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The Ancient Economy

The ancient economy was nothing like our economy.  When we read the Bible, we have a tendency to take our modern presuppositions and our concepts of wealth and poverty and salary and income and jobs and land are all vastly different from the ideal of ancient Israel.  So, the ancient economy, I would argue, is what is called “socially embedded” and by that I mean, that the economy was not driven by supply or demand or by price.  The economy of ancient Israel was driven by social relationships. 

For an example, in 1Kgs 10, we have the Queen of Sheba; she’s traveling down from the Arabian peninsula with all these commodities and she goes up to Solomon.  She enters Solomon’s palace and doesn’t negotiate trade but she actually has a bunch of riddles for Solomon; and only when Solomon answers these riddles does she give all these gifts to Solomon.  Then, Solomon reciprocates by giving all these gifts back to Sheba. 

So what I would say is, Sheba and Solomon, they’re not doing some sort of mercantile partnership, they’re not business partners, but rather they have created a social bond through this exchange.  This happens at the elite level; it also happens at the peasant level.  So, Elijah will come visit a foreign widow and say, “hey, give me some water and give me some bread.”  In a capitalist modern assumption that sounds like a freeloader, it’s sounds like someone lazy trying to get a free meal, but in a socially embedded economy, what Elijah is actually doing is inviting this most disenfranchised person to come join him in a social bond through the sharing of a meal.  So, she gives the meal; Elijah then prophecies for her and this is more striking because Elijah rejected gifts from generals and kings, but chose to have the bond with a most disenfranchised person of the ancient Near East, of a foreign widow.

A modern day example would be a wedding.  You go to a wedding, you have a nice meal and you provide a gift; it’s not an economic exchange, but you provide the gift because there’s a social relationship.  So, I think a lot of the economy of ancient Israel was dominated by gifts which were given, not for supply and demand, but to reinforce and sometimes to break social bonds.

  • Roger Nam is assistant professor of biblical studies at George Fox Evangelical Seminary. His research interests include Late Bronze Age civilizations and the economy of the ancient Near East. He is the author of Portrayals of Exchange in the Book of Kings (Brill, 2012).