How to be a Housewife in First-Century Israel

Updated: Apr 24

So you want to be a first-century woman living in Israel? This series will serve as a primer to immerse yourself in your chosen lifestyle. Consider this First Century Womanhood 101 where you learn how to assimilate into the culture. If you're new here, make sure you check out the introductory post for this series that explains our focus and the sources we are utilizing. So far, we've taken a look at the many occupations a woman might be involved in through her family in Women at Work in the Bible. While a woman might help with her husband's or family's trade, her primary concern is often the home. Let's take a look at what you would expect as a wife and mother in the first-century world of Israel.


A Woman's Authority in the Home


Though you are entering what is typically viewed as a man's world, as the matriarch of the family you will be involved in every aspect of the household—from finances to furniture to spiritual instruction. In the event of your husband's absence, you will be considered capable of managing the home-front with skill. Your husband has the legal authority in the family. However, you influence the household more than any other person, encouraging the family to godliness by your example, protecting the purity and honor of the household, and creating a loving environment where children can flourish. (1)


If you are the matriarch of the home, it is your job to oversee the younger women and the children. You must keep everyone working together for the family's benefit. There are many responsibilities that must be done every day, but in most households, extended families live very close to one another (or even in the same house) and share the load. You might have daughters, daughters-in-law, grandmothers, and even great-grandmothers all working together to care for the family. To modern women that sounds overwhelming, but you will quickly realize that large-family-life is typical and has more benefits than drawbacks. (2)


Time to get started on your daily tasks!


Fetching Water (and the Lack of Plumbing)


The first shock you will experience as you enter the first-century world will no doubt be the absence of modern conveniences like plumbing. Don't let the lack of running water deter you from keeping your family clean. The washing of hands before meals is prescribed for ritual purity by the elders, but as we know now, it also helps keep the family healthy. (3)


Fetching water is one of the first chores of the day. If you don't live near a stream, spring, or clean lake, you'll have to look for alternative sources of water. Rainwater is collected in underground cisterns that are dug into stone and lined with plaster. This water serves to tide the household over the dry summer months. As the water sits in the cistern, the sediment shifts to the bottom, leaving clear water at the top. It is extremely important that you keep cisterns and wells covered. Otherwise disease will breed in standing water in the form of bacteria that grows in sunlight. Your first-century neighbors might not understand bacteria, but they definitely understand the sickness that comes from drinking polluted water. (4)


Sometimes you may have to walk a great distance to get clean water. You or your daughters will take a tall jar or an animal skin bag. You can carry your water jar on your hip, shoulder, or head. Water is needed for cooking, drinking for both the family and the livestock, and for watering the garden, so you might need to make several trips to fill the water jars and troughs at home.


It's best to water the garden before the heat of the day, so be sure to fetch water with the dawn. While you're in the garden, you might as well pull a few weeds too.


While we're talking about the lack of plumbing, you might be wondering about bathroom breaks! We'll save that eye-opening conversation for the upcoming post 'What to Wear and How to Stay Clean in the First-Century'!


Managing Your Hired Workers and Slaves


A fact of the ancient world is that you might have slaves in your household. In Rome, one in five citizens is a slave. In the Roman Senate, someone proposed that slaves be required to wear a distinctive outfit, but it was shot down for fear that the slaves would realize how numerous they were. Slaves work both inside the house and out. They might help you in your business or manage your property while you are away. Some slaves work in politics and have influence over the governing of nations. (5)


Slavery is abhorrent to us in the 21st century, but it is considered acceptable in the first century. For the very poor, sometimes life as a slave is preferable because they will be given food, clothing, and shelter. While there is always the option to free any slaves that come under your ownership, slaves are expensive so you will likely not be able to buy and free slaves regularly.


For hard-working slaves, you will give them commission or wages for their work as an incentive to do well, and they can save up to buy their freedom out of that money. (6)


In this era of Roman occupation, slaves can be bought from slave-traders who have procured them as the spoils of war. Many slaves come from what is now Britain and France. In Israel, rebellions are often punished by carrying away your countrymen as slaves, something that breeds hatred for Rome from the Jewish population. (5)


In your new homeland, a person might sell themselves or a child into servitude because they can not pay a debt. The law commands that after six years you must set them free, along with their wife if they married while under your authority. If a slave does not want to leave you, he can ask to become a bond-slave and have his ear pierced. He is committing himself to you for life. (Deuteronomy 15:12-18)


If your kinsman becomes poor and asks to be made a slave because they cannot provide for themselves, you must treat them well, like a hired worker. You can keep them with you until the year of Jubilee, which happens every 50 years. When he is freed, his children (and grandchildren) go with him. (Leviticus 25:39-43)


In Rome, slaves who are freed are called “freedmen”, and they are automatically granted citizenship. They might remain in their former master's household, or they might go out in the world to conduct business for their master. Freedmen can advance upwards in society and gain wealth. You will encounter freedmen in your homeland, or even have some work for you. While they share heritage and faith with their Jewish brothers, their dress and behavior are more like the Greeks, so they are not always accepted by the stricter Jewish society. They have their own synagogue in Jerusalem. (7)


It is important to remember that your own people were once slaves in Egypt, so you should not be a ruthless master. You are permitted legally to strike your servants, but it is better to avoid threatening because, under God, you are both equals. (Ephesians 6:9)


If you have maids or man-servants going out to work for the day, you must rise early and prepare their portions for them to take along for their midday meal.


Hired workers work day-to-day. You can meet them in the marketplace and hire them to work on your farm as laborers. You will pay hired workers at the end of each day; there is no waiting for payday around here! (Leviticus 19:13)


Caring for the Children


You must wake the children and prepare them for the day by taking them to the toilet (more on this in an upcoming post!), getting them dressed, and combing their hair.


You'll quickly realize that you don't have any diapers available. Historians (perhaps because they used to be primarily male) did not record much on this somewhat crucial topic! You might be able to find soft cloth and line it with moss, but there's only so much moss you can find and laundry you can handle, so you might have to do without. On warm days, simply let them go naked from the waist down. Young, swaddled babies will need their wrappings changed regularly to avoid painful rashes or ulcers. With older babies, you will need to watch for signs that they need to go and hold them over a little clay pot or away from your body—essentially baby-led potty training. This happens from as young as three months old. (Our thoughts and prayers will be with you!)


It is important to teach the children to pray every morning with the family. After morning prayers, you will serve the children breakfast and teach them by memory from the scriptures. A first-century woman rarely knows how to read, and even if you can, you likely will not be able to afford your own copies of the law and prophets. (8)


The children and women in your household look to you for their spiritual instruction. Between the ages of 6 and 10, your sons will join the school at the local synagogue and the responsibility for their education is handed to their father. They will learn to read Hebrew aloud and receive more involved lessons from the Torah. However, don't underestimate your duty to teach your sons. Consider Proverbs 31:1-9 and the wise words King Lemuel's mother taught him. Your daughters must be carefully instructed on how to follow the laws governing purity in the home in preparation for caring for their own households someday. (9)


Tidying the House


After instruction, set the children to their chores. They might care for the animals, fetch sticks or dried dung to serve as fuel for the fire, or help their father with his trade. If the children aren't old enough, these tasks fall to you.


In a smaller home, the bedroom is also the main living room, so the thin woven mats or padded pallets you sleep on are rolled up and tucked away for the day. Instead of pillows, you will have rolled up blankets or outer robes. Wealthier families sleep on soft beds or couches and have bolsters for their heads. After making the beds, the house must be swept with a straw broom. You might have a packed dirt or stone floor. You can keep woven straw matting to soften and warm the floor underfoot. These will need to be thrown out and replaced a few times a year. The ashes from the ovens or fire pit are carefully collected and kept for use later. Once the house is tidied up, it's time to get on with the next part of your day.


Preparing your Daily Bread


Bread is a staple of every meal. You will have a steady routine of grinding grain, mixing dough, leaving it to rise, and baking it. By adding yeasty portions of previous batches to new batches of dough, you can keep the process going indefinitely. If you happen to lose your yeast, you can create a new batch by fermenting fruit juice. If you end up with unexpected company, or if it is a festival season that forbids yeast, you can quickly make unleavened bread by mixing flour, oil, and water into flatbread. Baking it on a griddle creates thin loaves that you will break rather than cut to eat.

Grinding grain will take hours out of your day, up to three hours for one woman to feed a family of five. (10) You will grind the grain by crushing it between two stones. You might set up a place on the roof under a canopy or in the courtyard so that the dust is not troublesome. Working with other women you can use this time for a good chat, to sing songs, or to teach your daughters the scriptures. If you can afford it, you can purchase a large stone mill that is turned by a donkey going round and round in circles. Of course, besides the cost of the grindstone, you must have the funds to maintain the donkey's care. (11)


Making Clothes on a Loom


You will quickly come to miss the ease of buying clothes at a department store. For most families, you must weave what your family wears. Wool is spun into yarn. Flax must be broken down by soaking in water, then scraped and combed to extract the fibers that can be spun into strands. Usually the threads are dyed before being fashioned into clothes.


The clothes you craft will be simple and loose-fitting, sometimes as basic as two rectangles fastened together with holes for head and arms. Looms vary by location but the typical loom is a warp-weighted loom which is a square structure of beams leaned against a wall. Loom weights are created out of clay, shaped in many designs and with a hole through them. The weighted strands run up and down, and you make cloth by weaving more threads side to side, working from the top down. Patterns can be made by alternating colors. Once the cloth is made it must go through a process called fulling to soften it and tighten the weave, by bleaching it or washing it in lye or other concoctions. The cloth is stretched out on a beam or flat surface any debris or burs are picked out by hand. (12)


Crafting a single garment will take days or weeks of work depending on its size and design, so it's best to work on your spinning and weaving as often your day allows. When finished, you can add embroidery for decoration if you desire. If you can afford it, you can buy ready-made cloth or finished garments from a seamstress or tailor.


Winters can be cold, so prepare ahead of time by crafting thick wool garments for your household to keep them comfortable and healthy. (13)


Laundry Day


These clothes you have crafted must be washed, as well as the bedding, make-shift diapers, and other linens. If you live by a river or lake, you can wash the laundry there with the other women, spreading it to dry on low bushes or clean grass. You might also take it home to hang on the line in the courtyard. If you live in a town, you might hire your laundry out or have water brought into the courtyard for washing.


To wash the clothes, you will spread them on stones and sprinkle on greyish lumps of a mixture of coarse sodium (salt) and lye (made from ashes). You might miss the sweet fragrances of modern detergents, but this strange concoction does work. Instead of the gyrating motion of a modern washing machine, you will strike the cloth with paddles. Laundry day is a social time, where you will visit with your neighbors while your small children entertain each other. (14)


Cooking for Dinner Time


Cooking the meals is another womanly responsibility. What you can bring to the table will depend on the family's budget, but the staples are grains, olive oil, wine, and fruit. Salt gathered from the Dead Sea adds flavor, as does spices and herbs you can grow or purchase.


Meat is expensive, so you might only eat it on special festival days. Chickpeas, beans, and lentils will be your primary sources of protein, and you will fashion them into hearty spiced stews or pastes for dipping bread. You will cook using a clay pot kept near the heat. The clay cooks the food uniformly and is naturally non-stick. You can expect to cook a lentil stew in about forty-five minutes.


Though you have fewer choices than a modern woman, there is still plenty of nutritious food. The sourdough bread you make is far more nutritious than our modern grocery store bread and has natural good bacteria for gut health. A goat, if you can afford one, will provide milk that you can drink fresh and make into cheese. You will grow cucumbers and leafy greens in your garden. If you do not have your own fruit trees, you can buy fresh or dried figs, dates, and grapes, as well as almonds. Pomegranates and citrons are other fruits available to you depending on the season, and melons can be brought in from Egypt. Eggs can be gathered from your own poultry or from the wild. During festival days you will create special meals for the family to enjoy.


The Work That Never Ends


There is a myriad of little chores to fill your days. Market days come twice a week, and you will buy necessary supplies and perhaps sell items you or your family have produced. You will have to refill your lamps with cheap olive oil and trim or add new wicks. You will ensure all the food is stored properly to keep it dry and safe from spoiling or being polluted. You will need to wash the dishes after each use and replace pottery that becomes cracked or broken. When the herbs ripen in the garden you will need to dry them. Add to this minding children, breastfeeding babies, helping the men with their trades, tending sick people or livestock, and you will never be bored.


Sabbath Rest


If all of this sounds exhausting, take heart. God specifically set aside a day of rest for you. On Fridays you will clean the house, fetch extra water, and prepare Saturday's meals. You will build up the fire before the sun sets because you cannot add more fuel until the sun sets on Saturday. During the Sabbath you can't do any work at all or travel long distances. If you have a Gentile neighbor, you can ask her to stoke your fire in the courtyard or watch your prepared food for you.


Sabbath is a day to dedicate to rest and learning scripture. You might attend synagogue twice, Friday night and Saturday morning. The men sometimes spend hours debating the law. The amount of freedom a woman has to speak up in the synagogue varies region to region, but you can always ask your husband to ask questions for you. Either way, you will enjoy socializing with your friends and relatives. (15)


Your Gentile neighbors will likely not understand your Sabbath requirements. They might think the restrictions are harsh or that the Sabbath is an excuse to be lazy. However, you know the Sabbath is a gift from a kind God, and you learn week-by-week to rely on his providence rather than on the work of your own hands.


Feeling Ready?


If this list of household chores hasn't deterred you, and you think you are ready to manage a house of your own, make sure you read the next post all about Marriage and Divorce! To make sure you don't miss a post in this series, make sure you subscribe!


What do you think would be your greatest challenge in the first-century household? What would you enjoy the most?





Sources:


1. Backgrounds of Christianity by Everett Ferguson page 77, 78

2. Backgrounds of Christianity by Everett Ferguson page 72

3. Matthew 15:2

4. Lexham Geographic Commentary on the Gospels edited by Barry J. Beitzel page 356, 357, 362

5. Backgrounds of Christianity by Everett Ferguson page 59

6. Backgrounds of Christianity by Everett Ferguson page 60

7. Backgrounds of Christianity by Everett Ferguson page 58

8. Dictionary of New Testament Background edited by Craig A. Evans and Stanley E. Porter page 645

9. Dictionary of New Testament Background edited by Craig A. Evans and Stanley E. Porter page 1276

10. Lexham Geographic Commentary on the Gospels edited by Barry J. Beitzel page 112

11. Lexham Geographic Commentary on the Gospels edited by Barry J. Beitzel page 309

12. Dagan, Amit, and Deborah R. Cassuto. “Ḥorbat Shimʿon: An Eighth-Century BCE Textile Workshop in the Southern Coastal Plain.” Israel Exploration Journal, vol. 66, no. 1, 2016, pp. 34–54. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/44473993. Accessed 11 Mar. 2020.

13. Proverbs 31:21

14. International Standard Bible Encyclopedia

15. Backgrounds of Early Christianity by Everett Ferguson pages 556-557

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I'm Katrina, and I'm a wife, mom, and a Christian Historical Fiction Author. 

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