Trade and Merchants in the Ancient World—Genesis 37

The exchange of goods and other commercial activities were widespread in the Ancient Near East not only in villages and towns but also between various nations. Economic texts uncovered in archaeological excavations show that selling and buying played a significant role in the ancient world. Since the economy was largely based on agriculture, grains constituted a major part of such trade. But manufactured products and natural resources mined from the earth such as copper and silver also played a remarkable function in ancient commerce. Farmers and merchants carried surpluses of such agricultural products as barley and wheat to regional marketplaces and major cities. Manufactured goods such as pottery, glassware, jewelry, and dyed cloth found their way to the international market. A vast network of merchants transported goods on the backs of donkeys and camels as exemplified by the Ishmaelites and Midianites mentioned in the Joseph narrative (Gen. 37:27, 28). Goods from Egypt to Babylonia passed along two major routes through Palestine: the Via Maris by the Mediterranean Sea, and the King’s Highway in Transjordan. The Phoenicians largely controlled transportation by sea. When Solomon launched his merchant fleet he did so with Phoenician support. Ezekiel 27:12-27 indicates the prominent role of Tyre, a major Phoenician seaport, in the circulation of luxury goods throughout the Ancient Near East. Among many other items, it mentions silver, iron, tin, gems, purple fabric, embroidery, fine linen, wheat, and honey.

Some cities had special quarters to host the communities of merchants, most of whom were foreigners or resident aliens. In addition, large cities such as Babylon and Damascus had open areas for trading purposes. Small urban centers, as was the case in Palestine, conducted commercial activities in shops or booths adjacent to private houses or at the city gate. In order to ensure honest trading practices, merchants employed a regulated system of weights and measures. Metal, stone, and even inscribed clay objects functioned as such units of weight as the talent, mina, and shekel. In the absence of precise and absolute metric standards, the system was prone to abuse. For that reason, merchants did not enjoy good reputations. The trade could easily involve profiteering at the expense of the poor. And being foreigners, merchants tended to disregard local religious customs (Neh. 13:15-22). In the Old Testament the term “Canaanite” when applied to traders reflects suspicion and mistrust. “A cunning Canaanite! Deceitful scales are in his hand; He loves to oppress” (Hos. 12:7). Roman culture reveals a similar attitude toward merchants and traders. Roman elites considered agriculture the only honorable source of wealth and avoided involvement in commerce (Cicero, Verr. 5.45–46; Tacitus, Ann. 4.13.2). Instead, they utilized freed men or slaves to conduct commercial transactions. In the New Testament we see such an attitude reflected in Jesus’s expelling the merchants from the Temple and in the book of Revelation in which merchants weep over the fall of Babylon while the saints are called on to rejoice (Rev. 18:3, 11–20). On the other hand, Lydia, a seller of purple-dyed fabric, appears in a very positive light in the book of Acts (16:14).