Banking and money in the ancient world (Nehemiah 5)

Bilderesultat for ancient lydian coins

Illustration: World’s First Coin: The Lydian Lion

The earliest monetary exchanges were made on the basis of a barter system. In Mesopotamia barley and dates were often standards of trade, since they could be stored for a relatively long period of time without loss. Tithes, taxes and tribute could be paid in agricultural produce. Coins were introduced in Lydia during the seventh century B.C. but were not common until the time of Alexander the Great (ca. 330 B.C.). Barter was used even in Roman times. Precious metals (e.g. silver, gold and electrum) formed into vessels (cups, bowls, dishes) or Jewelry (rings, earrings, bracelets) often were used as items of exchange.

An item’s weight (e.g. a silver plate of 130 shekels; Numbers 7:13) was the primary indication of its monetary value, although other factors, such as the quality of the craftsmanship, were important as well. Common units of weight were the gerah (.02 ounces or 6 gr.), the shekel (.4 ounces or 11,5 gr.), the mina (1,5 pounds or .6 kg) and the talent (74 pounds or 34 kg). All of these weights equivalents are approximate and to a degree conjectural, however, and weights were not fixed for all places throughout the entire Biblical period. This does not mean that ancient people were casual about weights and exchanges; the condemnation of fraudulent weights and scales, in fact, shows how seriously they threated precision in such matters (cf. Leviticus 19:36, Proverbs 16:11).

Prices naturally fluctuated through the centuries, and it is difficult to ascertain how much a particular commodity may have cost at a given time and place – and equally difficult to communicate prices in a manner meaningful to a modern reader. The laws of supply and demand operated then as now. 2 Kings 7:1 indicates that in the ninth century B.C. the price of one silver shekel for two seahs (about 24 quarts or 14, 6 litres) of barley was regarded as so inexpensive that it would only occur when grain was overly abundant. The prophet Hosea, in approximately 740 B.C., seems to have redeemed his wife, Gomer, from slavery for a price of 15 shekels of silver and “about a homer and a lethek of barley” (Hosea 3:2). A homer seems to have been approximately 6 bushels or 220 liters and a lethek half that, indicating a total price of about 4,46 ounces (127,5 gr) of silver and 8,53 bushels (330 litres) of barley for redemption of a slave woman in eighth century Israel. Hosea’s contemporaries would have been able to determine whether this represented a typical or an exorbitant price.

With regard to the Israelites/Jews, money was safeguarded in temples and palaces or buried in underground hoards. Loans were documented and witnessed. Six-month agricultural loans were common, as were promissory notes and letters of credit. Laws regulated abuse of collateral: Outer garments had to be returned that night (Exodus 22:26-27), the taking of millstones was prohibited (Deuteronomy 24:6) and creditors could not enter debtors’ homes to collect collateral (Deuteronomy 24:10). Interest-carrying loans to fellow Israelites were prohibited (Exodus 22:25) and real estate transactions highly restricted. As in modern business ventures, risk and profit were often directly proportional. International trade was highly risky but could also be quite profitable; local trading offered lower risks but also smaller returns on investment.


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