On busybodies and grovellers (aka merchants) in the Hebrew Bible

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.


14 thoughts on “On busybodies and grovellers (aka merchants) in the Hebrew Bible

  1. It’s a flight day today (if the weather holds up for us to get into Dunedin), which makes it hard to concentrate. I feel inbetweeny. If I substitute the words liminal and interstitial I could publish a paper on it in the Journal of Tourism Studies. Nah, inbetweeny would probably do for that.

    Anyway, I was going to ask you after your talk. What about those damn English and their property notions? I mean, they seem to have somewhat avoided the Roman Law fetish that swept through Europe. And “property” rights are not dominium. There are a few more limitations to ‘the bundle of rights’ given the owner, compared to dominium, if I can remember my personal property and land law lectures from two decades ago. If ancient Near Eastern “property” is not modern German “property” (or modern Scottish, to pick another locale of emerging biblical studies and tennis prowess), English “property” is not German or Scottish “property” either, is it. And the influence of slavery conceptions on “property” in England would be different, perhaps not so important. So – what’s the English genealogy? It’s not via dominium.

    1. Absolute private property (allodial) is of course a legal fiction, but here we probably need to distinguish between my wok and my English piece of land (held under fee simple). Of course, in the ancient Near East, the question ‘Was there private property?’ is simply the wrong question to ask. The key was usufruct and labour.

      And slavery ‘not so important’ in that tiny island off the small peninsula on the western end of the Eurasian land mass?

      1. Well, “property” got defined well before England got onto the slave trade. Feudalism might be relevant, though.

        English property law doesn’t have the fiction of absolute private property that you get in Roman law, though, from memory. Property rights are, rather, the maximum bundle of rights you can have as against other people (not rights in a thing) in respect of a certain thing. English law always recognises that this bundle of rights isn’t absolute – you can’t commit a nuisance against your neighbour for example because you never got that right. From memory.

        And when you start talking about a bundle of rights between people (English property), subject ultimately to the monarchy, it doesn’t sound fundamentally different from certain types of usufruct, does it? So “property” for the both of em. I’ll side with the Formalists instead of the Primitivists.

      2. Good ol’ English exceptionalism. A pity you have to tie yourself to the formalist-substantivist opposition – it was Polanyi’s genius to set the terms within which his wayward positions would be argued. A bit like liberal democracy, I guess.

      3. Your ancient Near Eastern exceptionalism is showing again! The aNE had “property” like everybody else. Only the rules of the property game were different. Property is a universal.

      4. It’s good to make a distinction as to the precise relations and rights between people which obtain in any given society in respect of “things”. And those relations and rights are fundamentally different between ancient Judea and a Roman Law-based jurisdiction such as the modern Netherlands. And different again between a non-Roman Law-based jurisdiction such as England and say Scotland or Germany. All of these differences need to be taken notice of when we make any comparison of rights and relations between people over things.

        But every society makes rules about the rights of its members to deal with things. It is a universal or near universal, as the anthropologists say. Now, a philologically minded person like you might make a song and dance about using the word “property”, given its genealogy from dominium within Roman Law jurisdictions (most of Europe, but not the genealogy in England). The etymology of words, however, need not bind us. Sure, there are distinctions to be made, but there are also comparisons. Rather than make the philologist’s point about “dominium” or “property”, what’s really interesting are the particular substantial differences in how ancient Judea organised its rights and relations between people concerning things. These are certainly different from those in modern Europe. And they are different again from those in England.

      5. Everything you say is absolutely correct, with one small exception: it is the wrong question to ask, since it would not make sense – ‘rights and relations between people concerning things’.

        In fact, your argument is highly reminiscent of John Locke’s contortions in his treatment of property. He begins with Genesis, for ‘The Bible is one of the greatest blessings bestowed by God on the children of men.- It has God for its author; salvation for its end, and truth without any mixture for its matter.- It is all pure’.

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