Holman Bible Dictionary
Occupations and Professions in the Bible
The occupations and professions of ancient civilizations were, as in modern times, related to the natural resources, commerce, and institutions of the nations. Israel was no exception. Although readers of the Bible may be tempted to think of the Hebrews in general, and the Bible personalities in particular, as living lives totally absorbed by their religion, the ancients did have to make a living. In fact, few Hebrews followed a profession linked to the unique structure of their religion.
In the course of time, occupations developed from the simple task to the more complex and from unskilled to skilled labor. This evolution was spurred by Israel's shift from a nomadic existence to a settled life and from a clan-type government to that of the monarchy. The development of secular occupations paralleled the settlement of the people into towns and villages, and the evolution of their government from a loose-knit tribal group to a nation involved in international politics. In earliest biblical times, the Hebrews followed their herds from pasture land to pasture land and water hole to water hole, though at times they lived for long periods near major cities (Genesis 13:18; Genesis 20:1; Genesis 26:6; Genesis 33:19 ). Their occupations were centered in the family enterprise.
When Israel entered into Canaan, the Hebrews moved toward a settled existence. As a settled people, agricultural pursuits became extremely important for survival. As the monarchy developed, many new occupations appear within the biblical text, mostly to maintain the royal house. Finally, as villages grew larger, and commerce between cities and nations expanded, various trades and crafts expanded with them. See Commerce .
A sampling of the most common occupations and professions of the Bible are briefly described and grouped around the places where they were usually practiced: the home, the palace, the market place, and the religious occupations related to the church of Christianity and Temple of Judaism.
Occupations Around the Home The earliest occupations and professions mentioned in the Bible, as might be expected, are tasks and chores done at home. One of the principal duties around the home centered on food preparation. 1. Baker ( Genesis 40:5 ) is mentioned early in Scripture as a member of the Egyptian pharaoh's court. Baking bread was a frequent task performed in the Hebrew home long before it evolved into a specialized trade.
2. Butler of the pharaoh's palace was also known as a cupbearer ( Nehemiah 1:11; compare Genesis 40:21 ), one who was responsible for providing the king with drink. He, presumably, tasted each cup of wine before it was presented to Pharaoh as a precaution against poisoning.
3. Cooks did the majority of the ancient people's food preparation ( 1 Samuel 9:23-24 ). Within the home, female family members did the cooking. As cooking became an occupation outside of the home, men entered the trade. 4. A related, and daily, chore of grinding grain fell to the grinder ( Matthew 24:41 ) or miller , another trade which later entered the market place. See Mill .
The majority of persons in biblical times were involved in some form of food gathering or production. 5. Fishermen ( Isaiah 19:8; Matthew 4:18 ) were one such group of food gatherers. The ancient fishermen's tools were not unlike his modern counterparts: fishing by hook and line, spears, and nets. The fisherman, and fishing, is mentioned often in Scripture, most notably as a metaphor, as in Mark 1:17 when Jesus challenged Simon and Andrew to become “fishers of men.” See Fish.
6. Hunters ( Jeremiah 16:16 ) form the second major group of food gatherers. The ancient hunter's success depended upon proficiency in the use of a bow and arrow, spear, traps and snares, and his knowledge of his prey. Nimrod (Genesis 10:9 ) is the first person to be designated a hunter in the Bible. See Hunter.
7. Shepherds ( Luke 2:8 ) were also engaged in food production. Those persons who have rule over others are often described in terms of the shepherd's duties. They were to care for and feed the people for whom they were responsible. Psalm 23:1 identifies the Lord as a Shepherd and vividly describes the duties of the keeper of the sheep. Given the rugged terrain of Palestine, the constant threat from wild animals, and the ceaseless search for water and pasture land, the responsibilities and dangers of the shepherd were great. Abel is the first to be described as a “keeper of sheep” ( Genesis 4:2 ). 8 . Closely akin to the shepherd was the herdsman ( Genesis 4:20 ). Jabal is described as one “having cattle.” The only distinction that might be made between a shepherd and herdsman is in their charges: the shepherd, sheep; the herdsman, cattle.
9. Abel's brother, Cain, is identified as the first farmer ( Genesis 4:2 ). The Bible calls the worker of land a “tiller” or “plower” (Psalm 129:3 ). He is closely associated with God in Scripture, since it is God who instructs and works closely with him in producing the crops. See Ruth 2:3 ), harvestman ( Isaiah 17:5 ), and reaper ( Ruth 2:3 ). The harvestman and reaper are, apparently, two names for the same task. It is likely, also, that the farmer served as his own harvester. The gleaner is different. See Gleaning . By gleaning what farmers left in the field, the poor and landless obtained food.
Nomadic existence does not require any complicated structure of government. Rule was in the hands of the leader of each tribe. Some form of government became necessary, however, when towns and villages began to form. 10. Before the coming of the monarchy, with its more centralized system of government: judges (Judges 2:16 ), God chose to lead His people, especially in times of crisis. Since the crises were generally wars, the judges were primarily military leaders, who rescued the Israelite tribes from destruction by their warring neighbors. These and later judges also settled disputes. (Compare Luke 18:2 ) See Judge.
Occupations Around the Palace People who worked around the home could be found doing multiple tasks on any given day. Outside the home, skills became more specialized. In Israel, with the development of the monarchy, some of the Hebrews found employment within the palace.
11. The king ( 1 Samuel 8:5 ) held first place. Many kings, among Israel's neighbors, were held to be gods; not so in Israel. The Israelite king was the political ruler and spiritual example and leader to his people. The king determined, by his obedience or disobedience to Israel's God, the fortunes of the nation, but he was never god. (Note, however, the poetic designation in Psalm 45:6 ). See King.
12. Joseph was a governor ( Genesis 42:6 ) of Egypt. His position was second only to Pharaoh. He was, in fact, ruler (Genesis 41:43 ) over all the land of Egypt. 13. Daniel was another Hebrew who enjoyed rule in a foreign nation. He was one of three presidents ( Daniel 6:2 ) given rule over the Median Empire. No information is given regarding his duties.
14. In New Testament times, the Roman government used a deputy ( Acts 13:7 ), also called a proconsul , to oversee the administrative responsibilities of its provinces. The Romans had extended their empire beyond the limits of the emperor's ability to rule personally. Deputies were used where the Roman army was unnecessary. 15. Where a military presence was necessary, a governor ( Matthew 27:2 ), or procurator , was used. The New Testament names only three men employed as governors in Palestine, although there were more: Pontius Pilate, Felix, and Festus. See Rome; Governor .
Beyond the task of governing, the palace provided ample opportunity for military occupations to develop. 16. The armorbearer ( Judges 9:54 ) was one of the servants provided for a warrior as he went into battle. See Arms; Armor.
The army was made up of men of various ranks and responsibilities. Many of the terms designating those in places of leadership are ambiguous and may refer to one and the same rank. 17. The commander ( Isaiah 55:4 ) apparently referred to any leader among the people. It is possible that such ranks as captain , lieutenant , and prince , which could be included under the umbrella of “commander,” were, in the first place, military ranks alone.
18. Soldiers ( 1 Chronicles 7:4 ) are mentioned frequently in connection with the many wars recorded in the Bible. The geographical location of Israel put it in constant danger of invading armies. Every adult male (over the age of twenty) within the tribes of Israel, was expected to serve in the military. The Mosaic law, especially in the Book of Numbers, set forth the regulations for establishing an army.
The government included a corps of service and judicial personnel, as well. 19. The jailer ( Acts 16:23 ) is prominent in several New Testament passages. He had charge of all prisoners—political or religious. Under Roman rule, the jailer was strictly responsible for the safekeeping of the inmates. If one were to escape, or otherwise be unable to complete his sentence, the jailer was liable to fulfill the sentence of the prisoner.
In addition to providing government and a military presence, nations found it necessary to collect taxes from their citizens. 20. The despised publican ( Matthew 9:10 ) is well known from the New Testament. The principal duty was extorting as much taxes as possible. It is believed, by some, that the publican was able to keep for himself any amount of monies collected beyond that levied by the government.
21. The scribe ( Matthew 5:20 ), in addition to service in a religious fashion, served in an administrative capacity in the government as well. Scribes involved in the copying and interpretation of the law of Moses are known from the time of Ezra, who is identified as a “scribe in the law of Moses” (Ezra 7:6 ). Within ancient governments, scribes served the royal court, keeping records of the king's reign. Each king organized his government with advisors and people responsible for different areas. The Bible lists the organization of David (2 Samuel 8:16-18; 2 Samuel 20:23-26 ) and Solomon (1 Kings 4:1-19 ). The exact responsibility of each official is difficult to determine as a look at different translations will show.
Work Around the Marketplace The marketplace offered numerous opportunities for employment outside the home. These opportunities may be grouped around the sale of goods, many of which could be classified as arts and crafts, and dispensing of services.
22. Among early craftsmen, the carpenter ( 2 Samuel 5:11 ) had special meaning as the occupation of Jesus. Most of the biblical references to carpenters, however, are to foreign workers. Most notable are the workers of Hiram, King of Tyre, who labored on Solomon's Temple. Associated with these craftsmen of wood are the feller ( Isaiah 14:8 ) and hewers ( Joshua 9:21 ), both cutters of wood.
23. In metalwork, the Bible identifies the coppersmith ( 2 Timothy 4:14 ), the goldsmith ( Nehemiah 3:8 ), and the silversmith ( Acts 19:24 ) as workers in their respective metals. In more general terms, metal workers are identified as founders ( Judges 17:4 ) and smiths ( 1 Samuel 13:19 ).
Oddly enough, miners are not directly mentioned in the biblical text, although craftsmen in various metals were numerous. The metals used by the craftsmen were often imported, though Israel may have controlled some mines near the Red Sea when they controlled those regions. See Mines and Mining .
24. In the sphere of salesmanship, the merchant ( Genesis 23:16 ) or seller (Isaiah 24:2 ) held a prominent position in commerce from the earliest biblical times. Their trade developed into one of international proportions. See Commerce .
25. The potter ( Jeremiah 18:2; Romans 9:21 ) may have been one of the busiest men in the marketplace. The demands for his product would be great. Pottery was less expensive and more durable than other containers available to the Israelites, which accounts for its common use. 26. The mason sold his talent of cutting stone for building purposes ( 2 Kings 12:12 ), while 27. the tanner ( Acts 9:43 ) busied himself with preparing skins for use in clothing and as containers.
28. Tentmaking ( Acts 18:3 ) must have been a craft learned from Israel's earliest days of semi-nomadic existence in the time of the patriarchs. This trade carried over into the New Testament period. Paul, Aquila, and Priscilla are said to have made their living by making tents (Acts 18:3 ).
Many services were offered in biblical times. 29. The apothecary ( Nehemiah 3:8 ) has been characterized as the equivalent of a modern druggist. His main task involved the compounding of drugs and ointments for medical purposes. Jewish religious practices suggest that making perfume was also a part of the apothecary's craft (Exodus 30:35 ).
30. The banker , called a lender ( Proverbs 22:7 ), suffered a poor reputation among the Jews. Their religious law forbade the lending of money for interest. In the New Testament, these bankers were the infamous “money changers” of the Temple. See Banking .
31. The fuller ( Malachi 3:2 ) may be best described as an ancient laundryman. He worked with soiled clothing and with the material from the loom ready for weaving. His service entailed the cleaning of any fabric.
32. A host ( Luke 10:35 ), often thought of as an “innkeeper,” provided minimal accommodations for travelers, in some cases, little more than provision of space for erecting a tent or a place to lie down to sleep.
33. Among the most respected persons of Scripture was the master ( James 3:1 ), more appropriately called an instructor or teacher ( Romans 2:20 ). Biblical references to this profession apply mainly to religious teaching, but the term suited anyone who offered instruction. See Education.
34. Prominent, throughout the Bible, are various occupations related to musical talents. Descriptive names include: Singers and players ( Psalm 68:25 ) in the Old Testament, and musicians , harpers , pipers , and trumpeters ( Revelation 18:22 ) in the New Testament. In both Testaments, music played a significant part in the religious life and worship of the nation.
Occupations Around the Church and Temple While occupation is not a technically accurate term when referring to the early church, there were “offices” filled by Christians, normally on a voluntary basis. See Offices in the New Testament .
The officers of the Temple were much more authoritarian. 35. The priest (Exodus 31:10 ) acted as an intermediary between God and the people who came to worship at the Temple. In many cases, priests sacrificed the offerings for the people and the nation, taking for themselves a share in the offering. Priests also served as advisers to the king (2 Samuel 20:25 ).
36. Until recently, the prophet ( Genesis 20:7 ) was looked upon as the antithesis of priesthood. Many of the prophets were hostile toward the abuses of the priests and the excesses of the priesthood, but they did not condemn the priesthood, itself. In fact, some prophets were members of the Temple personnel. The prophets functioned mainly as “messengers” of their God. Where the priest was a “ritual” intermediary, the prophet was a “speaking” one. Their message, at times, had a predictive element in it; generally, however, they addressed the historical situation facing their hearers. See Prophets; Priests; High Priest; Levite; Temple.
Conclusion Occupations during the entire span of biblical times were many and varied, as they are today. However, they were occupations suited to a nontechnological society. The nation of Israel remained an agriculturally oriented economy throughout its existence as recorded in the biblical text.
Phillip J. Swanson
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