For the poorer people, moving from tents to houses did not significantly increase the degree of comfort available from their living quarters - it did however raise the feeling of permanence and the sense of community. Indeed by modern standards it would almost be incorrect to describe these dwellings as houses; they were closer to what we would today term a 'hut'. Nonetheless they were significant within Jewish society and the Bible is replete with references to them. The purpose of this paper is therefore to discuss the dwellings of the poorer people: the rather grander buildings inhabited by more affluent individuals will be discussed in a subsequent paper.
The opinions regarding the 'standard' floor plan of a peasant dwelling are as diverse as the authorities consulted. Wight envisages the simplest of single room houses used in an open plan structure. ISBE suggests a plan which may be viewed similarly from the outside but which internally had two very small bedchambers separated off for privacy. The Oxford Bible Dictionary insists that the standard layout from the entry to Canaan onwards was of a 'two rooms up, two rooms down' design. Smith rather agrees with Wight that the lowest classes had houses of one room although also adds the note that occasionally the living quarters would be raised within that room and that the cattle would sleep in the lower areas. I suspect that an insight given by ISBE helps explain the diversity of opinion and also shows the reality of the situation:
Additions were made as well as could be arranged on the cramped site, and in consequence, plans often became such a meaningless jumble that it is impossible to identify the respective limits of adjoining houses.
In other words people probably started with a single bare room and then partitioned for privacy or extended to provide more space as and when the situation required and resources permitted.
There is more agreement regarding the usual construction of a poor dwelling although again all of the indications are that diversity was the norm. The commonest building material was mud which explains Job's comment that men live in houses made of clay. There were two principle ways for this mud to be used: either it was turned into a sun-burned brick or it was used as a form of mortar to bind together walls of irregular stones. Some had the resources to plaster their walls those that didn't faced the prospect of serpents inhabiting them! Fausset shows that all faced the reality that mud walls could be dug through by robbers and that without constant maintenance they dissolve into heaps. Indeed Ezekiel 13:10-16 shows that a building might dissolve into heaps even with constant attention if the mud does not have the correct composition and has not been adequately tempered.
Given the potentially hazardous condition of the walls it was vitally important to build upon a strong foundation. As our Lord tells us the wisest built their houses upon rock. Fausset states that whilst not recorded in scripture the more industrious would dig down until they did reach rock and then build stone arches so that their walls could be built upon rock. A slightly easier and very common practice was to lay a great stone at the corner of the house that was at the lowest part of an incline. This 'corner-stone' was responsible for much of the stability of the structure and received great reverence. ISBE even notes that instances have been found of human-sacrifice laid out below these 'corner stones'; presumably to ensure the assistance of some assumed deity. The floor of the building was rather less vital and compacted soil was generally deemed to suffice.
The one feature of the eastern house that all the writers agree upon is the roof. The agreement stretches from the general nature of its construction to the central role that it had in eastern life. The roof itself would be made by stretching a main beam from the center of one wall to the center of an opposing wall. Rafters (smaller beams) would then be stretched at right angles across the main mean; again running from wall to wall. Upon this matrix of wood was then laid a carpet of rushes or brushwood. On top of that was spread a thick layer of dirt and straw which was then compacted down using a roller. The compaction phase was sufficiently important that many houses would have a smaller 'roller' which remained upon the roof for effecting running repairs as required.
The true nature of the Eastern roof is revealed by a Mosaic law which appears strange to Western eyes. In Deuteronomy 22:8 it states that when a new house is built a battlement (or low wall) has to be built around the end of the roof - to prevent bloodshed. The reason is that it was extremely common for people to go upon the roof of a house. Smith lists many Biblical instances of the roof being used: for example Samuel met Saul upon the roof, David walked upon his roof and saw Bathsheba, and Peter went onto the roof to pray. The religious usage of the roof was indeed strong: Jeremiah and Zephaniah both record roofs being used to build altars. The roof was also a meeting place in time of calamity (Isa 15:3), fear (Isa 22:1) or even rejoicing. For this reason roofs were easily reached; access being granted by a staircase which ran up the outside of the house.
In many ways the 'dirt floor' which existed on the roof resembled the floor that would have existed at ground level; it could even grow a layer of grass from time to time (Psa 129:6). It is therefore not surprising that it should be a place that people would pitch booths (Neh 8:16). This probably led quite naturally to people building extra rooms or lofts onto the roof (or walls) of the house. However the more complex housing structures will be dealt with subsequently.
As stated in opening the interior of these houses would not be a significant advance, if any, upon a tent dwelling. The windows would be small and protected by wooden latticework. The door would probably be a wooden board that could be strapped to the doorway. Hinges, when they existed, would have been rudimentary and locks would almost certainly not have been available at all. The furnishings would have consisted of a series of cushions and mats. Perhaps the one 'luxury' that housing may have afforded was in the area of storage. The increased space and reduced requirement for 'lightness' allowed for storage chests, drying room for foodstuffs and a slightly wider array of pots and cooking utensils.
The Eastern house generally did not have a chimney; any smoke from inside having to vent through the small windows or though the other crooks and crevices afforded by the generally dubious construction of a poor dwelling. Thus, whilst most houses would have had a small hearth in the center of the room cooking was done outside whenever possible. The fire would be made from kindling, sticks, dung, thorns or any other flammable material that came to hand.
In closing I must stress that the above is simply a compilation from half a dozen lexicographers. Most of these differ from each other on many key points and the summary I have made is just one of many possible slants which one might have taken. I believe the general lesson is that the poor simply assembled what was around them to give themselves shelter and a sense of permanence as best they could. Dirt was the principle ingredient in many homes; supplemented by vegetation and hard work as required. The ground floor was the 'business area' providing shelter from the elements and handling cooking, storage and even cattle. The roof was the area of relative peace and leisure; recreating some of the historic freedom of living under the stars and yet also providing some respite from the activity below.