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Daily Life in Biblical Times - A Book Review

Daily Life in Biblical Times
By Dr. Liora Ravid
Gefen Publishing House, 2013. Paperback; 467 pages
Reviewed by Vera Freudmann 


Books which take us back to daily life in earlier times are popular reading right now. Some of them look at an old house and explain how each room was used in the period when the house was built. Others take us through the years of a building's existence, examining the structure through the prism of history.

But this book takes us much further back, to a time when homes were tents or even a bare patch of hard ground, and the questions are ones which many of us have asked since we heard our first Bible stories.

Could Sarah have given birth to Isaac when she was over 90 years old?

Did Jacob really work for seven years, only to be cheated into marrying Leah, and then work another seven years to marry his true love, Rachel?

What was the fate of a woman who had been raped?

Biblical scholar Dr Liora Ravid sets out to answer these and many other questions which might arise from traditional Bible stories, in a way which takes account of the differences in cultural and familial values between biblical times and today.

This is not a book which sets out to prove that the Bible is merely a collection of folk myths. Dr Ravid's point of view includes the existence of God and she believes that the stories recounted in the Bible did occur. Her aim is to explain them in a way which makes them accessible to the modern reader.

The first section, and the longest of the book, is devoted to a minute examination of how life was lived on a daily basis. Her subjects are Abraham, Sarah and Lot and their journey from Ur of the Chaldees to the land of Canaan, following God's command to Abraham to leave his birthplace for a new land, where he will become the father of a great nation. We've all heard the story, however we interpret it. But have we actually considered what this journey would have entailed?

Dr Ravid does the maths and calculates the distance, the time it would have taken to travel this distance and the conditions in which the travelers lived during this time. Suddenly it becomes real. This wasn't a fun hike; it was a grueling journey which took the travelers some twenty years. Along the way they slept on the ground and made temporary stops while they sold their labor to local farmers in order to raise small amounts of money to buy food. They could never travel more miles per day than the goats, which accompanied them to provide milk and meat, were capable of.

And what of Sarah? The first of many revelations to come as a shock to me was that the marriage age of a woman in biblical times could be as young as ten or eleven years old. So Sarah was not a woman when she was married to Abraham. She was a girl, not yet able to bear children. And the conditions in which she lived for the following twenty years were hardly conducive to conceiving and bearing a child. She was malnourished, dressed in rags and utterly exhausted. The likelihood is that her puberty was delayed and she was simply not able to conceive during this time. Eventually the small party settled in Canaan. By this time Sarah would have been thirty years old. Not too old to make up for lost time, we think. And Sarah did conceive, once they settled down and her living conditions improved. But then comes another revelation; the average life-span of a woman at that time was just thirty years. She would have been around thirty-three years old at this point, not just past normal life-expectancy, but long past child-bearing years. Suddenly ninety plus seems an understandable interpretation, if we read the story in the light of this knowledge.

This way of looking at the stories in the Bible will no doubt be open to doubt by those who insist on a strict and literal interpretation. But some will find it useful, a tool to enable us to explain what seems so far distant from our own experience of life as to put these tales completely in the realms of fantasy.

Other interpretations follow as Dr Ravid, less contentiously, explains what lies behind other parts of the Bible story.

How did Laban fool Jacob into marrying Leah instead of Rachel? Am I the only one who believed that Leah came to her chupah heavily veiled so that Jacob only saw the face of his bride after the ceremony when it was too late, and that this is the origin of the custom of 'bedecken' before a Jewish wedding nowadays?

According to Dr Ravid, there was no marriage ceremony in this case. One of the accepted ways to 'marry' was simply for the man to take the woman's virginity and thus take her for his wife. So this was how Jacob fell victim to his father-in-law's scheming. Laban plied Jacob with drink so liberally during the wedding feast that Jacob failed to notice until the following morning that the woman with whom he'd spent his wedding night was not Rachel, but Leah. And of course Dr Ravid has her own view on the seven years of labor with which Jacob paid for each of his brides.

Some of the attitudes portrayed in this book are almost incomprehensible to modern sensibilities. A woman who was raped was finished. Her life was over; no man would marry her after such an event – except the man who had raped her, and so her father would try with all his might to get the man responsible to marry the girl he had violated. And here too is the basis for the still-prevalent view among many cultures that the only way for the family of a raped woman to retrieve its honor is for male family members to exact retribution. It wasn't the girl who was violated - it was the family, and this situation could not be tolerated.

This book does not set out to be as sensational as this review possibly makes it seem. There is much discussion of other issues, such as the rise and the roles of the kings of Israel; the question of who the original writers of the Bible were; and a parsing of the language of the Bible, to reveal hidden depths of meaning mostly unavailable to readers of today's translations.

For anyone who feels that their knowledge of this part of our religious and national heritage is somewhat lacking, or who would like to add another view to their existing understanding, Dr Ravid has provided an entry-point which readers will find absorbing from the first page, whatever their attitude towards the Bible - as fact or myth. 

 

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