the members of the clan to marry parallel cousins, which was permitted practice at the time. One of the main roles of the women in this society is to bear children, more importantly at least one male child to carry on the father’s lineage. In few instances the female members could also inherit, but it was only in cases where the father had no sons, then his daughter could inherit. But in this situation the marriage within one’s own kin group was even more encouraged, to ensure to lineage of the father.

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Women are also the representatives of the private dichotomy of the family life, more of a background role. They handle things within the household, while men as public entities; represent the clan outside the household. This does not mean that they had no say in certain aspects of the everyday lives of their family. Indeed, in one example, in the Book of Genesis, Abraham’s wife Sarah seems to have a say in family matters concerning inheritance. Since she could not bear a child for a long period of time, Sarah gives her handmaid (proxy motherhood) to her husband to ensure the lineage for the next generation. But later on she also became pregnant with supposedly the second child of Abraham’s lineage. Traditionally, the child born by the handmaid should have been the inheritor, but by the pressure on Abraham made by Sarah changes it and eventually her son gets the statuses of a firstborn.

In a patriarchal society the emphasis is on the male members of the society, ensuring the lineage of the men, and the inheritance of property is generally from father to son. Under these circumstances women seemingly had a small role to play. Although they did not represent their families publicly, they still had an important role shaping their everyday family life within the household. Frequently they had been the advisor and alliance for their husbands in certain situations, and played important role concerning the inheritance rules. And stating the obvious they also distributed to the patrilineage through their capacity to bear child and to give birth. Although the position of women among the ancient Israelites haven’t been a lead role, but from the background they always ensured that their voice would be heard of.

Answer to question No. .

A look at the household life of Israelites makes it easier to understand some of the basic concepts in the Hebrew Bible regarding domestic life. There was an emphasis on large families, since child labor was a necessity. Also the sexual customs could have ensured reproduction, thus inheritance and preserving the lineage. This meant that polygyny was accepted in order to guarantee the patrilineage. The locus of power was in the home. At this time people lived in large household units, that emphasized the harsh living conditions, thus increased the chance of survival. One of the most complete narrative accounts of Hebrew descent, marriage and household structure occurs in Genesis in the details of the lives of the patriarch Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. This narrative provides an illustration of some basic principles of how people lived, what kind of social order they followed, based on the evidence on inheritance, successions and the importance of endogamy.

Abraham was considered the father of the Israelites, the first patriarch in the history of this nation. While the stories depicting his life might not have been entirely accurate it is very useful in explaining the key standards of living and social order among the Hebrews. Also it is a great example of some contradictory evidence on the dynamics of inheritance and succession. The society of the people related to Abraham was a patrilineal and polygynous society. These aspects ensured that there is a male lineage representing the clan throughout time, usually by a firstborn male. This is also interesting, because in the stories about Abraham, Isaac and Jacob the firstborn would never get his birthright and the blessing that only entitles the oldest son.

Abraham marries Sarah, who is in most probability his parallel cousin that is she is related to the kin group Abraham belongs to. They both are from Aram and due to certain conditions throughout this land they migrate to Canaan. This is an example of endogamy, that is Abraham married a person within his social group and patrilocal in terms of Sarah left her family and came to live with his husband and his household. Their life is also a great illustration how important the preservation of the male lineage in a family. Because Sarah could not bear a child, through proxy motherhood she enables the line of Abraham. In addition this instance is also a great way to demonstrate how the rules of inheritance worked. It is always the oldest son who inherits - but since Sarah gave birth to the second child of Abraham -, unless there are some extraordinary situations when this is not the case and an aberrant inheritance come into force and the youngest son inherits. In this example Isaac, Abraham’s second and youngest son will represent the clan’s lineage.

To further ensure Abraham’s line, Isaac marries within his kin group who live outside the area of Canaan. So Rebekah, his future wife that has been arranged for him by his mother, comes to live with Isaac and his family in Canaan. In most likeliness Rebekah is also a parallel cousin of Isaac. They later have twin sons, who show great examples how the rules can be changed.

Esau, the eldest son came out of the womb only a few minutes earlier then Jacob, the second born. Interestingly, Jacob became the favorite son of Rebekah, and through tricks on Jacob and Rebekah’s part, the youngest son again, becomes the inheritor. First Esau trades his birthright to Jacob for food, thus loosing the rights that enable the firstborn and then with the help of his mother, Jacob tricks his elderly father to give his blessing to him. This blessing only due to the oldest son, and there is only one blessing a father could give.

Jacob goes back to his mother’s family, who still live in Mesopotamia, where all the wives of the patriarchs were coming from. Here Jacob becomes the part of his mother’s brother household and marries two of his daughters. This is also a great example of exceptions. In a patriarchal society patrilocal residence was common practice, but here Jacob left his family and resided among his wives clan. But the marriage is still endogamous, that is Jacob, Leah and Rachel are related to each other. Their situation is a great example of polygyny that was a common practice among the Israelites, though was not a rule. Jacob evidently had two wives and also two concubines (his wives handmaids) who also played the role of surrogate mothers. Also the story of Jacob represents the importance of bride wealth and how the wives of Jacob lived in separate buildings within the compound where the clan resided. Jacob served Leah and Rachel’s father for several years in exchange for his daughters. Bride wealth could represent a way of compensation to the bride’s relatives for the loss of her labor and childbearing capacities. After the years Jacob had served for his wives hands he leaves his father-in-law’s household and reunites with his brother and his father’s family.

There are important rules as to how a household structure supposed to be set up. It is related to the need of large families that ensure survival, and ensure the lineage of the male members of the clan and the larger kin group. The structure of the household makes sure that certain rules are enforced, such as post marital residence rules � patrilocal residence -, rules concerning the number of spouses a person may have � polygyny. All these practices, rules and customs depict not only the everyday life of these people but also help understand the larger picture. That is how the Israelites lived in a patriarchal society, how inheritance made sure that their lineage as a group of people will be guaranteed.

Answer to question No. 4.

The ultimate source of wealth for the Israelites was agricultural land. Farming appeared some 10,000 years ago. This farming system was intensive because the techniques they employed allowed to produce more on a given amount of land. The harvesting of crops though irrigation and the use of fertilizers and through the exploiting of the strength of domestic animals all enables agricultural societies to ensure the survival of the clan. The Book of Ruth is a great example depicting the everyday lives of agricultural people and the importance of inheritance and the importance of maintaining property within one (same) lineage.

The patrilineal order assumed the core responsibility for maintaining ownership and validating tenure and inheritance rights. The land belonged to the tribe or the kin group who resided on that certain territory. The inheritance of the land and property was channeled along patrilineal lines. Also the succession by the eldest son seemed to have been the preferred rule. There naturally had been additional rules that specified an order of preferences for the distribution of property in the case a man (and his lineage) had no sons to succeed him. In these cases, his daughters could inherit; or his wife’s children by his brother through the activation of the levirate could inherit; or his brother could inherit; or his closest patrilineal relative could inherit.

In the Book of Ruth, Ruth married his husband’s closest patrilineal relative in order to maintain his husband and father-in-law’s lineage and to keep their inheritance within the kin group. Although Ruth and her mother-in-law did not have a social place in this patriarchal society, they regained their position through marriage to Boaz, Naomi’s husband’s relative. Since men eventually could only own real property, Ruth had to marry a relative within her husband’s lineage in order to benefit from this land.

Since land is inalienable by its occupiers, that is the clan, Ruth didn’t have to option to sell it in order to survive. Property also represented kin group identity so it had an underlying meaning beside just the exploitation of this land. To further guarantee that the land stays within one clan or kin group, if that certain property had been a collateral for a loan, even if the loan hasn’t been repaid, in the jubilee years (every 50 years by the lunar calendar) it goes back to the original owner of the land.

All these inheritance rules made it certain that the land stayed within the exact same group it was originally ascribed to. In the case of the Israelites, the land was divided among the tribes. These territorial rights assigned to the tribes included not only the managerial rights but also collective rights. These privileges allowed their members to own and use tribal lands infinitely. These rights existed not only on the tribal level, but on the individual level too, as we can see in the Book of Ruth. These effectively used smaller farm plots utilized by individuals or rather by small lineages operating within an immediate locality had been the case in most part, based on the evidence depicted in the Tanakh.

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