In honor of my grandfather, Shlomo Zalman Porush, Z”L, whose yahrzeit is today. May his memory be for a blessing.
According to the Torah, the Jews exit Egypt in 1313 BCE. Moses brings down the Ten Commandments and writes the Book of the Covenant (the Torah itself) at Sinai seven weeks later. They wander the desert for forty more years, and then under the leadership of Joshua begin a campaign to take control of the Promised Land in 1273 BCE. By around 1060 BCE they have succeeded enough to elect a king, Saul, who is followed by David (1040-970 BCE) and then Solomon (1000-931 BCE).
Archeologists have debated for a couple of centuries whether these legendary figures actually existed and these events occurred, and if they did, how closely they hew to the traditional Jewish timeline. Yet, we keep discovering more and more convincing archeological evidence that the Torah is stunningly accurate both in the particulars of its account and the fit between its timeline and history.
One of the most recent of these discoveries is a singular bit of architecture, the four-room house. A distinctive home floor plan, it appears suddenly throughout Israel at precisely the same time as the Hebrews enter the Promised Land (according to the Torah, 1273-1050 BCE) and quickly spreads throughout the territories occupied by the twelve tribes of Israel (including the parts of Transjordan they occupied).
It’s a simple but elegant design: an extended family’s home, separated into four major spaces. The sudden emergence and rapid spread of the layout was like the popularity of Sears modular homes in the early twentieth century or, even more, the Levittowns throughout suburban post-war America, beginning with William Levitt’s ingenious innovation on Long Island in 1947.
This curiously modern-seeming bit of ancient architecture appears nowhere else at the time. It springs into existence suddenly upon the settlement of Israel by the Jews. throughout the land. And no similar home layouts exist in any of the surrounding civilizations, remaining unique to the Jews for at least a couple of centuries. The repetition of the same layout is so prevalent, the craze begs for an explanation beyond mere fad or imitation of the Joneses (or Goldbergs).
The Levittowns, we know, were driven by the convergence of several factors all at once: returning GIs were eager to claim a share of the American dream; they were of the age to start families (giving rise to the Baby Boom); the GI Bill provided them with instant financing for new homes at a fraction of their costs; the automobile enabled these new families to live well beyond city centers where jobs and expensive homes were; and William Levitt applied assembly-line and modular construction principles to rapid homebuilding.
Similarly, the establishment of a kingdom exclusively for the Jews in Israel enabled them to erect towns and cities atop the ones they destroyed or in new settlements with this totally new design of the home. More importantly, though, the four-room home expressed a cultural shift, a new vision of how people should live together in family units. This new social and cultural order was encoded in their new, and transcendent contract with God, the Torah that they carried into Israel after their forty year wanderings through the desert. The family unit is central to the new idea of the cosmos encoded in the Torah, and the four-room home enabled the Jews to devote the care and attention to domestic arrangements it mandated.
Particularly, the simple architecture – or as Avraham Faust elegantly calls it in a recent article, its “space syntax” – solved a spiritual problem. Faust shows how this new home set aside one of the four spaces for family members who were temporarily in a state of ritual impurity, such as women who are menstruating or men who suffer nocturnal emissions. Anthropology shows us that most traditional cultures have strong ideas of separating clean from unclean and ritual ideas of pure and impure. Yet all the other ones we know about universally sequester the impure in separate quarters. They’re removed from the family and quarantined, as Faust notes, “in separate houses, huts, tents, or even caves or rock shelters.” usually in a “no-man’s land” outside the main settlement or encampment.
While this might have been a welcome vacation or break from family duties, and anthropologists report that there same-sex bonding and community news-sharing, imagine what this arrangement did to the average family, as mother or father or sister or brother had to stay away for what could be several days. We can also imagine what mischief or temptations it invited. The whole scheme courts trouble, or at very least, the loosening of familial bonds and integrity.
The genius of the four-room house was that it resolved the struggle between two temporarily conflicting sacred commitments: to purity and family unity. The architecture enabled Jews to sequester in place: to quarantine the impure, separate holy from temporarily unholy, yet still preserve their other sacred duty to family cohesion. Further, the “spatial syntax” speaks of another subtle message, hidden in the stones: you may be impure, but you’re still loved, still a part of us, still a person, still integral to our well-being. Your temporary state has neither de-personed you nor made you abnormal nor severed family ties. You are not in a state of living death, only in a passing phase of temporary constraint. I imagine the enforced separation at home even invited a form of mindfulness about your relationships.
It is not uncommon for a conquering nation to put its stamp on new territory by building its own distinctive architecture and monuments on the rubble of the vanquished. The sudden appearance of the four-room architecture shows that the Jews did it when they transformed Canaan to Israel circa 1200 BCE. But this convergence of architecture, archeology, sociology, history, and metaphysics carries a much more breathtaking story. By giving us material proof of how the Jews suddenly entered the Land of Israel and transformed its living spaces, it confirms that the Torah is much more than a nation’s mythology, or even a stunningly accurate history. The four-room home embodied a new concept of family as metaphysical, where holiness, intimacy, mercy, fidelity, and love are all entwined. It transformed the new Israelite home into an abode for body and soul.
Thanks to Dr. Elliot Lepler, Marcos Frid, Liki Abrams, Dr. Gary Goldstein, and Gary Leight for their crucial suggestions and requests for clarification.
- See Herschel Shanks, “The Four-Room House: Ancient Israel’s Major Architectural Achievement,” Biblical Archeology Review July/August 2017. See also Shlomo Bunimovitz and Avraham Faust, “Ideology in Stone: Understanding the Four-Room House,” Biblical Archeology Review July/August 2002.
- Yigal Levin, “Ancient Israel Through a Social-Scientific Lens,” Biblical Archeology Review Sept/Oct 2014.
- Avraham Faust, “Purity and Impurity in Iron Age Israel,” Biblical Archeology Review March/April 2019, p. 36. See also the accompanying sidebar by Shanks, p. 40.
- Faust, p. 38.