Posted in theology

Up on the Roof

By Elizabeth Prata

In the Bible times, the roof was an important ‘room’. It was constantly used for a variety of things. Why? Homes were small, dark, smelly, and the lower room held the animals. Why wouldn’t people want to be on the roof where it was bright, with fresh air wafting by, and roomy?

Houses in Jesus’ time of the poorest folks were often one square room, made of stone or whitewashed stucco brick. There might have been an upper room like a loft for sleeping and the animals held at night in the lower room, which had a trench for waste and perhaps a small brazier for cooking. Some people took advantage of the topography and built into the hillside in a hollowed out cave, which had the advantage of being sturdy, ready made, AND cooler.

If a person had means, like Lydia who sold the expensive purple, they had a larger house. Lydia’s was large enough to host guests and a home church. It was likely square with smaller rooms lining the perimeter. It would have had a courtyard in the middle for light and air and gathering, not a problem in the Mediterranean climate. Perhaps there was a pen in the back for the animals at night or one of the rooms dedicated for the purpose.

“Most buildings in biblical times had flat roofs. With the hot climate, they had a wider range of uses than merely providing shelter for the building.”

~ Dictionary of Bible Themes, Martin Manser

The flat roof would have been slightly pitched to drain rainwater and have a cistern to catch the precious liquid. Some people adorned their roof with a tent or palm leaf shade. Once the People had stopped wandering and started building permanent dwellings, Deuteronomy 22:8 commanded that all roofs have a guardrail so the homeowner would be protected from bloodshed in case someone fell off.

When you build a new house, you shall make a parapet for your roof, that you may not bring the guilt of blood upon your house, if anyone should fall from it.

Maybe falling off roofs was a problem, lol. Proverbs 21:9 says it can be a great place to escape the quarrelsome wife! In fact, the Shunammite Woman made a little walled room for the Prophet Elisha on her roof and provided for him in addition to food, a bed, desk, chair, lampstand … and privacy.

Here are some of the Bible’s mention of the uses of roofs courtesy of the Dictionary of Bible Themes: The Accessible and Comprehensive Tool for Topical Studies by Martin Manser:

Shelter erected on the roof to make an extra room 2Ki 4:10 See also 2Sa 16:22; Pr 21:9; 25:24

Guests lodged on the roof Jos 2:8 See also 1Sa 9:25-26

The roof used as a place for leisure and relaxation 2Sa 11:2 See also Da 4:29; Mt 24:17 pp Mk 13:15 pp Lk 17:31

The roof used as a place of religious observance Ne 8:16 See also 2Ki 23:12; Jer 19:13; 32:29; Zep 1:5; Ac 10:9

In cities, some roofs were open, public places:

Isa 15:3 See also Jdg 9:50-52; 2Sa 18:24; Jer 48:38; Mt 10:26-27 pp Lk 12:2-3

There are significant Bible events that happened up on the roof.

In Acts 10:9 we read that it was on the roof where Peter had the vision of the clean and unclean animals. Peter had gone up on the roof to pray. It seems like the roof would be a perfect place to privately pray, meditate on scripture, and think. I guess peaceful until a giant sheet was let down from heaven with all kinds of animals on it!

Rahab hid the spies up on her roof. She had laid her flax to dry up there, and hid the two men under the stalks. (Joshua 2:6). The roof was also used to dry laundry, store pots and tools, and for the family to gather and talk, especially in the cool of the evening. That must have been nice.

Perhaps the most famous biblical rooftop incident is the David and Bathsheba story. One day David arose and walked about on his roof. It seems that kings did this a lot (Ahaziah, Nebuchadnezzar…). Anyway it was then that David saw Bathsheba bathing on her roof. David saw that she was beautiful in appearance. So that means that her building was close enough for David to see her well. His sin came in through the eye, as Eve’s did. He should have turned away. However if I may, Bathsheba knew how close the King’s rooftop was to her own house. Why she was bathing without a privacy screen may indicate she had ulterior designs. In the late afternoon/early evening it was common for Palestinians to walk about on the roof to take in the early evening breezes. Bathsheba knew that, too.

My family’s first house was a 100-year-old Cape Cod with a high pitched roof. There was a screened-in porch attached to the back that was fairly flat. I could step on the coiled up hose hung on the side of the porch and hoist myself up. A large oak tree overhung the porch roof. I enjoyed sitting up there in the shade and looking out over the lawn and to the cemetery next door from the higher vantage point. I liked the quietude, the privacy, and the different perspective of seeing things from higher up.

The Drifters wrote a song about being peaceful up on the roof. Apparently it is an enjoyable activity from the first homes built in Deuteronomy all the way till now. I hope you have a place you enjoy going to contemplate, be alone, or just relax. I don’t have a rooftop any more but I have a comfortable chair and a good reading lamp, and that is enough for me.


Christian writer and Georgia teacher's aide who loves Jesus, a quiet life, art, beauty, and children.