Weights and Measures (in the Bible)

views updated


The Israelites did not invent their own system of metrology, but were content to use the commonly accepted weights and measures. The pastoral patriarchs continued to use the Mesopotamian measures of their ancient homeland in their mutual interchange and readily adapted themselves to the weights and measures of the foreigners with whom they bartered. With the conquest of Canaan, the Israelites, as they became sedentary and urbanized, adopted the so-called Phoenician measures. When they in turn were conquered, variations in their metrology were necessitated for their dealings with their overlords. Thus there was flux and variation in Biblical weights and measures. Nor has archeology supplied us with sufficient data to warrant precise conclusions about metrology during the various epochs of Israel's existence. Hence we must be satisfied with approximations.

Linear Measures. In linear measurements the nomenclature was derived principally from the parts of the arm and hand used by the artisan in making his calculations. Thus the cubit was the length from the elbow to the tip of the extended middle finger; the span, the width of the spread from the tip of the thumb to the tip of the little finger; the palm, the width of the hand at the base of the fingers; and the finger, the width of the thumb. Although the Bible does not indicate the interrelation or proportion of the measurements, they probably followed the actual proportion of the hand and arm. Thus one cubit equaled two spans, six palms, or 24 fingers. The ordinary cubit, however, was distinct from the great or royal cubit, the equivalent of seven palms or 28 fingers. The absolute length, therefore, of the cubit remains uncertain; nor do the apparently precise statistics in the siloam inscription lead to an exact evaluation, since round numbers were used in them. For rough estimation the ordinary cubit may be taken as about 18 inches; the royal, about 21 inches. The Greek cubit of the New Testament measures was about 18 inches.

Distances were generally given empirically, e.g., a three-day journey. Later notations in stadia are difficult to evaluate because of the variant values of the Greek stadium (from 194 to 210 yards). A fathom is six feet, and a Roman mile is 1,618 yards.

Measures of Capacity. Both solid and liquid measures varied during the different epochs of Israel's history, two different systems being discernible: a decimal system and a sexagesimal one. The combination of the two systems and the table of proportions given here are hypothetical and represent the post-Exilic period at the earliest. The dry measures are: homor (ass load) = 10 ephas = (30 s e'â ) = 100 gomors ('ōmer ) = 180 qābs. Sexagesimal proportions are here enclosed in parentheses. R. de Vaux maintains that it is impossible to give the equivalents in modern measures. Estimations for the homor run from 6.77 bushels to 11.43 bushels. The kor, equal to the homor in Ez 45.14, may actually have equaled two homors.

The liquid measures are: one kor or one homor = ten baths = 60 hin = 720 logs. The bath contained about five gallons, but some archeological evidence suggests the existence of a royal bath of about ten gallons.

Weights. These were used to measure precious stones and metals, the basic unit being the shekel, i.e., "weight." The Bible mentions royal weights, sanctuary weights, and merchant's weights. The royal shekel was probably double the ordinary shekel. The value of premonarchical weights and the original sanctuary shekel have not been determined. The shekel's multiples were the mina and the talent. The Mesopotamian mina equaled 60 shekels, but the Phoenician only 50 shekels. The Israelites of the 12th to the 6th century b.c. apparently used the Phoenician system, but the earlier and later Israelites followed the Mesopotamian system. The proportions are: one talent = 60 minas = 3,000 (or 3,600) shekels = 6,000 becas = 72,000 geras.

Archeology has supplied us with about 50 stamped weights, leading to the estimation of the common shekel as the equivalent of 11 to 12 grams, with an average of 11.5 grams or 0.41 ounces. Thus, a talent of 3,000 (or 3,600) shekels equaled about 76 pounds (or about 91 pounds).

In the Hellenistic period, the Seleucid Dynasty adopted Attic standards for weights. antiochus iv epiphanes, however, devaluated the Attic drachma from4.35 grams to 4.20 grams, and Tryphon further debased it to 4.0 grams. The following are equivalent Grecian weights: 1 talent = 60 minas = 6,000 drachmas = 36,000 obols.

Bibliography: Encyclopedic Dictionary of the Bible, translated and adapted by l. hartman (New York, 1963) 257275, 148791, 405407. r. devaux, Ancient Israel, Its Life and Institutions, tr. j. mchugh (New York 1961) 195209. d. diringer, "The Royal Jar-Handle Stamps of Ancient Judah," The Biblical Archeologist 12 (New Haven 1949) 7086. h. lewy, "Assyro-Babylonian and Israelite Measures of Capacity and Rates of Seeding," The Journal of the American Oriental Society 64 (New Haven 1944) 6573. a. segre, "A Documentary Analysis of Ancient Palestine Unit of Measure." Journal of Biblical Literature 64 (Boston 1945) 357375. c. c. wylie, "On King Solomon's Molten Sea," The Biblical Archeologist 12 (New Haven 1949) 8690.

[j. a. pierce]