A variety of monetary systems are represented in the Bible, corresponding to the political powers that dominated the cultures represented there, from the darics named after the Persian monarch Darius (these are the first actual coins mentioned in the Bible see 1 Chron 29:7 ; Ezra 8:27 ; Neh 7:70-72 ) to the coins of the Roman Empire that bore Caesar's image ( Matt 22:20-21 ). Unlike the coinage of the United States, which by law cannot bear the image of a living person, the coins of the ancient world were more explicitly political, bearing the representation of the living monarch who sponsored the mint that produced the coins. As Jesus affirms in Matthew 22, coins really belong to the person whose likeness appears on them, in contrast to God, who imprints his likeness (and hence his mark of ownership) on a living humanity ( Gen 1:27 ).
Although the word "money" appears frequently throughout some translations of the Old Testament, the first coins were not produced in the ancient Near East until the seventh century b.c. Consequently, when one finds the word "money" in Bible versions used to translate the Hebrew term kesep [@,s,K] (lit. "silver"), one must recognize that it is usually not coins that are to be understood but refined, unminted silver. When one exchanged this silver for a commodity, the silver was weighed (saqal [l;q'v]) in balances to determine the proper quantity of silver appropriate to the bargain. It was the term for the calibration of this weighing that gave the name of shekel [l,q,v] to the first Judean coins whose size corresponded to a shekel weight (a little less than half an ounce).
The genius of money is that it simplifies and facilitates the exchange of goods and services between humans. Greek Christians would not have been able to assist Christians in Judea had it not been for the existence of money, which functioned as a substitute for their labor and was easily transported ( Rom 15:26-27 ). The Old Testament acknowledged that there could be times when it was difficult for God's people to bring the actual firstfruits of their harvests and flocks over the great distances separating them from the temple in Jerusalem. In such cases, the people were to sell the products in question for silver and bring the silver to Jerusalem, where one could purchase the appropriate products necessary for the cultic celebration ( Deut 14:24-26 ; cf. Ezra 7:17 ).
This perception of a convenient exchange reappears when substitutions are required for other aspects of the cult. Since all firstborn Israelites originally belonged to God as a result of his saving their lives in the exodus ( Exod 13:11-16 ), firstborn Israelites had to find human substitutes if they wished to be released from God's full-time service ( Num 3:40-45 ). The Levites fulfilled this function as substitutes, but since there were not enough Levites to take the place of all firstborn Israelites when this was first enacted, God also accepted a monetary substitution of five shekels for those firstborn who could find no Levite to substitute for them ( Num 3:46-51 ). Ever after, any firstborn human (or unclean animal) that reached the age of one month had to be redeemed at the price of five shekels ( Num 18:15-16 ).
This monetary evaluation of humans is not a simple matter, and a variety of standards appear in the Bible. In addition to the cultic redemption of five shekels for the firstborn, there was also a monetary redemption of a half-shekel "atonement" or "ransom" applied to all male Israelites over twenty years of age ( Exod 30:11-16 ; 38:25-26 ). Such evaluations were independent of other factors, for "the rich are not to give more and the poor are not to give less" ( Exod 30:15 ).
There was also a monetary substitution that could be applied to those who vowed themselves into God's service contingent on God's fulfillment of a request they asked of him. Instead of personally fulfilling the vow, the individual could pay a monetary substitute, determined in accord with the person's sex, age, and economic class ( Lev 27:1-8 ). Another monetary substitution was found in the legal sphere, where the general principle of lex talionis mandated that when one human takes another human's life, the offender must compensate by surrendering a human life in turn, usually his or her own. However, collections of laws in the ancient Near East allowed payment of money as a fine in cases of murder where the victim was from a lower social class. Sectors of the Old Testament echo the notion that money might serve to ransom one's life when one was legally liable to be put to death as a punishment ( Exod 21:29-30 ; 2 Sam 21:4 ; 1 Kings 20:39 ), but Numbers 35:31 clarifies Israel's distinctiveness: "Do not accept a ransom for the life of a murderer." God did not permit monetary fines in such cases, but insisted on the death penalty for all murders. The single clear exception where monetary compensation covered a lost human life was in the case of the slave killed by a negligent owner's goring ox: thirty shekels (the general price of a slave) was to be paid to the dead slave's owner so that he could replace his lost property ( Exod 21:32 ).
The ease with which money could substitute for goods and services allowed it to be a ready means of replacing items lost or damaged in civil conflicts. Money appears not as a punitive measure in biblical legislation but as a compensation for commodities such as dead cattle ( Exod 21:33-36 ) and lost virginity (the price determined by the general dowry expected for a virgin Exod 22:16-17 ; Deut 22:28-29 ). Money could function as a punishment when damages were less tangible (e.g., one hundred shekels for slander in Deut 22:19 ; a variable amount for a miscarriage in Exod 21:22 ), but these are infrequent in biblical law. Should money become a substitute for other punishments such as lex talionis or beatings, the law would become less fair in allowing the wealthy to be less affected by their misdeeds than the poor.
Although money had beneficial results in simplifying the exchange of goods and services, these advantages could be turned to evil purposes. In the same way that money facilitated the rewarding of work done well, it became equally easy to motivate individuals to do reprehensible crimes with bribes ( Judges 16:5 Judges 16:18 ; Est 3:9 ; 4:7 ; Matt 28:12 ; Mark 14:11 ).
Money also could be used to affirm one's status as a subordinate who owed allegiance to another: it was humiliating for the kings of Israel and Judah to pay tribute to foreign monarchs ( 2 Kings 15:19-20 ; 18:14 ; 2 Kings 23:33 2 Kings 23:35 ), but it was a sign of Israel's high standing when other nations paid annual tribute to her ( 2 Chron 27:5 ). Of course, rulers could pay such money only if they had taxed their own people ( 2 Kings 15:20 ), and hence taxes were (and still are) a sign of the individual's submission to the government.
Expressing allegiance to a human authority in this fashion raises a dilemma for the one whose first allegiance is to God, a dilemma that Jesus resolves by insisting that one should return to any sovereign whatever has the sovereign's mark of ownership on it: "Whose portrait is this? Give to Caesar what is Caesar's, and to God what is God's" ( Matt 22:20-21 ). Jesus provides a different perspective when asked to pay the temple tax, affirming that although he and his disciples are the sons of the divine King and need not pay the tax for God's temple, it should nevertheless still be paid so as not to offend fellow Jews ( Matt 17:24-27 ). There is a larger irony in this latter account, where the requisite amount for the tax is found in a fish's mouth. Unlike the righteous' gift to God, which must be personally costly ( 2 Sam 24:24 ), it does not matter from what source one finds the tax or tribute to surrender to a human sovereign.
Money is one of the least trustworthy and most deceptive elements of human existence. It is an unpredictable and wildly vacillating guide to value. Large quantities of silver and gold, such as when one finds "silver as common as stones" ( 1 Kings 10:27 ; cf. v. 14), generate inflation, which devalues the currency and its buying power. A shortage of certain commodities may drive up prices exorbitantly ( 2 Kings 6:25 ; Lam 5:4 ; Rev 6:6 ), while the sudden availability of products may cause the value of money to plunge ( 2 Kings 7:1 2 Kings 7:16 2 Kings 7:18 ). In response, one finds in the ancient Near East and the Bible attempts to stabilize currency and exchange rates ( Eze 45:12 ). But even the currency itself is subject to loss ( Luke 15:8 ), theft ( Matt 6:19 ), destruction ( James 5:3 ; 1 Peter 1:18 ), and misuse ( Luke 15:13-14 ). Hordes of coins found in archaeological excavations echo the frequency with which money is described as buried in the Bible, for money is so vulnerable that there is little else one can do to protect it. It is ironic that money loses its ability to protect its owner ( Luke 12:20-21 ), who on the contrary is soon consumed with protecting the money instead ( Eccl 5:13 ). This is one reason why Jesus insists that his followers not accumulate money ( Matt 10:9 ) and why members of the earliest Jerusalem church did not claim that anything belonging to them was their own ( Acts 4:32 ).
It is a repeated theme in the Bible that the monetary value of items does not reflect the value that God places on them. Jesus notes that although one can purchase a pair of sparrows in the market for a single copper coin comparable to a penny, this market value does not reflect the great attention that a single one of these birds receives from God ( Matt 10:29 ). So persistent is this theme of skewed values that it becomes predictable for items of low market value to figure high on God's list of valuables, and vice versa. Joseph was sold for less than the price of a slave (twenty shekels, Gen 37:28 ), but he became the savior of Egypt who ironically purchased its entire population into slavery ( Gen 47:13-25 ). Jesus' betrayal price of thirty silver pieces is a tragic miscalculation of his true status ( Zech 11:13 ; Mark 14:11 ; Luke 22:5 ). Others may look with disdain upon a donation of a few copper coins to the temple treasury, but it is not the market value of the widow's gift that Jesus finds important: "She put in everything all she had to live on" ( Mark 12:41-44 ). It is this confusion of market value with spiritual value that irritates Peter when Simon Magus offers to pay money in return for the power of the Holy Spirit ( Acts 8:18-24 ). One should not even consider any amount of money in exchange for the most intense suffering for the sake of Jesus ( 1 Peter 1:7 ). It is for this reason that those who lead the church must have no fondness for money ( Acts 20:33 ; 1 Timothy 3:3 1 Timothy 3:8 ; Titus 1:7 Titus 1:11 ; 1 Peter 5:2 ; contrast the Pharisees in Luke 16:14 ). There is no greater demonstrations of the contrary value system represented by money than Paul's observation that the love of money is the root of all evil ( 1 Tim 6:10 ).
Money is also unreliable because people falsify the standards of measurement for personal gain, or, in the words of am 8:5, "make the shekel bigger" (cf. the ideal of just balances and weights in Lev 19:36 ; Job 31:6 ; Ezek 45:10 ). The arbitrary and flexible nature of monetary standards, permitting easy manipulation, is evident in the variety of calibrations that are mentioned in the Bible: the royal standard ( 2 Sam 14:26 ), the merchant's standard ( Gen 23:16 ), and the "sanctuary shekel" ( Exod 30:13 ; 38:24-26 ). Mesopotamia attested simultaneous usage of a "heavy" and "light" shekel in both a royal and a common standard; ancient Near Eastern standards not only varied within one geographical locale but fluctuated from place to place and over time. Such practices prompted legislation in Israel: "Do not have differing weights in your bag one heavy, one light" ( Deut 25:13 ).
People tend to cling to money, addicted to its false security. Because money behaves like a spiritual narcotic, deadening one's sensitivity to real value, Jesus insists that one cannot be committed simultaneously to both God's values and "mammon" (an Aramaic word meaning money, wealth, or property Matt 6:24 ). Ananias and Sapphira tried to pursue both and proved the veracity of Jesus' words as well as the spiritual corruption that money serves to catalyze ( Acts 5:1-10 ). Money is therefore quite dangerous, prompting Jesus to advise his followers not to take any money with them on their preaching tours ( Mark 6:8 ; Luke 9:3 ) and to give away any money that came from the sale of their estates ( Luke 18:22 ; cf. Acts 4:34-37 ).
A further problem with money surfaces when one uses it to earn more money at the expense of others in need, specifically in the charging of interest for monetary loans. Jesus' parables portray the phenomenon of interest in order to underscore the point that God expects his people to use his gifts productively ( Matt 25:27 ). Extraordinarily high interest rates could make loans a lucrative enterprise, when, for example, annual interest rates on silver in Mesopotamia were attested as high as 80 percent. There was a stage when the interest on monetary loans was legally distinguished from the interest on loans of food (a distinction attested elsewhere in the ancient Near East). It was a general perception that one who borrowed was in a state of curse, while the one who lended was in a position of being blessed by God ( Deuteronomy 28:12 Deuteronomy 28:44 ; Psalm 37:26 ; Prov 22:7 ). Nevertheless, lending freely to those in need was a sign of the godly person, and loans, even to the poor, were an accepted part of life governed by ideals that would prevent humiliation ( Deut 24:10-13 ). However, it was legally prohibited to use money to make money specifically at the expense of a poor Israelite ( Exod 22:25 ; Lev 25:35-37 ). This would seem to imply that interest on loans to those who were well-off was acceptable, but other passages clarify that although non-Israelites could be charged interest, one could not take interest from any Israelite, whether poor or not ( Deut 23:19-20 ). The righteous person does not use his money to make money at anyone's expense ( Psalm 15:5 ), for it is the wicked person who becomes wealthy by taking interest ( Prov 28:8 ). In spite of such guidelines, the postexilic Jewish community monetarily enslaved poor Jews by loaning money at interest so that they could pay their taxes, a travesty that angered Nehemiah and prompted a reform so that such loans became interest-free ( Neh 5:4-12 ).
The power of money is no more dramatically confronted than when one uses money to purchase another human being. When one paid money for a human in the Old Testament, that purchase brought the slave into the sphere of the owner's household comparable to the status of one born in the house, eradicating the slave's former ethnic and social ties as far as cultic matters were concerned. A slaveowner could mistreat a slave with impunity short of actually killing him or her for, in the words of Exodus 21:21, "the slave is his property." The reality of purchasing humans becomes one of the more powerful images for depicting God's "redemption" (an economic term) of his people: this image conveys God's ownership of his people and their resulting obligation to obey him (cf. Gen 47:13-26 ). As Peter stresses, however, money is inadequate for this transaction, for we were not redeemed with perishable things like silver or gold, but with the precious blood of Christ ( 1 Peter 1:18-19 ).
There is no record of money or precious metals being treated as unfit for sacred purposes in the Old Testament. Quite the contrary even the wages of a harlot could be used for the support of the temple ( Isa 23:18 ). Nevertheless, the priests in the New Testament were reluctant to incorporate into the temple treasury money that was used to betray a man to death (Judas's "blood money" for handing over Jesus Matt 27:6 )a curious irony since the men who participated in the transaction continued to serve in the temple with no sense of impropriety.
Samuel A. Meier
Bibliography. O. Borowski, BAR19/5 (1993): 68-70; A. Kindler and A. Stein, A Bibliography of the City Coinage of Palestine from the 2nd Century B.C. to the 3rd Century A.D.; S. E. Loewenstamm, JBL88 (1968): 78-80.
Copyright © 1996 by Walter A. Elwell. Published by Baker Books, a division of
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[N] indicates this entry was also found in Nave's Topical Bible
[T] indicates this entry was also found in Torrey's Topical Textbook
[E] indicates this entry was also found in Easton's Bible Dictionary
[S] indicates this entry was also found in Smith's Bible Dictionary
Bibliography InformationElwell, Walter A. "Entry for 'Money'". "Evangelical Dictionary of Theology".