Poverty and wealth in Eighth Century Israel

Society and economics in Ancient Israel

Ancient Israel was an agrarian society, outside the cities almost everyone was involved in farming or herding, each family produced most of its own needs. The primary activities were highly seasonal, with periods of intense activity (e.g. plowing or harvest time). At other times family members would undertake other tasks, such as making walls and tools, or repairing them. During such periods it is likely that some family members would also make items to sell or exchange for products or services that they could not produce themselves. A surplus of their main crop could also be used in this way. First though, any surplus that a family could generate (beyond mere subsistence) was used to pay the tithe to the temple and tax to the king.

Money was not used, very few coins have been discovered from strata before the Persian period. An equivalent weight of silver was used as a measure of value but even for centralized activities (like taxes) payment was in kind (i.e. a family that produced barley would hand over a quantity of barley that was worth the required value). Canaanite and Punic tariffs, used for making such conversions, have been discovered.

The first coins (convenient pre-weighed and authenticated metal disks) were used in Anatolia (Turkey) around the time of Amos or a century or two later, and their use later spread throughout the region under the Persian empire.


Few households in Ancient Israel had surpluses large enough to fund more than the basics. In a bad year payment of tithes and taxes would be impossible, one way in which debt might begin. When such a debt earned interest it could become impossible to repay. This fact stands behind the injunctions (Ex 22:25; Dt 23:19f.; Lev 25:35ff.) against borrowing or lending as a commercial activity (usury).

The rich might use borrowing to fund industry or trade to make a profit, thus the practice of charging interest is noted in the Code of Hammurabi (Willingale). While such commercial borrowing could drive the poor into slavery to pay off an impossible debt (2 Kgs 4:1-7). Note that in 1 Sam 22:2 debtors are listed with other malcontents and outlaws ready to join David's guerrilla band. The story of Elisha and the widow illustrates how even a small surplus a few jars of oil could tip the balance between impossible debt and freedom.

Evidence for "rich oppressors" beyond the court

Evidence of the relative wealth and poverty of non-royal Israelites is open to debate. The remains of one particular house from Iron Age Israel can illustrate this discussion. House 1727 from Stratum VII at Shechem has been the focus of attempts to assess the relative wealth of rich urban dwellers outside the court. Stratum VII is dated before the Assyrian destruction of 724bce - so the time of Amos. Shechem was well placed as a market town, and also possibly an administrative center. It controls a junction of important routes, and an extensive area of rich agricultural land in flat valley floors to the south and east. House 1727 is a well-excavated larger "four-room" house, situated in an area of similar homes. Since Wright's report in 1965, and in particular his article on this house (1978), very different evaluations have been proposed of the relative wealth of the inhabitants of this house. Wright himself thought it cheaply built by comparison with examples in other centers, but others have concluded its occupiers were rich. These two tendencies can be typified by Holladay's ABD entry and Campbell's article in the King festschrift.

Holladay in his study of archaeological evidence for Israelite homes in the monarchic period argued for only small differences of wealth in such provincial centers. Only the royal and governors' palaces showed significant differences of scale from ordinary homes. He concluded: "given the relatively narrow range of sizes of three- and four-room houses, it might be argued that—apart from those who lived in palaces (e.g., in Samaria, Ramat Rahel, Megiddo, Hazor, Gezer, Lachish, etc.)—the disparity in wealth between various households was not great." (p.317)

By contrast Campbell examined this evidence, together with further excavations, and claims that House 1727 was larger than most Israelite dwellings, though within the range discussed by Holladay. However, claims that it was a two storey dwelling, and that this combined with its slightly greater floor area offered ample scope for small scale industrial production. Both Holladay and Campbell agree that the central area shows signs of such use. Holladay writes:

The central space (Room 1-2) has two large grinding installations, a large industrial hearth and a smaller, possibly domestic, hearth, and, immediately to the left of the entrance, what may be the foundation platform for a flight of steps to an upper story. (Holladay, 316)

A further feature is the way in which unlike earlier building on this site, and unlike most private homes elsewhere in Israel, the site (on a sloping terrace) had been leveled with a retaining wall and stones and soil as fill. It and its neighbors, which may offer similar evidence of relative wealth, seem to have been singled out for destruction by the Assyrians. Likely estimates would put the inhabitants of these larger four-roomed houses as perhaps two or three times as wealthy. This may seem a small difference compared to the vast gulf between rich and poor in a modern Western state. However, when we remember that most Israelites were living at the margin of subsistence, and that therefore a small disruption in production levels (drought, illness etc.) could lead to death. Such a disparity of wealth though - as a number - "not great" (Holladay, 317) was huge in its social and human implications. Indeed such differences today in societies where life for many is marginal create feelings like those expressed by Amos.


This page is part of the Hypertext Bible Commentary - Amos,
© Tim Bulkeley, 1996-2005, Tim Bulkeley. All rights reserved.