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:

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