Vol. XXIX No. 5 — May 1951

Life in Bible Times

Masonic ritual mentions a number of historic Biblical characters; King Solomon, Hiram of Tyre, the Hiram who built the Temple, Aaron, Jacob, Jephtha, Abraham, Isaac, King David, etc. We are told of the workmen who built the temple, of a wayfaring and a seafaring man.

What sort of men were these? What kind of lives did they live? What were their occupations?

In Palestine, Egypt, Mesopotamia, Babylon, there were the rich and the poor, the high and the low, the ignorant and the educated, the skilled and the common laborer, just as with us. One man made brick, another built brick into a wall, still another planned the wall. There were those who smelted metals and others who worked the metals into weapons, vessels, statues. Herdsmen tended sheep, women spun wool and linen; semi-nomads who camped for long periods of time in one place, tilled the ground and grew wheat and barley.

There were guides for caravans and seafaring men who went down to the sea in ships. There were, in fact, in Bible times almost as many occupations and kinds of men as there are today, although the civilizations of many thousand years ago had only man and beast power to accomplish what we do with steam and electricity.

Obviously no coherent picture can be given in a few pages of all the varieties of people, lives and times of the Bible.

But something may be said of those periods which are most interesting to Masons — the time of Abraham and Isaac, the captivity in Egypt, when Moses led the children of Israel through the Red Sea which, opening to let them through, closed on the Egyptians, and the building of the Temple.

Abraham lived in Ur, a Mesopotamian City. Built largely of sun dried mud brick, it was a vertically growing city, for as the mud houses were destroyed by time, wind, water and war, the owners leveled them off and built a new house on the remains of the old!

There was nothing beautiful about these plain rectangles, crowded together, with only lanes for streets. But they may not have been too uncomfortable inside. There would be many rooms in a prosperous merchant’s home with living quarters on the second floor. There would be a fireplace and millstones in the kitchen and perhaps even a lavatory with a terra cotta drain! There would be plain furnishing of rugs, hangings, mattresses, cushions and doubtless a chapel and a vaulted tomb, in which family members were buried in brick coffins.

The inhabitants of Ur who had been schooled could read, though not all could write. Writing was done on clay tablets with a three-cornered stick — hence the name “cuneiform” from the Latin cuneus, a wedge, because the style marks in the clay are wedge shaped. The clay was especially prepared, free from grit, soft enough to take the stylus and it readily hardened so that the clay tablets were permanent — the modern world has many in its museums, whereas no single line of the original Biblical writings on parchment or papyrus have survived.

Schools taught a simple arithmetic, based on a system of 60 and 10. Sixty is divisible by 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 10, 12, 15, and 30. A scribe asked to write the numeral 83 would write 60 plus 10 plus 10 plus 3. They had larger numbers — the sar (3,600 or 60 times 60) and the ner (600 or 60 times 10). It is from this old system that our modern use of 60 has come — our 360 degrees for a circle, our 60 minutes to an hour and 60 seconds to the minute and

of course our modern decimal system descends from the 10 system of the days of old.

Commerce was large for the city and country of Ur. On a navigable river (the Euphrates) it had access to the Persian Gulf; its caravans went forth to many places and others from everywhere passed through it. Those who manufactured were numbered by thousands as were those who traded and those who shipped. Caravans and ships would bring timber, diorite for statues, alabaster for decorations, copper, gold, silver, ivory. Manufacturers would employ many skilled artisans to make jars, pots, pans, weapons, decorative objects, jewelry, cloth, leather goods. In general, the people of Ur were intelligent, good business men, skilled artisans, powerful laborers and religious in an uninformed, diversified way, often each household with its own god to be worshipped as well as the national moon-god, Nannar, of the great temple.

Too often our ideas of the dress of the people of the twelve tribes come from some artist’s portrayal of how they ought to have dressed! Dress in Ur was as diversified as is dress in New York; in the metropolis there is a wide gap between the society lady in a strapless dinner gown and her cook, in white apron and cap; between the man of fashion in tails and white tie and the doorman in livery who opens the door of his car; between the capitalist on Wall Street and his blue denim-clad workmen in the factories.

Our information as to the dress of the people of the time of Abraham comes from pictured representations on monuments, reliefs, plaques, seals and the objects found in graves — buttons, ornaments, bronze, silver or gold pins, and other decorations.

Sarah probably had a simple undergarment, worn over one shoulder, pinned to make a sleeve, a jacket of some gay color and with buttons at sleeve and waist for ornament. The town-dwelling man usually wore a short tunic, opened at the neck. Over the tunic would be thrown a mantle, and a cap or coil (such as an Arab wears) as protection from the sun. He shaved with a bronze razor and wore a single earring.

The wanderings of the twelve tribes through many generations made the Israelites both a nomadic, semi-nomadic and farming people. Shepherds kept their flocks by hard work and faithful watchings both against thieves and losses by straying. Grains could be grown, but tillage of the soil with only man or bullock power was slow and backbreaking labor. Grapes and olives were grown but vineyards had to be guarded and slopes terraced, and all this had to be learned if the country was to be kept, as Deuteronomy has it, “a land of brooks of water, of fountains and depths that spring out of valleys and hills, a land of wheat and barley and vines and fig trees and pomegranates, a land of oil olive and honey.”

There was some hunting, probably occasionally for sport, more often to protect flocks or to obtain “savory meat.” The more meat a tribesman could get from wild game (deer, gazelle, antelope, mountain sheep, goats) the less he would need to sacrifice cattle or sheep for food.

Hunting was done with bows and arrows, spears, darts, and slings, in which the young men became very proficient and extremely skillful; often there was no chance of a second stone at charging bear or lion — or even man, as David had occasion to prove when he killed Goliath with one stone. The Israelites used snares and nets for birds and traps made of pits dug in the ground and loosely covered with branches or grass. By those who lived near large streams or the sea, food was supplemented by fish. Dragnets between boats, small individual nets, fishhooks, and harpoons were all known to the Israelites.

Cloth was spun, garments made, shoes of tanned hide; other skins or reeds were particularly the work of the women. What with tent making, cooking, child bearing and rearing, and all the duties of home in a land and time where the modern convenience as we know it had not even been imagined, women must have been reasonably busy!

One crop should be especially mentioned: the oil from the olive which was vitally important. It was used by the priests in consecrations; it was fuel for torches and for lamps, was an ointment for the head after a day of heat and perhaps sunburn, an ointment for the body after bathing, it was a salve for wounds and was their butter and their lard, their vegetable shortening and salad oil. They had butter (churned by shaking cream in a “churn” made of a goat’s skin) but no means of keeping it; hence the olive oil largely took its place.

And finally olive oil was a medicine and doubtless much good health resulted from its continual use.

The hard years of the Captivity were to have an enormous effect upon the Israelites and also a great effect upon the Egyptians. No two peoples can live side by side and labor the one for the other during an uncounted number of years without having a profound reaction upon each others culture.

The Egypt of Joseph (seventeenth century B.C.) and the Egypt of Moses (twelfth century B.C.) could not have been too different and we have much in modern Egyptology to tell us what Egypt was like in the days of the torments of the Jews.

Here is space only to note that a culture based on despotism and slavery, arbitrary power of life and death for any or no reason, a huge, even an unwieldy court, with all its intrigue, politics, secrecy, hidden dungeons, torture, bribery, corruption, magnificent buildings, arts second to none in the then known world, must have molded and hewn the Israelites so that at the end of the Captivity when Moses led them through the Red Sea, they turned largely and gratefully to a religious life based on the One God in the Tabernacle and later, the Temple.

Slavery was the foundation of much of Egypt’s glory. Without slave labor few if any of the great buildings could have been erected. Human slaves were lashed, ill fed, made to work too long hours, worn out, cast aside. Slaves were captives or children of captives and the Israelites were captive. How many thousand died under the lash or because of their labors will never be known, but the number was great. And great, therefore, was the Pharaoh’s objection to letting them go.

Even when he did permit them to depart, he changed his mind and went after them — and to that decision, followed by the miraculous opening of the Red Sea, the safe passage of the Israelites and the destruction wrought on Pharaohs host we owe the inclusion of a fragment of the story in Masonic ritual. But, what is more important, the Tabernacle set up in the wilderness in gratitude for a miraculous escape, became not only the impetus towards a greater and more enduring building, but a structure which seems to have been the model for the Temple which Solomon built.

This Temple would excite little wonder or awe today for either its size or its magnificence, except for the lavish use of gold and precious stones. No artist who has abided by the dimensions and furnishings told of in the Old Testament has produced a picture of a building which would be remarkable in modern times. The Coliseum in Rome, the Parthenon in Athens, St. Paul’s in London, the Capitol at Washington, even the strictly modern and (to many) completely undecorative home of the United Nations in New York would all be far more impressive to modern eyes than Solomon’s Temple.

But in the days in which it was erected it was an incredible wonder, and remains so to this day, especially because the Israelites were then an agricultural people rather than a nation of artisans and builders.

It seems inescapable that Hiram of Tyre not only sent Hiram the Widow’s Son to build the Temple for Solomon, but he must also have supplied — or Solomon obtained from coastal cities — a very large group of assistant architects, builders, hewers of stone, carvers of relief, decorators with metals, weavers, smiths, and many other workmen.

The thousands who were common laborers, indeed, were mostly Israelites and many of these must have been, if not slaves, at least forced laborers.

However, the Temple was built, and for a while stood as a twin monument to Solomon who built it and to the God for whom it was erected.

Is it, perhaps, too much to think that perhaps one of the greatest glories which Solomon wrought was not the actual building that was to be destroyed, rebuilt, destroyed again, rebuilt and destroyed, but the fact that this, the crowning effort of the ancient world to express worship and awe of the One God, was also woven into the foundation of that gentle Fraternity which has perpetuated the Temple in the minds of men and now keeps its glories before a Craft which has spread around the world?

The Masonic Service Association of North America