Wealth and Power of the Biblical Patriarchs -- By: Stephen Caesar

Journal: Bible and Spade (Second Run)
Volume: BSPADE 19:1 (Winter 2006)
Article: Wealth and Power of the Biblical Patriarchs
Author: Stephen Caesar

Wealth and Power of the Biblical Patriarchs

Stephen Caesar

Michael Luddeni

The Biblical record suggests that Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob were exceedingly wealthy men. This is borne out by the fact that they owned both donkeys and camels. The rarity of domesticated camels in the Bronze Age Near East, combined with the economic advantages enjoyed by camel owners over non-owners, along with the exclusive ability of the rich to initiate camel domestication and eventually to profit from it, provide a significant connection to the Patriarchs as described in Genesis. Based on the overt descriptions of the Patriarchs’ wealth, some scholars have surmised that they may have been traveling merchants, using donkeys as their chief mode of transport. Sarna observed that the Patriarchs

had dealings with kings, possessed slaves, retainers, silver and gold, and might possibly have participated in the international caravan trade (1966: 105).

Albright, commenting on a Hebrew word used in Genesis to describe the Patriarchs’ economic activity, stated:

All the ancient versions of Genesis, from the Greek translation of the third century BC on, render the Hebrew consonantal stem SḤR (Gn 23:16; 34:10, 21; 37:28; 42:34) as “to trade (in), trader,” etc (1983: 12).

He then called attention to the connection between this Hebrew term and

the cognate Old-Assyrian words from the same verbal stem, meaning in the caravan texts clearly “to trade, barter,” and “goods for barter” (Albright, 1983: 13).

Referring to Genesis 14, where Abraham leads 318 of his trained servants into battle, Albright concluded that

neither this chapter nor Genesis 23 [in which Abraham purchases land for a considerable sum of money] is intelligible unless we recognize that Abraham was a wealthy caravaneer and merchant whose relations with the native princes and communities were fixed by contracts and treaties (covenants) (1983: 15).

This would certainly tie in with Macdonald’s statement that the earliest domesticated camels provided their owners with “a commercial and strategic importance to the rulers of the states around them” (1995: 1357).

Of course, Albright may have overplayed his hand, reducing the Patriarchs to nothing more tha...

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