Sunday, September 15, 2013

Wages and Measures in the Book of Mormon

Before narrating Zeezrom’s offer to bribe Amulek (Alma 11:22), Mormon places Zeezrom’s bribe in context by giving an account of Nephite weights as compared to measures of grain (Alma 11:1-20). In doing so, he observes that “a senum of silver was equal to a senine of gold, and either for a measure of barley, and also for a measure of every kind of grain” (Alma 11:7). This listing of an exchange rate provides a means of comparison that sheds light on the Nephite practices. Unfortunately, we know neither the grain measure nor the weights in question, which diminishes our understanding an appreciation of the passage.

In order to shed light on the Nephite measurement, earlier studies have compared the Nephite system of weights with a set of Egyptian measures.1 Unfortunately, the system of Egyptian measures used is a small one normally used in recipes and ranging in size from the equivalent of two teaspoons up to about a gallon. In which case, Zeezrom’s bribe would be the equivalent of about 28.8 liters (about 6 ½ gallons) of grain, and judges would get paid just less than half a liter (about 1 3/4 cups) of grain per day of judging, perhaps half a loaf of bread, an unrealistically small wage. This suggests that a one to one comparison of Egyptian measures to Nephite ones is not likely. Another comparison, however, might prove a bit more enlightening.

Most ancient systems have two sets of measures, one for smaller prices, measured in the equivalent of grain, and one for larger prices, measured in the equivalent of metal. At a certain point, these two measuring systems meet where a certain amount of grain is equivalent to a smaller amount of metal. We will refer to this point as the equivalence point. A number of ancient monetary systems follow this pattern, including the Nephite system.

Ancient Egypt follows the same pattern where prices on less expensive items are usually given in grain measures rather than in units of money,2 and more expensive items are given in weights of copper, silver and gold. The equivalence point is at one copper weight called a diban (91 grams)3 which is the equivalent of a measure (h3r, literally “sack”) of grain (= 76.88 liters).4 Silver in ancient Egypt is worth ten times the same amount of copper.5 The normal monthly wages of grain given to ordinary workmen at Deir el-Medina was 422.84 liters (5 ½ h3r) of grain per month,6 or 14.09 liters of grain per day. Officials at Deir el-Medina received about a third again as much at 7 ½ h3r of grain per month.7 The exchange rate in Ramesside Egypt was roughly 8.49 liters of grain per gram of silver.

The earlier Assyrian king, Shamshi-Adad I, claims to have fixed the prices in ancient Assyria to 2 gur (240 liters) of barley for a shekel (8 1/3 grams) of silver,8 or 28.8 liters of grain per gram of silver, but this price was artificially low and was generally ignored, the actual price being much higher.9 If, for purposes of comparison, we assume that a Nephite measure is about equivalent to a h3r of grain and a Nephite worker gets paid about the same as a worker at Deir el-Medina, then a Nephite judge is paid approximately 6 times what a Nephite worker is paid. Zeezrom’s bribe would then be about a year’s worth of wages for a worker. This is a considerable sum of money. If something more like the Assyrian system were in use, Zeezrom’s bribe would amount to about three and a half years’ worth of wages. These comparisons, rather than about two day’s wages as suggested above, are more likely to give us an idea of the magnitude of Zeezrom’s bribe.

Since “the judge received for his wages according to his time–a senine of gold for a day” (Alma 11:3), rather than on a per case basis, it is in the judge’s economic interest to judge more often; “it was for the sole purpose to get gain, because they received their wages according to their employ, therefore, they did stir up the people to riotings, and all manner of disturbances and wickedness, that they might have more employ” (Alma 11:20). Keeping our assumptions that a judge is paid a week’s wages for a laborer per day, this could have been instituted by Mosiah to be roughly compensatory assuming that the judge would only need to judge once a week. But the amount of pay would be sufficient that a judge would have reason to want to work more often.

The lawyers were not paid per diem but rather they “get money according to the suits” (Alma 11:20). Thus if a judge heard ten cases per day, he was paid the same amount as if he only heard one, while a lawyer would get paid for ten cases. So a lawyer would potentially get paid much more unless the judges took bribes. Zeezrom’s actions indicate that a bribe was standard procedure: Zeezrom “being one of the most expert among them, having much business to do among the people” (Alma 10:31) begins his examination of Amulek by proposing a bribe (Alma 11:21-22). Thus, in Ammonihah, the judges, the lawyers, and the clergy (Alma 14:16, 18; 16:11; 1:3, 12) all served their own economic interest rather than whatever interests they should have served. Thus, Amulek’s charge “that the foundation of the destruction of this people is beginning to be laid by the unrighteousness of your lawyers and your judges” (Alma 10:27), is certainly in keeping with speaking “in favor of your law, to your condemnation” (Alma 10:26).

1The topic is also discussed in John W. Welch, “Weighing and Measuring in the Worlds of the Book of Mormon” in Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 8/2 (1999): 36-46; John W. Welch and J. Gregory Welch, Charting the Book of Mormon: Visual Aids for Personal Study and Teaching (Provo, Utah: FARMS, 1999), charts110-13.
2Jac. J. Janssen, Commodity Prices from the Ramessid Period: An Economic Study of the Village of Necropolis Workmen at Thebes (Leiden: Brill, 1975), 514-23.
3Ibid., 101.
4Ibid., 109.
5Ibid., 101-2.
6Ibid., 460.
7Ibid., 460.
8RIMA A.0.39.1, in A. Kirk Grayson, Assyrian Rulers of the Third and Second Millennia BC (to 1115 BC), RIMA 1 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1987), 49; Albert Kirk Grayson, Assyrian Royal Inscriptions, 2 vols. (Wiesbaden: Otto Harrassowitz, 1972-76), 1:20; the conversions are based on M. A. Powell, "Masse und Gewichte," Reallexikon der Assyriologie 7:499, 510.
9Grayson, Assyrian Royal Inscriptions, 1:20-21, n. 64.