The Rise and Fall of World Commerce
Part 1c—At the Root of Money Worries
CERTAIN religious and political elements of human society are traceable to the days of Nimrod, who thousands of years ago founded Babylon. This is also true, although perhaps less well known, of certain elements in the world of business and commerce.—Genesis 10:8-12.
Mankind’s Creator, the One who rightly determines standards for good and bad, could easily have devised an economic system capable of equitably providing for the needs of the large human family he envisaged. But once the first couple rejected divine direction and were expelled from Paradise, humans were on their own. (Genesis 3:1-24) Independently of divine guidance, men subsequently developed their own brand of religion and their own kind of government. And as soon as it became apparent that some system of household management was necessary to provide the material needs for their expanding family, they set about developing what we call an economic system. This they likewise did independently of divine guidance.
Apparently by Nimrod’s time (c. 2270 B.C.E.), the basis for such a system was largely in place. The Collins Atlas of World History explains that “from the third millennium onwards Mesopotamia [Babylon] developed powerful corporations of businessmen. They stocked goods, speculated, used various types of goods as currency, and used ingots, especially of silver, carved into particular weights and sizes and sometimes bearing authentication marks.” The Encyclopedia Americana says that the ancient inhabitants of Shinar—the original name for what was later called Babylonia—carried on “a surprisingly complex system of lending, borrowing, holding money on deposit, and providing letters of credit.”
A practice evidently peculiar to Mesopotamia was that of using capital as a commodity and charging interest for its use. Thus, money became a means of exerting economic pressure. Records unearthed in Babylonian ruins reveal business transactions that exploited the unfortunate circumstances of some of its citizens. Even then, the modern practice of unjustly profiting at the expense of others was in vogue. No wonder the merchants of Babylon and Nineveh were often spoken of with hatred and contempt.
Commercial activities in Nimrod’s day are not directly referred to in the Bible. Yet, expressions found in its first book, such as “to buy,” “to sell,” and “carry on business,” indicate that at least a few hundred years later, commercial activities were commonplace.—See Genesis 25:31; 34:10, 21; 39:1; 41:56, 57.
It is also true that for a prolonged period of time, cuneiform texts are silent with respect to commercial activities in Babylonian society. Admitting that this is difficult to explain, the book Ancient Mesopotamia nevertheless concludes that “one cannot assume that trade relations ceased through that millennium, especially since they are known to have flourished greatly in the subsequent period.” This work suggests that at that time trade may have rested mainly in Aramaic hands and that papyrus and leather were used as writing materials.
Both Mesopotamia and Egypt were noted for their caravan trade. Later, to a great extent, the Phoenicians replaced land trade with commerce by sea routes. The ports of Carthage, Tyre, and Sidon became noted commercial centers. Trade was done on the basis of exchanging goods for goods until about the eighth century B.C.E., when the Greeks began using coined money as a medium of exchange. And according to The Collins Atlas of World History, “the centuries that followed [500 B.C.E.] were so marked by the development of trade, money, banks, transport, that several historians have compared them to the capitalist era, an understandable if exaggerated opinion.”
Actually, from early on, economic systems have been based on money. Whereas its proper use is allowed by God, its improper use is not. (Ecclesiastes 7:12; Luke 16:1-9) An inordinate desire to possess money has caused people to pervert justice, to betray friends, to falsify truth, and even to commit murder. Note, however, that this is not the fault of money itself but of the greedy viewpoint of people who seek it. At any rate, it is hardly an exaggeration to say that ‘money is what makes the world go round,’ or that it has been doing so in a variety of forms for thousands of years.—See box, page 7.
Thus, during pre-Christian centuries a basis was laid for many of the commercial and economic features with which we are today familiar. But despite its long history, the world of commerce has been unable to develop foolproof economic systems capable of preventing anxieties. Still we need not despair. An end to money worries is in sight. In our next five issues, we will explain further.
[Blurb on page 8]
An inordinate desire for money has caused people to pervert justice, to betray friends, to falsify truth, and to commit murder
[Box/Picture on page 7]
From Salt to Plastic
Salt rations were served to Roman soldiers, but these rations were later replaced by money, or salarium. Cattle (pecus) were a medium of exchange in ancient Rome. From these Latin words, the terms “salary” and “pecuniary” are derived.
In ancient Mesopotamia (18th to 16th century B.C.E.), silver was regularly used in business transactions. In ancient Egypt, copper, silver, and gold were used. During China’s Ming dynasty (1368-1644 C.E.), writes professor of Chinese history Hans Bielenstein, “copper remained the standard for lower denominations [of money], while silver increasingly came into use for the higher ones.”
Disks of standard weight and value, made of a natural alloy of gold and silver known as electrum, were produced by the Lydians of Anatolia during the seventh century B.C.E. and were probably the first real coins; about a century later, the minting of coins developed in Greece.
The world’s first paper currency appeared in 1024 in China, when unprecedented commercial expansion led to a coin shortage. Says Professor Bielenstein: “Experiments with so-called Flying Cash had been made as early as 811, in T’ang times. The government had then issued money drafts which could be used in transactions and eventually exchanged for cash.” Starting with England in 1821, many nations adopted the gold standard, meaning that citizens could at any time convert paper money into the actual gold held in reserve by their governments. Since going off the gold standard, however, governments today simply declare their money to be of value, without having anything tangible to back it up.
Developed by English bankers during the 17th century, checks are written orders for the payment of money through a bank; this method of business, being both safe and convenient, has become very popular and widespread.
Credit cards, called plastic money by some, were introduced in the United States in the 1920’s and soon caught the fancy of people all over the world. The convenience and other advantages they offer are partially offset, however, by the dangers of impulse buying and of living beyond one’s means.