Silver stands for both magic and money in the Torah.
Shining silver glimmers with beauty and mystery (as long as someone polishes it). In the book of Genesis, the viceroy of Egypt’s cup made of silver, and Joseph claims to use it for divining as well as drinking.1 In the book of Exodus, the Israelites make parts of the portable sanctuary for God out of silver.2
Silver was also used as money in Egypt, Canaan, and the rest of the Ancient Near East. The first example in the Torah is when Abraham purchases the cave of Makhpeilah for 400 shekels of silver.3 At that time, a shekel was a unit of weight, not a coin.4
The first time Joseph’s brothers come down to Egypt to purchase grain during the seven-year famine, each man brings a bag of silver pieces, probably molded into convenient ingots. They use their silver to pay for the grain they bring back to Canaan, but the mysterious viceroy (actually Joseph) has their silver secretly returned to their packs, on top of the grain.5 At their first camp on the way north, one of them opens his pack.
And he said to his brothers: “Kaspi! It’s been returned! Hey, it’s actually in my pack!” And their hearts left them and they trembled. Each man said to his brother: “What is this God has done to us?” (Genesis 42:28)
kaspi (כַּסְפִּי) = my silver. (A form of the noun kesef, כֶּסֶף = silver.)
Spooked, the brothers are psychologically primed for further mysteries. They return to Egypt for more grain the following year, this time bringing their youngest brother, Benjamin, as the viceroy requested. They are afraid they will be accused of stealing back their own payment, so they carefully explain what happened to the viceroy’s steward, who says their God must have done it.6
That night, Joseph has his steward repeat the trick—and this time he also has his own silver cup hidden in the mouth of Benjamin’s bag. He uses the apparent theft of the silver cup as a pretext to arrest all eleven brothers.7 Then he decrees that the rest can go home, but Benjamin must stay in Egypt as his slave.8 At this Judah, the ringleader who talked his brothers into selling Joseph as a slave 22 years before, steps forward and begs the viceroy to let him stay as the slave instead of Benjamin. Joseph now has proof that Judah and his brothers have changed, so he reveals his identity and unites the family.
Joseph brings his own family down to Egypt and promises to support them, but he continues to charge everyone else for the grain he stockpiled before the famine began.
And Joseph collected all the kesef to be found in the land of Egypt and in the land of Canaan through the sale of grain, while they were buying grain. And Joseph brought the kesef to the house of Pharaoh. Then the kesef from the land of Egypt and from the land of Canaan ran out. So the Egyptians came to Joseph, saying: “Bring us food! Why should we die in front of you, because the kesef is gone?” Then Joseph said: “Bring your livestock and I will give [grain] to you for your livestock, if the kesef is gone.” (Genesis 47:14-15)
Now Pharaoh owns all the livestock of Egypt as well as all the silver of Egypt and Canaan. The following year, the Egyptians tell the viceroy that they have nothing left to buy grain with except themselves and their land. So he acquires them as slaves under a system of serfdom. Pharaoh now owns all the land in Egypt except for the allotments of the priests, and all the farmers must give a fifth of their produce to Pharaoh.9
This week, as I delve into the ethics of Joseph’s enslavement of the Egyptians for the book I am writing on Genesis, I am also reading about the call for donations of silver and other precious materials in the current Torah portion, Terumah. Here is the blog post I wrote on the subject: Terumah: Heavy Metals.
The purpose of the donations is to supply the raw materials to build a portable sanctuary for God. But how do the Israelites, ex-slaves in the wilderness of Sinai, have gold and silver to donate?
When God strikes the Egyptians with the final plague, the death of the firstborn, the Israelite slaves pack up to leave the country.
And the Israelites had done as Moses had spoken and asked the Egyptians for objects of kesef and gold, and garments. And God had given the people favor in the eyes of the Egyptians, and they let them have what they asked for. So they plundered Egypt. (Exodus 12:35-36)
All the Israelites had to do was ask, according to this story, and the Egyptians eagerly handed over their money and everything else made with precious metals. They were desperate to see the Israelites leave the country so that the God of Israel would finally stop afflicting them with plagues.
Silver in the Torah, like money in the world today, does not circulate evenly. It becomes concentrated in the hands of whoever has the most power. When Joseph is the viceroy of Egypt he has power over all the stockpiles of grain, so the all the silver in Canaan and Egypt goes into Pharaoh’s coffers, and all the farmers of Egypt are enslaved. About 400 years later, according to the Torah, the Israelites are enslaved and the Egyptians have silver. After the Egyptians discover that the God of Israel has the most power, they hand over their wealth so God will leave them alone. Now the Israelite ex-slaves have gold and silver.
In a moment of panicked insecurity, the Israelites donate some of the jewelry they extorted from the Egyptians to make a golden calf, hoping that then their god will inhabit something they can see.10 Meanwhile, God tells Moses in this week’s Torah portion to have the people make a portable sanctuary for God to inhabit.11 After Moses comes down from Mount Sinai and the Israelites have been punished and redirected, they eagerly donate their plundered silver and gold to make the sanctuary.12
The silver in the sanctuary is taken out of circulation as money. The people donate their silver and other precious materials because they need to believe God is right there with them, inside the beautiful sanctuary they are building. After all, they need to eat, just like the Egyptians and Canaanites in the book of Genesis who handed over their silver to Pharaoh’s viceroy, who controlled the grain supply. By the portion Terumah in the book of Exodus, the Israelites know that God has the power to give them manna to eat, or withhold it. They hand over their silver and gold to God.
But this time the precious metals are not just money stored away in some strongman’s coffers. The people can see the silver hooks holding up the cloth courtyard walls and the silver bands on its posts; the gold hooks holding up the richly colored cloths of the tent-sanctuary walls, the silver sockets securing the cross-pieces in the frame of the tent, and its gold-plated doorposts.13 These touches of shining metal add to the beauty and mystery of the enclosure, elevating the spirits of the Israelites as they worship God.
- Genesis 44:2-12.
- The walls of the sanctuary proper are cloth hung in wood frames whose sockets are silver (Exodus 26:19-25). The cloth walls of the open courtyard in front of the sanctuary hang from silver hooks, and the posts holding up the framework are banded with silver (Exodus 27:17).
- Genesis 23:15-16.
- One shekel was 8.4 grams. The oldest coins unearthed in the Israelite and Philistine region date to the late 6th century B.C.E., when the Babylonian Empire fell to the Persians.
- Genesis 42:25-28.
- Genesis 43:18-23.
- Genesis 44:1-9.
- Genesis 44:17.
- Genesis 47:18-24.
- Exodus 32:1-4.
- Exodus 25:8.
- Exodus 35:21-24.
- Exodus 27:17, 26:19-25, 26:36-37.