Work and vocation, as instituted by God, are good. Scripture opens with God at work, creating the entire world and giving man and woman their first occupations: farming and homemaking. He set them to care for the earth, work for their own living, and make or grow what they needed. And although Israel always remained an agriculturally-based economy in ancient times, occupations naturally expanded over time, becoming more skilled and complex.
Occupations in Biblical periods
Before the Exodus:
Though we know little about the Hebrews’ occupations before their contact with the Canaanites and Phoenicians, it seems they had not yet developed great technical skills. Occupations consisted mainly of farming and shepherding, and in the home such simple handiwork as spinning, weaving, and making of domestic tools. More complex goods were usually purchased from foreigners.
After the Exodus:
Upon their entry into Canaan, the Israelites shifted from a nomadic pastoral existence to a settled life. And started learning more trades and complex skills, becoming increasingly proficient at them. By the time of Nehemiah, in fact, craftsmens’ guilds such as goldsmiths and merchants (Nehemiah 3:31-32), had already organized.
In New Testament Times:
By the time of Christ, all Jewish boys learned a trade and even rabbis maintained themselves by their trades, like Paul as a tentmaker. One rabbi actually stated “He that does not teach his son a trade, is much the same as if he taught him to be a thief.”
Common occupations and handicrafts in Bible times
The occupations and tasks carried out by men and women were many and varied. So for practical purposes, this study of Occupations in Bible Times will be a four-part series:
- Part 1: In the Home and Field
- Part 2: In the Market Place and Workshop
- Part 3: In the Palace and Government
- Part 4: In the Temple and Christian Church
But because many trades were a mix of cottage industry and manufacturing on a larger scale, and many people also grew their own food and textiles for clothing, these sections tend to cross over. Village-grown grain was sometimes shipped to the city for baking. Likewise some textile fibers grown and spun in the village were woven and sewn in the city.
Much of the cottage industry was carried out in or around the home: in the main living area, in a courtyard, under a side awning, or sometimes in a specially constructed room or workshop. In these family enterprises, children learned the trade from their parents, and even elderly family members assisted.
In cities, those engaged in the same occupation often lived near one another in an area where the needed raw materials were readily available. They also formed trade guilds or associations for socialization, mutual support and protection, and to ensure quality products.
Occupations in the home and field
Caring for the land and animals were principal occupations and the economic foundation of their society. Although the Israelites only start raising crops after they entered the Promised Land.
- FARMING AND HARVESTING – From small household gardens to large farms, a wide variety of produce was grown including fruits, vegetables, grains, herbs, spices flax, and perhaps even cotton. Sometimes farmers also hired extra help for the plowing, sowing, threshing, and winnowing.
- HERDSMEN – The earliest herdsmen were nomads living in tents, always searching for water and grazing land. Later, after settling in Israel, they would graze their flocks or herds near towns. These herdsmen and shepherds did not usually own the animals (sheep, oxen, goats, donkeys, or camels), but were hired to tend them for the wealthy or royalty.
- FISHING AND HUNTING – Fishing did not really become an important occupation until New Testament times and most of it took place in the Sea of Galilee or the Mediterranean Sea. Hunting, on the other hand, was essential to surival in the earliest times, but eventually became more of a sport, especially among royalty.
- POULTRY FARMING – In addition, many farmers raised chickens, ducks, geese, quails, partridge, grouse doves, and pigeons for food and eggs.
Food was usually prepared by women in the home’s common living area, in a courtyard, or in front of the house or tent.
But many larger towns had professional millers and bakers, usually men. Jerusalem even had a special street where the bakers were located (Jeremiah 37:21).
- GRINDING – Grain was grinded between 2 flat stones and spices with a mortar and pestle.
- COOKING – Common dishes were broth, stew, and vegetables cooked in earthernware pots and meat roasted over an open fire.
- GRAINS – Grains, mostly wheat, barley, and millet, were eaten raw, roasted, or baked.
- BAKING – Bread and unleavened cakes were baked on heated stones, in simple clay pots, or in semi-public clay ovens.
Textiles (Clothing and Footwear)
The women, like the virtuous woman of Proverbs 31, were responsible for working the linen, flax, and wool into clothing and other useful items.
Leather, on the other hand, was usually tanned and prepared by men, usually in special tanneries.
- SPINNING – After cleaning, the wool or plant fibers were spun around a hand-held spindle in such a way as to tighten and strengthen the thread. A heavy clay or stone weight tied to one end helped the thread stay even.
- DYING – Through the dyed animal skins covering the tabernacle, we know that textile dying was a common practice (Exodus 25). Archeologists have also uncovered dyeing vats and weights in Lachish, and evidence of a dyer’s guild near Thyatira, where Lydia, the seller of purple lived (Acts 16:1). Furthermore, Alfred Edersheim names Magdala as an important cloth dying city in Israel. Dyes came mainly from plant matter, like the pomegranate rind, or from animals like shellfish and grubs.
- WEAVING – Spun fibers were then woven on vertical looms, similar to the one above, into clothing, mats, and other useful items.
- SEWING AND EMBROIDERY – Sometimes rather than making fitted garments, the finished cloth was simply draped around the body. Sewn garments were accomplished by use of coarse needles made of bronze or bone splinters. Garments were often embroidered as well.
- TANNING – Skins and leather were an important resource for clothing, footwear, shelter, and even tools and implements. Tanners were not popular and they had to work out of the city due cleanliness laws and the bad odors of their ingredients like dog’s dung, sea water, tree bark, and fruit rinds.
- LEATHER WORKING – Sandles, shoes and boots were first made in the home, later becoming a trade. Although felt or cloth was sometimes used, they consisted of a leather or wood sole held on with rope or leather straps. Leather workers also made girdles (used as a purse or pocket), straps, harnesses, and skin bottles.
I hope you found this post on Bible occupations informative!
Stay tuned for Part Two!
Purpose of these Bible Times posts:
Their main purpose is to bring the fascinating world of the Bible to life through the customs, traditions, and places of its peoples, making the Bible speak to us in a more dynamic way and increase our understanding of Scripture.
Images: Carpenter by David Padfield from FreeBibleImages.org, CC-BY-NC. | Bread & fish by http://www.LumoProject.com, all rights reserved, educational use only. | Woman spinning by David Padfield from FreeBibleImages.org, CC-BY-NC. | Ripe barley by David Padfield from FreeBibleImages.org; CC-BY-NC. |