In the nomadic, pastoral society of the patriarchal period there was no wage-earning class. When men worked for others, it was generally for their own maintenance; and often they received some payment in kind for their services. Jacob’s service to Laban was on this basis (Gen 29:15; 30:32, 33; 31:8, 41). With the increasing complexity of a more settled community, once the Israelites were in Canaan, people were needed to engage in trades and crafts of all kinds. For these services payment, in whole or in part, was made by weighing out quantities of bronze or silver. Coinage in the standard sense was a later invention, being first used in Asia Minor by the Lydians just before 700 b.c. From here its use spread throughout the Gr. world, but it was prob. not in common use in the Near E until the Hel. period (beginning approx. 300 b.c.).

As is the case in the Near E even today, bargaining was a common practice. Where there were no set scales for payment, it was usual to negotiate terms in this way in each individual case. The story of Jacob and Laban illustrates this, from the first question: “What shall your wages be?” down to the last accusation: “Your father cheated me and changed my wages ten times.” The story details the kind of cheating and trickery that both parties practiced. (See Gen 30:28-33; 31:7-41.) The same tendency to bargain appears in the parable of the vineyard (Matt 20:1-16), but here the employer was a just and generous man. To protect workers against exploitation certain safeguards were instituted, e.g. wages were to be paid daily, before sundown, to those who had earned them (Lev 19:13; Deut 24:14, 15). In spite of such injunctions, however, the lot of the wage earner was hard, and the prophets found it necessary constantly to condemn the practices of employers who took advantage of those who worked for them (Jer 22:13; Mal 3:5).

The Biblical writers make fig. use of the Heb. and Gr. terms with reference to God’s dealings with men. Thus God’s benefits to His people are referred to as recompense (Isa 40:10; 62:11); and the retribution of God is spoken of as reward (Ps 109:20) or gain (2 Pet 2:15). Death is called the wages due for serving sin (Rom 6:23).


On the general topic, see Kittel, TWNT, IV, 699-736; IDB; Oxford Classical Dictionary (s.v. Coinage).

International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (1915)

wa’-jez, wa’-jiz (chinnam, maskoreth, pe`ullah, sakhar, sakhar; misthos, opsonion):

(1) Chinnam means "gratis," without cost or any advantage, for nought, or in vain; wages in the sense of reasonable return. Jeremiah pronounces woe upon him who "useth his neighbor’s service without wages, and giveth him not his hire" (Jer 22:13; the only place where the word is used).

(2) Maskoreth means "reward" or "wages." Laban said to Jacob: "Shouldest thou therefore serve me for nought? Tell me, what shall thy wages be?" (Ge 29:15). Jacob said, concerning Laban, speaking to Rachel and Leah: "Your father hath deceived me, and changed my wages ten times" (Ge 31:7; compare 31:41).

(3) Pe`ullah generally means "work," "labor," "reward," "wages." The old Levitical Law was insistent on honesty in wages and on promptness in payments: "The wages of a hired servant shall not abide with thee all night until the morning" (Le 19:13).

(4) Mistakker means "earning," "hire," "reward," "wages," from root sakhar, meaning "to hire," and has in it the idea of temporary purchase: "He that earneth wages earneth wages to put it into a bag with holes" (Hag 1:6).

(5) Sakhar means "payment of contract," in the material way of salary, maintenance, fare, and so compensation, reward, price, benefit, wages--seemingly wages received after an understanding as to time, manner and amount of payment. Laban (employer) said to Jacob (employee): "Appoint me thy wages, and I will give it" (Ge 30:28); "If he said thus, The speckled shall be thy wages" (Ge 31:8); Pharaoh’s daughter said to Moses’ mother: "Take this child away, and nurse it for me, and I will give thee thy wages" (Ex 2:9); Nebuchadrezzar and his army served against Tyre, "yet had he no wages, nor his army" (Eze 29:18), and the prey of Egypt "shall be the wages for his army" (Eze 29:19); swift and sure judgment is predicted against "those that oppress the hireling in his wages, the widow, and the fatherless" (Mal 3:5).

(6) Misthos means either in a literal or figurative sense "pay for service," either primitive or beneficial, and so reward, hire, wages. In Joh 4:36 Jesus said, "He that reapeth receiveth wages, and gathereth fruit unto life eternal." 2Pe 2:15 has changed "wages" (the King James Version) to "hire," reading "who loved the hire of wrongdoing."

(7) Opsonion, meaning primarily "rations for soldiers" (opson being the word for cooked meat) and so "pay" or stipend, provision wages. In Lu 3:14 John said to the soldiers, "Be content with your wages"; "The wages of sin is death" (Ro 6:23); Paul said: "I robbed other churches, taking wages of them" (2Co 11:8); the same word in 1Co 9:7 is translated "charges."

The Bible refers to wages actual and wages figurative. Of actual wages there are three kinds:

(1) money wages,

(2) provision (usually food) wages, and

(3) what may be called "exchange" wages, wages in kind, sometimes "human-kind," e.g. Jacob’s wages from Laban.

Often laborers and soldiers received both money and "keep" wages. The laborer in New Testament times received about 15 cents per day (the "shilling" of Mt 20:2), besides in some cases his provisions. The old Law required daily payment, honesty in dealing, also sufficient food for the laborer.

It is practically impossible to test "Bible" wages by any of theories of modern economists. In this connection, however, mere mention of the six principal theories may be of interest. Concisely put, they are:

(1) the wage-fund theory,

(2) the standard-of-living theory,

(3) the German-socialistic theory,

(4) the production theory,

(5) Henry George’s theory, and

(6) the laborer’s value theory.

The incidents in the Old Testament of Jacob and in the New Testament of Mt 20 both show that the laborer was at the caprice of the employer. Therefore, we may designate the Bible law of wages as the "employer’s theory."