From Shekels To Talents: Money In The Ancient World -- By: Oded Borowski

Journal: Bible and Spade (Second Run)
Volume: BSPADE 07:4 (Autumn 1994)
Article: From Shekels To Talents: Money In The Ancient World
Author: Oded Borowski


From Shekels To Talents:
Money In The Ancient World

Oded Borowskia

Deferred payment—using credit cards and checks instead of currency and coin—is a modern invention. But people have been using money, whether paper or metal, for a very long time. The Hebrew Bible mentions many different monetary denominations, and archaeologists frequently find coins and weights at dig sites.

For centuries, ancient peoples exchanged goods by bartering or by weighing out precious metals or jewels as payment for purchases. Under the barter system, people exchanged goods and services with one another according to various rates. For example, one donkey was worth three sheep or fixing a plow was worth two large clay pots. An example of barter in the Bible is 1 Kings 5:10–11, when Hiram of Tyre traded cedar and cypress timber to build Solomon’s Temple in exchange for wheat and oil.

When social structures became more complex and specialized, the barter system no longer worked well. If a seller wanted cattle and a prospective buyer only had sheep, they needed either a middleman or a new payment method in order to work out an exchange.

A FALCON seems to take flight on this coin from the fourth century BC. The inscription at upper right reads, “Yehud,” the Hebrew name of Israel while it was a Persian province.

To solve this problem, payment with precious metals or, less often, with stones was introduced. Payment was made either by weighing out specific quantities of metals, such as gold or silver, or by handing over bars of these metals molded into a standard shape and weight.

The Bible describes this method of payment several times. The most famous example is Abraham’s purchase for 400 silver shekels of the Cave of Machpelah as a burial ground for his family.

And Abraham weighed out for Ephron the silver which he had named. .. 400 shekels of silver, according to the weights current among the merchants (Gn 23:16).

Since coins were not yet in existence, this reference is most likely to metal bars or to weight units. Weighing was done by using balance scales and standard weights. From Deuteronomy 25:13, where it is stated, “You shall not have in your bag two kinds of weights, a large and a small,” we can infer that cheating sometimes occurred.

In Biblical times, there were two standards, or systems, of weight: Babyl...

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