Equipment in a home used for rest, beautification, storage, and work space. We take for granted the many objects of furniture all around us in our homes, offices, and churches. We associate them with basic human activities such as sleeping, sitting, eating, and socializing.
They serve our practical needs at almost any given moment in our daily lives. Often, they gratify our sense of beauty as well. The common people of biblical times had no such luxuries, and very few “necessities.” Their homes would seem almost empty to us.
Sacred Furniture Biblical interest in furniture focuses on the sacred furnishings of the tabernacle and the Temple. We have in
Exodus 37-38 a full description of the tabernacle with all its objects of furniture. Lovingly detailed accounts of the ark of the covenant, the altar of incense, and other furnishings are so clear that we can easily visualize and reconstruct them in the form of models. Likewise,
1 Kings 6-7 provides similar data about the Temple of Solomon. See 1 Kings 6-7; 1 Kings 6-7.
Common Furniture But this is not the case regarding the furniture of the common people living out their daily lives in their tents and houses. The Bible occasionally refers to basic furniture items such as beds, chairs, etc. But we have virtually nothing about manufacturers, building materials, designs, or appearances.
Biblical terminology illustrates the problem. Old Testament Hebrew has no word equivalent to the English terms “furniture” or “furnishings.” The Hebrew word keli is so translated in passages such as
Exodus 31:7, but in this very same context the very same word (keli) is also rendered as “utensils,” “articles,” or “accessories.” In fact, the word keli is so fluid that it may refer to any humanly manufactured material object. As a result, we find in the Old Testament translations of keli as arms (weapons), bag or baggage, clothing, equipment, implement, instrument, object, ornament, receptacle, tool, and vessel. Thus, this word will not be of much help with a study of furniture in the Old Testament. To the contrary, this term suggests that the Israelites of Old Testament times were not especially interested in their furniture beyond its practical value. Their common furniture was merely functional, and nothing more.
Similarly, the New Testament carries us no further, for it uses no word which could be translated as “furniture” in the English versions.
Sources of Data The Bible remains a source of data, however, at least to the degree that it refers to such items as beds and chairs. Beyond the Bible itself we must resort to artifacts recovered by archaeology.
Palestine, however, does not enjoy the climate which would have saved wooden furnishings for study today. Only a few such objects have survived, and even these have greatly disintegrated over time. This being the case, we must resort to secondary artifacts such as written records, seals, sculpture, ivories, and tombs.
Individual Objects of Furniture Domestically, Israelite furniture reflected the simplicity of the ordinary household dwelling. Some Israelites preferred to live in tents (Jeremiah 35:1), preserving the traditions of nomadic and wilderness days. The furnishings of such a living place would have to be readily portable and as light as possible. Chests of some sort would be used when the family or clan was settled then double as carriage crates when on the move. A few simple rugs covered the ground floor. The tent itself and all its paraphernalia—pegs, ropes, interior curtains for separating the “rooms” inside—along with a few sleeping mats, might be all the “furniture” such a family owned. The same would apply to those living in small shelters.
A more permanent home would be furnished according to the family's relative wealth or poverty. Like the tent-dwellers mentioned above, a poorer family would own, at the minimum, simple bedding and kitchen equipment. Reed mats would be rolled out on the floor for resting and sleeping. In some cases these mats would have to serve as tables and chairs, as well, since real ones were probably beyond the means of poorer families. All homes needed interior lighting, of course, so even the poor would own, in all probability, several lamps, i.e., saucer-shaped bowls with a pinch in the rim for a wick fueled by a pool of olive oil; such a lamp often sat on a supporting stand. Wide-mouth jars for food and water were essential, as were also some sort of stone and clay oven, and a grinding mill for preparing grain. A few of these houses might also have stone or wooden benches, some covered with cloth or carpet material around the inner walls; but this was likely the exception among the poor rather than the rule. Since most homes of biblical days had few windows, they would also have had few—if any—curtains.
Even the homes of the comfortable and the wealthy would also seem all but bare in contrast to the homes of any socioeconomic class in a developed nation of the West today. Consider the home of the “wealthy woman” of Shunem (in lower northern Palestine about five miles east of Megiddo), found in
2 Kings 4:8-37. Because of her special concern for the prophet Elisha, she and her husband built “a small room on the roof” (2 Kings 4:10 NIV) of their house for him to use when he was passing through their vicinity. They furnished it with “a bed and a table, a chair and a lamp” (2 Kings 4:10 NIV), for which he was sincerely grateful. In so doing, this prosperous couple displayed exceptional hospitality, even though the furniture they supplied seems minimal to us. We infer that the bed, the table, the chair, and the lamp represented most, if not all, the variety of furniture in their house (not counting the kitchen equipment). If this is correct, then we may more readily imagine how little furniture would have been found in the homes of the middle and lower classes.
Only a century later Amos (760-750 B.C.) condemned the decadent prosperity of the wealthy class in his day. He spoke of the mansions of Samaria (Amos 3:15;
Amos 6:11) and their opulent beds and couches encrusted with ivory (Amos 3:12,
Amos 6:4). By then the gap between the relatively poor and the relatively rich had grown to scandalous proportions, as evidenced by the quality of their furniture (compare
Esther 1:6). It seems most likely that apart from the highly ornamented furniture mentioned in Amos, the household furniture of the vast majority of Israelites was merely functional, rather than aesthetic.
Furniture and Artifacts Archaeology has shed some (but not much) light on ancient Palestinian furniture. The excavation of ancient Jericho in the 1950s discovered a series of tombs containing both the skeletal remains of the dead and practical provisions to serve their needs in the afterlife. The pertinent finds date to about 1600 B.C. Furniture styles were slow to change, and the artifacts found at Jericho were probably like those used by the Israelites long after.
One body had been laid on a wooden bed consisting of a rectangular frame enclosing wooden crosspieces tenoned to the rails. The crosspieces and rails enclosed five panels of woven rush. The bed probably supported a mattress about six inches above the floor.
Beside the bed was a table measuring about fifty-eight inches by sixteen inches, supported by only three legs about ten inches above the floor. Each leg tenoned into a rounded corner extension below the underside of the table. Survivors left a wooden platter of mutton on the table.
Two cylinder seals from Tell es-Sa'idiyeh on the Jordan River and dated to about 750 B.C. show simple chairs in their impressions. One has a tall straight back and, apparently, a seat of woven rush. Further details are unclear. The other chair has a curved, ladder-back design with four cross-slats.
A few other artifacts from Jericho and from only a few other sites in Palestine depict other common furniture objects such as benches and stools and bronze objects.
Perhaps further discoveries will someday broaden our knowledge of biblical furniture, but excavations to this point suggest that we have found most, if not all, of such artifacts we will ever see.
Tony M. Martin