The Economic System of the Hill Country of Israel in Iron Age I – Part 3

Claude Mariottini
Emeritus Professor
of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary

This post is Part 3 of an academic paper titled “The Economic System of the Hill Country of Israel in Iron Age I.” This paper was read during a meeting of the American Schools of Oriental Research which met on March 12, 1988 in Dallas, Texas.

To read the Introduction, Part 1, and Part 2 of the paper, click here.

Wealth and Surplus

As villages were able to transform the environment by the use of improved tools and technology, they grew along with their economies, producing a stratification of society by rule, wealth, education, and occupation.[1] As new technologies were developed, village organization became more complex, the expression of prosperity became more sophisticated, and new economic pursuits brought about the specialization of occupations and organized community efforts.

While some people in the villages acquired more wealth and built better and bigger houses, a large part of the population became wage earners (Judg. 17:10).[2] However, as Orlinsky has observed, although “there was a concentration of wealth among the Canaanite and the Philistines, rich families among the Israelites did not appear to dominate the community in the time of the judges.”[3] There were no large landowners among the leaders of the villages and there existed an evenly divided economic standard for the community.

These changes in the economy of the villages contributed to the establishment of larger settlements and to a class of people who were non-producers. These people were in charge of administrative and religious functions of the community.[4] The increase in population introduced foreign elements into the villages; some of these people were traders who brought in new cultural and economic influence to the villages.

Harris has pointed out that there can be no growth of a stratified and economically specialized society without the production of food surplus.[5] Surplus, according to Smith, can be classified as “those services and manufactured goods which constitute an amount above the requirements of the producer and the family unit he is responsible for. They are produced on a more regular basis. Eventually they are diverted for the maintenance of people, other than those the producer is responsible for.”[6]

Smith said that there are two ways to produce a surplus:[7] first, is by increasing the number of farmers and other producers. This meant the hiring of common laborers, the increase of the number of children in the household, or the use of slaves.[8] Each worker could farm additional land, or make additional products, creating a larger surplus which could be used to acquire more things. Second, through the intensification of the efficiency of labor, that is, the ratio of production to labor. That was done by the use of developed technology and the use of professionals and specialists.

If the villages were small in size and population, how could the village produce a surplus above subsistence? Childe, in his description of the “Urban Revolution” said that “society persuaded or compelled the farmers to produce a surplus of food over and above their domestic requirements, and by concentrating this surplus, used it to support a new urban population of specialized craftsmen, merchants, priests, officials, and clerks.”[9]

However, in his essay “The Economy Has no Surplus,” Pearson has criticized the theory of  “surplus above subsistence” by saying that there is no minimum requirement of food for an individual or society that can be considered as minimum subsistence, and that no individual will work all his waking hours to produce food to create a surplus to feed people other than his family.[10] In response, Marvin Harris said that “the assumption that all primitive people produce more food above their subsistence level is a biosocial necessity,”[11] that is, the production of an economic surplus is the result of environmental and technological factors, as well as the result of pressures from economic institutions.

Harris described three factors to encourage production of surplus. First, the pressure of population increase results in the expansion of the production of food to feed them; second, extra effort in food production is encouraged everywhere by ideology, that is, the desire to acquire articles of production; third, there is a universal tendency to reward food producers with prestige and power differentials. In view of these factors, it is possible to conclude that the villages in the hill country of Palestine, because of the growth of the population, and the increased changes and demands in the structure of society, began, by necessity, to develop an economic surplus which led the village to engage in trade, most of it regional.[12]


The Israelites did not take to larger commercial ventures until later in their history, for in Israel, foreign trade or big business was a royal monopoly,[13] or was in the hands of foreigners, especially the Phoenicians (a “Canaanite” means a merchant in Job 40:30; Proverbs 31:24; Zechariah 14:21). Private citizens in Israel generally did business only in their own locality. The market place was usually located in the village square or at the gate of the city (2 Kings 7:1) where the farmers from nearby villages brought their crops, where craftsmen sold their wares, and where peasants brought their herds; business in the village economy was on a very small scale.

In spite of the unreliability of the food supply in Canaan, food was the main product of trade within the community, with other villages, and with foreign nations.[14] The food that was not consumed by the villagers was traded for a few indispensable artifacts manufactured by the town artisan. Trade was done in wheat, barley, olives, olive oil, grapes, wines, lentils, dried peas, raisins, dried figs, dates, almonds, and other nuts. Since all villages and towns could not equally produce the necessary fruits and vegetables, their demand varied according to local needs and local conditions.

Livestock was offered by nomads and peasants who owned extensive pastureland. The sale of oxen, sheep, and goats went on extensively; dairy products such as milk, cheese, and butter were sold throughout the year.

Craftsmen supplied the population with needed pottery and textiles. They also sold utensils of metal, such as kettles, tools, and weapons, as well as silver and gold ornaments that were manufactured locally or sold by itinerant merchants. Imported items such as raw materials and fineries were brought by caravans to those who could afford them.[15]


In conclusion, the economy of the village in the hill country of Palestine at the beginning of Iron Age I was alive and prospering, and evidence of it can be found in the books of Judges and Samuel. There is a great need for a detailed study of this vital area; this paper has been an attempt to look at the economy of the village and in brief form describe how it has developed from a basic economy to an economy seeking to meet the needs of its expanding society.

NOTE: For other studies on the Book of Judges, read my post Studies on the Book of Judges.

Claude Mariottini
Emeritus Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary

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[1] I. Gelb, “Approaches to the Study of Ancient Society,” Journal of the American Oriental Society 87 (1967) 6–7; cf. also Mason Hammond, The City in the Ancient World (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1972) 148.

[2] On wage earners, cf. Roland de Vaux, Ancient Israel (New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1965) 76.

[3] Harry M. Orlinsky, Ancient Israel (New York: Cornell University Press, 1954) 61.

[4] One example of a non-producer who depended on a producer for his livelihood was the Levite of Judges 17.

[5] Marvin Harris, “The Economy Has No Surplus?” American Anthropologist 61 (1959) 185.

[6] Jason W. Smith, Foundations of Archaeology (Beverley Hills: Glencoe Press, 1976) 353.

[7] Smith, Foundations of Archaeology, 353.

[8] The use of slaves at this time is difficult to ascertain. I Mendelsohn (“Society and Economic Conditions,” The World History of the Jewish People [Israel: Jewish Historical Society, 1971] 3:44) has said that the basis for the profitable use of slaves was the mining industry and the latifundia, both lacking at this time. He said also that there were big private landowners and petty kings with larger tracts of arable land, but that they preferred the employment of free tenant-farmers and share-croppers to that of slave labor. The reason, he argued, was that the former proved to be safer and cheaper. The same conclusion was reached by Max Weber. Weber said that small farming was dominant in ancient agriculture. He stated that “grain cultivation, given the technology of antiquity, demanded too much individual effort to allow the normal use of slave labor. Indeed, the use of slave labor on a large scale was only profitable in agriculture at times when slaves were cheap and plantation products at the same time commanded high price,” The Agrarian Sociology of Ancient Civilization (London: NLB, 1976) 59.

[9] V. Gordon Childe, What Happened in History (New York: Penguin Books, 1946) 18.

[10] Harry Pearson, “The Economy Has No Surplus,” Trade and Market in the Early Empires (New York: The Free Press) 324.

[11] Harris, “The Economy Has No Surplus,” 193.

[12] Some Philistine pottery has been found in several cities outside of the areas controlled by them. These findings indicate that some form of commerce existed between Israelite villages and Philistine cities, cf. Trude Dothan, “In The Days When the Judges Ruled—Research on the Period of the Settlement and the Judges,” Recent Archaeology in the Land of Israel (Washington, D.C.: Biblical Archaeology Society, 1984) 41.

[13] de Vaux, Ancient Israel, 78.

[14] Ross, “Food,” 306.

[15] G. A. Barrois, “Trade and Commerce,” Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, 4:678.

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2 Responses to The Economic System of the Hill Country of Israel in Iron Age I – Part 3

  1. Good morning Claude, I will have to find out from your son how to ask for my site visitors to leave their email address to receive my blogs. I do use WordPress. Thanks Dale (21105 Buckeye)

    On Mon, Aug 23, 2021 at 7:31 AM Dr. Claude Mariottini – Professor of Old Testament wrote:

    > Claude Mariottini posted: “This post is Part 3 of an academic paper titled > “The Economic System of the Hill Country of Israel in Iron Age I.” This > paper was read during a meeting of the American Schools of Oriental > Research which met on March 12, 1988 in Dallas, Texas. To read t” >


    • Dale,

      If you used WordPress, they have a plugin that allows you do request your readers to subscribe by email. If you have problems, send an email to the customer service people and they will guide you on how to do it.

      Best wishes,

      Claude Mariottini


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