|International trade arose from curiosity|
When the beginning of global trade is discussed, scholars commonly emphasize the exchange of goods and violence, and neglect to mention that the exchange of ideas, skills and knowledge (and even DNA) did most of the shaping of humanity's early cultural world.
Fighting is a supremely inefficient means to get by, and population densities were so low that very little competition resulted in very little friction and very little wars. Even in today's overcrowded day and age, most violent conflicts happen on TV and not outdoors.
It takes some getting used to but Biblical time is not the same as historical time. It's rather a schedule in complexity, somewhat similar to the "four years" of high school which actually takes you six years of historical time to complete. Hence, when we discuss Biblical history, the word "first" marks a level of complexity not a particular point in time.
As such, Abraham is the "first" character in the Bible who properly itinerates and even circulates (and read our article on the name Hebrew for a look at the typical inquisitive nature of Abraham's journey), the first to be rich (in cattle and precious metals; Genesis 13:2), the first to compete and to establish a peaceful economic pact (with Lot; 13:6-12), the first to view the entire world as his oyster (13:14-15) and to whom the sky was the limit (15:5).
Abraham was the first to pay property tax, namely 10% (to Melchizedek; Genesis 14:20), and this was adopted into Israel's national policy (Genesis 28:22, Numbers 18:26, Hebrews 7:5). The first time the Bible speaks of a commercial purchase is in Genesis 17, where circumcision is instituted as sign of the great covenant, and YHWH orders Abraham to include the men he had acquired via purchase (miqna, which is related to the name Cain).
The first monetary transaction occurs as restitution for Sarah's disgrace by Abimelech (Genesis 20:16; because Abraham was also the first to pimp off his wife, twice: Genesis 20 and 12:11-20).
|A first century Shekel|
The first actual purchase with money described in the Bible is Abraham's flamboyantly negotiated acquisition of the cave of Machpelah from Ephron, son of Zohar of Heth. Abraham wanted that cave and wanted to pay for it in order to properly burry Sarah (Genesis 23). He paid 400 shekels for it (23:16), according to the "passing of trade" ('aber lasahar, from the same root as the name Hebrew).
The shekel probably started out as a standard weight (proper monetary coinage was probably invented by the Lydians in the 8th century BC), although it's a mystery how this standard was obtained or maintained. Still, a commercial standard based on the common usage of a unit of wealth demonstrates an advanced level of social sophistication.
Abraham the camel man
A somewhat more hairy unit of wealth was the camel, but where the English word "camel" is solely reserved for that humped beast of burden, the Hebrew cognate gamal, meaning camel, comes from the identical verb gamal, which means to trade or invest. In other words: the Hebrew noun gamal does not denote a specific biological genus, it describes a particular economic function, namely that of investing and long-distance trading.
|The unit of long distance trade|
The next time Abraham's proverbial camels are mentioned is when Abraham sends his chief of staff (probably Eliezer) north to his family's land with "ten" camels and the whole of Abraham's wealth in his hand (24:10), in order to obtain a wife for Isaac (and note the emphasis on the personal freedom upon which all trade is based: 24:5-8).
The first time the verb gamal is used, surprisingly enough, is in the statement, "The child grew and was weaned (or more literally: invested in during its startup period), and Abraham made a great feast on the day that Isaac was weaned" (21:8).
Since the name Isaac means joy or fun, this statement also explains that the result of international trade is play, leisure and entertainment.