Holman Bible Dictionary
Like most of the rest of the Near East, the economy of ancient Palestine was primarily agricultural. However, unlike the major civilizations of Mesopotamia and Egypt, Israel's economy was not as completely dominated by the concerns of palace or temple as they were in other nations. For instance, there was no state monopoly on the ownership of arable land. Private ownership of land and private enterprise were the rule during the early history of the tribes of Israel. This changed somewhat after the establishment of the monarchy when large estates were formed (2 Samuel 9:10 ) to support the kings and the nobility. Attempts were also made by the royal bureaucracy to control as much of the country's land and economic activity as possible (1 Kings 4:1-19 ).
Further changes took place after the conquest of the nation by Assyria and Babylon. From that point on, the economic efforts (farm production, industry, and trade) of the nation were largely controlled by the tribute demands of the dominant empires (2 Kings 18:14-16 ) and the maintenance of international trade routes. This pattern continued into the New Testament period when Roman roads speeded trade, but also held the populace in submission. The economy, while relatively stable, was burdened with heavy taxes (Matthew 22:17-21 ) to support the occupation army and government.
Environmental Conditions Many aspects of the economic life of the people were determined by the environmental conditions in which they lived. Palestine has a remarkably varied geographic pattern and huge shifts in climate. Within its environs are steppe and desert to the south and east in the Negev and the corresponding areas of the Transjordan. In these areas only dry or irrigation farming is possible, and much of the land is given over to pastoralists guiding their flocks and herds. A desolate wilderness region lies near the Dead Sea, while well-watered farm lands are found in the Shephelah plateau (between the coastal plain and the hill country) and in the Galilee area of northern Palestine. Rolling hill country dominates the center of the country where agriculture must be practiced on terraced hillsides and where water conservation and irrigation are necessary to grow crops.
The semi-tropical climate of Palestine includes a hot, dry summer and autumn during which no rains fall for six months. The drought is broken in September or October with rains continuing throughout the winter and into March and April. Yearly amounts of rainfall, which may all come in torrents within a few days, average 40 inches a year in the north and in the western areas of the hill country and Shephelah. Under the influence of the desert winds and the barrier of the hill country, these amounts decrease to the south and east, with less than eight inches a year in the desert regions of the Judean wilderness and the Negev. Average temperatures also vary widely, again with the highlands and northern coastal strip remaining cooler while the desert regions and low lying areas see temperatures well into the 90 degree range.
Uncertain climatic conditions often determined the economic activity of the local village, the region, and the nation. The fact that Abram's first experience in Palestine was a famine (Genesis 12:10 ) is not surprising. Drought, which destroyed crops (1 Kings 17:1; Jeremiah 14:1-6 ), had a ripple effect on the rest of the economy. Some people left the country for the more predictable climate of Egypt (Genesis 46:1-7 ) or went to areas in Transjordan unaffected by a famine (Ruth 1:1 ). Economic hardship brought on by climatic extremes also hurt the business of the local potter, tanner, blacksmith, and weaver.
Local Village Economy Agriculture in ancient Palestine took three basic forms: grain production (barley and wheat), cultivation of vines and fruit trees, and the care of oleaginous plants (olive, date, sesame) from which oil was extracted for cooking, lighting, and personal care uses. Most of the energies of the village population were taken up with plowing fields (1 Kings 19:19 ) and the construction and maintenance of the hillside terraces where vineyards (Isaiah 5:1-6; Mark 12:1 ) and grain were planted. In the hill country, water sources were usually in the valleys, and thus it would have been too much work to carry water up to the hillside terraces. As a result, irrigation channels were dug to insure that the terraces were evenly watered by rain and dew. Roof catch basins and plastered cisterns were constructed to augment water supplies from the village's wells and springs during the dry summer months.
The ideal situation for every rural Israelite was to spend his days “under his vine and under his fig tree” (1 Kings 4:25 ). To insure this possibility for his sons, a man's ownership of land was considered part of a family trust from one generation to the next. Each plot of land was a grant to the household by Yahweh and as such had to be cared for so that it would remain productive (Deuteronomy 14:28-29 ). Its abundance was the result of hard work (Proverbs 24:30-34 ) and was to be shared with the poor (Deuteronomy 24:19-21 ). Yahweh's grant of the land was repaid (Numbers 18:21-32 ) through the payment of tithes to the Levites and through sacrifices.
The family's holdings were duly marked off. It was strictly against the law to remove the boundary stones (Deuteronomy 19:14; Proverbs 22:28 ). Inheritance laws were well defined with every eventuality provided for in the statutes. Normally, the oldest son inherited the largest portion of the lands of his father (Deuteronomy 21:17; Luke 15:31 ). Sometimes this was all a man had to pass on to his children. It thus became traditional that land not be permanently sold outside the family or clan (Leviticus 25:8-17 ). The tradition was so strong that Naboth could refuse King Ahab's request to purchase his vineyard saying he could not give him “the inheritance of my fathers” (1 Kings 21:3 ). In later periods, however, the prophets spoke of rich men who add “house to house, that lay field to field” (Isaiah 5:8 ), taking advantage of the poor farmer whose land has been devastated by invading armies (Micah 2:2 ) or drought.
If a man died without a male heir, his daughters would receive charge of the land (Numbers 27:7-8 ), but they were required to marry within the tribe to insure it remained a part of the tribal legacy (Numbers 36:6-9 ). A childless man's property passed to his nearest male relative (Numbers 27:9-11 ). The tragedy of childlessness was sometimes resolved through the levirate obligation. In these cases the nearest male relative married the dead man's widow to provide an heir for the deceased (Genesis 38:1 ). The duty of the redeemer, or go'el, as the relative was called, also included the purchase of family lands which had been abandoned (Jeremiah 32:6-9 ).
Since life was uncertain and disease and war often took many of the village's inhabitants, laws were provided to insure that the widow, the orphan, and the stranger would not go hungry. Each field owner was required to leave a portion of the grain unharvested and some grapes on the vine (Leviticus 19:9-10 ). This belonged to the poor and the needy who had the right to glean in these fields (Ruth 2:2-9 ). The land was also protected from exhaustion by the law of the sabbatical year which required that it be left fallow every seventh year (Leviticus 25:3-7 ).
Despite the back-breaking work of harvesting fields with flint-edged sickles (Joel 3:13 ), the grain and the fruits meant the survival of the village and was cause for celebration (Judges 21:19 ). Following the harvest, the threshing floor became the center of the economic activity of the village and countryside (Joel 2:24 ). The sheaves of grain from the harvested fields of the district were brought here (Amos 2:13 ) to be trampled by oxen (Deuteronomy 25:4 ) and threshing sledges (2 Samuel 24:22; Isaiah 41:15 ). The grain was further separated from the chaff with winnowing forks (Ruth 3:2; Isaiah 41:16; Jeremiah 15:7 ), and finally with sieves (Amos 9:9; Luke 22:31 ). Once this process was complete, the grain was guarded (Ruth 3:2-7 ) until it could be distributed to the people. The village may have had a communal granary, but most kept their grain in home storage pits or private granaries (Matthew 3:12 ).
Because of the importance this distribution held for the well-being of the people, the threshing floor gradually became associated with the administration of justice for the community. This is seen in the Ugaritic epic of Aqhat (dated to about 1400 B.C.) where the hero's father Daniel is said to be judging the cases of widows and orphans at the threshing floor. Similarly, Ruth's coming to Boaz as he lay on the threshing floor after the winnowing (Ruth 3:8-14 ) may have been an attempt to obtain justice regarding the ownership of her dead husband's estate. In another instance from the monarchy period, it can be seen how the threshing floor evolved into a symbolic place of judgment used by kings to augment their authority. 1 Kings 22:10 (NAS, NIV) portrays Kings Ahab and Jehoshaphat sitting enthroned before the gates of Samaria on a threshing floor as they judge the statements of the prophet Micaiah.
Village economies also included the maintenance of small herds of sheep and goats. Nomadic pastoralism, like that described in the patriarchal narratives, was not a part of village life. The flocks were moved to new pastures in the hill country with the coming of the dry summer season (1 Samuel 25:7-8 ), but this would have required only a few herdsmen (1 Samuel 16:11 ). Only the shearing of the sheep would have involved large numbers of the community (Genesis 31:19; 1 Samuel 25:4; 2 Samuel 13:23-24 ).
What little industry existed in Israelite villages was designed to complement agricultural production and provide both necessities and some trade goods. This activity included the making of bricks and split timbers for house construction, and the weaving of material for clothing. Some households (usually consisting of a group of related families—Judges 18:22 ) had the skill to shape cooking utensils and farm tolls from clay, stone, and metal. Few, however, had the ability to shape their own weapons, relying in many cases on clubs and ox goads (Judges 3:31 ) for protection.
In exceptional cases village craftsmen may have set up stalls or business where they provided some of the more specialized items, especially fine pottery, bronze weapons, and gold and silver jewelry. Anything additional could either be done without or obtained in trade with other villages or nations who might possess a particularly fine artisan (1 Samuel 13:20 ). It is also possible that during a yearly visit to the city (Luke 2:41 ) to attend a religious festival the villager could visit the stalls of traders from all over the Near East and buy their wares.
Urban Economic Life Local trade expanded beyond the sale of surplus commodities and hand-crafted items as the villages and towns grew in size. Population growth, sparked by the establishment of the monarchy and social stability, also increased the needs and appetites for metals (gold, tin, copper, iron), luxury items, and manufactured goods. A network of roads gradually developed to accommodate this economic activity and to tie together the villages and towns throughout the nation. More sophisticated road construction, designed to allow heavy vehicular traffic, was introduced by the kings who marshaled large numbers of corvee workers (persons who worked in lieu of paying taxes) to construct public works projects (1 Kings 9:15-22 ). Ezion-geber, a port on the Red Sea, was acquired from the Edomites and serviced a fleet of ships bringing gold from Ophir and rare woods and other luxury items to the royal court (1 Kings 9:26; 1 Kings 10:11-12 ). Another fleet joined that of Hiram of Tyre in the Mediterranean trade (1 Kings 10:22 ).
Within the walled cities and towns, most commercial activity occurred within the gate complex or its environs. This would have been the site of the heaviest traffic in any town and the most likely spot, other than private homes (Jeremiah 18:2-3 ), for stalls and shops to be set up for business. Since legal matters were also handled here (Deuteronomy 21:18-19 ), business contracts could be witnessed (Genesis 23:15-16 ), and disputes settled (Ruth 4:1-6 ). Shops may have also been established within the walls of those cities which had hollow-wall (casemate) construction.
Since this was an economy without coined money until about 550 B.C., barter and specified weights (shekel, mina, talent) of precious metals were used as rates of exchange. Prices, as always, were determined by the law of supply and demand (2 Kings 6:25; Revelation 6:6 ), with an extra markup to cover the costs of transport, and, where applicable, manufacturing. For instance, luxury items such as spices and perfumes from Arabia and ivory and rare animals commanded high prices. They were portable enough to make the venture worthwhile.
Weights and measures also fitted into the sale of commodities in the town marketplace. These weights varied from one district and time period to the next (2 Samuel 14:26; Ezekiel 45:10 ). However, the law required that Israelites provide a fair measure to their customers (Leviticus 19:35-36 ). The fact that the law did not prevent fraud in every case is seen in the prophets' cries against deceitful weights (Micah 6:11 ) and false balances (Amos 8:5 ). Archaeological evidence shows some attempt by the royal administration to standardize shekel weights. Hieratic symbols on these markers demonstrate a reliance on the Egyptian system of weights and measures.
Slave labor was also an outgrowth of the urbanization of Israel and the constant military campaigns of the kings. The large number of military prisoners joined the levies of forced labor gangs (1 Kings 5:13; 1 Kings 9:20-22 ) building roads and repairing the walls of the fortresses which guarded the kingdom. Royal estates were managed by stewards (1 Chronicles 27:25-31 ) and worked by large bands of state-owned slaves and a levy of free men (1 Samuel 8:12 ).
It is unlikely that private individuals held as many slaves as the monarchy or the social elite. Since the laws regarding slaves were quite stringent (Exodus 21:1-11 ,Exodus 21:1-11,21:20 ,Exodus 21:20,21:26; Leviticus 25:39-46 ), it is more likely that day laborers were hired by most landowners (Matthew 20:1-5 ). The leasing of land to tenant-farmers was another alternative to the labor problem, but this was not common in Israel until the New Testament period (Matthew 21:33-41; Mark 12:9 ).
Israelites could sell their families or themselves into slavery to resolve a debt (Exodus 21:7-11; Leviticus 25:39; Matthew 18:25 ). This was regulated by the law so that the normal term of slavery or indenture was no more than six years. Then the slave was to be released and given a portion of the flock and the harvest with which to make a new start (Deuteronomy 15:12-14 ). Perpetual slavery was only to occur if the Israelite himself chose to remain a slave. This choice might be made because he did not want to be separated from a wife and children acquired during his term of enslavement (Exodus 21:1-6 ) or because he did not feel he would have a better life on his own (Deuteronomy 15:16 ).
Urbanization and the imposed demands of foreign conquerors brought greater complexity to the economic life of the people of Palestine. Travel and trade increased, and the variety of goods and services was magnified by the increased demands of consumers and the influx of new ideas and technologies from outside the country. Agriculture remained the staple of the economy, but it was augmented by the public works projects of the kings and foreign rulers. The increase in commercial and private traffic was facilitated by better highways and means of transport. Slave labor also became more common, but the majority of slaves came from a pool of military prisoners acquired in the wars that solidified and protected the nation's borders. See Agriculture; Commerce; Transportation and Travel; Slavery; Weights and Measures .
Victor H. Matthews
These dictionary topics are from the Holman Bible Dictionary, published by Broadman & Holman, 1991. All rights reserved. Used by permission of Broadman & Holman.
Butler, Trent C. Editor. Entry for 'Economic Life'. Holman Bible Dictionary. https://www.studylight.org/dictionaries/eng/hbd/e/economic-life.html. 1991.