Monday, March 26, 2007

The Social and Economic Structures of Ancient Israel

The society that produced these revolutionary concepts was not in other respects much different from its neigh­bors. From a federation of nomadic herdsmen initially organized into twelve tribes, the earliest Jews evolved into settled agriculturalists after their arrival in Canaan. Tribal survivals such as the communal ownership of re­sources gave way to a system of private property in which land and water were generally owned by fami­lies. Inevitably, some families were more successful than others, and many became substantial landholders with tenants and perhaps a few slaves. As in Mesopotamia, these families were often extended and always patriar­chal in organization. A gradual process of urbanization increased the importance of crafts and trade, but the basic family structure remained.
In earliest times, fathers held absolute authority over wives and children. As ethical standards evolved, patriarchy was increasingly tempered by a sense of re­sponsibility and mercy. However, the status of women was lower in ancient Israel than among the Hittites, the Egyptians, or the Mesopotamians. Under the Judges who ruled Israel from the invasion of Canaan to the emergence of the monarchy, women presided as priestesses over certain festivals. As interpretation of the Mosaic Law evolved, their participation in reli­gious life was restricted (see document 1.6). The wor­ship of Yahweh demanded purity as well as holiness, and women were regarded as ritually impure during menstruation and after childbirth. They were also ex­empted from regular prayer and other rituals on the theory that they should not be distracted from child care. In effect, they were excluded from direct partici­pation in all public rites and were segregated from men even as observers because their presence was thought to be distracting. The proper role of women was in the home.
The home, however, was central to religious life. Marriages were arranged between families and sealed by contract as in Babylon, but only men could initiate

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