Measures of length

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

Length

Image shows how lengths were determined off of the human body.

The universal practice of ancients was to name the commonest measure of length from the limbs of the human body, particularly the arm and hand.

Cubit

The cubit (אַמָּה֒, H564; Gr. πῆχυς, G4388; Lat., cubitus) is the principal unit of linear measurement used in the Bible. Hebrew linear measurements were based upon the Egyptian system. The cubit was the length of the forearm measured to the tip of the middle finger.



Reed


Span

The span (זֶ֫רֶת, H2455) was the distance from the tip of the thumb to the tip of the little finger with the hand extended and the fingers apart. It was half the common cubit (Exod 28:16; 1 Sam 17:4). The Vul. mistakenly trs. it as palmus which has caused confusion with the following term (handbreadth). The ephod (Exod 28:16) and the breastpiece (Exod 39:9) were a span square. Goliath’s height was six cubits and a span (1 Sam 17:4).

Handbreadth or Palm

The handbreadth or palm (טֶ֫פַח, H3255, was the breadth of the hand at the base of the fingers, generally considered to be a sixth of a common cubit (and 1/7 of a “sacred” cubit) which would be 7.404 centimeters or 2.915 inches (Exod 25:25; 1 Kings 7:26; 2 Chron 4:5; Ps 39:5; Ezek 40:5). It was the equivalent of “four fingers” (1 Kings 7:15).

Finger

The finger (אֶצְבַּע, H720) was the smallest subdivision of the cubit (as in Egypt), 1/4 of a handbreadth. It occurs only in Jeremiah 52:21 where the thickness of two hollow pillars is given as four fingers. It is mentioned frequently in the Talmud.

Gomed

The gomed (גֹּ֫מֶד, H1688) is mentioned only once and is tr. “cubit” (Judg 3:16). It is the length of a dagger rather than a sword and could not be a “cubit.” The LXX trs. it “span” (σπθιθαμῆς), which is prob. correct, as the context requires a short dagger. The Vul. trs. as palmae manus (palm of a hand). At most it could be 2/3 cubit or four handbreadths. Some modern scholars consider it to be a “short cubit.”

Based on a standard cubit of 17.5 inches, the linear measurements of the OT may be summarized as follows:

Graeco-Roman units

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The cubit (πῆχυς, G4388), mentioned in the NT (Matt 6:27; Luke 12:25; John 21:8; Rev 21:17) is prob. 17.5 inches, since the Romans reckoned the cubit as 1 1/2 times the Rom. ft. of 11.66 or 17.49 inches.

Fathom

The fathom or “arm-stretch” (ὀργυιά, G3976), a measure for depth of water (Acts 27:28), was equal to about six ft. (if six Gr. ft. = 72.9 in.).

Stadion (Furlong)

The stadion (pl. stadia) (RSV) or furlong (KJV) (στάδιον, G5084), a Rom. measure, contained 400 cubits which would be 202 1/2 yards or 1/8 Rom. m. (Luke 24:13; John 6:19; Rev 14:20).

Mile

The Rom. m. (μίλιο) was 1,620 yds. (Matt 5:41). In the E provinces of the Rom. empire a slightly longer m. was used, equal to c. 1/4 of the Pers. parasang.

Distance between points

Traveling distances and the distance between two points are expressed in what would be imprecise and vague terms to modern man. The step or pace (פֶּ֫שַׂע, H7315) is mentioned but once, and that as a metaphor: “there is but one step between me and death” (1 Sam 20:3).


In Genesis 35:16 and 2 Kings 5:19, the distance is expressed as “an extent of country,” which means only “some distance,” or “a short distance.” It can be estimated that under ordinary conditions twenty to twenty-five miles could be traversed in a day.

A Sabbath day’s journey (ὁδός σαββάτου) is the distance between Mount Olivet and Jerusalem (Acts 1:12). According to Josephus this distance was six stadia or 1,237.8 yards. A rabbinical rule derived from Numbers 35:5 set the distance permissible for Sabbath travel at a little over 1/2 mile.

Exodus 16:29 forbids a person to leave his “place” on the Sabbath. Joshua 3:4 recorded that the distance between the Ark and the people was 2,000 cubits (c. 3600 ft.), and since some could go to the Ark to worship on the Sabbath, it is assumed that a Sabbath day’s journey was 2,000 cubits.


An Additional Perspective on Hezekiah's Water Tunnel

The length of Hezekiah’s water tunnel underneath Jerusalem is stated by the inscription in the tunnel to be 1,200 cubits. The tunnel is 1,749 feet (547 m.) long according to the most reliable measurement. The cubit length thus arrived at is 17.49 inches (45 cm.). This does not mean, however, that the cubit in Hezekiah’s time was exactly 17.49 inches long: the figure of 1,200 cubits is a round number, also it is not certain at what point the ancient measuring of the tunnel began. The Siloam Inscription indicates only that our approximate length for the cubit—a little less than eighteen inches—is not too far off, which is as positive a conclusion as can be hoped for under the circumstances.

Confirmatory evidence for this length of the cubit is also seen in the fact that many ancient buildings have been found on excavation to be measurable in terms of a cubit of about seventeen and one-half inches, or in reeds equivalent to six such cubits.