The house of the father as fact and symbol

Now and then a book comes along in any discipline that asks new questions, highlights the preconceived notions that are at work in the discipline and allows some practitioners to explore new avenues of research. In the area of Near Eastern Archaeology, including Biblical Archaeology, such a book is The house of the father as fact and symbol: patrimonalism in Ugarit and the Ancient Near East by J. David Schloen. As the title indicates, this is not an easy read and has quite complex arguments. At its heart, it is an argument against the functional categories and assumptions that were and are being used in Near Eastern Archaeology. At the same time, the example of the house of the father also gives a valuable insight into the world of that time.

The book starts off with a discussion on the philosophical background of knowledge in the humanities, particularly history, mentioning such thinkers as Dilthey, Heidegger, and Gadamer. But it takes most of its direction from the writings of Paul Ricoeur and Max Weber. David Schloen argues for a close connection between history and archaeology, and for explanations of the past not through some modern functionalist models, such as human ecosystem theories, but rather through the motivated actions of people. The question is what motivated people to act as they did. That cannot be explained through abstract concepts such as “prestige”, “survival”, “expansion”. No, it must take into account the subjective meaning of actions. Generally that means that we can only know about such motivations through the native linguistic expressions – ancient texts. He maintains that “the shared understandings that constitute social order inhere in structuring symbols that are always expressed in language.” (p.40) In some instances plausible motivations may be inferred from ethnographic analogies, even if we don’t have any texts.

He argues that “the house of the father” was a rooted symbol, which endured in the Ancient Near East for centuries and which gave people meaning. The familiar patriarchal household served as the universal paradigm for all social relationships, whether economic, political, or religious. This symbol was interpreted differently in different contexts.

The model David Schloen proposes pictures a society that was both more and also less centralized than often held by bureaucratic models. In a patrimonial regime the ruler stands at the apex of an integrated socioeconomic system that encompasses all land and people in his domain. Everyone is ultimately a member of the ruler’s household. But the ruler exercised authority not directly, but rather through the households of his subordinates and their subordinates. It was a complex and decentralized hierarchy of households nested one within another.

As an example of the use of such household terminology, Schloen examines letters from Mari between kings in which the subordinate king addresses the superior king as “father”, while declaring himself to be the “son”. In one case a king was so presumptuous as to call his superior king “brother” sparking an incident that called for explanation. Overall, the letters indicate that the “son” was considered to govern a dependent household that ultimately belonged to the “father”. Many letters also contain a “master” and “servant” relationship, so that it seems that this was often considered politically equivalent to the “father” – “son” constellation. All the letters proclaim the personal affection for each other of these political players. While we may just describe this as the diplomatic language of the time, it may actually be a representation of the essentially personal character of political relationships at the time.

When discussing the evidence from Ugarit, Schloen maintains that the “servants of the king” were not so much appointed to a specific title, but rather that their administrative responsibilities were broad and ill defined. The authority they exercised stemmed from their role as representatives of their master, the king. The patrimonial household model also can be applied to the individual households of Ugarit. Documents reveal that married sons usually continued to live in their father’s house while he was still alive. Upon the father’s death, each of the sons became the head of their own household. With the high rates of mortality at that time, there were however not many multi-generational households. He thinks that the modifications observable in the archaeologically excavated urban quarters of Ugarit show the fluid character of Near Eastern households and neighbourhoods, which are defined by social relationships rather than by fixed architectural features. Usually, the quarters of a city were used by people of kin, who also used joint assets together.


When discussing Ancient Israel, Schloen looks at evidence from both the Bible and archaeology. One of the biblical patterns he notes are the census data in the book of Numbers. In many Bibles they are translated as being represented by 100 of thousands of men. However, as Mendenhall and Gottwald suggested, even though the Hebrew word ‘elep can mean “thousand”, it can also refer to a wider family organization, the mispaha or clan. If that were the case, the numbers referred to would not be something like 40,500 men, but rather 40 clans represented by 500 mean. That would give 596 clans consisting of 5,750 fighting men (an average of 10 men per ‘elep, with a range of 5-17). Considering the typical family cycles in antiquity, and the fact that not all men would have been mustered for military duty, we may assume about 18 households per clan. Schloen wants to show that clan structures even pervaded the military organization of Israel.

He also looks at the Samaria ostraca, which record shipments of oil and wine delivered to Samaria, the capital city of Israel. They were all sent from villages that bore the name of an ancestor, most of them recorded in the Bible. He argues that the clan names and the settlement name were the same, and that this organization was responsible for sending materials to the king or some representative. Some of the ostraca mention an additional name. Previous commentators have attempted to identify “clan districts”, but Schloen suggests that these are the names of the actual carrier. That’s why also Judahites and people from Trans-Jordan can be mentioned here. In other words, in some cases the clan gave someone travelling to Samaria, whether from further afield or the neighbouring village, the jars of produce to deliver to Samaria. The main responsibility of providing the materials remained with the clan.

Schloen considers the town plans of Tell Beit Mirsim, Tell el-Farah (North), and Tell en-Nasbeh and suggests that they exhibit the picture expected for ancient patrimonial households: smaller houses occupied by families in the nuclear phase of the household lifecycle; the larger houses occupied by three-generation joint-family phase of the household lifecycle.

His case studies and arguments range far wider and go into much more detail than I can outline here, but overall he shows that the archaeological and textual evidence can best be interpreted by a patrimonial household model. The people of the Ancient Near East first and foremost considered themselves as part of some family, but that concept did not stop at the nuclear family level, but extended far wider. Houses and villages, economics and politics can be understood better by taking account of this ancient symbol and reality.

This entry was posted in Archaeology, Book Review, Discussion, Household Archaeology and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to The house of the father as fact and symbol

  1. Pingback: Archaeological interpretation of a house | Imagining the past: Archaeology and the Bible

  2. Pingback: Sons or Lovers: Jonathan and David | Imagining the past: Archaeology and the Bible

  3. Pingback: The Samaria ostraca and family relationships | Imagining the past: Archaeology and the Bible

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