How Silver Was Used for Payment
Shekels of Silver
When Abraham wishes to bury his late wife Sarah, Genesis 23 tells how he purchases a field with its cave, called Machpelah, from Ephron the Hittite. Ephron begins by telling Abraham that he could use the cave for free, which may have just been a pleasantry offered as a sign of respect. Once Abraham states unequivocally that he wants to purchase the plot for silver, Ephron names his price:
בראשית כג:יד וַיַּעַן עֶפְרוֹן אֶת אַבְרָהָם לֵאמֹר לוֹ. כג:טו אֲדֹנִי שְׁמָעֵנִי אֶרֶץ אַרְבַּע מֵאֹת שֶׁקֶל כֶּסֶף בֵּינִי וּבֵינְךָ מַה הִוא וְאֶת מֵתְךָ קְבֹר. כג:טז וַיִּשְׁמַע אַבְרָהָם אֶל עֶפְרוֹן וַיִּשְׁקֹל אַבְרָהָם לְעֶפְרֹן אֶת הַכֶּסֶף אֲשֶׁר דִּבֶּר בְּאָזְנֵי בְנֵי חֵת אַרְבַּע מֵאוֹת שֶׁקֶל כֶּסֶף עֹבֵר לַסֹּחֵר.
Gen 23:14 And Ephron replied to Abraham, saying to him, 23:15 “My lord, do hear me! A piece of land worth four hundred shekels of silver—what is that between you and me? Go and bury your dead.” 23:16 Abraham accepted Ephron’s terms. Abraham weighed out to Ephron the [amount of] silver that he had named in the hearing of the Hittites—four hundred shekels of silver at the going merchants’ rate.
The phrase עֹבֵר לַסֹּחֵר is explained by Hurowitz (2000):
Literally it is “travelling silver/property” and it designates negotiable property that has a recognized commercial value equivalent at all places.
The phrase “shekels of silver” (שֶׁקֶל כֶּסֶף) refers to a measurement of the silver’s weight; a shekel is a weight unit, calculated (based on 8th -7th century B.C.E. Judean stone weights) as an equivalent of 11.33 grams. This is a common way of describing how silver was used, and is taken for granted in other descriptions of silver payment, which mention a number but not what the number refers to, namely shekels:
Abimelech’s compensation payment after taking Sarah
בראשית כ:טז וּלְשָׂרָה אָמַר הִנֵּה נָתַתִּי אֶלֶף כֶּסֶף לְאָחִיךְ הִנֵּה הוּא לָךְ כְּסוּת עֵינַיִם לְכֹל אֲשֶׁר אִתָּךְ…
Gen 20:16 And to Sarah he said, “I herewith give your brother a thousand of silver; this will serve you as vindication before all who are with you…
*The sale of Joseph to the Ishmaelites
בראשית לז:כח …וַיִּמְכְּרוּ אֶת יוֹסֵף לַיִּשְׁמְעֵאלִים בְּעֶשְׂרִים כָּסֶף…
Gen 37:28 …They sold Joseph for twenty of silver to the Ishmaelites…
Silver is the most common medium of payment in the Bible, as well as in other ancient texts as the Ugarit archives and cuneiform tax documents. Archaeological excavations in Israel have confirmed its dominance in the ancient Levantine economy.
In Israel, over the past one hundred years of archaeological excavations, more than thirty silver hoards have been found, containing varied numbers of silver pieces of different sizes. When the first hoards were discovered (for example at Gezer, published by Macalister in 1912), the excavators assumed that they had found a silver-smith’s shop, and that this was raw material for melting into jewelry or other luxury items. As more and more such hoards were found, however, it became clear that they were used as silver “currency.”
The hoards, which are spread throughout the length and breadth of Israel (Fig. 1), can be dated to the Bronze and Iron Ages, starting from ~ 2000 B.C.E. and continuing until 6th century B.C.E., when coins began to make their appearance. The silver was generally stored within ceramic vessels, and in many cases cached under earth-beaten floors.
Bundles of Silver – צרור הכסף
In some of the hoards, the silver was stored in cloth bundles. As a consequence of the metal’s corrosion, the cloth got stuck and entwined into the corroded silver and thus survived thousands of years (Fig. 2a).
This evidence of cloth bundles for storing silver fits with an expression found in several biblical verses about silver, צרור כסף, meaning a bundle or purse (literally, “a wrap”) of silver. For example, when Joseph’s brothers return home with their grain:
בראשית מב:לה וַיְהִי הֵם מְרִיקִים שַׂקֵּיהֶם וְהִנֵּה אִישׁ צְרוֹר כַּסְפּוֹ בְּשַׂקּוֹ וַיִּרְאוּ אֶת צְרֹרוֹת כַּסְפֵּיהֶם הֵמָּה וַאֲבִיהֶם וַיִּירָאוּ.
Gen 41:35 As they were emptying their sacks, there, in each one’s sack, was his bundle of silver! When they and their father saw their bundle of silver, they were dismayed.
Similarly, in Proverbs 7, when the seductress describes that her husband is out of town, she says:
משלי ז:כ צְרוֹר הַכֶּסֶף לָקַח בְּיָדוֹ לְיוֹם הַכֵּסֶא יָבֹא בֵיתוֹ.
Prov 7:20 He took his bundle of silver with him and will return only at mid-month
When the prophet Haggai (1:6) wishes to articulate a picture of people losing their wealth as quickly as they accumulate it, he writes about people who collect their salary into a צְרוֹר נָקוּב “a bundle filled with holes.” Haggai does not even have to say the word “silver”; it is clear to the reader what he mains by צרור.
Many of the silver hoards contain, alongside broken pieces of jewelry, different forms of silver ingots, and “cut ingots” also known as hacksilver (Fig 3. or as per the German spelling used by scholars, Hacksilber), namely silver that was cut with a chisel (i.e., hacked) to form a chunk that would have the desired weight for a given transaction.
The ingots could be in the form of a long cord (square or round, cast in a mold), but more commonly they are found in the form of a flat, irregular-shaped piece of silver, with round edges, probably produced on a simple, flat surface.
Some of the hacksilver pieces in the hoards were extremely small—the smallest pieces being less than half a gram, which was less than the smallest unit of meaningful weight: 0.5 grams = ~one Judean Gera, and probably not something that could be weighed individually by common scales.
Does בצע כסף mean Hacksilver?
The prevalence of hacksilver in the Canaanite and Israelite hoards suggests a novel interpretation of an obscure verse in Deborah’s Song. When describing the battle, the text claims that combatants took no booty:
שופטים ה:יט בָּאוּ מְלָכִים נִלְחָמוּ אָז נִלְחֲמוּ מַלְכֵי כְנַעַן בְּתַעְנַךְ עַל מֵי מְגִדּוֹ בֶּצַע כֶּסֶף לֹא לָקָחוּ.
Judg 5:19 Then the kings came, they fought: The kings of Canaan fought at Taanach, by Megiddo’s waters—They took no beṣaʿ of silver.
What exactly does בצע mean in this context? The word has several different meanings in biblical Hebrew. Here we will relate to two:
- To break or sever,
- To gain unlawfully, or greed after unlawful gain (תאב בצע).
Most translators and commentators tie the word to its second meaning and suggest the phrase means something like “spoil of silver” (NJPS, NRSV). Nevertheless, others have suggested that it derives from the first meaning, to break. For example, Yairah Amit writes in her 1999 Mikra LeYisrael commentary on Judges (ad loc.):
מקור הצירוף ”בצע כסף“ בשלב קדום של שימוש בחתיכות כסף, שנבצעו מגושים גדולים לצורכי תשלום.
The origin of the phrase “beṣaʿ of silver” derives from ancient times when people used hacksilver, cut from larger chunks, as a means of payment.
Thus, the verse should be translated “they took no pieces of silver.” In fact, one form of the related Arabic root faḍḍ (فض), which means “to open or break,” came to mean silver: fiḍḍa(فضة), which literally means, “that which is broken into pieces.”
The correlation between two different expressions of בצע, i.e. תאב בצע and בצע כסף, is not a coincidence. Money has been correlated with greed and forgery throughout history, which can be demonstrated in the archeological record (as we shall see shortly).
How Silver Functioned as Payment
Evidence for silver production is available in the archaeological record, since the fourth millennium B.C.E. We know, based on cuneiform writings, that beginning in the third millennium B.C.E., silver was used as a main means of currency. This continued for more than a thousand years, until the invention of coinage in the seventh century B.C.E.
Throughout this period, the value of silver remained very high: as noted above, the smallest meaningful weight, likely equivalent to a day-workers wage, was only half a gram. At the same time, the market value of silver remained relatively constant. For this reason, silver was the most commonly utilized precious metal for trade. It functioned in a similar way as coinage did once it was invented: it represented value, for which one could exchange goods. It differed from coins mainly in the fact that it was quantifiable by weight.
Silver was not the only object that functioned in this way. Other precious metals, such as gold and copper were used as payment, as was barley, for lower-value transactions. Moreover, sometimes trade was simply done through barter, i.e., exchanging goods or services for goods or services. Nevertheless, silver was by far the dominant mode of payment in trade, which is why the Hebrew word for silver, כסף (kesef), became the Modern-Hebrew word for money as well, and the word for weight, שקל (shekel), became the modern term for a standard coin.
1. Middle and Late Bronze Ages (~2000-1200 B.C.E.): Stability and Palatial-Based Trade
When comparing various hoards from different periods, we can see an overall development in the silver trade over time. Starting at the beginning, in the Middle and Late Bronze Ages, the silver hoards were:
- Made up mostly of broken pieces of jewelry and coils,
- Generally stored in cloth bundles, the purpose of which is unclear. (Bundling silver may have been a sign that the silver had been pre-weighed in preparation for a specific need or payment; alternatively, bundles may have simply been a convenient way to store money.)
- Mostly found in public contexts such as temples or palaces,
- Of high quality/purity (i.e., very high percentage of silver, such that the other minor elements [lead, copper and gold] were probably natural occurrences in the silver metal and not a consequence of alloying or mixing).
In these periods, most commercial activities were in the hands of the elites and were palace-based, sometimes in the form of “gift exchange.” There was no standard form for silver to be exchanged. In some cases, as for example the LB Age hoards of Tell-el Ajjul, silver-coil ingots are apparent.
2. Iron I (1200-~1000 B.C.E.) – A Chaotic Period
In the Iron Age I, the picture changes drastically. Although hoards still have many broken jewelry pieces stored in bundles, the hoards are mostly found in domestic contexts, are of low quality/purity, with a heavy addition of copper alloy. How might we explain this change in silver usage?
The end of the Bronze Age is well known in archaeology and history as a time of collapse. Among other major crises, the great Hittite empires disappears entirely, and Egypt gives up on its domination of Canaan and turns inwards. The Late Bronze Age was marked by an intricate and vast international economic trade system, which disappeared with its collapse, leaving each region to rebuild itself as it could.
In Israel, the Iron I is the period in which one relatively large population is concentrated in the central highlands, while the Philistines dominate the southern Mediterranean coast, and the Phoenicians dominate the northern coast. In contrast to the Middle and Late Bronze Ages, when the various local rules were all subject to Egypt, in this period no one group dominated. Power was held by local leaders, either chieftains or petty kings.
The lack of a strong government during Iron Age I, alongside the collapse of maritime trade networks, and therefore the lack of silver supply—silver does not occur naturally in the Levant—offers the simplest explanation for the most significant change noted above, namely the drop in the silver’s purity. This was a period with little if any government regulation over the economy, alongside a shortage in silver, therefore, people were cheating. Copper is naturally found in silver items, since ore-source copper is removed in the silver production process, but in small ratios only. Thus, if silver contains high percentages of copper someone added it on purpose.
Importantly, the addition of copper does not significantly affect the color of the silver; silver adulterated with copper looks as shiny and silvery as pure silver. The copper is only visible when the silver begins to corrode, since copper produces a green rust while silver tarnishes black. When archaeologists noticed the strange green color on the silver pieces, laboratory tests confirmed that these were indeed silver pieces filled with copper.
For example, the 11th century B.C.E. Tell Keisan (or Kisson) hoard, a Phoenician site on the northern coast of Israel near modern day Acre, was adulterated with copper (Fig. 2a, 2b).
All the silver in this hoard was stored in bundles, which had apparently been sealed with clay seals. This is remarkable since some scholars assume that sealed bundles were meant to convey that the purity of the silver inside was being vouched for. So either this explanation is wrong, or the purpose of the official seals in this period failed miserably.
3. Silver Hoards in the Iron II
In the Iron Age II (~1000-586 B.C.E.), the political and economic situation changed. The Philistines still dominate the southern coast, but the northern coast and central highlands become centralized into the kingdoms of Israel and Judah. The coastal area north of Israel (and in the borders of modern-day Israel north of Tel Dor) is dominated by wealthy and powerful Phoenician city states (Tyre and Sidon). The hoards in this period are consequently larger, showing that silver was flowing into the region during this period in much greater quantities.
One such hoard was found at Dor, a Phoenician city that was part of the Israelite orbit in this period; it included over 8 kilograms of silver. Another hoard from the same period was found under the floor of a synagogue at Eshtemoa, in the Judean Hills—i.e., not in its original context—and contained more than 25 kgs of hacksilver and jewelry pieces. It is dated to the 8th century B.C.E. based on the typology of the jugs, and the inscriptions on them.
Significantly, in this period, the adulteration of the silver stops. So too, the use of bundles becomes uncommon as does the use of jewelry pieces. Instead, this is the period when hacksilver becomes dominant (Fig 3).
Why So Many Small Pieces of Silver
Hacksilver pieces come in varying sizes in the different hoards, but in each of the hoards from this period, we find an abundance of small pieces weighing less than half a gram (Fig. 4).
Scholars have attempted to find a systematic explanation for the variety of sizes among these small pieces, but thus far, most agree that the size distribution is random. Moreover, it is difficult to imagine that these small pieces served a similar function to what we call “small change” since they are exceedingly small and easily lost while still of significant value.
Most likely, the emergence of these tiny pieces is connected with the high value of silver. Since silver is evaluated based on its weight, shopkeepers kept a collection of silver pieces of different sizes so that they could weigh the customer’s payment against a precise weight of silver. A shift of a gram or two was of much value.
The need to solve the fraud problem is likely the reason for the emergence of hacksilver as “the gold standard” of payment in this period. When a customer would purchase something, the merchant would likely cut a piece from the hacksilver himself to test it. Bundles could not be used for payment, since hacking meant silver was constantly tested for its value and couldn’t be pre-weighed and bundled in advance.
Silver is a relatively soft metal, and the addition of copper makes it harder. An experienced merchant could distinguish adulterated silver from unadulterated silver by the resistance against the chisel when cutting through the metal. In fact, when we look at the hoards (see Fig 3, for instance), we can see that some of the pieces have been cut slightly with a chisel multiple times from different angles. Broken jewelry was also used and currency, and occasionally hacked (Fig. 5), however the “cut-ingots” seem to be the more preferable mean of exchange.
The End of the Iron Age and the End of Silver Hoards
The invention of coins is attributed to the late 7th century B.C.E., minted in Lydia (modern day west Turkey). In the southern Levant, however, coins were introduced only later, in the beginning of the Persian period (6th century B.C.E.). Once coins were introduced, we no longer find silver hoards in Israel.
Nevertheless, it would seem that old habits die hard since among the first coins found in the region, some have been found hacked. Early on, people mistrusted the system, knowing how easy it is to pass off adulterated silver as the real thing, and wanted to check to see that the silver was genuine. It took a while before the power of the coin as a regulated currency backed by the government became accepted by all. This shows that the idea of standardized coins was a conceptual revolution that took time to digest.
In sum, we can trace the development of silver trade in stages:
- During the Bronze Age, jewelry pieces were collected in bundles mostly stored in palaces and temples.
- In the Iron I, silver became privatized and deregulated, and adulteration of silver was the rule.
- In the Iron II, adulteration of silver was stopped with the change to hacksilver, which was generally not stored in bundles.
- In the Persian period, coins were introduced and hacksilver was no longer used.
The archaeological finds breathe life into the biblical stories. Returning to Abraham and Ephron, and his four hundred shekels of silver “at the going merchant’s rate.” Perhaps עֹבֵר לַסֹּחֵר can also be interpreted literally as the procedure in which “silver was passed over to the merchant,” namely, exchanged – It was carefully weighed, using small “cut-silver” items for an exact balance of the weight, and hacked for checking its value.
How Pricey Was Machpelah?
Insofar as the price, 400 shekels was a possible/ realistic price in real estate transactions in Late Bronze Age Ugarit (Steiglitz 1979), although we cannot evaluate if it was a fair price for the specific land offered. It is equal to four and a half kilograms (a Judean shekel is valued as 11.33 grams), or around 10 pounds of silver.
According to documents we have from Ugarit, 400 shekels was not an outrageous price for land, but certainly not cheap either. Assuming 0.5 grams of silver would be a day laborer’s wage, if we translate this into modern terms, with an average day laborer’s wage being about $120, the price of land would be around $624,000—pricey, but manageable for a wealthy person like Abraham. To paraphrase Ephron, “what is six hundred thousand dollars and change between friends?”
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October 30, 2018
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Dr. Tzilla Eshel is a lecturer at Haifa University's Zinman Institute of Archaeology, where she completed her M.A. (summa cum laude) and Ph.D. Her dissertation deals with the provenance of silver hoards from the Bronze and Iron Ages, and she has authored several articles dealing with the ancient use of silver.
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