Mosaic Silver Standard

The Law of Moses makes numerous references to the silver shekel as means of payment. The twenty-seventh chapter of Leviticus describes monetary substitutes that could free a person dedicated to the service of the Lord. It reads:

The Lord said to Moses, Say to the people of Israel, When a man makes a special vow of persons to the Lord at your valuation, then your valuation of a male from twenty years old up to sixty years old shall be fifty shekels of silver, according to the shekel of the sanctuary. If the person is a female, your valuation shall be thirty shekels. If the person is from five years old up to twenty years old, your valuation shall be for a male twenty shekels, and for a female ten shekels. If the person is from a month old up to five years old, your valuation shall be for a male five shekels of silver, and for a female your valuation shall be three shekels. And if the person is sixty years old and upward, then your valuation for a male shall be fifteen shekels, and for a female ten shekels…. If a man dedicates to the Lord part of the land which is his by inheritance, then your valuation shall be according to the seed for it; a sowing of a homer of barley shall be valued at fifty shekels of silver.

Later in the Book of Leviticus guilt offerings were also defined in shekels of silver.

Although the Ancient Hebrews held gold in high esteem for religious purposes, they did not use it as a type of money. The book of Leviticus gives detailed accounts of the use of gold for religious ornamentation, describing altars overlaid with gold, and a plate of pure gold fastened on Aaron’s turban, engraved with the words “Holy to the Lord.”

Silver probably replaced livestock as a form of money among the early Hebrews. The ancient Hebraic word for “lamb,” kesitah, appears in the Old Testament in contexts that indicate it was a monetary unit. The kesitah was probably a weight of silver equivalent to the price of a lamb, though it could have been a coin bearing the image of a sheep. The latter is an unlikely possibility because the Hebrews adopted coinage relatively late. The ancient Hebraic word for “livestock,” mikhne, also meant “purchase,” lending more credence to the theory that the early Hebrews had a sheep or lamb standard.

The Old Testament throws some light on the religious aspect of the origin of money. Before governments replaced tribes as the principal source of authority, religious authorities were the most able to sanction a commodity as a medium of exchange.