Patriarchal Wealth Genesis 12:16; 13:2

It is well that we should entertain some distinct ideas respecting the real condition of the patriarchal fathers as to wealth and power. The history dwells so little on these matters, that it requires some experience of the corresponding condition of life, as it still subsists in the East, to apprehend the force of the few intimations which do incidentally transpire.

There are probably few readers who conceive further of Abraham’s establishment, than that it consisted of one, or at most two or three tents, with some half-a-dozen servants, and flocks of sheep and other cattle feeding around. Now this is altogether wrong. His encampment must have formed, so  to speak, quite a large village of tents, with inhabitants equal to the population of a small town or a large village. Great numbers of women and children were to be seen there, and some old men; but not many men in their prime, these being for the most part away, from a few to many miles off, with the flocks, of which, immediately around the tents, there was probably less display than the lowest of the common estimates of Abraham’s station would assume.

We are told that Abraham was “very rich,” and it is stated of what his riches consisted; but we are not told of the quantities of these riches he possessed. However, by putting things together, we may arrive at some notions not far from the truth.

We have the strong fact to begin with, that Abraham is treated by the native princes and chieftains of the land, as “a mighty prince,” an equal, if not a superior, to themselves. Then we learn that his house-born slaves, able to bear arms and to make a rapid march, followed by a daring enterprise, were not less than 318. A body of such men can be furnished only by a population four times its own number, including women and children. We can, therefore, not reckon the patriarch’s camp as containing less than 1272 souls; and this number of people could not well have been accommodated in so few as a hundred tents.

Now as to the cattle. One of the most tangible statements we can find, is of the wealth of the same sort, which, in or about the same age, rendered Job “the greatest of all the men of the East”—making some allowance for the fact, that Job was not exactly a nomad shepherd, but cultivated the ground also, and had a fixed residence. His wealth consisted of 7000 sheep; 3000 camels; 1000 (500 yoke of) oxen; and 500 asses. Now it appears to us, that the wealth of a camp whose chief numbered above a thousand dependants, could not well have been less. Let us, however, test this by another computation. Jacob, when he was returning to Canaan with the pastoral wealth he had gained during his twenty years’ sojourn in Padanaram, set apart a selection  from his stock of animals wherewith to placate his offended brother. Now, as we know the number of the animals in this costly offering, we should have something to go by if we could tell what proportion this present bore to the whole. Was it a tenth, the proportion which Abraham thought a fit offering to a king? We think it was probably more, because Esau feared to impoverish his brother by taking so much from him, and was only prevailed upon to do so, by Jacob’s declaring that he had still enough. Take it then, at one-fifth. Now it is hardly to be supposed that the wealth which Jacob had been able to acquire by his twenty years’ service in Mesopotamia, was at all comparable to that which had been formed by Abraham in the course of more than thrice the time, on the basis of a large inheritance, and enhanced by his acquisitions in Egypt; and still less to the same property as increased during a long lapse of years by Isaac; and least of all, to the property which was formed when Jacob’s own separate acquisitions were added to the paternal stock. Let us therefore make what, under the circumstances, is a very moderate calculation—let us assume that Jacob’s offering to Esau was one-fifth of his substance; and that Jacob’s whole substance was equal to one-third of the patriarchal property of the same kind in Canaan—under this view, the first column in the subjoined table shows Jacob’s offering to Esau; the second column gives that amount quintupled; the third exhibits the latter amount trebled; and the fourth column shows Job’s property of the same kinds, for the sake of comparison—


Camels and colts,
Asses and foals,

These calculations appear to us to be corroborated by their near coincidence with the account of Job’s wealth. The only serious difference is in camels, and that is very great. The  difference as to sheep is more apparent than real; for although Job had twice the number of sheep assigned to the patriarchal family, he has no goats; and the patriarchal goats and sheep together, form a number only 300 less than the 7000 sheep of Job.

The chief difference is caused by either the extraordinary abundance of camels in the account of Job’s wealth, or the extraordinary deficiency of these animals in the stock of Jacob. We have counted the foals in the estimate of the latter, and yet the number is small in proportion to that of other animals. Upon the whole, we incline to think that Jacob, coming from Mesopotamia, where to this day camels are few in comparison with those possessed in and on the borders of Arabia, had not the usual proportion of these animals, and that, with respect to them, the estimate formed on the basis of his present to his brother, does not adequately represent the wealth of the patriarchs in Canaan. There is every probability, that the number possessed by them was as large in proportion to their other cattle, as in the case of Job.

It cannot fail to strike the attention of the most cursory reader, that horses, which form so important a part of the modern Bedouin’s possessions, are altogether absent in the statements of the same kinds of wealth belonging to Abraham, Jacob, and Job. It is scarcely possible that the animal should have been unknown to them. In fact, although Job did not possess horses, his book contains the most magnificent description of a war horse that has ever been given (Job_39:19). Again, although there is no mention of horses among the animals which Abraham received from the king of Egypt, this cannot well have been owing to the want of them in that country; for they are found in the most ancient sculptures, and are in this very book mentioned as present in the funeral procession of Jacob from Egypt to the land of Canaan. The truth probably is, that horses were in these early ages used entirely for warlike purposes, and that the powerful patriarchs were averse to the responsibility attached to the use or possession of such animals, especially  in a country like Canaan, to which the use of horses, even for war, does not seem to have at this time extended. This view of the exclusively warlike character of the horse in early times, throws some light upon the injunction in the law against the use of horses. (Deu_17:16.)