Ancient Economics

Kng Sol w Q of ShebaThe queen of Sheba’s visit to Jerusalem to see Solomon remains simultaneously well-known and obscure. The recorded event entered popular culture enough to prove significant, and Jesus’ mention of the account in Luke 11:31 has solidified it as a spiritually meaningful as well as remarkable situation in history. Her appreciation for Solomon’s wisdom and wealth showed her character. However, we do not even know the name of this queen, though it seems likely that she ruled an area possibly in southern Arabia. But the details surrounding her visit and the other information associated with it provide insight into another arena: ancient economics.

When the queen traveled to Jerusalem, she came prepared to enter an economic relationship with Israel (2 Chr. 9:1). Indeed, she gave Solomon  “one hundred and twenty talents of gold, spices in great abundance, and precious stones” (2 Chr. 9:9). Since a talent is a weight of approximately seventy-five pounds, she brought Solomon four and a half tons of gold. We can only imagine then what the spices and precious stones totaled. Yet she, possibly seeking to impress Solomon with her own value as a trading partner, could not help but be impressed with all that she saw (2 Chr. 9:3-4). We also find that Solomon’s alliance with Hiram had proven economically fruitful in bringing in gold, algum wood, and precious stones into the treasury through trade with Ophir (2 Chr. 9:10). From these economic partnerships, Solomon amassed a gross domestic product for Israel of six hundred sixty-six talents of gold—close to twenty-five tons annually (2 Chr. 9:13). While direct comparisons of value to modern times is practically impossible, the fact that the abundance of gold meant that silver was treated as practically commonplace says much (2 Chr. 9:20, 27). Besides this, we learn that businessmen following the ancient trade routes added to this wealth through the market. Another reference, this time to Solomon’s throne, gives evidence of an ivory trade as well (2 Chr. 9:17-19). An additional note implies that Solomon amassed this wealth through maritime trade, sending ships across the Mediterranean as far as Tarshish with the help of the more experienced sailors, the Phoenicians. Their bringing apes and monkeys back in addition to gold, silver, and ivory adds a colorful twist to what was valued in the ancient world, though the reasons are not specified (2 Chr. 9:21). In addition Solomon gained income from neighboring nations, most likely through trade and defense alliances (2 Chr. 9:14), especially considering the use of gold for armor (2 Chr. 9:15-16). This is further verified since these leaders brought Solomon “articles of silver and gold, garments, armor, spices, horses, and mules, at a set rate year by year” (2 Chr. 9:24), items associated with both the palace and with the ancient army. “Solomon had four thousand stalls for horses and chariots, and twelve thousand horsemen whom he stationed in the chariot cities and with the king at Jerusalem,” strengthening this conclusion (2 Chr. 9:25).

Solomon reigned over territory stretching from the Euphrates to the Egyptian border (2 Chr. 9:26), a placement perfect for trade between other economic powers in the ancient world. Thus, Solomon took advantage of Israel’s geography, becoming the center of trade for practically the entire ancient world. The eastern nations traded with Israel through the ancient trade routes to Egypt (2 Chr. 9:28), the wealth available on the far reaches of southern Europe traded with Israel across the Mediterranean, and southern Africa and areas accessible through the Red Sea and perhaps beyond came into the Israelite sphere through shipping as well. Most of all, this evidence fits completely with all that is known of the ancient economy and provides greater insight into the true extent of Israel’s meteoric rise to prominence during this time, making their fall soon afterward all the more notable.

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