A Typical Israelite Community in the OT Period

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Excerpt When we study the OT, we need to bridge a number of cultural gaps. One such gap is the significant difference in the structure of the agricultural communities... Continue reading

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When we study the OT, we need to bridge a number of cultural gaps. One such gap is the significant difference in the structure of the agricultural communities. Typically, rural America has consisted of farmers living on sizable parcels of land divided into a variety of personally owned fields. As a result, farm homes have tended to be somewhat isolated, often hundreds of yards (or meters) or more apart. Commercial enterprises would often be miles away. In contrast, the evidence indicates that the typical Israelite farming community, like that of the earlier Canaanites, would have been a cluster of houses built in close proximity to each other, even to the point of having common walls. The fields of the settlement’s farmers collectively would have encircled that cluster of houses.

The purpose of this study is to look at what an agricultural community in the post-Conquest period—i.e., the time of the books of Judges and Samuel—might have looked like. While this study focuses on the period from Joshua to David (i.e., the United Kingdom), Genesis 33:19 suggests that the same pattern existed in the time of Jacob. In the process, we will be looking at three key strands of evidence: the biblical record, archaeology, and the pattern that is evident today as one travels throughout the Middle East.

A Modern Arab Village

Israelite farming community fig 1

Figure 1: Unnamed Jordanian village. (Michael A. Harbin)

Figure 1 is a picture of a typical (unnamed) Jordanian village taken by the author during a visit to Israel-Jordan in 2010. This is a modern version of the pattern which has historically been evident in the land of Israel, and thus provides a good visual representation. As can be seen, the village consists of a number of houses built in close proximity. The village ends abruptly with a number of conjoined small fields in all directions. From this angle, one can see a small satellite settlement being built in the foreground.

Israelite farming community fig 2

Figure 2: Satellite community of unnamed Jordanian village. (Michael A. Harbin)

Figure 2 focuses on that satellite settlement which is about a half mile (or a kilometer) from the village. These items will be discussed in more detail below.

Israelite farming community fig 3

Figure 3:  Diagram of Jordanian Arab Village, Kufr Al-Ma. (Richard T. Antoun, Arab Village, used by permission).

Figure 3 is a diagram of another Jordanian Arab Village, Kufr Al-Ma. This diagram was created by Richard T. Antoun in his 1960 study.1 According to Antoun, Kufr Al-Ma was one of about 200 “cereal-growing villages of the Ajlun district of northwestern Transjordan” at the time of his study.2

Israelite farming community fig 4

Figure 4: Map of Jordanian Al-Kura sub-district with village of Kufr Al-Ma highlighted. (Richard T. Antoun, Arab Village, used by permission)

Figure 4 is a larger scale map that Antoun provides. The area of this map is approximately 170 square miles (approximately 440 square kilometers). He identified at that time about 25 villages. Each “village” was really a larger agricultural region with a cluster of houses as a nucleus. As shown in Figure 4 Kufr Al-Ma, the village of Antoun’s study (shaded), really consisted of two parts, with the main part (the northern portion) being roughly triangular. This portion had a long axis of about three miles and a cross axis of about a mile and a half. The larger area is described as “woodlands.”3 The present study focuses on the northern portion of the village area.

As shown in Figure 3, the housing area occupied the al balad basin which is marked 13 on the diagram. This central region of the village was roughly circular, one half mile in diameter.4 The housing area was surrounded by fields. As laid out on Figure 3, the village seemed to incorporate approximately 260 fields of varying sizes. While this chart suggests that they ranged in size from less than an acre to more than 30 acres, from personal observation in a number of locations throughout the Middle East, it seems that even today many fields fall into the 2-5 acre range (see Figure 6).

Israelite farming community fig 5

Figure 5:  Diagram of housing portion of Kufr Al-Ma village in Jordan. (Richard T. Antoun, Arab Village, used by permission)

The inner portion of the village, the al balad basin, contains much of the “housing area,” which is illustrated in Figure 5. For our purposes, three items must be noted. While Antoun describes the houses as abutting one another, the purpose of the diagram is to support Antoun’s social structural study (i.e., clans and lineages), and does not include all of the houses of the village. Overall, in 1960 the village had a population of approximately 2000.5 The number of households that he marked on Figure 5 is approximately 270, most of which occupied one room houses.6

An Israelite Village

It is our contention that this this model of a cluster of houses surrounded by the fields of the villagers was also the standard village structure of Israel in the Late Bronze and Early Iron Ages, i.e., the period of the Judges and the early monarchy. At this point, we need to look at what the biblical evidence suggests.

The book of Ruth is presented as taking place late in the period of the Judges, and it gives a glimpse into the agricultural system of the day. To begin with, Ruth 2:2-3 suggests that the land surrounding the community was viewed collectively as “the field.”7 Twice those two verses talk about Ruth going to “the field” (singular) to reap after the harvesters. Verse 3 notes that a portion of that field (again singular) belonged to Boaz. This suggests then that while certain portions of the agricultural land surrounding the village belonged to different individuals (or more properly, families). This seems to correlate with the evidence that we noted in Figure 4. As such, the totality of the fields was viewed as a collective whole belonging to the village. Travels throughout the Middle East today suggest that the normal situation is that there are no fences between the various portions (see Figure 6) and it would appear that that was the same pattern in ancient Israel.

Israelite farming community fig 6

Figure 6: Fields in Ephraim portion of modern Israel. (Michael A. Harbin)

Second, as noted above, Figure 5 provides a larger scale diagram of the modern village of Kufr Al-Ma showing the village surrounded by both gardens and olive groves within the ring fields. These are closer to the village than the tilled fields. While not addressed by Antoun or the OT, the writer’s experiences in the Middle East indicate that at least in some cases, farmers tilled around the olive trees (see Figure 7).

Israelite farming community fig 7

Figure 7: Plowing among olive trees in Ephraim portion of modern Israel. (Michael A. Harbin)

Third, we noted how the “woodlands” extended beyond the cultivated fields. While Antoun does not discuss this, it is suggested that this region would be used for the grazing of the ubiquitous sheep and goats of the region. If so, this would be in contrast to the more familiar Bedouin pattern, which is at least semi-nomadic.8

Fourth, this village structure would affect our expectation of how land (specifically “cities”) were distributed during the Conquest.9 In his thorough study of the Israel road system of the nation of Israel, Dorsey notes that archaeologists have listed over a thousand Iron Age sites in Israel, although many are unpublished.10 This has several implications which will be addressed in the next section. In broader terms, it may be suggestive in terms of the population and its distribution.11 It also seems to affect geographic issues such as the specific question of the location of Ai. While in recent decades, Ai has been located at et-Tell, this site does not fit the biblical data. More recently, ABR archaeologists have focused on Khirbet el-Maqatir. It is described as being located one mile due west of the traditional et-Tell site.12 This proximity of various “villages” is demonstrated by Antoun’s work.

Implications for the Conquest

In terms of understanding the OT, one of the areas where this demographic has implications is in terms of the settlement process described in Joshua. Given the layout of a modern “village” as described above, the following scenario is suggested. When the nation came into the land, a clan (or a portion of it) might have settled a “city” with the various “extended families” settling both the “city” and the surrounding “villages.” While “cities” would have been the landmark locations, the local villages would have been the de facto immediate cultural centers. As the land was occupied, the local village elders would have then divided the collective field into what we might call nuclear family holdings. There would have been several practical effects on daily life as the population settled into occupying the land.

1. The fact that all of the villagers lived in close proximity would have affected community mores in a profound way. Anyone who has lived in a small town is aware of how public his or her life is. We see this in the OT in a variety of ways. For example, in Judges 6, the community quickly determined that it was Gideon who destroyed the altar of Baal. It is suggested that the close proximity of family members also affected domestic issues that we struggle with today such as spouse abuse.

2. In terms of daily work, this structure would have meant that the typical Israelite farmer would have left the housing cluster in the morning to walk to the particular portions of the community field he owned. In the process, he would have seen relatives and neighbors on a regular basis, although at times farmers would have been on opposite sides of the village. This is evident in Ruth 2 when Ruth goes out to the field.

3. That everyone walked to his portion of the field would put a practical limit both on the size of the agricultural community and how far out from the community center the working portion of the collective field extended. While an hour trek might be the effective extent of the daily commute (suggesting an approximate maximum tilled radius of about 3 miles), it seems likely that a tilled radius of about a mile or less from the city “gates” would be more typical. This is approximately what we see in the case of the modern Arab village of Kufr Al-Ma.13

4. Likely, over time, there would have been a cluster of satellite settlements ringing a given city as suggested by Figure 2.14 If so, as noted in footnote 13 the theoretical overall territory for a given cluster (i.e., a city and its villages) might have a diameter of about six miles, or an area of about 25-30 square miles.

5. It seems likely that there would have been stretches of untilled territory between clusters, much of which may still have been uncleared.15 This seems to correlate with what Antoun notes as “woodlands.”

6. While the field portions may have been distributed by lot, the model of Caleb in Judges 1:14-15 suggests that in the initial distribution the extended family (or possibly clan) leader had the prerogative of granting particular portions to specific individuals or nuclear families.

7. The example of Caleb also suggests that after the land was divided (whether by lot or by grant), there were still portions of the field which were non-appropriated. This may have had implications in terms of fallow land during Sabbath years, but that is beyond this study.

8. Further, Caleb’s daughter asked for springs in addition to the land she had already been given (Jgs 1:16). It then seems likely that a farmer’s various portions of the collective field could lie in different directions from the community center. Based on the material already discussed, while today a separate single field portion might typically be in the five to ten acre range (although today, it appears that larger fields are also common), it seems likely that given the agricultural tools available in the Late Bronze and Early Iron ages smaller fields would have been more common. It is suggested that in OT Israel, a typical field would have more likely have been in the one to two acre range (which also still seems common in Israel today, especially in the highlands).16 If a typical Israelite had a total inheritance in the range of three to five acres, then he likely had several field portions located in different parts of the field. It is likely that different crops were grown on the different portions (e.g., barley and wheat). This would correlate with the discussion in Ruth 2 regarding the different harvests.

9. The grazing portions of community’s land likely would have been beyond the plowed fields.17 Given the further distances from the housing clusters, it seems likely that the flocks and herds would have seasonally remained in their pastures both day and night when they were grazing (might this be illustrated by Luke 2:8?), although after the fields were harvested they would have been brought closer.18

10. Since the residences were located in the community centers separate from the field, if a person leased his land under the Jubilee stipulations, the residence would not have been effected. Thus he would still have had a place to live.19 This might explain the situation of Naomi and Ruth in Ruth 2 after they came to Bethlehem from Moab.

11. An item not discussed in any of the materials noted so far are the “gardens.” Antoun diagrams in Figure 5 how the garden plots were in close proximity to the housing cluster, but does not address it. It seems likely that these plots were more closely associated with the family’s home and thus may have been tended by women and children, more than the fields where grains were grown.20

As noted in implication 4, Joshua continually cites a number of cities, and their villages (cf. Jos 19:8). The Zondervan Pictorial Encyclopedia of the Bible distinguishes villages from cities suggesting that cities were walled and villages were not.21 If this was the actual case (and it is likely), then the issue would not seem to be size. More importantly, this model shows how the villages would serve as satellite communities which allowed farmers to live within a reasonable daily walk from their portion of the fieldat least in times of peace. As such, the sphere of influence of a city would incorporate a number of villages which surrounded the larger city center.22 If the cities were indeed walled, then in times of unrest, these farmers could flee there for protection.23 However, a more basic function of a city would seem to be that these larger population centers also provided locations for commercial development where skilled craftsmen and artisans might set up shops and focus on non-agricultural careers—signs of a maturing and complex culture.24


Bridging the gap between the agrarian culture of the OT and our modern urban culture clarifies guidelines given to the nation of Israel as well as judgments given by the prophets. I find that the implications listed above seem to provide insights especially into some of the historical portions of the OT, and as suggested even in certain portions of the OT law. One area where I have found this understanding to be very helpful is in the study of the book of Ruth. In that case, I have a greater appreciation of the intricacies of the narrative both with regard to Naomi’s odyssey to Moab and back, as well as Ruth’s actions after she arrived in Bethlehem.


1 Richard T. Antoun, Arab Village: A Social Structural Study of a Transjordanian Peasant Community (Bloomington IN: Indiana University Press, 1972), 24.

2 Ibid., 1. According to Wikipedia, today the Ajlun (or Ajloun) district has an area of about 420 square kilometers (about 162 square miles), https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ajloun, downloaded 28 June 2016.

3 Antoun describes the woodlands as consisting “largely of maquis” which “is a secondary growth of shrubs that follows the destruction of forest.In Jordan, the trees are usually a drought-resisting species of evergreen oak.They may grow taller than a man with semidwarf shrubs growing in the intervening spaces.” (2).

4 Antoun describes the housing region as being located on the side of a hill which surrounds a “wide open area at the center of the village on which front four village shops.” He notes that when one enters the village, the housing density increases until one “is surrounded by houses abutting one on the other on either side of the narrow lane.” (1)

5 Ibid., 1.

6 Given the previous observation, it is not possible to draw conclusions from this study regarding family sizes.

7 Edward F. Campbell Jr., Ruth. Anchor Bible (New York: Doubleday, 1975), 143.

8 For further discussion on this aspect see David C. Hopkins, The Highlands of Canaan (Sheffield, England: JSOT Press, 1985). Note especially pages 246-50. He notes that apparently flocks and herds would be allowed to graze fields that had already been harvested which provided some fertilization. This would help illuminate issues involved in Exodus 25:5.

9 Although they are called “cities” in the OT, they were more along the lines of what today are called “villages,” such as Kuft Al-Ma with a population of about 2000. Joshua 15 lists approximately 102 cities for Judah alone. No specific cities are cited for Ephraim and Manasseh, while the remaining seven tribes have approximately 130 cities listed (112 are numbered for Benjamin, Simeon, Zebulun, Issachar, Asher, and Napthali, and 18 are listed but not numbered for Dan). This gives a total of about 232 cities listed, which may or may not have had walls. The primary thing to keep in mind when thinking about the density of cities is that the primary means of transportation was walking.

10 David A. Dorsey, The Roads and Highways of Ancient Israel (Baltimore:Johns Hopkins University Press, 1991), xi.

11 As Pasciuti and Chase-Dunn note, “The accuracy of estimating the total number of residents for an urban area remains highly questionable and problematic. Many historians, archaeologists, sociologists, and even economists have tried various means of estimating populations by using standard multipliers and complex formulas for making inferences from historical records. Even differences in the physical size of a settlement, amount of area devoted to housing, the number of stories per house, or even the issue of what constitutes the extent of an urban area remain highly debated issues.” (Daniel Pasciuti and Christopher Chase-Dunn, “Estimating The Population Sizes of Cities,” Urbanization and Empire Formation Project as part of the Institute for Research on World-Systems, University of California, Riverside, posted online at http://irows.ucr.edu/research/citemp/estcit/estcit.htm, downloaded 9 Jul 16. In this case, given more than a thousand sites that we are aware of, if each site had an average population of even just two or three hundred, the population would be in the hundreds of thousands.

12 “The Search for Joshua's Ai” by Bryant G. Wood, posted Apr 28, 2009. http://www.biblearchaeology.org/post/2009/04/28/The-Search-for-Joshuas-Ai.aspx. Accessed 7 Jul 16. See also http://www.bibleplaces.com/maqatir/.

13 Figure 3 shows the tilled region extending about a half mile to the south and east, and the northwest. A lobe on the north extends about a mile, and another lobe to the west extends about a mile and a half. In a stylized layout of a circular city, a mile radius would give a region of about 2000 acres of tilled land. If the typical farm for a male was about 5 acres, this would have provided an agricultural base for about 400 nuclear families if all of the land was tilled. Looking at this from another perspective, a 3 mile radius might be a good working figure for the territory of a city and its villages. About a mile beyond the city walls, one might transition from the field of the central city to the field of a “daughter” or village. Figure 4 shows that the spacing between villages located by Antoun (only villages of a certain lineage are addressed in the text) is approximately 1–1 1/2 miles. Assuming that each village had a surrounding field of about the same radius, about half a dozen villages could surround a single city under this distribution.

14 Howard suggests that the “word for villages here (חחָצֵר [hatser]) refers to permanent settlements without walls, that is, outlying farming villages,” (312). Later in Joshua, the text includes a second category, בבְנֹת [banot], literally “daughters,” that NASB translates as “towns.” For example, Joshua 15:45 refers to Ekron, “with its towns and its villages,”” using both terms suggesting two different types of settlement. These daughters may be smaller hamlets or settlements intermediate in size between cities and villages (again as noted in Figures 1 and 2).

15 An indication of this might be Joshua’s admonition to the descendants of Joseph in Joshua 17:14–18 to clear the forests to get more land.

16 Michael A. Harbin, “Jubilee and Social Justice” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, 54:4 (December 2011), 692. This immediately raises a question as to whether a family could survive on that amount of land. After an extensive search regarding how much land would be needed to support a family, the best answer I have come up with is from Charles Willis, who stated that in terms of subsistence farming, “any number you pick will be a judgment call” (http://radlab.nl/radsafe/archives/9712/msg00120.html, downloaded 26 October 2009). He concludes that it could range from .25 to 10 acres per person. He notes that in China there are approximately 4 people per arable acre.

17 The understanding presented here is that the 1000 cubit measurement would be to the beginning of the Levites’ pasture land which would extend another 1000 cubits all the way around the city. The land inside that 1000 cubit ring would be used for farming by the non-Levites also dwelling in the Levetical cities (Hebron in Joshua 21 is a key example). As Noordtzij and others point out, the Levitical cities clearly included non-Levite occupants (A. Noordtzij, Bible Student’s Commentary: Numbers, translated by Ed van der Maas [Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1983], 296). It would be assumed that while the Levites did not farm because of their liturgical responsibilities, the non-Levites within the Levitical cities likely did. This understanding of the Levitical city places the end of the tilled soil at a mandatory 1000 cubits, i.e., about .3 miles from the walls, however, for the non-Levitical cities, the distance of the grazing ring from the walls likely were more flexible, with the practical limits noted above. Since the measurements began at the city walls, a larger city would have a larger core, and thus more tilled land within walking distance from the city gates.

18 Exodus 22:5 suggests that after a harvest, flocks would be allowed to graze in the harvested field portions to help finish off stubble and to then fertilize the land. Baker notes a Babylonian practice of grazing sheep on agricultural land for at least part of the year (David L. Baker, Tight Fists or Open Hands? [Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co, 2009], 58).

19 This may explain the distinction between the sale of houses in walled cities and those in villages (Lev 25:29–31).

20 Contrary to the assertions of Knauf, this does not necessitate the location of a garden or a vineyard inside the city walls. He uses that assumption to argue against the historicity of the Naboth account in 1 Kings 21 (Ernst Asel Knauf, “Inside the Walls of Nehemiah’s Jerusalem: Naboth’s Vineyard,” in The Fire Signals of Lachish: Studies in the Archaeology and History of the Late Bronze Age, Iron Age, and Persian Period in Honor of David Ussishkin, edited by Israel Finkelstein and Nadav Na’aman [Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbraun’s, 2011], 185–94).

21 Zondervan Pictorial Encyclopedia of the Bible, “village,” 5:880–82.

22 The primary question regarding whether the city was walled or not stems from the number listed in Joshua where it describes the conquest of Canaan proper. As noted in footnote 7, Joshua lists approximately 232 cities which may or may not have had walls.

23 This seems to be reflected in Leviticus 26:25 which warns that under disobedience, “when you gather together in your cities, I will send pestilence among you, so that you shall be delivered into enemy hands.”

24 Michael A. Harbin, “The Manumission of Slaves in Jubilee and Sabbath Years,” Tyndale Bulletin 63:1 (2012), 58–59.

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