Nothing New under the Sun

I recently toured the City of David and someone asked a question about the dating of the Rock Hewn Pool, which has recently been opened to the public.  I told him that the pool was dated by analyzing pottery sherds.  (The Rock Hewn Pool has been dated to been in use from about 1800  B.C.E. until 700 B.C.E.)

“Can’t they date it by coins?”  he asked.
“Coins didn’t exist then,” I countered.
“Well, then, what about the Half Shekel mentioned in the Bible?”

The Bible mentions a tax levied on the Children of Israel when they came out of Egypt and were in the desert to be used for building thethe mishkan.

“This is what everyone who is entered in the records shall pay; a half-shekel by weight (20 geras to the shekel) a half-shekel as an offering to G-d.  Everyone who is entered in the records, from the age of 20 years up, shall give G-d’s offering.  The rich shall not pay more and the poor shall not pay less than half a shekel whend’s offering to atone for your souls.”    Exodus 30:13-15

After reading the text and other texts in the Bible which mention shekels, it is clear that the shekel was meant to be a weight, and the items which were collected were used themselves to make certain vessels for use in religious practices.

Today, however, it is hard to imagine life without coins.  We fall into the thought that there is nothing new under the sun.  And since  the Israeli currency is the New Israeli Shekel and most of us are used to paying taxes with money, we picture in our heads, the Biblical shekel as being coinage.  We imagine the Children of Israel in the desert handing minted coins over to the priests to pay for the items necessary for the tabernacle.

In antiquity, people didn’t really “pay for” things they wanted.  In order to acquire something you wanted, you needed to offer something  else.  Trading grain for wool, one type of fruit for another, birds for fish, that sort of thing.  Precious metals provided a more portable wealth.  Traveling long distances with a small amount of gold or silver and then trading that metal for provisions once you arrived at your destination was much more convenient than shlepping  your goods.  That metal would need to be weighed at the point of sale to insure that you were paying the fair amount.  And the    metal’s value didn’t change whether you were using it to trade or to  construct a cup.

In the Bible, shekel is related to weight (mishkal) since the value  was in the weight of the metal.  An interesting aside, Ashkelon wasa place where there was a  lot of weighing of metal (look for the root sh.k.l in both).     Biblical references to shekel are talking about a certain weight of metals.  These very materials will be used for construction ofthey will not be used to buy them but to actually create them.

So, if shekel in the Bible is not talking about coins, and there were no coins in biblical times, when did coins come into use?  The basic philosophy of coinage is that you take something and ascribe to it more value than it intrinsically has.  A $100 bill is not, in    and of itself, worth $100.  The paper, the ink, and even taking into account the design, layout and construction, do not lend a value of $100 to the bill.  In fact, $1, $5, $10, $20, $50 and $100 bills are all intrinsically worth the same amount – 12.5 cents.  Our society, however, has agreed that the $100 bill is worth $100.

In antiquity, coinage started local.  A local community, for reasons of convenience, agreed to ascribe value to hunks of metal (again because they are very portable).  If someone came in from out of town, he may or may not agree to accept local currency in his trades.  Only with large empires, did coinage become universally accepted.  Across large distances, coins were a way to provide a common thread between diverse peoples.  And coins were ads, reminding the populace who was in charge as the ruler’s symbol or face was often depicted on the coin.

The first coins which were used across distances were during the time of the Persian persian-coinsempire and some of the first coins which were more than local were manufactured here in Israel.  Cyrus, who allowed the Jewish people to return from exile and rebuild Jerusalem, also gave them the freedom to mint their own coins.

In order to raise money for the renovation and maintenance of the Temple, Ezra levied the third shekel tax (around 450 B.C.E.).  This tax eventually, over the next few hundred years morphed into the half shekel tax (inflation?).   These coins from the Second Temple period have been found and provide a fabulous way to date sites.  Before this time, however, coins were an anachronism.

Moses never saw a coin.  Neither did King David.  So the Spring House and the Rock Hewn pool could not have been dated by coins.  We can’t take today’s realities to be mirrored throughout history.  Even the graphite pencil I write with and the bottled beer I drink are recent inventions from 600 years ago.  Weird.  But,maybe some things are new under the sun.

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2 thoughts on “Nothing New under the Sun

  1. Pingback: Nothing New under the Sun - The Jewish Independent | The Jewish Independent

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