Trade and Commerce in Eighth Century Israel

Even in a subsistence level agricultural society it is difficult for anyone to produce all they need. A good potter may not be a good basket maker. Beyond this, some products are impossible to produce, or grow, in some areas - for example pottery needs good clay. Such factors produce an inevitable degree of exchange of goods in any society. Beyond this subsistence level, luxury goods are more likely to be exchanged over longer distances.

Money

Major trade routes and goods

Taxes, tithes and local trade

Lending and "banks"

Money

At a local level, trade can function on a simple exchange basis. You have wheat, but want a pot that I have made, I exchange my pot for some of your wheat... Often trade at a distance can also involve exchange, David needs timber and skilled workers (2 Sam 5:11), Hiram needed agricultural produce (Ez 27:17), such needs permit mutually beneficial exchanges. However, direct exchange is not always possible, or complete equivalence of perceived value cannot be organized. In such cases, even very early, metals, particularly silver and gold, came to be used as value equivalents. The first known coins (metal weighed and stamped by an authority which authenticated its weight) are from Lydia (in what is now Turkey) perhaps minted by King Croesus (561–546bc). Darius I (521–486bc) introduced coins to the Persian empire, and perhaps Hg 1:6 refers to these (with its talk of "wages" put in a bag with holes). Earlier shekel "pieces" were not authenticated but served the same function, though few of these have been found from Iron I sites in Palestine.

So although there was no coinage in the Eighth Century there was exchange of goods, and sometimes exchange against the value of precious metals. Such exchanges also meant that debt was possible, where someone required delivery now of what they could not yet afford!

Major trade routes and goods

Early in the biblical period Egypt was the major source of manufactured goods and of metals, while Canaan served primarily as a source of agricultural products. However, in the Iron age Phoenicia began to imitate and develop Egyptian methods of production, and developed increasingly extensive trading links. This meant that Phoenicia itself became an importer of Israelite agricultural products. Garments and cloth were significant items of trade, and although Egypt produced fine linen from flax, both wool and woolen cloth were imported.

Mesopotamia with its rivers had a convenient cheap means of regional transport, and strong agricultural production, but metals were scarce. This ensured a steady trade between Mesopotamia and Egypt that passed through Canaan. Precious and semiprecious stones were imported from the East.

The Phoenicians were renowned sailors and traders, and already by about 900bce had set up trading colonies throughout the Mediterranean. They even claimed to have sailed right round Africa.

Ezekiel 27 gives a vivid picture of the active trading of the region.

Taxes, tithes and local trade

Cities needed to be supplied with food and other produce, so each dominated a significant tract of land. The major production (agricultural and husbandry) was based in smaller villages, and at least 90% of the population lived there. The state and its religion claimed taxes in kind (tithes) on all production and also demanded manpower for its military and construction projects (corvée labor).

Lending and "banks"

Peasants in what was basically a subsistence economy live “on the edge”, so disasters such as illness or drought frequently meant that people needed to borrow. The legal texts in the Bible address this issue as one of community assistance, so no interest is to be charged on such loans. All the main collections forbit the exploitation of a relative's debt (Ex 22:25; Lev 25:35ff.; Dt 23:19f.), though Dt 23:20 permits commercial loans (at interest) to resident foreigners. There was even the thought that if someone was unable to repay their debt then the indebtedness ought to be forgiven, since the land and other benefits are God's gift in the first place (Dt 15:1–8).

However, since the forces that pushed them into debt often applied also to their relatives, debt to city-based money lenders or traders must have occured, and a class of landlord and merchant developed. The very fact that demanding interest on debts (Ex 22:25) and the permanent enslavement of fellow citizens (Lev 25:39ff.) need to be forbidden in the biblical laws suggests that such practices were part of life in the Ancient Near East (including in practice if not in theory ancient Israel).


 

This page is part of the Hypertext Bible Commentary - Amos,

© Tim Bulkeley, 1996-2005, Tim Bulkeley. All rights reserved.