Israel’s Changing Economy in the 8th Century BCE

What shall I say about the homes of the wicked filled with treasures gained by cheating? What about the disgusting practice of measuring out grain with dishonest measures? How can I tolerate your merchants who use dishonest scales and weights? Micah 6:10-11 NLT

The Torah envisions life in the promised land as a subsistence economy in which every family farms perpetually on the plot allocated to it by God. God promised Abraham a multitude of descendants and land on which to live. Israel’s occupation of Canaan following the Exodus was the fulfillment of that promise. Each family was allocated a plot of land – its inheritance – by lot. The land was entrusted to each family as a gift from God and would never be sold in perpetuity. Families would subsist on the bountiful fruits of their own farms and share with those in need.

The message of the prophets, however, seems to assume a different kind of economy. They speak of weights and measures used in buying and selling. They condemn those who complain about the lack of commerce on Israel’s Sabbaths and holy days. They write about the use of dishonesty and pretext in the courts to confiscate the land of the poor. They address the enslavement of the vulnerable to provide labor for the fields. This does not look like an economy primarily built on the produce of one’s own flocks and fields.

Daniel Master, author of chapter on Micah in The Minor Prophets volume of the Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary, offers some valuable insights on the changing economic conditions in Israel in the 8th century BCE. The growth in international trade set the stage for many of the abuses decried by the prophets.

Masters writes:

As the Phoenicians began their push westward across the Mediterranean, they created enormous trading networks enhanced by increasingly efficient transportation strategies. Throughout the eighth century, the Phoenician desire for agricultural produce for trade drove farmers throughout the region to adopt “more efficient” (and likely more ruthless) methods. This commercialization, an early form of “globalization,” transformed the traditional economies of the small highland states like Israel and Judah into producers for the Phoenician commercial world. Micah lived in dynamic economic times and through them sounds a call, not for avoidance of this new commercial world, but for justice and righteousness in the midst of the changes.

Commenting on Micah 6:9-12, Masters adds:

The growth of impersonal exchange networks over large distances, exemplified in the Phoenician expansion (see introduction), greatly increased the need for weights and measures. It should come as no surprise that the legal literature of the ancient Near East is concerned with upholding just weights and measurements. The Instruction of Amenemope, for example, includes two chapters entirely devoted to the upholding of accurate measurements. Several Mesopotamian texts are similarly clear on this point. Micah does not have to look far to find examples of gross injustices that do not meet even the ethical standards of surrounding groups (Lev. 19:35–36; Ezek. 45:10; Hos. 12:7; Amos 8:5).

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