From Cows to Coins—Money in the Old Testament

By Rebecca M. Taylor

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    (See Bible Dictionary—Maccabees, Money, Persia, and Weights and Measures.)Ye shall buy meat of them for money, that ye may eat; and ye shall also buy water of them for money, that ye may drink (Deut. 2:6).

    “I’ll give you my cupcake for your brownie!”

    Have you ever traded like this with your friends? If so, you were practicing a form of bartering, which is what people of Old Testament times did before money was used.

    If you had lived back then, you wouldn’t have been able to go to a restaurant for a hamburger or to a clothing store for a new shirt. For many years people provided themselves with most of the things they needed. They hunted animals for food and clothing and grew crops to eat.

    Later they began to barter, or trade, for those things they had neither the time nor the skills to make themselves. For example, they might have traded pottery for a valuable tool, or baskets of grain for a weapon. Cattle were used as a basic unit of trade for centuries. This wasn’t always convenient, though—can you imagine carrying a cow around in your coin purse?

    Sometimes bartering was difficult. Not everyone wanted a cow or a blanket or a length of silk in trade. People realized that they needed to be able to trade with something everybody could use, and so they started trading with precious stones or metals, like gold and silver, in addition to goods.

    Coins weren’t manufactured yet, so metals were formed into lumps or bars called ingots. Each ingot was shaped a little differently, so every time one was used, it had to be weighed. The prophet Abraham bought many of the things he needed with ingots. Like others, he probably took his own scales or weights with him on his travels so that he could be sure that his purchases were made at a fair price. Not everyone could be trusted—some people rigged their weights or scales, ending up with more money than they deserved. The Lord warned against this, saying, “Ye shall do no unrighteousness in judgment, … in weight, or in measure.

    “Just balances, just weights … shall ye have.” (Lev. 19:35–36.)

    People of Old Testament times most often weighed their money in shekels or talents. We read in Genesis 37:28 [Gen. 37:28] that Joseph was sold by his brothers for twenty pieces of silver. Each piece was probably a shekel’s worth, and a shekel was the equivalent of about half an ounce (15 grams). Twenty shekels of silver would have been enough to buy ten rams. In 1 Kings 10:10 [1 Kgs. 10:10], we read that the Queen of Sheba gave Solomon 120 talents of gold, along with valuable spices and precious stones. Since one talent equaled 3,000 shekels, think how many rams just that gold would have bought (180,000 rams)!

    When the Israelites started using coins is not known—the only one mentioned in the Old Testament is the gold dram—but it probably was about 530 B.C., when they came under the rule of the Persian empire.

    Coins were much easier to use than ingots because their stamped designs on both sides told how much they were worth, making it no longer necessary to weigh the metal for each purchase. It was harder for dishonest people to secretly remove part of the metal, too, because that meant removing part of the coin’s design, which was easy to see. Simon Maccabaeus, a Jew who lived in the middle of the second century B.C., made coins, one of which had a picture of a cup on one side, and a branch with 3 buds and “Jerusalem the Holy” on the other.

    Today most people use coins or paper money to buy things. In some places, though, the ancient practice of bartering is still common. One of those places might be your very own school cafeteria!

    Illustrated by Brad Teare