Life in the Old Testament

By Tim Lambert

The Israelites were monotheists. They worshiped only one God. One of the 12 tribes of Israel, the Levites, were priests. Since they did not own land the other tribes gave the Levites one-tenth of their crops and domestic animals. Furthermore, 48 towns in Israel were set aside for the Levites. In return, they sacrificed animals to God.

The people around the Israelites were polytheists (they worshiped many gods). The chief god of the Philistines was Dagon. The chief god of the Moabites was Chemosh. The Canaanites worshiped Baal, the god of rain and storms. They worshiped Baal in high places such as hilltops. They also worshiped his wife, Asherah, a fertility goddess. They worshiped wooden poles dedicated to her.

Old Testament Society

In Israel, most people lived by farming and most of them lived in small villages. Only a small minority lived in towns. Furthermore, most of the towns were much smaller than modern-day towns. Walls surrounded towns in Israel and inside houses were tightly cramped together. Important meetings were held in the gateways of the town walls. Markets were also held in gateways.

Like other ancient peoples, the Israelites kept slaves. Prisoners of war were often made slaves. Furthermore, some Israelites were so poor they were forced to sell themselves or their children into slavery. However, if you owned an Israeli slave you could only do so for 6 years. At the end of that period, you were supposed to set him free.

People in Israel got married very young. Legally a boy could marry when he was 13. A girl could marry when she was 12. Girls learned skills like spinning, weaving, and baking from their mothers. Boys learned their father’s trade.

In Ancient Israel women could own property. The Book of Proverbs describes an ideal woman. It says ‘She considers a field and buys it’. (Proverbs 31:16). As well as making clothes for her family the ideal woman sells clothes to merchants. When a father died his sons inherited his property. The oldest son was given a double share. Daughters could only inherit property if there were no sons. However, sons who inherited property were expected to support the women in the family.

There were also some laws to protect the very poor from starvation. The law said that when you harvested your grain you should not reap to the very edges of the fields or gather up any stalks of grain left behind by the harvesters. Instead the poor were allowed to collect them. When you beat the olives from your trees you were not supposed to go over the trees a second time. Instead, you were to leave any leftover olives for the poor. When you harvested your grapes you were not to supposed go back over the vines but leave any grapes still there for the poor.

The law also said you could eat grapes from your neighbor’s vineyard provided you did not collect any and put them in a basket. You were also allowed to pick ears of grain from a field provided you only used your hands and not a tool to pick them.

Old Testament Houses

In Patriarchal times people lived in tents made of goat’s hair. Later people lived in houses made of stone or mud bricks. The poorest people lived in houses with just one room. The room was divided into two parts. The half nearest the door had a floor of beaten earth. In winter domestic animals lived there. The family lived on a raised platform in the other half of the room. People who were slightly better off sometimes had an upper story.

The roof was also important. The family dried fruit and grains on the roof of their house and if the weather was very hot they slept there.

Wealthy people’s houses were very different. They consisted of several rooms arranged around a courtyard. However, even rich people did not have panes of glass in their windows and there were no chimneys to carry away smoke.

Poor people had very little furniture. Beds were usually just mattresses full of wool or straw, which were laid out on the raised platform at night. The whole family slept on the mattress under goat’s hair blankets. Poor people sat on stools. (Chairs were a luxury). Even tables were expensive and poor families often made do with a straw mat laid out on the floor. However rich people had comfortable furniture including proper beds made of wood with fine wool blankets and pillows.

In Israel, houses were lit by oil lamps. People burned dried grass or thorn bushes or dried animal dung on their fires.

Old Testament Clothes

Men wore loincloths. On top they wore tunics. Women wore long tunics (often embroidered), which stretched to their ankles. In cold weather, people wore thick wool cloaks. Both sexes wore leather sandals. Clothes were made of linen or wool or sometimes camel hair. Women wore jewelry (if they could afford it!) such as bracelets, anklets, necklaces, pendants, and rings.

Old Testament Food

In Old Testament times bread was the main food of ordinary people. Meat was a luxury and only the rich could afford to eat it often. Fine bread made from wheat was expensive. The poor often ate coarse bread made from barley. Grain was ground to flour by women using millstones. The Israelites were forbidden to eat pork but they did eat beef, goat, and mutton. For vegetables, they grew beans, cucumbers, garlic, leeks, onions, and lentils.

They also ate fruit such as figs, pomegranates, and grapes as well as nuts like almonds and pistachio nuts. The Israelites also ate cheese and eggs. Fish were also an important part of their diet. Herbs were used to season food and honey was used to sweeten it. Olives were also important. They were eaten fresh or pickled. They were also crushed to make olive oil. Everybody drank wine.

People obtained water from wells. They also stored water in cisterns. A cistern was a small underground reservoir shaped like a light bulb with a stone or wooden cover.

Work in the Old Testament

Most people in Israel lived by farming. Every year their lives were governed by the same cycle. In autumn they picked olives. In October and November ‘early rain’ fell after the long dry summer. From November to January, the land was plowed and crops of flax (for linen), wheat, and barley were sown. From January to March people planted vegetables. The later rains came in March and April. At that time the people harvested flax. In May and June, they harvested barley and wheat. During June, July, and August they pruned vines. Grapes were harvested in August and September. So were pomegranates and figs.

Meanwhile, shepherds looked after sheep and goats (the two were kept together). Both sheep and goats provided milk. Sheep provided wool and goat’s hair was used to make coarse cloth. Goat skins were used to make containers for milk, water, and wine.

Farmers also kept oxen and asses. Both were used for pulling plows. Oxen also threshed grain by walking on it. Farming was back-breaking work in Old Testament times and farmers faced the danger of drought and locusts, which devoured crops.


Although there were no factories in Israel there were industries. Most craftsmen worked in their own homes. Craftsmen included potters, blacksmiths, bronze smiths, goldsmiths, and silversmiths. There were also many stonemasons and carpenters.

In Old Testament times most people traveled by foot. Otherwise, if they could afford it the most common means of transport was the donkey. Horses were expensive to keep so they were usually reserved for war although rich people sometimes traveled in horse-drawn chariots.

Merchants used camels to carry goods and farmers often used carts pulled by donkeys or oxen. There were no proper roads in Old Testament times. They were just dirt tracks and after rain, they turned to mud.

The Israelites were not seafaring people. However, King Solomon did build a fleet. At that time ships had only a single mast and a single sail. They were steered by very large oars.

Old Testament Warfare

Most Israelite soldiers fought on foot. Kings had chariots and horses but the Israelites usually fought in the hills where chariots were not very practical. (They were far more useful on plains).

The Israelites used bows and arrows and also slings. (The sling is a surprisingly accurate and effective weapon). For hand-to-hand fighting soldiers used axes and clubs. They also threw spears and javelins. At least some soldiers wore armor. They also carried shields made of a wooden frame covered in leather. Towns were protected by walls and kings also built fortresses in key positions.

Animals and Plants of the Old Testament

Lions once lived in Israel in the Jordan Valley. There were also wolves that preyed on sheep. Furthermore, there were leopards in Israel and Syrian brown bears, which were sometimes dangerous to human beings. Foxes also lived in Israel. They liked eating fruit and sometimes damaged vines. There were also jackals in Israel as well as deer, gazelles, and wild goats.

Many fruit trees grew in Israel, almonds, pomegranate, and fig trees. There were also date palms. Oak trees were common in Israel. So were poplars and pine and fir trees grew in the mountains. Acacia trees grew in the desert. Nevertheless, Israel was not densely wooded. There were many wildflowers in Israel. Unfortunately, there were also thorns and thistles.