The Economic System of the Hill Country of Israel in Iron Age I – Part 2

Claude Mariottini
Emeritus Professor
of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary

This post is Part 2 of an academic paper titled “The Economic System of the Hill Country of Israel in Iron Age I.” This paper was read during a meeting of the American Schools of Oriental Research which met on March 12, 1988 in Dallas, Texas.

To read the Introduction and Part 1 of the paper, click here.


Several factors contributed to the increase of food production. The first factor was the development of cisterns which made possible to increase the amount of water available for consumption and irrigation.[1] Cisterns provided an efficient way of storing rainwater in the winter. Later, cisterns were reused to store surplus grains.

It is impossible to say when the first cistern appeared in the hill country, but at the end of the Late Bronze Age and at the beginning of the Iron Age there was an increase of population in the hill country, away from springs. W. F. Albright said that this movement away from springs came with the discovery that a waterproof plaster could be made from burnt and slaked lime, thus increasing the storage efficiency of existing cisterns and motivating the production of new ones.[2]

Callaway, however, has found that most cisterns discovered at Ai were not plastered in Iron Age I. According to Callaway, this was possible because of a self-sealing quality present in the Senonian chalk that allowed the cisterns to conserve rainwater.[3] At the beginning of the Iron Age, most cisterns were built for the use of the community, but with the increase of affluence, some cisterns were built under private homes, a clear evidence of economic prosperity.[4] At Tel-en Nasbeh, fifty-three small private cisterns were found.[5]


A second factor that helped the growth of the economic power of the villages was the development of terraces.[6] Because of deforestation at the time of Joshua (Joshua 17:16–18) and on other occasions, the soil, which was held in places by trees, was eroded by rain and the elements of nature and lost its fertility for cultivation.[7]

Ron, in his study of agricultural terraces, said that the purpose of terraces was “to establish favorable condition for the steady cultivation of the land.” These favorable conditions were established when the terraces fulfilled three basic functions which defined the terraces.[8] First, terraces transformed a continuous slope into a series of level surfaces which allowed for cultivation. Second, the terrace prevented run-off erosion and thus enhanced the accumulation of soil and water. Third, the terraces were devoid of stones and formed a flat upper layer of cultivable soil. Not all of the arable land in the hill country were terraced. In some places the incline was small and the soil deep and fertile enough for planting, therefore, many areas could be cultivated without the use of terraces.


The most important factor that aided the development of village economy was the introduction of new tools and improved agricultural implements. Acquisition of iron technology contributed to the creation of an economic surplus in village economy. This economic surplus later on was used by Solomon to establish a trade agreement with Tyre (1 Kings 5:8–12).

During the Bronze Age tools were made of copper, meteoric iron, and bronze. The Iron Age came to Palestine in the thirteenth century from Anatolia, probably with the coming of the Sea Peoples.[9] With the fall of the Hittite empire, the iron monopoly was broken, and the use of iron in weapons of war and in agricultural implements spread throughout Canaan.[10] When the Israelites settled in the land in the time of Joshua, the Canaanites already possessed iron chariots and other objects made of iron (Joshua 6:4; 17:16; 22:8).

The Philistines tried to maintain control of iron technology to prevent its spread among the Hebrews. 1 Samuel 13:19–22 demonstrates that iron was in use among the Israelites at the beginning of the monarchy, but the Philistine prevented their smiths from working in Israel “lest the Hebrews make swords or spears” (1 Samuel 13:21). This passage shows that the Israelites were using plowshares, coulters, axes, and sickles made of iron. It is possible that the Israelites acquired the skills to use these new tools from the Philistines.[11]

The Philistines did not prevent the Hebrews from using iron tools for agricultural purposes but forced them to obtain their tools and to repair them from Philistine smiths at a price. The Hebrews were under economic control of the Philistines until the time of David when he began to take metal ore as spoils of war (2 Samuel 8:8), thus obtaining “great stores of iron” (1 Chronicles 22:3).

The introduction of iron in the economy of the village produced radical changes in the community. The villages and the families that composed them were able to supply most of their own needs as long as they raised their own food, made their own clothes, and manufactured their own stone and wooden tools. However, this was no longer true when iron was introduced and metal tools were proven superior. The raw materials necessary to the production of these improved tools were not available to everyone in the community, therefore, the farmers had to depend on metal smiths, and the smiths could not function without the traders and miners.

The economy of the hill country at the beginning of Iron Age I was based primarily on farming and the care of domesticated animals. Two terms are used by anthropologists to describe these means of food production: pastoralism and agriculture.[12]


Pastoral people derive their food from domesticated animals, either relaying directly upon them for most of their diet or using meat and dairy product for trade. Pastoralism should be differentiated from pastoral nomadism. Pastoral nomadism is “a socioeconomic mode of life that is based on intensive domestication of livestock and requires movement in seasonal cycles dictated by the need for pasture and water.”[13] The word “pastoralism” describes settle people who, in addition to farming, use animal husbandry as a supplement to their food production.

Meat was not a regular part of the diet of the people, probably because of the scarcity of domesticated cattle or because it was uneconomical to kill animals which could provide other necessary food such as milk and cheese. Meat was usually eaten on special occasions or during religious festivals.

The goat was the most common animal in use. Besides its use as meat, goat’s hair was used as raw material for the production of fabrics for tents and various domestic purposes. Their tanned skins were used as leather and their hides as skin bottles. Goat’s milk was widely used, and its by-products were very important to the economy of the community. For these reasons, the goat was recognized as a form of the owner’s economic status in the community.[14] The sheep, because of its wool, milk, and meat also gave economic status in the community. Callaway found bones of sheep and goats in almost every house at Ai.[15]


True agriculture involves the use of the plow and draft animals. The book of Deuteronomy states that the people of Israel were entering a land highly developed in farming and with an established agricultural background. There are references to agricultural cultivation of the hills, where the fields were planted with fruit trees, olive trees, and vineyards, and irrigated with the help of cisterns. But agriculture in the hill country was more difficult than implied in the idea of a “land flowing with milk and honey.” Agriculture in the hills of Canaan was made hard because of the nature of the soil: it was a “land filled with stones” (Isaiah 5:2) and a land with a “thousand hills” (Psalm 50:10). Because of the limited availability of fertile soil, most of the farming had to be done on hillsides.

Several cereals and legumes as well as fruits and vegetables were cultivated.[16] Various cereals were included under the designation of grains and corn; wheat was the most important of these. Wheat was an annual grass that was sown with the first rains. It was used in the production of flour and consumed as bread, cakes, and as parched grains (1 Samuel 25:18). Among other cereals were the emmer, a kind of wheat and the barley which is a winter crop planted in Palestine. Beans (2 Samuel 17:28) and lentils were two other common legumes grown in the fields of Palestine.

Of the fruit trees, the Israelites were admonished upon their arrival in the land of Canaan to plant “all manner of trees for food” (Leviticus 19:23). Among these, the fig was the most popular fruit because it was found throughout the land. The olive was eaten fresh, but its main use was for the production of oil. Oil was one of the basic necessities because most of the people lived in arid areas. Olive oil was used for everyday diet, as fuel for lamps, in medicine, for sacrifices, and in cosmetics. Olive seeds were found in Megiddo as early as the Bronze Age.

Another popular fruit was grapes. The cultivation of the vine in Palestine dates back to the Early Bronze Age. Vintage was spread over the whole summer, and grapes were eaten fresh or dried, but its main use was in the form of juice and wine. Among other fruits cultivated were the apple, the husks of the carob tree, the fruit of the mulberry tree, the fruit of the Pistacia Vera (RSV: “Pistachio nuts,” Genesis 43:11), and the pomegranate. Among the vegetables and gourds were onion, garlic, melon, and cucumber. Among the condiments were the dill, coriander, and mustard.

NEXT: “The Economic System of the Hill Country of Israel in Iron Age I – Part 3″

NOTE: For other studies on the Book of Judges, read my post Studies on the Book of Judges.


[1] On the development of cisterns, cf. R. W. Hamilton, “Water Works,” Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, 4:811–16.

[2] W. F. Albright, The Archaeology of Palestine (Gloucester, MA: Peter Smith, 1960; reprinted 1971) 113.

[3] Joseph A. Callaway, “The 1968–1969 Ai (et-Tell Excavations),” Bulletin of the American School of Oriental Research 198 (1970) 18.

[4] G. Ernest Wright, “Beth Shemesh,” Encyclopedia of Archaeological Excavations in the Holy Land (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1975) 1.

[5] M. Broshi, “Tel en Nasbeh,” Encyclopedia of Archaeological Excavations in the Holy Land (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1977) 3:916.

[6] On terraces cf. Ziv Ron, “Agricultural Terraces in the Judean Mountains,” Israel Exploration Journal 16 (1966) 33–49, 111–122 ; C. H. J., de Geus, “The Importance of Archaeological Research into the Palestinian Agricultural Terraces, with an Excursus on the Hebrew Word gbîPalestinian Exploration Quarterly 107 (1975) 65–74, and Lawrence E. Stager, “The Archaeology of the East Slope of Jerusalem and the Terraces of the Kidron,” Journal of Near Eastern Studies 41 (1982) 111–121.

[7] There has been much controversy about the extent of the forests mentioned in Joshua 17:15. On this question cf. W. L. Reed, “Forest,” Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, 2:314 and Denis Baly, “Forest,” Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible Supplement, 341. Denis Baly (Geographical Companion to the Bible [New York: McGraw-Hill, 1963] 60) has also said that the forest has almost disappeared. According to him, “this forest was the remainder of the extensive forest which grew in this region during the much wetter Pluvial Period.” Once this forest was cut down, it did not re-establish itself. Cf. also the statement of Nelson Glueck in The City Invincible, edited by Carl H. Kraeling and Robert M. Adams (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1960) 52.

[8] Ron, “Agricultural Terraces,” 35.

[9] R. J. Forbes, Studies in Ancient Technology (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1972) 9:229. Cf. also G. Ernest Wright, “Iron: The Date of its Introduction into Palestine,” American Journal of Archaeology 43 (1939) 458–63.

[10] Yohanan Aharoni, “The Settlement in Canaan,” The History of the Jewish People (Israel: Jewish Historical Society, 1971) 3:98.

[11] James D. Muhly, “How Iron Technology Changed the Ancient World—and Gave the Philistine a Military Edge,” Biblical Archaeology Review 8 (November/December 1982) 40–54.

[12] On these agricultural classifications, cf. Melville J. Herkovits, Cultural Anthropology (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1964) 123 and Elliot D. Chapple and Charleton S. Coon, Principles of Anthropology (New York: Henry Holt, 1942) 175, 225.

[13] Norman K. Gottwald, “Nomadism,” Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible Supplement, 629.

[14] W. S. McCullough, “Goat,” Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, 2:407.

[15] Joseph A. Callaway, “Ai,” Encyclopedia of Archaeological Excavations in the Holy Land (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1975) 1:52.

[16] Cf. M. Zohary, “Flora,” Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, 2:284-302 and J. F. Ross, “Food,” Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, 2:305-308.

Claude Mariottini
Emeritus Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary

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