How to be a Housewife in First-Century Israel

Updated: Apr 24, 2020

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!)