Holman Bible Dictionary
Weights and Measures
Systems of measurement in the Bible. In the Ancient Near East, weights and measure varied. The prophets spoke against merchants who used deceitful weights (Micah 6:11 ).
Weights Considering first the Old Testament evidence, Hebrew weights were never an exact system. An abundance of archaeological evidence demonstrates that not even inscribed weights of the same inscription weighed the same. Weights were used in a balance to weigh out silver and gold, since there was no coinage until the Persian period after 500 B.C. This medium of exchange replaced bartering early in the biblical period.
The shekel is the basic unit of weight in the Hebrew as well as the Babylonian and Canaanite systems, though the exact weight varied from region to region and sometimes also according to the kind of goods for sale. The Mesopotamian system was sexagesimal, based on sixes and sixties. So, for example, the Babylonian system used a talent of sixty minas, a mina of sixty shekels, and a shekel of twenty-four gerahs .
The Hebrew system was decimal like the Egyptian, though the weights were not the same. Variations in the weights of the shekel may be attributed to several factors other than the dishonesty condemned in the law (Deuteronomy 25:13-16 ) and the prophets (Amos 8:5 ; Micah 6:11 ). There could have been variation between official and unofficial weights, including the setting of new standards by reform administrations such as that of good King Josiah. There might have been a depreciation of standards with passage of time, or a use of different standards to weight different goods (a heavy standard was used at Ugarit to weigh purple linen), or the influence of foreign systems. There seems to have been three kinds of shekel current in Israel: (1) a temple shekel of about ten grams (.351 ounces) which depreciated to about 9.8 grams (.345 ounces); (2) the common shekel of about 11.7 grams (.408 ounces) which depreciated to about 11.4 grams (.401 ounces); and (3) the heavy (“royal”?) shekel of about thirteen grams (.457 ounces).
The smallest portion of the shekel was the gerah, which was 1/20 of a shekel (Exodus 30:13 ; Ezekiel 45:12 ). The gerah has been estimated to weigh .571 grams. There were larger portions of the shekel, the most familiar of which was the beka or half shekel ( Exodus 38:26 ), known also from Egypt. Inscribed examples recovered by archaeologists average over six grams and may have been half of the heavy shekel mentioned above. The pim , if it Isaiah 2/3 of a shekel as most scholars suppose, is also related to the heavy shekel and weighs about eight grams. It may have been a Philistine weight, since it is mentioned as the price the Philistines charged Israelite farmers to sharpen their agricultural tools when the Philistines enjoyed an iron monopoly over Israel ( 1 Samuel 13:19-21 ).
Multiples of the shekel were the mina and the talent . According to the account of the sanctuary tax (Exodus 38:25-26 ), three thousand shekels were in a talent, probably sixty minas of fifty shekels each. This talent may have been the same as the Assyrian weight, since both 2 Kings 18:14 and Sennacherib's inscriptions mention the tribute of King Hezekiah as thirty talents of silver and of gold. This was 28.38 to 30.27 kilograms (about seventy pounds). The mina was probably fifty shekels (as the Canaanite system), though Ezekiel 45:12 calls for a mina of sixty shekels, and the early Greek translation reads, “fifty.” The mina has been estimated at 550 to 600 grams (1.213 to 1.323 lbs.). One table of Old Testament weights, estimated on a shekel of 11.424 grams is as follows:
We should remember however, that this is misleading, for Old Testament weights were never so precise as this. The Lord's ideal was just weights and measures ( Leviticus 19:36 ; Proverbs 16:11 ; Ezekiel 45:10 ); but dishonest manipulations were all too common (Proverbs 11:1 ; Proverbs 20:23 ; Hosea 12:7 ), and archaeologists have discovered weights that have been altered by chiseling the bottom. Interesting things weighed in the Old Testament were Goliath's armor (1 Samuel 17:5-7 ) and Absolom's annual haircut (2 Samuel 14:26 ). In the New Testament, the talent and mina were large sums of money (Matthew 25:15-28 ; compare Luke 19:13-25 ), and the pound of precious ointment (John 12:3 ) is probably the Roman standard of twelve ounces.
Measures Measures of capacity, like the weights, were used from earliest times in the market place. These were also only approximate and varied from time to time and place to place. Sometimes different names were used to designate the same unit. Some names were used to describe both liquid and dry measures as the modern liter. The basic unit of dry measure was the ephah which means basket. The homer , “ass's load,” was a dry measure, the same size as the cor , both a dry and a liquid measure. Each contained ten ephahs or baths, an equivalent liquid measure (Ezekiel 45:10-14 ). The ephah is estimated at 1.52 to 2.42 pecks, about 3/8 to 2/3 of a bushel.
The bath is estimated from two fragments of vessels so labeled from tell Beit Mirsim and Lachish to have contained 21 to 23 liters or about gallons, which would correspond roughly to an ephah of 3/8 to 2/3 of a bushel. Lethech , which may mean half a homer (or cor) would be five ephahs. Seah was a dry measure which may be a third of a ephah. Hin , an Egyptian liquid measure, which means “jar” was approximately a sixth of a bath. The omer , used only in the manna story (Exodus 16:13-36 ) was a daily ration and is calculated as a tenth of an ephah (also called issaron, “tenth”). A little less than half an omer is the kab (only 2 Kings 6:25 NRSV), which was four times the smallest unit, log (only Leviticus 14:10-20 NRSV) which is variously estimated, according to its Greek or Latin translation as a half pint or 23 pint.
Although Old Testament measures of capacity varied as much as the difference between the American and English gallon, the following table at least represents the assumptions of the above discussion:
In the New Testament, measures of capacity are Greek or Roman measures. The sextarius or “pot” (Mark 7:4 ) was about a pint. The measure of John 2:6 ( metretas ) is perhaps ten gallons. The bushel (modios ) of Matthew 5:15 and parallels is a vessel large enough to cover a light, perhaps about a fourth of an American bushel. As remarked before, the amount of ointment Mary used to anoint Jesus ( John 12:3 ) was a Roman pound of twelve ounces (a measure of both weight and capacity), and Nicodemus brought a hundred such pounds of mixed spices to anoint Jesus' body (John 19:39 ).
In measures of length, all over the Ancient Near East, the standard was the cubit , the length of the forearm from the elbow to the tip of the middle finger. Israel knew two different lengths for the cubit just as did Egypt. The common cubit, mentioned in connection with the description of the bed of Og, king of Bashan (Deuteronomy 3:11 ), was about seventeen and a half inches. This may be deduced from the 1,200 cubit length mentioned in the Siloam, inscription for King Hezekiah's tunnel which has been measured to yield a cubit of this length. Ezekiel (Ezekiel 40:5 ) mentions a long cubit consisting of a common cubit plus a handbreadth which would yield a “royal” cubit of about twenty and a half inches, similar to the Egyptian short and long cubits.
Even figuring with the common cubit, Goliath's height was truly gigantic at six cubits and a span (1 Samuel 17:4 ), about nine and a half feet tall . If Solomon's Temple is figured with the common cubit, it was about ninety-feet long, thirty-feet wide, and forty-five-feet high (1 Kings 6:2 ). The span is half a cubit (Ezekiel 43:13 ,Ezekiel 43:13,43:17 ), or the distance between the extended thumb and little finger. If it is half the long cubit, the span would be about ten and one-fifth inches; if half, the common cubit was about eight and three-fourths inches.
The handbreadth or palm is a sixth of a cubit, consisting of the breadth of the hand at the base of the four fingers. This measure is a little less than three inches. The smallest Israelite measure of length was the finger, a fourth of a handbreadth ( Jeremiah 52:21 ) and was about three-fourths inch. Larger than a cubit was the reed, probably consisting of six common cubits. Archaeologists have noticed several monumental buildings whose size can be calculated in round numbers of such cubits or reeds. Summarizing on the basis of the common cubit, linear measurements of the Old Testament were:
There were indefinite measures of great length, such as a day's journey or three day's journey or seven day's journey, the calculation of which would depend on the mode of transportation and the kind of terrain. Shorter indefinite distances were the bowshot (Genesis 21:16 ) and the furrow's length (1 Samuel 14:14 NRSV).
In the New Testament measures of length were Greek or Roman units. The cubit was probably the same as the common cubit, since the Romans reckoned it as one and a half times the Roman foot. The fathom ( Acts 27:28 ) was about six feet of water in depth. The stadion or furlong was a Roman measure of 400 cubits or one eighth Roman mile. The Roman mile ( Matthew 5:41 ) was 1,620 yards. Josephus calculated this as six stadia or 1,237.8 yards.
Measures of area were indefinite in the Old Testament. An “acre” was roughly what a yoke of oxen could plow in one day. Land could be measured by the amount of grain required to sow it. In New Testament times a Roman measure of land was the Latin jugerum , related to what a yoke of oxen could plow, figured at 28,000 square feet or five-eighths of an acre. Another was the furrow, 120 Roman feet in length.
In conclusion weights and measures in biblical times are seldom precise enough to enable one to calculate exact metric equivalents, but the Lord set forth an ideal for just balances, weights, and measures. Different standards in surrounding Near Eastern countries affected biblical standards. Sometimes there were two standards operating at the same time, such as short and long, light and heavy, common and royal. There is enough evidence to figure approximate metrological values for the biblical weights and measures.
M. Pierce Matheney
Saturday, March 8th, 2014
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