Balances

Due to the length of the Weights and Measures page, it's been split up into different sections. You can find the main article at Weights and Measures.

Measures of length

Measures of area

Measures of capacity

Measures of weight

Balances

Overview

The English word is from the Latin bilanx and means “having two scales.” It is used to translate three Hebrew words: mo’znayim, kaneh, and peles. The balances of the Hebrews consisted of a horizontal bar, either suspended from a cord that was held in the hand, or pivoted on a perpendicular rod. Scales were suspended from the ends of the bar, one for the object to be weighed, the other for the weight. At first the weights were of stone. Weighing with such balances could be accurately done, but the system was liable to fraud, so that in the OT there is much denunciation of “dishonest scales” (Mic.6.11).

Vocabulary

  • mo’znayim (Le 19:36; Job 6:2; Ps 62:9; Pr 11:1; Isa 40:12,15; Jer 32:10, etc.);
  • qaneh (Isa 46:6), and
  • pelec (Pr 16:11).
  • 'Balance' is found in the singular, e.g. "a just balance" (Pr 16:11); "a pair of balances" (Re 6:5, etc.), as well as in the plur., e.g. "just balances" (Le 19:36), "weighed in the balances" (Da 5:27, etc.).

    Physical Description of the Ancient Hebrew Balances

    The "balances" of the ancient Hebrews differed little, if at all, from those used by the Egyptians (Wilkinson, Anc. Egypt (1878), II, 246 f). They consisted, probably, of a horizontal bar, either pivoted on a perpendicular rod (see Erman, Aegypten, I, 615 for similar Egyptian balances), or suspended from a cord and held in the hand, the more primitive form. At the ends of the bar were pans, or hooks, from which the things to be weighed were suspended, sometimes in bags.

    A good description of the more developed and final form is this: A beam with its fulcrum in the middle and its arms precisely equal. From the ends of the arms were suspended two scales, the one to receive the object to be weighed, the other the counterpoise, or weight.

    The weights were of stone at first and are so named in De 25:13 King James Version, margin. A pair of scales (the King James Version "a pair of balances") is used in Re 6:5 by a figure of speech for the balance as a whole; only once is the beam so used, in Isa 46:6, literally, "weigh silver in the beam." Abraham, we are told (Ge 23:16), "weighed the silver."

    History of Balances

    The basis and fountain-head of all systems of weights and measurements is to be traced, it is now thought, to Babylonia; but the primitive instruments and systems were subject to many modifications as they entered other regions and passed into the derivative systems. The Roman "balance" is the same as our steelyard (vulgarly called "stillyards"). Compare the Chinese, Danish, etc.

    Though the "balances" in ancient times were rudely constructed, the weighing could be done quite accurately, as may be seen in the use of equally primitive balances in the East today. But the system was liable to fraud. A "false balance" might be literally one so constructed that the arms were of unequal length, when the longer arm would be intended, of course, for the article to be weighed. The system was liable, however, to various other subtle abuses then as now; hence the importance in God’s sight of "true weights" and a "just balance" is enforced again and again (see Le 19:36; Pr 11:1; 16:11; 20:23; Am 8:5; Mic 6:11, etc.).

    "A false balance is an abomination to Yahweh" (Pr 11:1; compare Pr 20:23), and "a just balance and scales are Yahweh’s" (Pr 16:11). Ho 12:7 condemns "the balances of deceit" in the hand of the wicked; Am 8:5 (the King James Version) cries out upon "falsifying the balances by deceit," and Mic 6:11 denounces "wicked balances." Indeed, the righteousness of a just balance and true weights, and the iniquity of false ones are everywhere emphasized by the lawmakers, prophets and moral teachers of Israel, and the preacher or teacher who would expose and denounce such things in God’s name today need be at no loss for texts and precedents.

    Other Perspectives

    In order to use weights, balances or scales (מֹאזְנַ֫יִם, H4404, Ugar., mznm; פֶּ֫לֶס, H7144, “scales,” only Isa 40:12) were needed. Foodstuffs were measured by volume, but precious metals and materials were weighed. Small items were measured on a beam-balance with two scales. The balance consisted of a beam mounted on an upright support or suspended on a cord held in the hand, not very different in design from a type still used. Ancient balances were not precision instruments. The graduated scale based on the principle of leverage did not appear before the 4th century b.c.

    The weigh-masters were influential officials. They were known in ancient Egypt where on a cuneiform clay letter one King Burraburiah of Karaduniash to Amenhotep IV complained that the twenty manehs of gold sent to him by the Egyp. pharaoh had not stood the weight test when tried in the furnace. Egyptian judgment scenes from the Book of the Dead showed the heart of the deceased being weighed against the deeds of the deceased in the presence of the god Osiris. A similar figure is used in Daniel 5:27 when mysterious writing appeared on the wall during Belshazzar’s feast.

    Efforts to establish honest weights and measures are quite ancient. The law code of Ur-Nammu (founder of the third dynasty of Ur, c. 2050 b.c.) contained official weights and measures as an effort to discourage dishonest merchants. An old Sumerian hymn to the goddess Nanshe contains a passage denouncing evildoers “who substituted a small weight for a large weight, who substituted a small measure for a large measure.” There is an emphasis on honest weights and measures in the OT which implies that dishonest use of balances was a common practice.


    Figurative mention of balances is found in Job 6:2; Psalm 62:9; Daniel 5:27. Job requested that his life be measured in a just balance (Job 31:6). The NT not only emphasizes a fair measure but a generous one in the words of Jesus: “good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over” (Luke 6:38).

    Bibliography

    Wilkinson, Ancient Egypt;

    Erman, Egypt;

    Lepsius, Denkmaler;