The idea “Family” in ancient Israel was a more expansive concept than our modern idea. “Family” existed at three basic levels:
First, there was the bayit, or the household. This was similar to our nuclear family of parents with probably two to four children, as well as multiple generations, but it also might include debt servants, slaves, concubines, resident aliens, sojourners, day laborers and orphans.
Second, there was the mishpachah, which loosely referred to a clan. The term was used occasionally of large social units, even the entire nation of Israel. Most typically, it is used in reference to residential kinship groups consisting of several households.
Third, there was the mattah, or the tribe, which consisted of many clans.
There was polygamy among the wealthiest households and in the royal households of later eras but is not clear how extensive polygamy may have been practiced beyond these contexts. The household was the central place of nurture, education, and discipline. That said, it would be erroneous to read our modern notions of family into the household.
Ancient Israel was an agrarian society that required extensive cooperation for economic survival. Leo Perdue writes:
Social cooperation among families in the clan (mispahah) was necessary for building and maintaining terraces to conserve the soil and reduce water runoff, for sharing a common water source (wells or streams), for constructing cisterns that retained water for the rainy season, for establishing and supporting the boundaries of fields, for harvesting of crops, for judicial settlements, and for a common defense. A network of mutual care was necessary for households to survive crop failures and food shortages caused by drought, blight, and disease. This network of care extended beyond individual to tribes and to the “sons of Israel,” whose marginal “poor” included Levites, widows, fatherless children, resident aliens, debt servants, slaves, and sojourners. (“The Israelite and Early Jewish Family” in Families in Ancient Israel (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1997), 169-170)
In an agrarian society, land was essential to survival. Furthermore, the promise that God gave to Abraham and his descendants was inextricably tied up with each Israelite family having a share in the land as God’s stewards. Two or three consecutive years of drought, crop failures, or other calamities could easily force someone to forfeit their land in exchange for goods to survive. Thus, we find considerable attention given to the protection of land ownership, most notably in Leviticus 25, but in other passages as well. But a household was not just the land. A household estate “…would include fields, orchards, vineyards, pastures, livestock, and the tools and implements for living and working.” (175)
Ancient Israel was a patri-local society. Adult sons lived with their father. When they married (usually within the clan) the bride came to live in the husband’s father’s house. A separate structure was often added to accommodate the new couple attached to either existing structures or adjoining a common courtyard. A group of households might typically be located together to form villages. Perdue suggests that most villages in Israel’s early history consisted of no more than about 100 people. (177) By the time of the monarchy, some urbanization had begun but this small rural village framework was present down to the time of Christ.
So in a way, family can be viewed as concentric circles with the household at the center, the clan farther out, and the tribe existing out beyond the clan. But there is another dimension as well. The Israelites also had a strong sense of connectedness with their ancestors and with yet to be born descendants. These folks were understood to be a part of the household, clan, and tribe as well. When someone died, he or she was said to be “gathered with his (or her) ancestors.” As time went by, the ideas of clan, and particularly tribe, became somewhat fictive relationships without always having a strict biological connection involved.
So how did these notions of household and family influence their understanding of God and of their mission in the world? How did it change over time?