Commercial activity in the ancient Near East took many forms. The economy centered around agriculture, but some manufactured goods were produced and natural resources mined. Farm goods, products, and resources had to be transported to market centers and other countries. Barter and the buying and selling of goods and services held a prominent place in the life of villages and towns. This is demonstrated by the large number of economic texts uncovered in excavations and the importance placed on transactional dialogue and the use of commercial scenes to highlight major events in the biblical text. Products, places of business, business practices (weights and measures, business law), and the means of transport all figure into the commercial picture of the biblical era.
Products The irrigated fields of Mesopotamia and Egypt and the terraced hillsides of Palestine produced a variety of agricultural products. Barley and wheat were crushed, winnowed, sieved, and distributed on the threshingfloor (goren) for local consumption (Deuteronomy 15:14;
Ruth 3:15). Surpluses were transported to regional marketplaces and major cities. Whole grain, meal, flax, nuts, dates, olive oil, fish in the Galilee area, and a variety of animal by-products found their way into every home and paid the taxes imposed by the government. The kings like Uzziah (2 Chronicles 26:10) also had large holdings of land and vast herds that contributed to the overall economy.
Village craftsmen produced pottery, metal and wooden implements, weapons, and cloth. Evidence of their commercial self-sufficiency is seen in the recovery of loom weights in excavations of private homes throughout Israel. These balls of clay provide evidence of how widespread the local weaving and cloth-making industries were in ancient times. Manufactured products were distributed among the inhabitants of the village. The finer items were traded to traveling merchants or transported overland to Jerusalem or some other commercial center.
Manufactured goods most commonly introduced into national or international commerce included fine pottery, weapons, glassware, jewelry, cosmetics, and dyed cloth. Distinctive styles or fine workmanship created markets for these products and thus made it worth the costs and hazards of sea and overland transport. Evidence of how widespread trade was in the ancient world can be traced by the different styles and decoration of pottery. Seal markings showing place of origin are also found on many jugs and storage jars used to transport wine, oil, grain, and spices.
Another indication of the diversity of trading products that circulated throughout the ancient Near East is found in Ezekiel's “lamentation over Tyre,” one of the principal Phoenician seaports (Ezekiel 27:12-24). Their ships and those of Tarshish carried iron, tin, and lead, exchanging them for slaves, horses, mules, ivory, and ebony at various ports of call. Aram or Edom (NIV with footnote) traded “emeralds, purple, embroidered work, fine linen, coral, and rubies” (Ezekiel 27:16 NAS), and Judah sent honey, oil, and balm along with wheat as trade goods to Tyre (Ezekiel 27:17). The Phoenicians also supplied their trading partners with wool and cloth dyed purple with a glandular secretion from the murex mollusk.
Merchant quarters were established in many trading centers like that at Ugarit, a seaport in northern Syria (1600-1200 B.C.). The Phoenician seaports of Tyre and Sidon also had their resident alien communities, adding to the cosmopolitan nature of these cities and facilitating the transmission of culture and ideas. The economic and political importance of these trading communities is seen in Solomon's construction of storehouse cities in Hamath (2 Chronicles 8:4 and in Ahab's negotiations with Ben-Hadad of Syria for the establishment of “market areas in Damascus” (1 Kings 20:34 NIV).
Places of Business Metropolitan centers, like Babylon and Thebes, had open areas or market squares where commerce took place. This was also the case in the Hellenistic cities of the Near East which had one or more agoras. The narrow confines of the villages and towns in Palestine, however, restricted commercial activity to shops or booths built into the side of private homes or to the open area around the city gate.
For most Palestinian villages and towns, the gate was a vital place where commercial, judicial, and social activities of all sorts took place. Lot sat in the gate, demonstrating his status as a privileged resident alien (Genesis 19:1). The gate of Samaria served as a market center where the people purchased measures of barley and fine meal (2 Kings 7:18). In
Proverbs 31:23, one sign of a prosperous man with a well-ordered house was his ability to sit with the elders in the gate.
Large urban centers, like Jerusalem, had several gates and commercial districts, thus allowing for diversification of commercial activity throughout the city.
Jeremiah 18:2 speaks of the Potsherd Gate (author's translation; known as the Dung Gate in
Nehemiah 2:13) where Jeremiah enacted a prophecy of doom by smashing a pot. He also mentions the bakers' street as the principal area of production and supply of bread in Jerusalem (Jeremiah 37:21). In the Roman period, Josephus lists several commercial activities in the city: wool shops, smithies, and the clothes market.
Weights and Measures Inscribed stone, clay, or metal weights were used throughout the Near East and have been found in large quantities by archaeologists. They range from the talent (2 Samuel 12:30;
2 Kings 18:14) to the mina (Ezra 2:69 NAS), the shekel (2 Samuel 14:26;
Ezekiel 4:10), and various smaller weights. Until the establishment of the monarchy, commercial transactions were governed in each Israelite town by a local standard of exchange. Evidence has been found (markings on the weights) of the use of both the Egyptian standard of weights as well as Babylonian measures. Even these standards were apparently negotiable, however, and sometimes subject to abuse. Thus, Abraham was forced before witnesses in the gate of Hebron to pay an exorbitant rate (400 shekels of silver) for the cave of Machpelah (Genesis 23:16), and Amos condemned those merchants who were “making the ephah small, and the shekel great, and falsifying the balances by deceit” (Genesis 8:5).
Until coinage was introduced after 600 B.C., foodstuffs and other goods were obtained through barter in the marketplace or purchased with weights of previous metals (Genesis 33:19;
Job 42:11). When minted coinage came into general use during the Hellenistic period (after 200 B.C.), it created a revolution in commerce. See Coins. Transactions in accepted coinage, known to bear a definite weight, added to the confidence of the public and eliminated some of the abuses of the marketplace. Coins also facilitated the payment of taxes (Mark 12:15-17) and wages (Matthew 20:2).
Business Law Hammurabi's law code (about 1750 B.C.) contains a model of business law in the Ancient Near East. Many facets or trade are governed by this code. They are sometimes echoed in the biblical codes as well. For instance, Hammurabi's law protected a man who consigned a portion of his grain to storage from losses due to natural events and the corrupt practices of the owner of the storage room. (Compare
Exodus 22:7-9). Lending at interest to fellow Israelites was forbidden in
Exodus 22:25 and
Deuteronomy 23:19. This injunction, however, does not seem to apply to the practice of investment of surplus capital found in
Matthew 25:14-30 and
The parables of the pounds and the talents suggest the existence of a sophisticated banking and investment community, which lent out sums for commercial enterprises and garnered profits for those who left their money with them. A portion of the vast sums that came into the Temple treasury in Jerusalem as taxes each year (Matthew 17:24) were probably lent out as investment capital. Several of Hammurabi's laws speak of similar practices requiring that those who engage in commercial transactions obtain receipts to show proof of their investments and sales.
Trade and Trade Routes From earliest times caravans of traders carried goods throughout the Near East. Obsidian, brought by Neolithic traders from Anatolia, has been discovered at sites hundreds of miles from its place of origin. Palestine, situated on a land bridge between Mesopotamia and Africa, naturally became a center of commercial travel. Groups of Semitic traders, like the Ishmaelites and Midianites (Genesis 37:27-28), are recorded in Egyptian texts and on the walls of tombs, such as the Beni-hasen tomb paintings (about 1900 B.C.), which depict whole families with their donkeys transporting “ox-hide” ingots of metal. They used hilltop pathways as well as the Via Maris coastal highway and the King's Highway in Transjordan to move between Mesopotamia and Egypt. Eventually, the introduction of the camel and the establishment of caravansaries (inns where caravans can rest at night) as storage and rest centers, made it possible for merchants to take a more direct route across the deserts of northern Syria and Arabia. These lucrative trade routes were controlled in the Roman period by the city of Tadmor, the capital of the Palmyran kingdom, and by the Nabateans.
During the monarchy period, Israel's trade horizon expanded. Solomon imported vast quantities of luxury and exotic goods (ivory, apes, peacocks—1 Kings 10:22) from all over the Near East. He also purchased horses and chariots for his fortress garrisons like those at Gezer, Hazor, and Megiddo (1 Kings 10:26). The nation had no deep water ports on its coastline, so the Gulf of Aqaba became the prime point of entry for goods coming from Africa (spices, precious stones, gold from Ophir, algum wood). The Aqaba port of Elath (Ezion-geber) served the needs of the court of Solomon and subsequent kings as well. The shipping trade of Israel, as well as many other nations, joined with or was carried by Phoenician merchantmen (1 Kings 10:22). These more experienced sailors could avoid the storms and other hazards that sank many ships in the Mediterranean (2 Chronicles 20:37 NIV).
Even in New Testament times, shipping was restricted to particular routes and seasons (Acts 27:12). Travel seems to have been more common in this period as seen by the movements of Paul, the other apostles, and those associated with the establishment of the early church, such as Aquila and Priscilla (Romans 16:3). Passengers and cargo might be transported on one leg of a journey on one ship and then transferred to a number of others to complete their journey (Acts 27:1-8). Underwater excavations off Cyprus and the Herodian port of Caesarea Maritima demonstrate, however, that many of these ships never made it to port (Acts 27:39-44).
For those who chose to take the overland routes, instead, the Romans constructed paved roads that facilitated the movement of their armies, as well as people and wagons loaded with goods for sale. Mile markers set up along these roads show how often they were repaired and which emperors took a special interest in the outlying districts of his domain. See Agriculture; Banking; Economic Life; Marketplace; Transportation and Travel; Weights and Measures.
Victor H. Matthews