BiblicalTraining's mission is to lead disciples toward spiritual growth through deep biblical understanding and practice. We offer a comprehensive education covering all the basic fields of biblical and theological content at different academic levels.
Read More

Occupations, Trades and Professions in Palestine

See also Occupations, Trades and Professions (Palestine)


Many Bible readers think of ancient Pal. as a backward country and in no way comparable to Greece. Actually Greece was the backward country in the early days. It was the Near E that was the center of civilization and Pal. is on the one trade road that united Africa (Egypt) and Asia (Babylonia and Assyria). The oldest city that has been excavated to date is OT Jericho which goes back to c. 7000 b.c. by Carbon 14 dating. That is over 5000 years before Abraham walked across the pages of Pal. When he did, he was a big businesman whose commercial empire extended from Haran to Egypt, i.e. from modern Turkey to Egypt. His major banking was done at Damascus. His farming and grazing interests were only a secondary factor to feed the great donkey caravans which carried his consumer and luxury goods.

The Pal. of Bible days is like the USA in that both have primitive people and cultured citizens and everything in between. Both have had depression periods; Israel, in the days of the Judges, and in the USA in our own memories. David, on the other hand, was a world figure in war and business. He dominated everything between Turkey and Egypt. Solomon and Alexander the Great made such cultural impressions on their own times that even today any construction work, etc. which is too difficult to understand is attributed to one or the other. By the time of Isaiah Israel was in the manufacturing age with assembly line techniques and one-industry cities. The following data is only an introduction to Pal. life as seen in the Bible.


The handling of food


The most precious commodity in Pal. is water, for water is the first essential food. Palestine gets her moisture in the form of dew or rain. The dew of Pal. is a major factor in her summer crops but is of little value to the thirsty man. The rain comes to him not only directly in showers and storms but in the mass production forms of springs, streams, rivers, lakes and pools. The latter are a major life-giving factor in desert areas.

Then come the man-made techniques for handling drinking water. The first of these was the well. This was esp. valuable in the grazing areas when the pools went dry. In the city the cistern was a valuable collecting basin for rain. Palestine has plenty of rain in three-fourths of its area, but this rain is concentrated in a few months and must be stored in the city for use during the long dry season. The cistern did not come into use until the invention of waterproof plaster about the time of Joshua’s conquest. Its invention made possible the use of much Pal. land which was short on springs that ran all the year through. The cistern also was used by the shepherds in the driest parts of their grazing areas.

An earlier technique than the cistern was a city’s “water works.” Here the people tunneled from within the city down to the underground water supply. Thus they always had water unless long droughts lowered their water table. Jerusalem, Gezer, Gibeon, and Megiddo had very costly water works. The one built by Hezekiah in Jerusalem in 701 b.c. is still in use today. The building of such a system called for the following professions: First, there were engineers to survey the route and keep the water level the same. The latter was difficult since this tunnel was dug from both ends. The two teams of diggers met in the center of the tunnel and chiseled an inscr. of this meeting. Second, miners cut the rock and others removed the rock in baskets. Third, a ventilation system was necessary because of the length of the tunnel and men needed to keep fresh air going to the miners. Fourth, lamps were used in the work and potters made them. Other professions may also have been employed. The well digger and the cisternmaker represented two other trades already mentioned. Herod the Great introduced the Rom. aqueduct. Large pools also collected the winter rains.

Regardless of where the water was, someone had to bring it to the tent or house where it was used. The water usually was dipped up with a pottery dipper or a broken section of a large jar or by a gourd. It was poured into pottery water jars, which the women or girls carried on their heads; or the water went into goatskin water bags which were carried on the backs by men, women and children.

Water served three other major purposes—fishing, irrigation and manufacturing, and these uses came in that order historically. These uses will be treated later. Mineral springs were health resorts.

Food from the forest.

Historically, the food from the forest came first; a part of the food of Pal. always came from its forest area which in OT times was much larger than formerly thought. This represented esp. the phase of food gathering—food for both man and beast—and could be done by all members of the family. Fruits and berries, salad-flowers, leaves and herbs could be eaten at once or some of them dried for later use. The flat housetop commonly was used as a drying shed. Nuts were esp. valuable because of their fat content and because they could furnish a winter food. The securing of sufficient winter food was always a problem. Almonds and pine nuts were the most common nuts used by people. For animals the carob bean or husks (St. John’s bread) and acorns were gathered. Medicine also came from forest and field as leaves, flowers, barks and roots.

Most of the wild animals and birds were kosher. The deer family and its relatives were always choice meat. The hunter and the fowler could be professionals, or any person could try his luck. Palestine had a great bird population because it was on a migratory flight route over land with plenty of good resting places. Note the great number of quail in the wilderness episode (Exod 16:13; Num 11:31, 32). Birds were usually caught in nets or traps, or killed with arrow or slingshot. Someone had to keep down the predatory animals as the leopard and the lion, bear and wolf. The jackal and hyena had to be kept from the flocks. Poisonous snakes were a problem.

The forest gave the eater the fuel for his cooking—wood, charcoal or thornbush. For the city population there were men who spent their lives as haulers of wood. The making of charcoal was an important profession. In the summertime many of the sheep went up into the timber for grazing. If there was no grass, the shepherd knocked off the leaves of trees for the sheep. That was a major use of the staff he carried. (The goats climbed the trees to help themselves.)

Food from grazing lands.

The main food items were the sheep and goat, and they were of equal value. Small flocks were taken out from the town each day by young boys (remember David), and then brought home for the night. The real shepherd was the man who made a profession of it (as did Amos). The tools he used will be discussed later. The gazelle was the wild animal of this area useful for food. After the heavy fall rains the natural salad plants for food covered the whole area of the grazing lands. Thornbush for cooking came largely from these lands. Acacia leaves were camel feed.

Food from farm lands.

There was rain farming, dry farming, and irrigation farming. Scholars still argue as to whether rain farming or irrigation should have the priority. Irrigation farming produced the heaviest crops in the grains, vegetables and fruits; but this type of farming was usually only at the deltas made by the mountain streams. Dry farming came in about Abraham’s time and much of his real estate holdings were in this type of farm land, where perhaps two crops in three years were par.

Rain farming had a diversity of crops but the grains, wheat and barley were the major ones. Barley will grow on poorer soil than wheat; and if the fall rains are very late, only barley will mature early enough to harvest. Barley was for the poor man; wheat for the rich. The Philistines also used barley for their beer. Durra was the summer grain crop. Other crops were lentils, beans of several varieties, fitches and chick peas. Sesame seed was a major source of cooking oil. Flax was an excellent cash crop for it was made into linen, the most expensive OT cloth. Gourds had various usages.

Among the vegetables, leeks, onions and garlic were favorites (Num 11:5). Their melons and cucumbers were famous. Spices played a big part in their cooking, for it was the only way the common man could have much variety in his cooking. Among native spices were anise, bay leaves, coriander, cumin, dill, mint, mustard, rue, and saffron; imported spices were cassia, cinnamon and cloves.

An oriental garden was primarily fruit trees. Beside the common fruits, there were the dates, olives, mulberries, figs, and pomegranates. The date, the olive, and the fig were esp. valuable as they were year-round food; the olive furnished cooking oil for the rich. The vine was in a class by itself and Pal. had a great variety of grapes. As fresh grapes, they were food and drink for approximately one-third of the year; dried as raisins they were year-round food. Grapes were made into wine, vinegar and dibs. The last mentioned was a sweet syrup similar to maple syrup. Honey was a major food product because it took the place of sugar. It was found in the forest as wild honey; it was also cultivated by the farmers who had pottery bee hives which they moved from one part of the country to another at the various flowering seasons. Flowers also furnished Pal. its perfumes; rose, jasmine and other flowers were also used in drinks.

Professions relating to food production and sale.

The farmer may have specialized in any one of the various phases of farming mentioned above; or he may have had a hand in several of these at the same time, esp. if his farm was small. The grain farmer had considerable free time for other employment during the year. His major seasons were fall planting, spring harvesting, and some summer threshing. His farm animals were donkeys and cattle; horses were for the army.

The grain farmer needed tools. Some of these he might make himself but he could always buy them. In the city he found the “carpenter,” i.e. the woodworker making plows, threshing sledges, pitch forks, and hay wagons. He could also make the most common sickle which was a wooden one set with flint teeth held in place by bitumen. The latter two items represent workmen in two other trades. When iron became cheap enough (after David’s time) the farmer could buy an iron sickle and an iron ox goad. The farmer also needed a cloth or leather bag in which to hold his seed as he cast it on the ground. He carried drinking water to the field in a pottery jar or goatskin water bag. When his grain was threshed he needed a wooden shovel to pitch the crushed grain and straw into the wind to winnow it. The grain passed through a sieve before being used for bread. The grain was transported in cloth bags or wicker baskets, on the backs of people, donkeys and camels. They stored grain in bags, pottery bins or jars. The tibin or crushed straw needed the same transport, but much larger containers. Tibin was the food for the animals; straw was used to stuff mattresses. If the farmer had large crops he built underground silos. At least seven other professions beside farming were involved.

The farmer, who worked a vineyard needed hoes, shovels and pruning hooks. Up to David’s time the metal used was copper; after that, iron. The poor man used wood tools where possible. Sulphur might be used if grapes had disease. Grapes were carried in woven reed baskets. A stone mason had to cut a wine vat for the making of wine, which was stored in leather wineskins or pottery jars. Dibs was made in a pottery or copper cooking vessel. The orchard man needed the pruning hook, the hoe, the saw, and baskets to carry his fruit. He depended on bees to pollinate his blossoms and necessarily that meant pottery bee hives. Animals used on the farm were primarily cattle and donkeys. The camel was used for the heavy transport of grain and tibin to market.

The trees on a farm might be the property of someone beside the land owner who farmed the ground. A third party might have the grazing rights to the land after the grain was harvested.

The grower of olives needed pottery jars for the storage of his olives whether he preserved them in brine or olive oil. For the making of olive oil he had several possible methods. He could crush them in a great stone vat and then secure the best oil by letting it rise to the surface when water was added. Usually a circular basin was cut in the rock and a great stone wheel was turned by a wooden bar in its center and rolled over the olives which spread over the circular basin. Pottery jars stored and transported the oil.

For short hauls of this produce to market the farmer could carry it on his back (at least twice as much weight as an average American would carry). Or he would use a donkey, if he had one. For long, heavy hauls the camel was more efficient; but the camel did not come into common use until about David’s time.

Animals as food and animal by-products.

Sheep and goats, esp. their young, i.e. lambs and kids, were the common animal food that man had cultivated to his use. Cattle provided food only for the rich. Indeed, a poor farmer seldom had a lamb or kid to eat, except on special occasions as weddings or visits to the Temple. Although some of the sheep and goats were raised by farmers and grazed near the village, most often they were looked after by professional shepherds. These men were hardy souls and needed little equipment they could not make themselves. They would, however, buy a leather water skin for their drinking water and a leather bag to hold their food, esp. bread, cheese and dates. If fortunate, they would have leather sandals and a cloth robe to serve as a blanket.

Animal products such as milk (usually sheep and goat), butter, cheese and leban were more common than meat as the former were continuing products. The pig and the camel were forbidden meats to the Jew in the OT, but pork was a favorite with Greeks and Romans; in the NT dispensation they were legitimate food. All kosher laws disappeared after Peter’s vision and Paul’s missionary work.

Birds raised for meat were rare. The most common were the pigeon, the dove and the chicken. The latter, however, did not get into common use before intertestamental times. Eggs too were then on the food market. Feathers were a by-product used in pillows.

If one lived near the ocean, the Sea of Galilee or a major stream, fish was a food item (see Kosher list on fish). In NT times the salting of fish was a major industry on the Sea of Galilee which gave its name to one of the major cities on that lake. Any surplus of fish could be used as fertilizer, which was common in ancient times.

The by-products of these animals, i.e. the non-food factors, were very important. There was wool from the sheep and hair from the goat. Special varieties of sheep were raised for wool, rather than food. Amos tended such a special variety of sheep raised for their wool and thus he could conscientiously sell it at Bethel. His animals were not for sale at that false sanctuary. Most of the clothes worn by the people of the Bible were made of wool. The making of cloth was a household industry as well as a manufacturing field, as will be seen later. Camel hair was woven into cloth but goat’s hair went usually into tents and rugs, although some was sackcloth. John the Baptist wore a camel hair robe. Wool also was made into felt and the discard wool could be used for ship caulking.

Skins and leather were important by-products which gave many professions a livelihood. In the line of clothing there were wool pelts, which were sewed together for coats, capes and winter boots. Skins went to the tanner and often to the dyer. The tanner used oak, sumac and pomegranate in his work; the skins went to the specialists in the various fields where leather was employed. This leather was used for shoes, sandals and boots, although the poor man might afford none of these. The leather belt also was used; John the Baptist had one.

Leather went into harnesses for the animals, saddles for the horses and donkeys, bridles for horses, muzzles for oxen, nets and thongs for many purposes. Men used leather water bags and wineskins, and the shepherd’s script or bag. The women used a leather churn, and in war leather was the basic element in most helmets and corselets and shields, although these could be made of metal for the elite soldiers. Leather was used in the chariot. Books were written on it and maps were made of it. The metal worker needed leather for his bellows and the saint wanted it for his phylacteries. The musician used it for his drums. The offal of animals was fertilizer and bones had a usefulness of which the average Bible reader has never dreamed.

Worked bones served as tools for the potter and the leather worker. The man who used a small drill needed them as holders. Certain bones served as dice for the man who liked games. They were worked into all kinds of jewelry—beads, eardrops, etc. Bone was fashioned into ointment jars; it was carved as a spatula for mixing rouge and eye paints. It also was employed in furniture inlay. Ivory, of course, was the superb bone for any items used by the rich. A wide variety of professions were represented by these men who worked in bone. Deer horn served as picks; sheep and goat horns became trumpets and oil containers for the shepherds.

The cooking of food.

Cooking was done by the housewife, but among the rich and in the palaces there were chefs. It was often cheaper to use a baker in a city than to do one’s own baking, due to the fact that fuel was expensive. The housewife usually made her own bread but took it to the baker for baking, whose pay was a percentage of the loaves baked. Baking in the home demanded a courtyard oven made of clay and strengthened with potsherds; sometimes bread was baked on a special pottery or metal plate.

First of all, the grain was sifted and washed. It was then made into flour on a large heavy saddle quern upon which a lighter rider stone was pushed back and forth. Spices and many other food items were ground in a mortar with a pestle. Salt came from the Dead Sea or the Mediterranean. Such stone kitchen utensils were made by special craftsmen. If any liquid was involved in cooking, i.e. stew or soup, pottery cooking pots were used by everyone except the rich who used copper kettles. Toward the Arabian frontier steatite cooking pots might have been used. The best fuel for cooking was charcoal, in second place was wood, and finally thorns. Meat could have been roasted in an oven made of clay, or in a common pit. If meat was cooked on skewers, the best were metal, but the poor used sticks. Cooking fats were normally sesame oil for the poor and olive oil for the rich who could also afford animal fats.

The meal would have been served upon a variety of pottery dishes; if the family was rich, copper, silver or gold dishes were used. The meal might be eaten from the floor or from low wooden tables. By NT times the Gr. banquet hall was also for rich Jews. The garbage that was thrown out into the street was eaten by the dogs who were the city’s sanitation service, but very little food was thrown away. The very poor ate once a day if possible, in the evening. The better-off had breakfast and supper; only the rich ate often.

Transportation of food.

Most of Pal. produced a surplus of food which was transported to the best market available. This food was carried on the backs of the farmer and his wife, or by their donkey if they had one. The donkey was the most efficient, all-round transport animal. Indeed, before the camel became common, i.e. before David’s day, the only caravan animal was the donkey. Great caravans of these could number up to a thousand and occasionally up to 3,000. The camel carried a much heavier load and was used esp. for heavy bulk cargoes. The two-wheeled cart was used some on level ground, but the four-wheeled wagon was not common in Pal. It was ideal, however, on Rom. roads. The mule and the horse were riding animals only; the horse was used in the army or by royalty. Grain exported to Phoenicia usually went in ships.


Food was the first problem of life; clothing was the second. In Pal. the most common materials were wool, flax, camel hair (after David’s time) and goat hair, in that preference. Cotton came in toward the close of the OT but was not much used in Pal. (Esth 1:6; Isa 19:9). Silk came in about the same time but by NT days it was the world’s favorite expensive cloth. The sheepskin with the wool intact was for winter wear, and some garments were of leather. Wool was used also for making quilts for the beds.

Clothing was very expensive as wool had to be spun into thread by hand and then woven into cloth. Every housewife was expected to be able to spin (Prov 31:19) and prob. many of them could weave. The latter work, however, was also an industry. In industry men could be employed as weavers of whom Paul was one. Kiriath-sepher in S. Pal. was a city given over exclusively to the weaving and dyeing of cloth in the days of the divided kingdom; it was a unique one-industry town. Every house was a sweatshop and almost every dye plant was identical. The distaff and spindle used for spinning could be made by the man of the house but many spindles showed such good craftsmanship that they must have been made by professional woodworkers and bone craftsmen. The spindle whorl could have been made from a potsherd, bone, stone, etc. The best were beautifully carved stones of various sizes and shapes, and were the work of a professional stone carver. The best looms were made by skilled woodworkers. Several varieties of looms were used such as an upright or horizontal loom. In the latter the warp threads were usually held taut by loom weights of pottery, occasionally by stones. This type of loom was used at Kiriath-sepher.

The undressed wool cloth was full of oil and grease from the sheep’s wool so the cloth was then taken to the fuller who removed this oil, etc. and also compacted the cloth. He needed large stone or clay basins in which he could tread out the impurities, and chemicals to extract the oils. Plenty of water was necessary, so he had cisterns nearby or worked near running water. He required pottery jars or water skins to carry the water to his basins. After this treatment the cloth could be embroidered in various patterns and sold to the rich.

Different varieties of sheep produce different colored wools from white through yellow, plus tan and various browns and black, but dyeing was necessary to have other colors. The kermes insects, various barks and plants, madder root plus chemicals were available; but the Phoenicians had the choice purple dye made from the murex of their coastal waters. The use of available dyes on the various natural colored wools gave an almost complete spectrum of colors. Either the wool itself or the finished cloth was dyed. Solomon brought in a specially skilled dye expert from Phoenicia (2 Chron 2:7). Linen was difficult to dye and normally was used in its natural color or was bleached. Gold thread was used for decorative purposes in the finest cloth (Exod 28:15). Wool also was beaten into felt. Such heavy cloaks were used in the cold areas as Anatolia. It also was shaped into shoes.

Linen was an important Pal. product, since one month of the year was named in its honor. It was an industry all its own from the sowing of the flax seed to the finished embroidered linen. The Jordan Valley was a major site for this industry in intertestamental times, as it also was back in Joshua’s day (Josh 2:6). The Philistine plain also was used for this industry. Discarded linen tow was used as wicks for lamps.

The cloth often was woven so that little sewing was needed; in fact, there was even the seamless robe, woven to fit (John 19:23). The shaping of cloth into other fancier garments was the work of the tailor and dressmaker.

Weaving was used for other purposes than cloth. Goat hair was woven into tents and rugs. There were tents and awnings (Paul’s profession), also curtains and hangings, screens and wall decorations, fine oriental carpets, saddle covers, etc. Bags were very important as wood was too expensive for containers. Sackcloth was worn as a sign of mourning.

Ropes and cords had to be made and these necessitated a long spinning yard for their manufacture, a trade in itself. These were put to such varied uses as nets, and power for the catapults.


After clothing came the problem of shelter. The answer to this problem was usually a cave, a tent or a house. The cave always has been the poor man’s home in a land whose geology produces numerous caves, which is true of Pal. Even today the poor use them at all times; in the summer the farmers working away from their village homes use them also. They can easily be made into comfortable homes.

The tent is the mobile home. Even God Himself used a tabernacle in the Sinai Desert. The tent usually was made of goat’s hair. It was held up by poles and held in place by ropes stretched to wooden pegs in the ground. It was used by both sheik or commoner, but its equipment depended on who used the tent.

The house in Pal. was normally of stone except in the areas where stone was rare; then mud bricks were used, although these should always be on a stone foundation. Burnt bricks belong to Egypt and Mesopotamia. Since most of the houses in Bible Pal. were built of field stones, the men who erected them should be called builders rather than masons. These rough walls were covered by a mud or lime plaster and were well finished inside. The stone mason worked on public buildings and homes for the rich. If mortar was used on the common house, it was mud; the rich used a true lime mortar. The beams for the roof of the poor man’s house were tree trunks. Branches were laid over these and upon the branches were reed mats. Eight to a dozen inches of soil mixed with powdered lime was then spread over the mats. The roof was kept waterproof by compressing it with a stone roller.

The open door usually gave enough light and windows were common only on upper stories. The carpenter made the door frames and the doors, also the lattice windows and their frames. Leather hinges sometimes were used but large doors usually swung on stone sockets below and a hole in the beam above. The floor was of flagstones for the rich, but the poor used a mixture of mud and powdered lime which gave a good floor, as the inhabitants were usually barefoot. Egyptian schools formerly used this same floor in poor villages. The finest floors were stone and glass mosaics.

In OT times the temple-palace complex built by Solomon was the best of their public buildings. The twelve administrative centers in his kingdom also had their public buildings. By NT times Herod the Great had made Pal. cities duplicates of Greece and Rome. Public buildings demanded the skilled stonemason and his was a special trade; his tools were made by the metalworker. The large rooms required columns to hold up the roof, and they were wood or stone. By NT times the column, its base and capital were fashioned after Gr. or Rom. models. Tiles roofed the better public buildings and private homes. Plumbing in NT times used pottery and lead pipes but only in the best buildings. After Joshua’s conquest most houses had a cistern, if the occupants could afford it. Public waterworks have already been mentioned above.

Military architecture was a field of its own and most of Pal. cities excavated showed more good work than poor. Some twenty ft. of the height of a city wall was stone, and above that there was ten ft. of sun-dried mud brick. The gates were heavy wood planks studded with metal. Where chariots were used stables were built; in Pal. these followed the general pattern of a clerestory building.

The building trades in Bible times used the following skilled tradesmen: architect, builder, mason, plasterer, painter, carpenter, cabinet maker, floor finisher, tile setter, plumber, etc.

Each of these men in turn depended on other trades. The architect needed tapes, rulers, papyrus, inkwells, ink and pens. The builder needed metal and wood tools along with a lead plumb bob, string, chalk, etc. The mason obtained his stone direct from the quarry to the building. The plasterer bought his lime plaster from the man who fired the lime kiln; he, in turn, had helpers to collect the fuel for the kiln. The painter needed to purchase his pigments, oils and brushes from others. The floor finisher needed lime and stone flagging or wood flooring. The tile setter got his material from the tile factory. The plumber needed all his special tools plus various sized lead and pottery pipes.

Temporary shelters were made of mats woven from reeds or branches made into a booth above a low stone wall. These were common in the fields at harvest times. The vineyard might have a permanent circular watchtower built of field stone.


The problem of health naturally follows those of food, clothing and housing. Starvation was often on the horizon for many of the inhabitants of Pal. Its weather has always been fickle and crops varied from excellent to very poor. War, locusts or any other natural plague quickly depleted the food supply. The undernourished were always subject to disease and injury, and these people were always numerous.

A health study, beginning with birth may be enlightening. If there was any professional attendant present, it was a midwife. The diseases of infancy took a heavy toll and at every age disease continued its inroads, giving the country a short life span. Accidents were common and war added far more than its quota. There were the blind, the deaf and dumb. There were cripples of all kinds, some from birth, most from accidents. Many of these handicapped people had no way to make a living except by begging. Broken bones were common and the worst were those of the army where cheek and jaw injuries were common, in spite of the helmet which was designed in part to avoid these injuries. Teeth also made much trouble, both in peace and war.

The Israelites had some sense of sanitation (Deut 23:12ff.) and many items of the Mosaic code have health as a factor. Dogs and a hot sun helped solve their problem of sanitation. The department of health was the priesthood which checked on contagious diseases. Two major bubonic plagues prob. explain the Philistine deaths at the time they captured the Ark, and the later great loss Sennacherib suffered in his Judean campaign. Palestine too had its poisonous plants and snakes. Smallpox left its mark on even some of the Egyp. royal mummies.

Among the diseases or illnesses mentioned or alluded to in Scripture are dropsy, dysentery, epilepsy, fevers, heat stroke, leprosy, paralysis, sciatica, scurvy, tuberculosis, etc. There were also mental illnesses and evil spirits. Surgery started early with circumcision. The many mineral springs of Pal. were health resorts, two of which were near Capernaum. The physician was at work throughout Scripture. The medical ministry of Christ was unique; and even that of the apostles was significant.

With death came the washing of the body and its burial in a family tomb. If economics permitted, spices and perfumes were used. Even professional mourners were employed if money sufficed. Joseph, being high in the Egyp. court, was embalmed.

Trades (See also trade guilds.)

Having sketched briefly the occupations involved in the problems of food, clothing, housing and health, it is necessary to approach the problem of trades via the materials that were used in the different trades. First, one may consider the “woodworker,” using that term in the widest possible meaning.


The archeologists have found that Pal. was much more widely and heavily forested than earlier scholars ever believed. Furthermore, it had a very wide variety of timber, since its climate at certain seasons of the year equals everything between the tropics and the Arctic. The woodworkers recognized the virtues of different woods and used them according to their properties. Olive wood, for example, was ideal for carving, so the cherubim of Solomon’s Temple were carved from that wood; but the holm oak, on the other hand, made the best plow for a farmer.

The beginning of woodworking meant that someone had to fell the tree and cut it up into usable units. If boards were to be made, the trunk sections had to be ripsawed into boards, a tricky task to keep the boards of equal width, but these men were specialists. Larger units as beams could be shaped with an adze from tree sections approximately the size of the beam desired. The carpenter worked only on certain sections of the stone or mud brick house. Timber was too expensive to be used for an entire house, but lumber was very costly since everything had to be hand-sawed. The carpenter fashioned the doors and frames, the latticed windows and the window frames. He also made the fine latticed wood screens used in wealthy homes. If the house had a second story he would put in that floor and perhaps some paneling. If the house used wooden columns he would shape these but would plant them on a wide stone base. Stairs were made of wood or stone. If there was a yard around a wealthy home he would make the gate, whose keys might be of wood or metal. The carpenter would make furniture for the poor but the rich would want a cabinet maker. A beautiful dining room set was made by an Arab cabinet maker, who used only fine tools. A minimum of furniture for the rich would be beds, chairs, stools, tables, and chests for the storing of clothes. Royalty would need a still better craftsman for the building of thrones, footstools, etc. Special craftsmen would work on the bone and ivory inlaid furniture.

Probably one craftsman in wood specialized in the making of wooden items used by the farmer. He would make yokes, plows, ox goads, pitchforks, shovels, threshing sledges, and perhaps a hay wagon. (A wagon took extra skill because of the wheels.) This woodworker also prob. made the wooden frames for the pack saddles used on donkeys and camels. One of the most skilled workers was the man who made and repaired chariots, for he worked on the axle of wheels, the bed and the tongue. The metalworker fashioned the rim. A skilled craftsman made the litter on which the rich would ride.

There was a woodworker who specialized in the making of weapons, i.e. furnishing the wood parts. He made the bow and the arrows, and the shafts for spear, javelin and mace. The mace often served as a scepter. He constructed the catapult and the beam for the battering ram, as well as the housing for it, and made the assault towers and other siege engines.

The NT relates information concerning shipping which included several special trades in the field of woodworking. The timber must be cut and fashioned to fit the hull, and one or two masts shaped and set in place. Oars were normal emergency power, and the ship was steered by special oars as rudders. If the ship was large, it would have been decked over. The ship’s caulker with his pitch, bitumen, wool and tow worked hand in hand with the ship carpenter.

Someone made prison equipment such as stocks and gibbets and crosses. The Jews and Romans used the cross in intertestament and NT times. Some delicate woodworker made the beams for scales and balances. Skill was required by the man who carved dolls and fashioned wooden keys. One skilled but wicked craftsman was the woodworker who carved idols in that medium.

Finally, the woodworker in turn had specialists to make his metal tools and other specialists to furnish him with whetstones, emery, chalk, string, etc.

Quarrying and mining.

Public buildings and wealthy homes needed good building stone. Most of Pal. could furnish limestone and S Trans-Jordan had sandstone. North Trans-Jordan has basalt but this is not a beautiful stone, although it was widely used there. Some Pal. marble was doubtless used as is done today.

Quarrying is a profession of its own. The best stone was reserved for the Jerusalem temples. A great underground quarry lies under a part of the old city of Jerusalem and the marks of the quarry worker are everywhere. It may well have been the source of stone for Solomon’s Temple. The tools used in this profession are the metal chisel, baskets, wooden wedges, water to spread the wedges, and wooden rollers for the largest stones. The transport of the stone might have been done by the quarry owner, the user or a third party. Long distance hauling would have been by camel and donkey, and short hauls by men carrying the stone on their backs.

The stone mason fashioned wine vats, olive presses and the weights used in them, and vats for the fuller and dyer. In the NT stone water pots are mentioned (John 2:6). The mason made tombstones for Rachel (Gen 35:20) and memorial pillars for Absalom (2 Sam 18:18). Other workers in stone made the saddle querns and riders and all varieties of mortars and pestles, sling-shot stones and weights of all sizes and from many varieties of stones. The bottom of the metal workers’ bellow was a specially fashioned stone. More careful work was done in the rouge palettes and alabaster vases for perfumes. The most skilled men worked in scarabs, seal cylinders and stamp seals. By NT times the Corinth canal was being excavated. Long before this the Phoenicians had their stone quays. The heathen stonemason worked on the “pillars,” the idols and their altars. Lime for the mason’s mortar was made by men who ran the lime kilns.

Salt and brimstone, lye and pigments, could be handled by the quarry method. Flint was taken from a quarry, and flint-working was a craft of its own. Flint tools and weapons were common in Abraham’s day. The flint sickle edge was used all through the OT. In one sense a clay bed could be a quarry, but the removal of the clay would be done by a potter’s apprentice. Many precious stones such as turquoise also came from the quarry worker.

The copper ores of Pal. were worked on an international scale as far back as the days of Abraham, and much earlier than that. Genesis 14 recorded a war whose prize was the copper mines of Edom and Sinai. The mines were open-face, chamber and tunnel type. Much of the labor seems to have been done by slaves or prisoners of war. The tools used by the quarry men also were used by the miners, but they needed more tools because the ores had to be crushed. Men did this with stone mortars and stone pestles. There were also quern types of stone used for crushing the ore. Baskets carried crushed ore to the smelters.

Smelting was a skilled profession and Pal. smelters often did excellent work with the tools available. The smelters needed furnaces (usually stone and clay) and leather bellows to furnish sufficient air draft. Charcoal was the best fuel and Edom’s forests furnished this for the mines in the Arabah below. Wooden poles also were needed to be introduced into the molten metal. Various chemical reagents were needed to be mixed with the ores in order to extract the copper and separate it from the dross discard. The smelted ore was poured out into ingots of various sizes and shapes. The ore would be refined again later in better grades of furnaces. Some of these types of furnaces have been discovered by the archeologists.

As mines and smelters in Edom and Sinai were far removed from civilization, temporary quarters were erected for the workmen who prob. worked primarily in the winter season. Many of them were prob. slaves.

The Philistines were the first to introduce iron into Pal. and they held a monopoly on its working. Iron works quite differently from copper. At present it is unknown when Pal. first mined and smelted its own iron ore. In Gilead one cave-mine with ore of very rich content has been found and the ore from it was smelted at the cave’s mouth. The date of this work is not yet known. Smelting iron was a much more difficult task than that for copper.

Metal working.

The metal worker took the ingot and worked it up into tools, weapons, jewelry, and any use for which there was a demand. For common work the coppersmith melted the ingot and poured it into stone or pottery molds of open or closed type. If the metal needed reshaping this could be done by hammering, which also hardened the metal. Copper could be cold-worked or hot-worked. If a harder metal and a sharper cutting edge was needed, tin was added to the copper to make bronze. Bronze, however, was quite expensive. Long before the time of Abraham the metal workers of the Near E had done almost everything with copper and its alloys that was done in the 19th cent. a.d.

The blacksmith had to work his metal hot; and that craft demanded real skill. Iron demanded heavier tools in anvils, hammers and tongs than copper. Iron working used a great deal of good grade charcoal; iron did not come into mass production in Pal. until the time of David. Since iron rusted quickly in the wet climate of Pal. the archeologist must go to dry Egypt to get well-preserved iron tools for his metallurgical studies.

Most of the tool types were the same whether the metal was copper or iron. Remember that each tool normally came in at least several varieties, and many tools came in a wide variety of forms. This is a quick listing: axes and adzes, hoes, mattocks, and shovels, plus plowshares, chisels and knives. The last in the list, knives, were in wide varieties because of their multiple uses and the materials that they cut. There were braces and drills of many kinds, bits, augers and awls, planes and drawing knives, anvils, hammers and tongs, mortar rake and trowel, plum-line, level and square. There were saws for wood, stone and metal, files and rasps, sickles and pruning hooks, also rings and nails, pins, needles, scissors, etc. Chariots and wagons needed metal tires for the wheels. Weights and scale pans often were metal. Coins always were made of metal.

Much of military equipment required metal. Copper, bronze or iron were used in the following military equipment: spear, javelin and arrowhead, helmet, shield and body armor with greaves; sword and dagger; mace and battle axe, etc.; even the head of the great battering ram. The army’s “flag” was usually a metal standard such as Rome used. It was necessary to have chains and fetters for the prisoners of war. All of these tools and weapons came in multiple forms.

Beauty must be cultivated so there were razors and strigils, also mirrors, tweezers, brooches, and a wealth of jewelry in copper. Copper kettles and kitchen ware of all kinds were used in the homes of the rich, and copper wear was used on their dining tables. Also there was a wealth of metalwork for the heathen craftsmen who cast the molten idol, and also for those who fashioned the metal plates over the wooden idol core. There were many metal tools that accompanied the service of the altar.

The jeweler is worthy of special mention since jewelry was one method of holding wealth. Jewelry could at any time be converted into money because of its gold and silver content, skillfully worked to multiply its value. Precious and semi-precious stones added to its costliness. Carrying precious stones was one method of transporting great wealth in small packages. Jewelry items included rings, necklaces, brooches, pendants, earrings, bracelets and anklets, amulets, scarabs and beads of all kinds. Palestine had no gold or silver mines but it had excellent silversmiths and goldsmiths. The better jewelry was gold and silver. These jewelry craftsmen also worked in all varieties of precious and semi-precious stones. Cheaper jewelry was in copper and bronze. The poorest was made of bone. Some ivory work, however, was very expensive.

Pottery making.

Pottery is related to quarrying and mining. The choice of clay used determines many features of the finished pottery. When clay is fired to the state of pottery, a completely new material is created. It was the first synthetic material that man invented. Pottery makers in Bible times were excellent craftsmen; and among the first to use modern assembly line techniques. Pottery has several phases of work. Clay must be dug and weathered, then treaded well before use. Most of the vessels were made on the potter’s wheel, but some were shaped by hand and other pieces were made in a press mold. The firing of the ware demanded special skills.

Pottery was esp. useful in the house. There were various kinds of cooking pots, griddles and kettles for deep-fat frying. There were mixing bowls and large and small storage jars for dry foods and liquids. There was tableware of all kinds, also lamps and lampstands. There was the brazier to keep the house warm in winter; and the soldier needed a special army canteen that held cold water. There were kettles for manufacturing perfumes and many varieties of perfume juglets, etc.

In the building trades mud was used as the cheapest mortar. Large sun-dried bricks were made in special molds. Burnt brick and enameled brick were not used in Pal., although both were employed in Mesopotamia and Egypt. Roof tiles were used in intertestament and NT times. Clay also was shaped into stoves for cooking and ovens for baking. Clay silos were used to store grain.

The metal worker used pottery crucibles of various types, smelting furnaces and pottery molds for the metal objects cast. Pottery spindle whorls and pottery loom weights were used in cloth industries. Among the heathen there were clay figurines (Astartes) and incense altars.

Glass was one phase of the ceramic industries, although it was just coming into mass production about NT times. Up to that time it was classed as luxury goods and was used esp. by the perfume and mosaic industries. Faience was a related trade but Pal. imported this ware from Egypt.


Turn now from the various trades to business in general. It is treated in detail in the article Trade, Commerce and Business. All craftsmanship and manufacturing, as well as the selling of food products or any items whatsoever, enter the field of business. Business at its higher levels involved not only the merchant but the banker and with him came mortgages and interest, insurances, promissory notes, letters of credit, etc. The money changers were even in the Temple at Jerusalem. Records were kept on papyrus if valuable, on potsherds if of lesser value. Documents were witnessed and sealed. (Note this in Paul’s letters.) The clay tablet was not used widely in Pal. except in the patriarchal period.

Business involved the court, necessitating judges, lawyers and mediators. Weights and measures could be a court case as would questions of wages and sale prices. There were trade guilds but these were not too similar to modern labor unions. Bad debtors often were sent to prison, or worked off their loans in service to the man they owed.


Education in the OT was primarly a question of apprenticeship; and most businesses were a family affair. This was primarily technological education, which is stressed so heavily today. Technical information was often a family secret. The royal courts trained their own staff.

The Greeks created the educational concepts that dominate American thinking today. They emphasized the arts and the crafts, but also politics and philosophy. The Athens of Pericles prob. saw the greatest collection of brilliant minds of any time in the world’s history. Knowledge was preserved in books and the copying of books was a major industry, and the scribe a man of importance. The university was the last word in education, although it was built around individual teachers rather than buildings. The high Gr. concept of the teacher was duplicated by the rabbi. Read the Mishna to realize the diversity of thought patterns carried on by the rabbis. In Greece and Palestine the great teachers had their disciples. By NT times Alexandria was the center of scientific studies. The theater was in Jerusalem even in NT times.

The royal households

Male and female doorkeepers guarded the royal household. The men were placed at the gate of the mansion or palace, the women before the women’s quarters. Watchmen both by day and night were a necessity; bond servants and bond maids were used for “hired help.” Slave labor might also be employed. There were gardeners and men who supplied the palace with wood and water. In the palace were cooks, beauticians, dressmakers.

In the palace there were special court servants of high political rank. Among these were the bodyguards, butlers, chamberlains, cupbearers, footmen, eunuchs for the harem, jailors, executioners, and wardrobe keepers. Officials also were needed to oversee the royal farms, flocks and herds.

Political positions in the court included the following in addition to many others: king, cabinet members, i.e. secretary or recorder, treasurer, etc., also the court officials i.e. judges, lawyers, jailors; then there were governors, ambassadors, proconsuls, and of course tax collectors.

The palace was also the place for amusements, where there were many professionals: musicians, dancers, magicians, jesters, etc. In addition, beauty professionals were at their peak, for the men needed barbers and the women, the beauty parlor. There were hairdressers and perfumers who provided the finest cosmetics and tools for their use. Even the eyes needed special eye paints. The jeweler found his major market in the palace.

The army

The king enforced his power with the army. In the era before David the army was not a national one but a tribal army. Each tribe was a law to itself. Every man was to be available for military service but in his own tribe and each soldier furnished his own weapons. Note that the tribes fought as a national unit under Joshua; but in the days of the Judges only a few tribes worked together as a military unit. Some, like the tribes of Dan and Benjamin, were distinctly individualistic. Samuel warned Israel that kingship would bring in a hereditary federal government and a federal army (1 Sam 8:11-18). When David called for a census he was creating a federal army! Note that even Joab objected to this action (2 Sam 24:1-25).

The Israelite soldier before David’s kingship usually carried not only a sword but at least one spear or javelin. He also might have used a mace or battle axe. He defended himself with a shield, either large or small. Special troops were the archers and slingers. The soldier was commanded by men of his own tribe. With David’s reign came the federal army directed by men of the king’s choice, and his soldiers were supplied with weapons by the king’s armorers. Although David was a superb military man he did not use the chariot. Solomon, however, introduced it; and three of his chariot headquarters have been excavated.

The Assyrians had the world’s best military machine until the Pers. world conquest. Under the Assyrians military weapons and equipment were at their best for any type of warfare. Their siege engines were copied by later armies. They also introduced cavalry, which the Persians later brought to perfection as an arm of their military service. Alexander the Great perfected fast movement and added scientists to his army. The Romans had another excellent military machine, which was built primarily around the infantry. All armies lived off the lands invaded and kept their baggage trains to a minimum; camp equipment also was kept at a minimum.

All cities in the OT and most in the NT were fortified with heavy walls strengthened by towers. The OT city normally had walls averaging at least ten ft. thick and thirty ft. high and with a minimum of gates. If possible, the large city also had a special citadel at the highest point, which usually included the palace.

All countries around the Mediterranean had their navies but Israel got into this act only briefly in the intertestamental period and in the revolt against Rome.

One of the by-products of military service in Greece was the athletic games. By NT times these games were largely taken over by professional athletes; and the major cities of the Mediterranean world had their athletic contests. These were so dated that the professionals could make the whole Mediterranean circuit in a year. The stadium, and later the amphitheater were created to serve these games. The gladiatorial shows were the ultimate touch in brutality and death. The hippodrome was used for chariot racing; and betting was as common then as now. All these features were in NT Pal. although Caesarea apparently was the only city with an amphitheater.

The wicked professions

Finally, the “wicked professions” must be mentioned, for there were the same criminal elements that appear in all civilizations i.e. thieves, robbers, brigands, prostitutes, murderers, etc. Then there was that large group of “fake religionists.” This included all types of false worship, most of which was well represented in Baalism. There were false priests, false prophets, astrologers and diviners, magicians and soothsayers, sorcerers and exorcists, and those who worked with familiar spirits both in ecstasy and demonology, and some who gave oracles. There were also the makers of idols, charms and amulets.

The worship of the God of Scripture is essentially a “calling” and in no sense a profession or occupation as listed in the paragraphs above. Occupations and professions deal with the use or abuse of God’s created world. On the other hand, worship deals primarily with God Himself.


R. J. Forbes, “Studies in Ancient Technology”: Water Supply, Vol. I (1954); Irrigation and drainage; land transport and road building, Vol. II (1955). Cosmetics and perfumes; food; preservation processes; paints; etc., Vol. III (1955). Fibers and fabrics; fulling and felting; dyeing; spinning; sewing; basketry; weaving, Vol. IV (1956). Leather; glass, Vol. V (1957). Mining and quarrying, Vol. VII (1963). Ores; metallurgy; tools; gold, silver, lead; zinc and brass, Vol. VIII (1964). Copper and its alloys; iron, Vol. IX (1964).