Occupations in Bible Times, Part III: Service-Related

Most service-related occupations were carried out in the marketplace. An important place in the life of Oriental communities for conducting business, and more. As we learned in Part II of this series, the marketplace also served as a gathering place, a type of employment office, and even as a preliminary courthouse.

In this part we will look at the various services offered in the village or city marketplace. Much like the towns and cities of today, the Oriental marketplace offered everything from banking and hospitality services, to launderers and barbers. After the temple or synagogue, it was the hub of the community.

Service-related occupations.

(In alphabetical order.)

Bankers, lenders, and money changers:

Banking services were established in Israel only after the Exile. Prior to that people simply buried or hid their treasure. Levitical law forbade charging interest, except to foreigners, and the prophets also strongly condemned charging high interest rates.

The actual banking trade didn’t get its start until New Testament days, when banking shops and booths were opened in the market square alongside the butcher, the baker, and the basket maker, or in the temple next to those selling animals for the sacrifices.

Through the bankers people could exchange foreign coins for the Jewish shekels needed to pay the temple tax. Or borrow money for mortgages, purchases, or emergencies, usually at high interest rates. Or even deposit their money for safe-keeping, albeit at much lower interest rates.

Barbers:

Barbers provided a necessary service in Israel because periodic hair cutting was normal, as the Levites were prohibited from letting their hair grow long and unruly. And because of religious vows which involved shaving the head. It was the local barber who tended to cutting or shaving hair and beards of the populace.

Barbers usually worked out in the open market place, or in front of the temple. After covering the client with a protective cloth, he would cut the hair with scissors or shave him with a razor, then show him the finished work with a mirror made from polished metal. Razors, sometimes even elaborately made, were made from sharp pieces of flint or metal (copper, bronze, or iron). Occasionally a person would cut their own hair with a sharp sword or knife (Ez. 5:1).

Fullers:

These ancient launderers worked at washing and bleaching soiled clothing and material ready for weaving. They also sometimes dyed cloth.

Because the sulphur, putrid urine, and other strong ingredients they added to their ash soap their work was carried out in a fuller’s field away from town.

During festive or religious occasions they would have an especially large amount of garments or cloth to clean by stamping on them or beating them with bats in big tubs of water and fuller’s earth (a cleansing clay) or soap made from potash or alkali. After which they would be beat again under a stream of running water or in a river to thoroughly rinse them and remove odors. They were placed in the sun to dry, which bleached them even more, before delivery to customers.

Innkeepers:

Often called hosts (Luke 10:35), the innkeepers provided lodging for travelers, which in earlier times was sometimes nothing but a sleeping place, a tent spot, or a room in someone’s home.

Sometimes these rooms would also be rented out for a special meal like Christ’s Last Supper, or to prisoners under house arrest, such as homes the apostle Paul lived in.

As time went by special hostels were opened along travel routes which consisted of unfurnished rooms opening on to a central courtyard where patrons could cook their meals and keep their animals. Sometimes the host would also sell necessary foodstuffs to the weary travelers.

Not until later, in Roman times, did actual inns providing furnished rooms, meals, and entertainment come about. Most Jews, however preferred the hostel or accepting hospitality in someone’s home, as many of these inns engaged in unsavory practices.

Merchants:

Merchants, with their caravans and shiploads of goods imported from distant lands held a prominent position in society from the earliest times, and often became quite wealthy.

These traders either purchased goods from traveling caravans or ships, or ran their own. This merchandise was, in turn, sold to the retailers for sale in their shops and stands.

As much of the trade was carried on by the barter system, goods rarely had fixed prices. Only after a bargain was struck would goods, services, or money change hands. And for just about any item under the sun, from food and spices, to clothing and household items, to goats and even peacocks! What a colorful sight it must have made!

Nurses and midwives:

In the Biblical text, the nurse was often a nursemaid or nanny who held a position of honor and importance in the family. A tender and lifelong relationship was often established between nannies and the children they raised.

But nurses were also someone, usually a female family member, who cared for the sick. See the section on Physicians, below.

Likewise, the midwives who attended mothers during childbirth were usually older female family members. In addition to assisting in birth, they offered the mothers emotional and physical support, and tended to infants after birth, cutting the umbilical cord, washing them, and wrapping them in swaddling clothes. While carrying out their duties they would also be training younger women to carry on this important service.

Physicians:

Unlike other ancient nations, in which medicine was highly tied to exorcists, magic, and pagan religious practices, the Israelites believed that all healing came first and foremost from God. Jewish physicians practiced medicine firmly believing that they were simply God’s assistants.

In Old Testament times, the few doctors had likely been trained in Egypt, as they had made the most progress in medical knowledge. By the Greek and Roman eras great advances had been made in medicine, yet in outlying areas, such as Palestine, most people were probably born and died without ever seeing a trained physician.

Sick people were treated at home by family members or by someone who had become skilled at nursing or even setting broken bones. Most common maladies like pain, headache, fever, skin problems, and digestive disturbances with homemade salves, balms, ointments, olive oil, poultices, and infusions from plants and herbs such as frankincense, myrrh, hyssop, and ginger.

A hub of everyday life.

As we see from today’s post and from Part II, the marketplace was very much a hub of ancient Jewish society. That it played an important role in people’s lives is also confirmed by the fact that Jesus mentioned it in several times in his teachings and parables.

Part IV coming soon!

Stay tuned for Part IV of Occupations in Bible Times: The Government, the Temple, and the Church. And be sure to read the entire series:


IMAGES from FreeBibleImages.org: Money by http://www.LumoProject.com; all rights reserved, educational use only. | Inn by http://www.LumoProject.com; all rights reserved, educational use only. | Market by Edge Group & Lion Hudson Ltd; CC-BY-NC-ND. | Midwife by http://www.LumoProject.com; all rights reserved, educational use only. | Bandaging wound by http://www.LumoProject.com; all rights reserved, educational use only.

Purpose of these Bible Times posts:
Their main purpose is to bring the fascinating world of the Bible to life through the customs, traditions, and places of its peoples, making the Bible speak to us in a more dynamic way and increase our understanding of Scripture. CLICK HERE to learn more and see the Sources I use for these posts.

Published by Signora Sheila

Missionary blogger, wife, mom, nonna. Join my simple life journey of faith and missions in small town Italy!

13 thoughts on “Occupations in Bible Times, Part III: Service-Related

  1. Our pastors have lately been preaching from the parables. Just last Sunday was the parable of the talents (Matthew 25:14-30). In verse 27 the master chides the third servant for burying his talent, when he could have at least given it to the bankers and accrued interest. Somehow I had missed that word, “bankers” before, and was surprised the ancient world provided such services. Then I wondered when that profession began in Israel. Two days later, Sheila, you’ve given me the answer! Thank you!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I know, Nancy, that I’ve been noticing a lot more things like this since I’ve started delving into Bible times. It’s amazing to me to see how much the background information can bring the Scriptures to life in a greater way! I was surprised to learn that they had bankers too! I’m glad you’re enjoying the series too!

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks Dayle, so glad you’re enjoying them. But to be truthful, my motives for doing them are selfish. I do them because I need to know and learn these things. Over the past few years I just can’t get enough of Scripture!!

      Liked by 1 person

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