I read an interesting 2018 monograph* this morning by Avraham Faust about the archaeological evidence for social stratification in the Levant during the Iron Age. Faust looked at architecture, specifically houses, at dozens of archaeological sites. He divided the houses into four classes based on size, construction quality, and shared walls, and used the resulting categorization to create Lorenz curves for each site.
Interestingly, graphing the curves revealed significant social stratification for urban location – cities and large towns – but essentially none in rural villages. Faust attributes the difference to the presence of hired labor in urban areas. He also notes that this result implies that when the Biblical prophets denounced the exploitation of the poor, they were looking at what was happening in urban areas, not rural villages.
I would add in addition that this finding implies that in that society it was effectively impossible for individual households to accumulate large amounts of land. Archaeology obviously can’t reveal how closely Iron Age villages followed the laws about land and inheritance in the Torah, but we can use it to infer that whatever rules actually were followed led to farm land being distributed among a large number of households instead of just a few, and that the distribution at the level of the village was roughly equal. There were no large estates or landlords.
In contrast to my rant back in April about the misuse of Biblical archaeology, Faust’s monograph is an example of its proper application. He used archaeological methods to address an archaeological question about a culture in the past, not to try and prove or disprove anything in the Bible. The results do provide some insight into the way certain Biblical texts would have been understood by their original intended audience, however, and also give us a more precise picture of who the original intended audience of those particular passages was; that this message was aimed specifically at wealthy urban dwellers.
*Social Stratification in the Iron Age Levant. In Behind the Scenes of the Old Testament, edited by Jonathan S. Greer, John W. Hilber and John H. Walton, pp. 482-491. Baker Academic, Grand Rapids.