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Wealth in Samaria

Before the rise of kingship, wealth was really generated by subsistence; and you consumed everything that you made.  You would do the harvest; then you would consume it all; but, with the rise of kingship, you have needs for more wealth.  You have to build buildings, you need to generate wealth for sustaining an army, you need scribal schools. So in Samaria, it seems to be that according to archaeology at least, that instead of subsistence economy, they went to specialization. 

Specialization essentially meant, instead of one family doing some herding, some livestock and some dry farming, some groves, instead, the king would say: “All you families, you are going to create this one thing.  You are going to create olive oil; and these families, you’ll all create wine.”

So, when a whole group of families had to do olive oil, it wasn’t really their choice; it was a declaration by probably the king that this is what you need to do.

And with specialization, you get increased wealth.  Now the problem is when you increase wealth in those terms, you’re doing through unjust means; you are exploiting the poor.

And, the reason it was unjust, as they increased wealth, we can see it in the archaeological record; and we don’t see things that are very egalitarian or equal; but we see things in Samaria in the eighth century like ivories.  All of a sudden you have hundreds and hundreds of ivories; a lot of these are finely decorated.  Well, elephants are not indigenous to Samaria; they aren’t indigenous to Israel; you cannot eat ivories. So what was happening is, you’re creating all of this product, such as olive oil or wine or grain, taking the surplus wealth, exporting it out so you can import these symbols of authority; and that by itself, is unjust.  So, therefore, in Amos 6, Amos condemns the people saying, “You who lie in beds of ivory,” it’s a direct reference to how they’re unjustly taking from the people and buying luxury items for themselves without giving them back food to eat.

So the question is, when you generate wealth, what are you doing with that wealth?  Are you redistributing it to the poor?  Are you providing for those that worked to make the olive oil?  According to the prophets it’s more likely that they weren’t; they are, in fact, keeping the wealth for themselves and being unjust; and the poor got poorer as the rich got richer.

  • Roger Nam is assistant professor of biblical studies at George Fox Evangelical Seminary. His research interests include Late Bronze Age civilizations and the economy of the ancient Near East. He is the author of Portrayals of Exchange in the Book of Kings (Brill, 2012).