Coat of Many Colors

A Geek and the Bible

Biblical Price Index

In my last post, I asked whether or not Abraham was cheated out of his land deal by Ephron the Hittite. 400 shekels of silver mean nothing to us, but the early readers of the bible toiled in their labors for a few shekels and would have known immediately what one was worth. To answer this question, we need some basis for comparison, a pricing guide in shekels. I’ve scoured the bible for every listed price and put a few of them together for this chart:

Biblical Price Index

Sarah’s tomb is one of the most expensive single purchases in the bible. Only Solomon’s military equipment cost more. The only other real-estate value that I found (the value of a plot of farmland in Leviticus 27), is almost meaningless because we don’t know the size of the plot, but still a fraction of the cost of the burial cave. If you ask me, it looks like Ephron the Hittite got pretty good coin for his cave.

Is this chart accurate? Probably not. A shekel is a unit of weight, not of currency. A shekel of silver is the amount of silver which weighs a shekel. We don’t know exactly how much that was (and it may have been different at different times), but most scholars place it at around 10.5 grams– roughly the weight of two US quarters. The bible lists at least three types of shekels: one in the Abrahamic period, a sanctuary shekel set during the Exodus and related to the temple, and a king’s shekel in Davidic times. Were they around the same? More than likely, but it’s tough to say how accurate the measurements were at all. Accurate measurement of money was such a problem that it even has its own proverb:

Diverse weights are an abomination unto the Lord; and a false balance is not good.

Proverbs 20:23

In terms of purchasing power, did a shekel in Abraham’s time purchase the same amount of good as in Solomon’s? It’s impossible to know. The value of silver today is probably not the same as in biblical times, but that won’t prevent me from providing this chart:

This chart shows the shekel-weight of silver at today’s commodity prices. When viewed this way, the prices just don’t seem right. Flour seems reasonable, $10, but after that all of the prices seem low in comparison. A slave for $315? A plot of land for $530? Is a slave worth the same as 30 units of flour? Is a horse worth five slaves?

Looking at the data this way, answers a few questions but raises a dozen more. It’s why I love this stuff so much.

Some other fun thoughts:

  • This gives new meaning to the Joseph story. Joseph was sold into Egyptian bondage for only 20 shekels, rather than the 30 shekels Exodus says a slave is worth. (Genesis 37)
  • Abraham probably didn’t mind paying the 400 shekels to Ephron: Abimelech had given Abraham 1000 shekels to apologize for taking Sarah as a wife only a few years earlier. (Genesis 20)
  • The Levite salary also included room and board, this number is just for the “spending money.”

If you’d like further reading on the topic of money in the bible:

Up next: Finding Isaac a wife

And in case you want the raw data for your own nefarious purposes:

PsalmTypeAttributionForInstrumentsSongHistoryVerseOther
1None
2None
3PsalmDavidWhen he fled from his son Absalom.2 Samuel 15
4PsalmDavidDirector of MusicStringed
5PsalmDavidDirector of MusicPipes
6PsalmDavidDirector of MusicStringedAccording to sheminith.
7ShiggalionDavidwhich he sang to the Lord concerning Cush, a Benjamite??
8PsalmDavidDirector of MusicAccording to gittith.
9PsalmDavidDirector of MusicThe Death of the SonCombined 9-10
11DavidDirector of Music
12PsalmDavidDirector of MusicAccording to sheminith.
13PsalmDavidDirector of Music
14DavidDirector of Music
15PsalmDavid
16MiktamDavid
17PrayerDavid
18DavidDirector of MusicHe sang to the Lord the words of this song when theLord delivered him from the hand of all his enemies and from the hand of Saul.??
19PsalmDavidDirector of Music
20PsalmDavidDirector of Music
21PsalmDavidDirector of Music
22PsalmDavidDirector of MusicDoe of the Morning
23PsalmDavid
24PsalmDavid
25David
26David
27David
28David
29PsalmDavid
30Psalm/SongDavidFor the dedication of the temple.
31PsalmDavidDirector of Music
32MaskilDavid
33None
34DavidWhen he pretended to be insane before Abimelek, who drove him away, and he left.1 Samuel 21
35David
36DavidDirector of Music
37David
38Psalm/PetitionDavid
39PsalmDavidDirector of MusicFor Jeduthun
40PsalmDavidDirector of Music
41PsalmDavidDirector of Music
42MaskilSons of KorahDirector of MusicCombined 42-43
44MaskilSons of KorahDirector of Music
45Maskil/Wedding SongSons of KorahDirector of MusicLillies
46SongSons of KorahDirector of MusicAccording to alamoth.
47PsalmSons of KorahDirector of Music
48Psalm/SongSons of Korah
49PsalmSons of KorahDirector of Music
50PsalmAsaph
51PsalmDavidDirector of MusicWhen the prophet Nathan came to him after David had committed adultery with Bathsheba.2 Samuel 12
52MaskilDavidDirector of MusicWhen Doeg the Edomite had gone to Saul and told him: “David has gone to the house of Ahimelek.”1 Samuel 22
53MaskilDavidDirector of MusicAccording to mahalath.
54MaskilDavidDirector of MusicStringedWhen the Ziphites had gone to Saul and said, “Is not David hiding among us?”1 Samuel 23
55MaskilDavidDirector of Music
56MiktamDavidDirector of MusicA Dove on Distant OaksWhen the Philistines had seized him in Gath.1 Samuel 21
57MiktamDavidDirector of MusicDo Not DestroyWhen he had fled from Saul into the cave.1 Samuel 22
58MiktamDavidDirector of MusicDo Not Destroy
59MiktamDavidDirector of MusicDo Not DestroyWhen Saul had sent men to watch David’s house in order to kill him.1 Samuel 19
60MiktamDavidDirector of MusicThe Lily of the CovenantFor teaching. When he fought Aram Naharaim[c] and Aram Zobah,[d] and when Joab returned and struck down twelve thousand Edomites in the Valley of Salt.1 Chronicles 19
61DavidDirector of MusicStringed
62PsalmDavidDirector of MusicFor Jeduthun.
63PsalmDavidWhen he was in the Desert of Judah.??
64PsalmDavidDirector of Music
65Psalm/SongDavidDirector of Music
66Psalm/SongNoneDirector of Music
67Psalm/SongNoneDirector of MusicStringed
68Psalm/SongDavidDirector of Music
69DavidDirector of MusicLilies
70PetitionDavidDirector of Music
71None
72Solomon
73PsalmAsaph
74MaskilAsaph
75Psalm/SongAsaphDirector of MusicDo Not Destroy
76Psalm/SongAsaphDirector of MusicStringed
77PsalmAsaphDirector of MusicFor Jeduthun
78MaskilAsaph
79PsalmAsaph
80PsalmAsaphDirector of MusicThe Lilies of the Covenant
81AsaphDirector of MusicAccording to gittith.
82PsalmAsaph
83Psalm/SongAsaph
84PsalmSons of KorahDirector of MusicAccording to gittith.
85PsalmSons of KorahDirector of Music
86PrayerDavid
87Psalm/SongSons of Korah
88Psalm/Song/MaskilSons of Korah/Heman the EzrahiteDirector of MusicAccording to mahalath leannoth.
89MaskilEthan the Ezrahite
90PrayerMoses
91None
92Psalm/SongNoneFor the Sabbath day.
93None
94None
95None
96None
97None
98PsalmNone
99None
100PsalmNoneFor giving grateful praise.
101PsalmDavid
102PrayerNoneA prayer of an afflicted person who has grown weak and pours out a lament before the Lord.
103David
104None
105None
106None
107None
108Psalm/SongDavid
109PsalmDavidDirector of Music
110PsalmDavid
111None
112None
113None
114None
115None
116None
117None
118None
119None
120SongNoneSong of ascents
121SongNoneSong of ascents
122SongDavidSong of ascents
123SongNoneSong of ascents
124SongDavidSong of ascents
125SongNoneSong of ascents
126SongNoneSong of ascents
127SongSolomonSong of ascents
128SongNoneSong of ascents
129SongNoneSong of ascents
130SongNoneSong of ascents
131SongDavidSong of ascents
132SongNoneSong of Ascents
133SongDavidSong of ascents
134SongNoneSong of Ascents
135None
136None
137None(Post-exile)
138David
139PsalmDavidDirector of Music
140PsalmDavidDirector of Music
141PsalmDavid
142Maskil/PrayerDavidWhen he was in the cave.1 Samuel 22
143PsalmDavid
144David
145PsalmDavidOf praise
146None
147None
148None
149None
150None

 

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