“Bekahs, Shekels, and Talents: A Look at Biblical References to Money,” Ensign, Aug. 1987, 30–34
Most of us know that Solomon was rich. We’ve probably imagined an opulent palace with golden goblets. Actually, we don’t need to imagine how rich he was—the Bible tells us specifically. For instance, we know that his annual revenue included 666 talents of gold. (1 Kgs. 10:14.)
That may not mean much to us, though, since most of us don’t know how much a talent would be in today’s monetary systems. So, how rich was Solomon, really?
The answer comes from what we learn about the shekel and the talent. Since the Jews did not begin using coinage until the Exile (the time of Daniel and Ezekiel), business transactions before then were done by bartering or by paying a predetermined weight of a precious metal, usually silver. Three of the most common weights were the half-shekel (or bekah), shekel, and talent—the largest standard. (The smallest was the gerah, identified in Exodus 30:13 as 1/20 of a shekel. It is rarely mentioned in the Bible.) From Exodus 38:25–26, we can figure the relationship of a shekel to a talent: 3000 shekels to one talent.1
The Hebrew bekah weighs approximately 6.02 grams, and the shekel 11.4 grams.2 Excavators have uncovered numerous ancient stone weights, but none of the shekel or half-shekel stones weigh precisely the same, probably due to the difficulty of carving stones into exactly the same weight. The talent, then, if we take the average weight of a shekel at 11.4 grams, amounts to about 75.5 pounds.3 (See first chart, “Old Testament Weights of Exchange.”) In one recent market citation, an ounce of gold (troy weight) was valued at $393, so 666 talents of gold would be worth almost $287,800,000, a very great sum even by our standards.4
Silver, however, was much more common than gold, and most of the biblical passages about money refer to silver. In fact, where no metal is mentioned, silver is usually intended.5 In the same market citation mentioned above, silver was valued at $5.42 a troy ounce, so a bekah of silver would currently be worth almost $1.05, a shekel $1.99, and a talent close to $6,000.
In the Israelite society, however, precious metal was worth more than it is now.6 The Old Testament gives us a clear idea of the purchasing power of ancient money. Jeremiah bought a field from Hanameel for 17 shekels of silver (Jer. 32:9)—in our currency, about $34.00. Solomon could import a horse from the Hittites for 150 shekels (about $298) and a chariot from Egypt for 600 shekels (about $1,192). (2 Chr. 1:17.) King Omri paid 2 talents (about $12,000) for the entire hill of Samaria, on which he built the capital of northern Israel. (1 Kgs. 16:24.)
The bekah was important because it was the atonement money for the service of the tabernacle. When the Israelites were numbered, everyone who was twenty years or older had to give a half-shekel of silver as a ransom for one’s soul. If they paid the tax faithfully, the Lord promised that there would be no plague among them. (Ex. 30:12–14.)
Since weights varied from locale to locale, and since balances showed an inaccuracy up to 6 percent, prophets throughout the Bible advocated using just weights and balances and warned against using deceitful ones. (Deut. 25:13–15; Prov. 11:1; Micah 6:10–11.) To check local weights, travelers carried their own sets and compared theirs with those of local merchants. This is what Abraham did when he bought a field from Ephron for 400 shekels of silver (about $795), weighing the amount against the “current money with the merchant.” (Gen. 23:16.)7
The most telling story in the Old Testament involving money concerns the prophet Elisha, his servant Gehazi, and the Syrian general Naaman. (See 2 Kgs. 5.) Naaman was an honorable man but a leper. He heard from a captive Israelite maid that there was a prophet in Israel who could cure him of his leprosy. Naaman left for Israel with ten talents of silver, six thousand pieces of gold (probably small pieces of various weight), ten changes of raiment, and a letter from the Syrian king for the Israelite king.
Elisha instructed Naaman to bathe seven times in the Jordan River. Naaman was at first upset at the request to bathe in the Israelite river, but then complied, and “his flesh came again like unto the flesh of a little child.” (2 Kgs. 5:14.)
The general returned to Elisha and urged him to take his gifts, but Elisha refused. Naaman then promised to worship only God and departed.
Gehazi, however, ran after Naaman, planning to “take somewhat of him.” (2 Kgs. 5:20.) That “somewhat” was one talent, which he falsely claimed was needed by two others who had just come to Elisha. Naaman generously gave him two talents, binding the silver in two bags.
When Gehazi returned to Elisha after he had hidden the silver, Elisha asked him where he had been. Gehazi lied again, saying he had been nowhere.
Elisha knew what had happened. Describing what Gehazi had hoped to buy, Elisha chastized, “Is it a time to receive money, and to receive garments, and oliveyards, and vineyards, and sheep, and oxen, and menservants, and maidservants?” (2 Kgs 5:26.) The prophet then said that the leprosy of Naaman would cleave to Gehazi.
Ironically, the story involves a pagan who, because of a prophet’s refusal to accept any reward for what God had done, accepts the God of Israel, and an Israelite who, because of unbridled greed, betrays that God. The talent of silver measures Gehazi’s covetousness and lies. His was no mere hankering after a reward for the curing of leprosy—it was a craving to become financially well-established.
By the time of Christ, the money used in Palestine had become quite confusing. Alexander the Great had made the Greek system of silver coinage standard, and the drachma was the basic coin. The Phoenician city-states, particularly Tyre, also coined their own money. Rome had established its own system, too, and the Roman denarius, translated “penny” in the King James Version and equal to a drachma, is the most commonly mentioned coin in the New Testament. The Jews had coins they could use in the temple, and Persian and Egyptian money could still be found.8 (See second chart, “New Testament Coinage.”)
The temple money had to be Jewish. Roman coins had heathen figures—graven images and false gods—and propaganda stamped on them that were especially hateful to the Jews. Christ referred to one of these Roman coins, a denarius, with the graven image of Caesar, probably Tiberius, stamped on it, to answer the Pharisees and Herodians who asked him if it were lawful to pay tribute. He showed them the coin and replied:
By the New Testament period, the temple tax (atonement money) was paid yearly. Since the Jews did not have enough of their own coins to cover their needs, they accepted coins minted in Tyre. The Jews determined that the Tyrian didrachma was equal to a half-shekel. It was not a common coin, however, so the stater (two-didrachma coin) was often used to pay the temple tax for two people together. (See italicized terms in second chart, “New Testament Coinage.”) The “piece of money” that the Lord said Peter would find in a fish’s mouth to pay that tax (Matt. 17:24–27) is actually a translation of the Greek word stater.10
With the temple tax, free-will offerings, and animal sacrifices to make, yet with coins that could not be brought into the temple proper, righteous Jews faced a problem. Thus, a lucrative business arose on the temple grounds. Money changers charged a fee of one kollybos, a small Greek coin, for changing money into the acceptable half-shekel of the sanctuary, while cattle, sheep, and bird dealers sold animals for sacrifice.11
The noise and the greed were incompatible with the temple, and twice the Lord swept over the money tables and drove the dealers and their animals out. The first time he declared, “Take these things hence; make not my Father’s house an house of merchandise;” and the second time, “My house shall be called the house of prayer; but ye have made it a den of thieves.” (John 2:13–16; Matt. 21:12–13.)
The high priests’ coffers, filled from the profits of the temple businesses and the atonement money, may have provided the thirty pieces of silver (thirty Phoenician staters, equivalent to thirty shekels [about $81]) that Judas received to betray the Lord. (Matt. 27:3–5.) The amount had been foretold in Zechariah 11:12 and was the price for an ordinary slave.12
The people who worshipped at the temple, though, should not be equated with the money changers and priests who profited from the temple businesses. Mark 12:41–44 records one instance when the Lord was watching those who cast their free-will offerings into the treasury. Many cast in much, but Jesus noticed a widow casting in two leptons—“mites” as the King James Version appropriately calls them. The lepton was a tiny Hebrew bronze coin equivalent to 1/128th of a denarius (about half a cent). Two were not even enough to feed oneself a simple meal.13
Yet the Savior used the woman to illustrate one cardinal rule in the use of money: “This poor widow hath cast more in, than all they which have cast into the treasury:
“For all they did cast in of their abundance; but she of her want did cast in all that she had, even all her living.” (Mark 12:43–44.)
Not all money was minted as coins, though. In the New Testament period, the talent was a sum of money, not a coin; whereas in the Old Testament it was strictly a unit of weight. The New Testament talent was the equivalent of 6000 denarii. A denarius was a silver coin weighing 60 grains.14 At $5.42 an ounce, the silver in one denarius would be worth almost 68¢ today. Thus, a talent would come to slightly under $4,080.
Such a figure, however, does not reflect ancient values. Like the Old Testament, the New Testament gives us a clear idea of people’s earning power and of the coins’ buying power. In Mark 6:37, for example, the Apostles estimated that they would need 200 denarii ($136 in today’s money) to buy enough bread to feed 5,000 people. In other words, one denarius would buy enough bread to feed twenty-five people.
Most important, a denarius was a hired laborer’s wage for a day’s work.15 (Matt. 20:2.) On that basis, a laborer would have to work for 6000 days to earn one talent. In the United States today, 6000 eight-hour workdays at even a minimum wage ($3.35) would be worth $160,800!
Most people don’t realize how much wealth the lord in the parable of the talents (Matt. 25:14–30) entrusted to his three servants. The lord, because he was traveling to a far country, divided his property. One servant received five talents; another, two talents; and another, one talent.
The servant who received one talent received a sum equal to over nineteen years’ worth of work (assuming six workdays a week)—more than enough to do business with. The servant who received five talents received more than he could possibly earn in a lifetime by himself.
Two of the servants put their talents to good use, doubling them in trade. One servant, however, buried his—a great waste, though not surprising since he was following what many others did with money they weren’t using. This action was not unusual, as there were no banks in Palestine, except for the temple, which had a treasury and was used for money-changing. A person leaving on a trip could safeguard his money by burying it or leaving it with a trusted friend, both common practices.16 The parable of the treasure hid in the field reflects the occasional result of such an action, in which the owner of buried money may have forgotten where he hid it or may have died without disclosing its whereabouts. (Matt. 13:44.)
When the lord returned, he rewarded the profitable servants but cast the “unprofitable servant into outer darkness,” saying, “Thou oughtest therefore to have put my money to the exchangers, and then at my coming I should have received mine own with usury.” (Matt. 25:27, 30.)
Usury, or interest, was forbidden by the Mosaic law in loans between Jews but allowed in loans to foreigners. (Deut. 23:19–20.) By New Testament times, however, the society was complex enough to require large commercial investments, and business loans and credit had become commonplace. The rate of interest was high, some authorities estimating from 12 to 20 percent.17
The lord was justifiably angry that his servant would waste so much potential. We assume that the lord himself, if he had not gone on the journey, would have continued investing his money. Even at the lowest rate of return, he would have earned a substantial sum.
Most often we speak figuratively of the talents in the parable. In fact, the meaning of natural skill or ability for the word talent is derived from the parable.18 Along those lines, many Church members jokingly refer to themselves as “one-talent” people. We ought to realize that God the Father, who is generous to all his children, has given even the least—“the one-talent person”—a great abundance. “The one-talent man can speak, vote, work, and pray. In reality he is many-talented, and the ongoing of the kingdom depends on him.”19
In the parable of the debtors (Matt. 18:23–35), the king demanded that his accounts be settled, and one servant—The Interpreter’s Bible suggests satrap, which is a provincial governor20—was brought before him. The servant owed the king 10,000 talents, an astronomical figure. George Buttrick writes that “the total annual taxes of Judea, Idumea, Samaria, Galilee and Perea amounted to only eight hundred talents.”21
The king commanded that the servant, his wife and children, and his property be sold for payment. Debt was a serious matter in ancient Israel, and people could be sold into slavery to pay it. (2 Kgs. 4:1; Neh. 5:4–5.) Even at the cost of himself, his family, and all that he owned, he could not repay more than a small fraction of the sum. The servant pleaded with the king, who had mercy and forgave him the entire debt.
The servant, however, found a man who owed him 100 denarii (about $68), a substantial but not unreasonable debt, and demanded payment. When the second debtor could not pay, the first debtor cast him into prison. This was reported to the king, who thereupon delivered the servant to the tormentors until he could pay what was due, saying:
“Shouldest not thou also have had compassion on thy fellow-servant, even as I had pity on thee?” (Matt. 18:33.)
The difference between the two sums is six million to one. One was payable, the other was not. The parable was the second answer to Peter’s question, “How oft shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him,” the first answer being, “Until seventy times seven.” (Matt. 18:21–22.)
Jesus had pointedly compared the parable to the kingdom of heaven, then ended the parable by saying:
“So likewise shall my heavenly Father do also unto you, if ye from your hearts forgive not every one his brother their trespasses.” (Matt. 18:35.)
First, there is the fact of our indebtedness to God, a debt so great we could never conceivably repay it. (See Mosiah 2:21.) Second, there is the fact that God freely forgives us, if we forgive others. We must be careful that the minuscule debts others may owe us do not prevent us from being forgiven our enormous debts of sin.
The scriptures are filled with people like those Paul describes: “For the love of money is the root of all evil: which while some coveted after, they have erred from the faith, and pierced themselves through with many sorrows.” (1 Tim. 6:10.)
Yet many men have also been rich and righteous, having money but not loving it, using money but not for themselves. Abraham had great wealth, as did Joseph of Egypt. (Gen. 13:2, 5–6; Gen. 45:9–11.) The scriptures record the names of two men of wealth who were concerned about the proper care of the body of Jesus after he was crucified: Joseph of Arimathaea, who begged the body of Jesus from Pilate, wrapped it in clean linen cloth, and put it in his own tomb; and Nicodemus, who provided the spices for proper burial and helped Joseph bury the body. (Matt. 27:57–60, John 19:38–40.)
There was Barnabus the Levite, who, “having land, sold it, and brought the money, and laid it at the apostles’ feet.” (Acts 4:36–37.) Perhaps the best example of one who had money and was despised for it, who nevertheless left a rich legacy for all believers in Christ, was Matthew the Apostle, a tax collector, who has given us more stories and insights about the good and evil uses of money than any other Bible writer.
.5 gram (.018 oz.)1
10 gerah = 1 bekah
6 grams (.21 oz.)1
2 bekahs = 1 shekel2
11.4 grams (.40 oz.)1
50 shekels = 1 mina (pre-exilic)
60 shekels = 1 mina (post-exilic)
60 minas = 1 talent
34.2 kg. (75.5 lbs.)3
1 lepton (“mite”)1
1 quadrans (“farthing”)
2 leptons (sum, not a coin)2
1 as (“farthing”) =
1 dupondius = 2 asses
1 sestertius = 2 dupondii
1 drachma (“piece of silver”)
1 denarius (“penny”) =
1 didrachma = 2 drachmas
2 denarii (sum, not a coin)
1 stater or tetradrachma (“piece of money/silver”) =
1 aureus = 25 denarii
1 mina (“pound”—sum, not a coin) = 25 staters
1 talenton (“talent”—sum, not a coin) = 60 minas
240 aurei (sum, not a coin)