As part of my Sacred Economy project, I have been exploring the spate of studies (notably since 1989) of the ancient Near East that creatively imagine entrepreneurial farmers producing specialised surpluses, which would then be traded for profit in a ‘global market economy’. One even suggests that it was ‘partly capitalist’. Plenty of guffaws of incredulity as I read. But I have also had immense pleasure in tracing some of the terms in the Hebrew Bible usually translated as ‘merchant’ and ‘trader’.
Both sohar and rokel appear as ‘merchant’. But the root of sohar means to travel or scurry around and about, bearing largely the same sense as rokel, the participle of rkl. The basic meaning is then one who bustles about, going to and fro, a middle-man who acquires the exotic goods desired by the politically powerful and wealthy. However, given the marginal status of such operators, indeed the disdain in the prophetic literature, I would suggest that ‘busybody’ captures best the nuances of sohar and rokel. If we add another term translated as ‘merchant’ or ‘trader’ – Kena’an or, as it is more commonly known, Canaan – then the full disdain becomes apparent. The semantic field of this word has the basic sense of becoming low, or lowly (knn), then folding out to include both Canaanite and ‘merchant’ (Isa. 23:8; Ezek. 17:4; Hosea 12:8 [ET 7]; Zeph. 1:11; Zech. 14:21). In this case, ‘foreign groveller’ captures the sense best. He is an outsider engaged in the despicable business of acquiring exotic items for the ruling class.
So rather than ‘merchant’ and ‘trader’, as is so often found, we should read ‘busybody’ and ‘groveller’. Comparable terms in our time would be used car salesman or real estate agent.