The word “house” as used in the Bible (Heb., baʹyith; Gr., oiʹkos or oi·kiʹa) may denote, among other things, (1) a household or all the offspring of one man (Ge 12:1; 17:13, 23; Ob 17, 18; Mic 1:5); (2) a dwelling house (Ge 19:2-4); (3) a jail or, figuratively, a country of enslavement (Ge 40:3, 14; Ex 13:3); (4) a dwelling place of animals and birds (Job 39:6; Ps 104:17); (5) a spiderweb (Job 8:14); (6) a royal residence or palace (2Sa 5:11; 7:2); (7) a priestly line (1Sa 2:35); (8) a royal dynasty (1Sa 25:28; 2Sa 7:11); (9) Jehovah’s tabernacle or temple, both literal and as referred to in an illustrative way (Ex 23:19; 34:26; 1Ki 6:1; 1Pe 2:5); (10) the dwelling place of Jehovah, heaven itself (Joh 14:2); (11) the sanctuary of a false god (Jg 9:27; 1Sa 5:2; 1Ki 16:32; 2Ki 5:18); (12) the corruptible physical body of humans (Ec 12:3; 2Co 5:1-4); (13) the incorruptible spiritual body (2Co 5:1); (14) the common grave (Job 17:13; Ec 12:5); (15) an association of workers engaged in the same profession (1Ch 4:21); and (16) a building for housing official records of state (Ezr 6:1).
A form of the Hebrew word for house (baʹyith) often constitutes part of a proper name, as in Bethel (meaning “House of God”) and Bethlehem (meaning “House of Bread”).
Building Materials, Construction Methods. Anciently, as today, different types of dwellings existed. Construction techniques varied according to the time period, the economic circumstances of the builder, and the available materials. The builders of Babel, for instance, used brick instead of stone, and “bitumen served as mortar for them.”
Many of the Israelites began dwelling in the houses of the dispossessed Canaanites and likely followed similar construction methods for years afterward. (De 6:10, 11) Apparently stone houses were preferred (Isa 9:10; Am 5:11), as these were more substantial and safer from intruders than those built of mud brick. Robbers could readily gain access to mud houses by simply digging through a wall. (Compare Job 24:16.) However, in the lowlands, where little good-quality limestone and sandstone was available, sun-dried or, sometimes, kiln-baked mud bricks were used for the walls of dwellings. Sycamore, juniper, and, particularly in the better houses, cedar beams and rafters were used.
Archaeologists have excavated the ruins of several kinds of ancient Palestinian dwellings. Often there was an oven in the courtyard and sometimes also a well or a cistern. (2Sa 17:18) The ruins of houses that have been found indicate considerable variation in size. One was only about 5 m (16 ft) square, whereas another measured 32 by 30 m (104 by 97 ft). Rooms often were from about 3.5 to 4.5 m (12 to 15 ft) square.
Some houses were built atop wide city walls. (Jos 2:15) But preferably they were constructed on a rock-mass (Mt 7:24), and generally mud-brick work was not started until two or three rows of stone had first been laid. When a house could not be erected on a rock-mass, often a solid foundation was laid, its depth below ground being equivalent to the height of the stone wall above ground. Some foundations were built with large uncut stones, and the cracks were filled with small rocks; others were constructed of hewn stones. The ruins of one mud-brick house excavated by archaeologists had stonework to a height of over 0.5 m (1.5 ft); in another the stone construction rose to a height of about 1 m (3 ft). The walls of some houses were about 1 m (3 ft) thick. Often a kind of whitewash was applied to the exterior walls (Eze 13:11, 15), and mud-brick walls on the street side were sometimes faced with pebbles to protect their surface.
Building stones were aligned and bonded with carefully smoothed and fitted cornerstones. (Compare Ps 118:22; Isa 28:16.) A mixture of clay and straw commonly served as mortar. At times this mixture included lime, ashes, pulverized pottery fragments, pounded shells, or limestone. It was applied to the bricks or stones to hold them together, and it was also used as a plaster for interior walls. (Le 14:41, 42) In some cases, however, stones were so accurately cut that mortar was not needed.
Floors. Floors, including those of the courtyard, consisted of beaten earth or were paved with stone, brick, or lime plaster. A depression in the floor commonly served as a fireplace, but braziers were used to heat the finer homes. (Jer 36:22, 23) Smoke escaped through a hole in the roof. (Ho 13:3) The rooms of palatial houses perhaps had wooden floors, like the temple.
Windows. Rectangular openings in the walls served as windows. At least some of these were large enough for a man to pass through. (Jos 2:15; 1Sa 19:12; Ac 20:9) Particularly the windows facing the street were equipped with lattices.
Doors. Doors were commonly made of wood and turned on pivots (Pr 26:14) fitted into sockets in the wooden or stone lintel and threshold. Two upright wooden posts served as jambs. (Ex 12:22, 23) Although some houses had two entranceways, usually only one door led from the street into the courtyard, from which access could be gained to all the rooms of the house.
Interior decorations and furniture. In luxurious homes the walls of the rooms were paneled with cedar or other costly woods and were smeared with vermilion. (Jer 22:14; Hag 1:4) “The houses of ivory” of some wealthy ones evidently had rooms paneled with wood inlaid with ivory. (1Ki 22:39; Am 3:15) Aside from the various cooking utensils, vessels, baskets, and other household items, the furnishings of the home might include beds or divans, chairs, stools, tables, and lampstands. (Compare 2Sa 4:11; 2Ki 4:10; Ps 41:3; Mt 5:15.) The furniture in the homes of some wealthy persons was beautified with inlaid work of ivory, gold, and silver.
Roof and upper chamber. Most roofs were flat, and the Law required that Israelite roofs be surrounded by a parapet to prevent accidents. (De 22:8) When a slight slope was given to the roof, this permitted the rain to run off. The roof rested on strong wooden beams laid from wall to wall. Smaller wooden rafters were placed across these beams and, in turn, were covered with branches, reeds, and the like. Next came a layer of earth several inches thick that was coated with a thick plaster of clay or of clay and lime. An opening could easily be dug through such an earthen roof, as was done by men who were endeavoring to get a paralytic into Jesus’ presence so that he might be healed. (Mr 2:4) The beams of the roof often were supported by a row of upright wooden posts resting on stone bases. Grass could sprout from these roofs (Ps 129:6), and it was difficult to keep them from leaking. (Pr 19:13; 27:15; Ec 10:18) Probably before the rainy season began, roofs were repaired and rolled smooth to allow a better runoff of water.
The roofs were places of considerable activity in both peaceful and calamitous times. (Isa 22:1; Jer 48:38) From them announcements could be made or certain actions could quickly be brought to public notice. (2Sa 16:22; Mt 10:27) Flax was dried on the roofs (Jos 2:6), and there persons might converse (1Sa 9:25), walk in the cool evening (2Sa 11:2), engage in true or false worship (Jer 19:13; Zep 1:5; Ac 10:9), or even sleep (1Sa 9:26). During the Festival of Ingathering, booths were erected on the rooftops and in the courtyards of the houses.
Often a roof chamber or upper chamber was built on the housetop. This was a pleasant, cool room that often served as a guest room. (Jg 3:20; 1Ki 17:19; 2Ki 1:2; 4:10) Of course, some homes were two-story buildings with a regular upper story. In a large upper chamber, either a roof chamber or a room of an upper story, Jesus celebrated the last Passover with his disciples and instituted the commemoration of the Lord’s Evening Meal. (Lu 22:11, 12, 19, 20) And on the day of Pentecost, 33 C.E., some 120 disciples were apparently in an upper chamber of a house in Jerusalem when God’s spirit was poured out upon them.
Usually outside stairs or, in the poorer homes, ladders led from the courtyard to the roof. Therefore, when necessary, a person on the housetop could leave without having to go into the house itself. Since many homes were built close together, it was often possible to walk from rooftop to rooftop. These factors may have some bearing on the meaning of Jesus’ counsel at Matthew 24:17 and Mark 13:15. In the better homes an interior staircase gave access to the upper story.
The Law Protected Property Rights. It was Jehovah’s purpose that his obedient people have the joy of living in their own houses. (Compare Isa 65:21.) For someone else to gain occupancy of the house of its builder was a calamity to fall upon disobedient ones. (De 28:30; La 5:2) And a man who had not yet inaugurated his new house was exempted from military service.
Certain provisions of God’s law to Israel protected property rights. The Law condemned coveting another’s possessions, including his house (Ex 20:17), and Jehovah, through his prophets, denounced the unlawful seizure of houses. (Mic 2:2; compare Ne 5:1-5, 11.) A creditor could not force his way into the house of his debtor and seize a pledge. (De 24:10, 11) An Israelite who sanctified his house to Jehovah could buy it back by paying 120 percent of its estimated value to the sanctuary. (Le 27:14, 15) Also, those who had to sell their houses retained repurchase rights, at least for a time. Houses in unwalled villages could be bought back by their original owners and had to be returned to them in the Jubilee year. But houses in walled cities became the permanent property of the buyer if they were not bought back within the allotted one-year period during which the repurchase right continued in force. The right of repurchase was permanent in the case of houses located in walled Levite cities. If not bought back earlier, all houses formerly belonging to Levites had to be returned to their original owners in the Jubilee year.
A Place for Spiritual Instruction. From earliest times the home functioned as a center for giving instruction in pure worship. God’s law to Israel specifically commanded fathers to teach their sons when sitting in the house, as well as at other times. (De 6:6, 7; 11:19) Also, God’s law was to be written, apparently figuratively, on the doorposts of their houses (De 6:9; 11:20), and the home was to be kept free from all appendages of idolatry. (De 7:26) In view of the fact that the home was used for such a sacred purpose, houses infected with “malignant leprosy” were to be torn down. (See LEPROSY.) The law concerning leprous houses would have reminded the Israelites that they could live only in homes that were clean from God’s standpoint.
With the establishment of Christianity, preaching and teaching from house to house became a prominent part of true worship. (Ac 20:20) Jesus’ followers availed themselves of the hospitality accorded them by ‘deserving ones’ or ‘friends of peace,’ and they stayed in the houses of such persons until completing their ministry in a particular city. (Mt 10:11; Lu 10:6, 7; see PREACHER, PREACHING [“From House to House”].) Often groups or congregations of Christians regularly met together in houses to consider God’s Word. (Ro 16:5; 1Co 16:19; Col 4:15; Phm 2) But any who turned away from the teaching of the Christ were not welcomed in private homes.