Measures of weight

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

Measures of weight

Overview

The archeological evidence is much more abundant for measures of weight than those of length, area, and capacity. Large numbers of inscribed and uninscribed stone weights representing the shekel and its fractions have been found in Palestine The fact that most of the early Hebrew weights which have been discovered were of hard stone is reflected in the general word used in the Bible for weights, the Hebrew word for “stone” (אֶ֫בֶן, H74).

Even today peasants use field stones as weights, selecting one that is approximately the weight they desire. Another word sometimes used was abnē-kis, “bag-stones,” which indicates that carrying weights in a bag was a well-established custom in early Israel (Prov 16:11; Mic 6:11).

Money was not a means of exchange in the earliest period; coinage was not introduced into Palestine until the Persian period. Transactions were therefore handled through barter (exchange of sheep for grain, or for a given weight of gold or silver). In spite of the abundant archeological information, a definite system of weights has not yet been determined for the ancient Near East. There was a great deal of variation because independent systems varied from region to region and also there was variation according to the goods for sale. The standards varied as much as the British and American ton and pound. Hebrew standards of weight were not exact; variety exists even in weights with the same inscription.

The basic unit of weight for the ancient Egyptian was the dbn (deben) which from known examples varied from c. 13.43 grams to c. 91 grams (0.474 ounces avoirdupois to 3.2 ounces avoirdupois). Other units were the kdt (qedet), retained down to the Roman period, which was 1/10 dbn, and the š’ty (seal) which was 1/12 dbn. The OT does not mention any Egyptian weights.

The Hebrew system was derived from the Canaanites who in turn had received it from the Babylonians. שֶׁ֫קֶל, H9203, is the Hebrew word for “to weigh” from which shekel is derived. The shekel was the basic unit of weight common to all ancient Sem. metrologies. In Akkad. it was called the šiqlu. The Assyrian and Babylonian weights did not conform to a general standard but varied greatly through the ages; even a change in government could result in a changed standard of weights. The Mesopotamian weights were calculated on a sexagesimal basis, with the number sixty as the unit of computation (by comparison, the Egyptian had the decimal system which uses ten as the base). Our system of dividing the hour into sixty minutes of sixty seconds each is derived from the ancient Babylonian sexagesimal system. The mina (Akkad. manû, Hebrew māneh), talent (Akkad. biltu) and gerah (girû) were the other principal Mesopotamian measures of weight. Thus the Babylonian system may be represented as: 1 talent = 60 minas = 3,600 shekels = 86,400 gerahs; or stated differently: 1 talent = 60 minas; 1 mina = 60 shekels; 1 shekel = 24 gerahs. There also was in the Mesopotamian system a series of “royal” weights, which were double the ordinary weights. One gold shekel had the value of ten silver shekels. In the most commonly used system in Mesopotamia the shekel weighed 0.30 ounces (8.4 grams).

Some of the Assyrian weights were in the form of metal lions, with open mouth and upswung tail with a symbol on the side representing the weight. To make the weight of the cast lions more (or less?) accurate and honest, bits were chiseled off or filled into the hollow form. A bronze lion of 2/3 mina came from the palace of Shalmaneser, king of Ashur. A weight of thirty minas in the shape of a duck and carved from black basalt was found from the palace of Eriba-Marduk II (?; 688-680 b.c.). An early Babylonian stone is inscribed with the words “one half mina true weight” and actually weighs 244.8 grams (which would make the mina 489.6 grams, or approximately 1.08 pounds avoirdupois). Another weight inscribed “one mina true weight” weighs 978.3 grams, c. 2.16 pounds avoirdupois. Obviously these two stone weights represent the light and the heavy mina.

As already stated, the Hebrew system was derived from the Canaanites who in return had derived theirs from Mesopotamia so the systems in the two areas are in general the same, except that the Canaanite mina contained 50 shekels. There is Biblical evidence for a 50-shekel mina in Israel prior to Ezekiel. Some of the Ugaritic texts determine weights in “heavy” shekels. At Ugarit the talent was only 3,000 shekels rather than 3,600. One collection of weights at Ugarit referred to in the texts indicates a light shekel to be 0.34 ounces (9.5 grams) and reference is made to a “heavy” shekel which may be double the weight of the other. Ugaritic texts found at Ras Shamra refer to the kkr (Hebrew talent, כִּכָּר, H3971) and the tkl (Hebrew shekel, שֶׁ֫קֶל, H9203).

The Hebrew system of computation of weights followed the decimal rather than the sexa-gesimal system. The basic unit was the shekel; its multiples were the mina and the talent. The mina appears only rarely (1 Kings 10:17; Neh 7:71). There is one confirmation that the Assyrian and Hebrew units were equal in some instances. 2 Kings 18:14 says, “The king of Assyria required of Hezekiah king of Judah three hundred talents of silver and thirty talents of gold.” In Sennacherib’s annals of the same incident, the same amount of gold is indicated, though the silver is said to be 800 talents; the similarity between the two accounts is interesting. The Gr. weights were the stater, mina, and talent. The Rom. weights were the drachma, shekel, mina, and talent.

Talent

The talent (כִּכָּר, H3971) derives its name from the fact that it is a weight of circular shape. It was the largest of the units and was known to the Babylonians as biltu. The Babylonian talent weighed 30.13 kg. and was divided into 60 minas of 8.37 grams. The word “talent” comes from the Lat. equivalent of the Gr. talanton (meaning “a weight, something weighed”). It was often used in the historical books but seldom in the Pentateuch (Exod 25:39; 37:24; 38:24-29). According to Exodus 38:25, 26, the sanctuary poll tax of a beka (or half shekel) a head paid by 603,550 men amounted to 100 talents plus 1,775 talents; this would make it clear that there were 3,000 shekels to the talent, which could mean sixty minas of fifty shekels but could just as well mean fifty minas of sixty shekels, though the former seems more probable. A two-talent weight from Lagash in the British Museum gives a weight of 66 3/4 pounds per talent, and mina weights from various periods down to the neo-Babylonian show that the weight of the talent was maintained between 28.38-30.27 kg. for many centuries. It is most likely that this same talent was standard in Syria and Pal.

Mina (Maneh)


Shekel

The shekel (שֶׁ֫קֶל, H9203, from the word “to weigh”) was the basic weight used in the ancient Sem. metrologies. However, there was no uniform weight for the shekel. Even weights with the same inscribed notation do not weigh the same, and there were light and heavy, common and royal weights. The shekel has been estimated by various authorities as weighing between 11.3-11.47 grams. Ezekiel 45:12 says the shekel weighs twenty gerahs and the mina is equal to sixty shekels.


A copy of a stone weight of one mina made by Nebuchadnezzar (605-562 b.c.) was certified as being according to the standard set by Shulgi, king of Ur (c. 2000 b.c.). A large unmarked weight from Tell Beit Mirsim, probably equal to eight minas, gives a shekel weight of 11.41 grams.

The beka is the only weight whose name appears both in the OT and on recovered weights. It is equal to 1/2 shekel (Exod 38:26). Seven stones inscribed bq' have been found which range from 5.8 to 6.65 grams, averaging 6.04 grams. Five other uninscribed weights within the same range must also be bekas, making the average weight of the twelve weights 6.02 grams. Therefore reckoned by beka weights the shekel is 12.02 grams, or 2/5 ounces. Thus it would appear that the symbol resembling a figure 8 with an open loop found on weights of about twelve grams is a symbol for the shekel. However, this amount seems too large, as the weight from Tell Beit Mirsim (mentioned above) gives a shekel of 11.41 grams and the average weight of seventeen weights inscribed with the shekel mark is 11.53 grams. The shekel mark seems to have been an ordinary representation of the serōr or tied bundle in which lump silver (which was used as a medium of exchange) was carried. Various theories have been proposed to explain the origin of the shekel mark, none of which is satisfactory. It has been suggested as of Egyptian, Babylonian, or Persian origin.

The “shekel of the sanctuary” (Exod 30:13, 24; 38:24-26; Lev 5:15; Num 3:47, etc.) is said to be equal to twenty gerahs. The expression is sometimes tr. as “sacred shekel” and is thought by some authorities to be different from the ordinary shekel. It may refer to a standard weight which was kept in the Temple.

Other weights have been found which add to the confusion in determining the weight of the shekel, as they suggest a system with a slightly larger shekel of about thirteen grams which may have been used for weighing certain types of goods. At Ugarit two words were used for the shekel, tql and kbd, the “heavy” shekel being used to weigh purple linen. A weight was found at el-Jib Pritchard of 51.58 grams, inscribed as “four shekels,” which would yield a shekel of 12.89 grams. A weight with five strokes was found at Gezer, weighing 64.47 grams, which is almost exactly 5x12.89 grams. Also at Gezer three uninscribed weights averaged 64.83 grams (or 5 x 12.96 grams). A weight of 13.4 grams comes from Megiddo and two weights of 13.3 grams from Tell en-Nasbeh. Thus the archeological evidence does not enable one to determine an exact value for the shekel. Variations may be attributed to several factors: a tendency to depreciate standards with the passing of time, setting a new value by official decree, variation between official and unofficial weights, the use of different standards to weigh different kinds of goods, the influence of foreign metrological systems of weights, and occasional variation due to careless cleaning and weighing of weights found. The evidence seems to indicate, however, that the larger the weight, the smaller was the shekel unit contained in it. It can be concluded that there were three standards for the shekel: (1) the temple shekel or nṩp of c. ten grams (.351 oz.) which depreciated to c. 9.8 grams (.345 oz.); (2) the ordinary shekel of c. 11.7 grams (.408 oz.) which depreciated to c. 11.4 grams (.401 oz.); and (3) the heavy shekel of c. thirteen grams (.457 oz.).

Gerah

The gerah (גֵּרָה֮, H1743) was 1/20 of a shekel (Exod 30:13; Lev 27:25; Num 3:47; Ezek 45:12) and was the smallest unit of weight. It prob. comes from a word meaning “grain.” In the Babylonian system one shekel=twenty-four gerahs. A weight of 2.49 grams from Sebastiyeh was inscribed ḥmš, prob. representing five gerahs, as another weight from the same place was inscribed “1/4 nṩp, 1/2 s(q)l.” This inscr. tends to confirm the theory that the nṩp is Ezekiel’s shekel of twenty gerahs. The gerah has been estimated to weigh 0.571 grams.

Beka

The beka (בֶּ֫קַע, H1325, from the verb to split; “bekah” KJV) is tr. in Genesis 24:22 as “half-shekel” based on Exodus 38:26 where it is said to be “half a shekel, by the shekel of the sanctuary.” The beka is the only weight (1) whose name both appears in the OT and is inscribed on recovered weights, and (2) whose relationship to the shekel is given (Exod 38:26). It seems to have been the oldest standard in Egypt, having been found in prehistoric graves of the Amratian period. It was the usual weight for gold in Egypt. Seven stone weights inscribed bq' have been found, ranging from 5.8 to 6.65 grams, averaging 6.04 grams. Five other uninscribed weights which must also be beka weights make the overall average weight of the twelve 6.02 grams. This is slightly heavier than other calculations which would suggest that the average weight of the beka is 5.712 grams.

Netseph

The netseph (נצף) is a weight not mentioned in the Bible. Because of its similarity to the Arab. nuṩf (“half”), the name of a coin and a measure, it has been conjectured that the netseph was half of something. It is clearly the name of a standard of weight which was also divided into fractions. A spindle-shaped weight now at the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, bears the inscr. “רבע נצף,” “one-fourth of a netseph”; it weighs 2.54 grams. The netseph is half of a unit but apparently the unit is not the Hebrew shekel. The average weight of a dozen weights inscribed nṩp is 0.35 ounces (ten grams), and therefore belongs to another system. The name is found in the Ugaritic texts together with the shekel and is perhaps equal to 0.34 ounces (9.5 grams) in the weight system. In the Ugaritic system, then, the nṩp would be a “light” shekel equal to half the “heavy” shekel. It has been suggested that perhaps the netseph weights found in Pal. were lost there by Canaanite traders.

Pim

The pim (פִ֗ים, sometimes written pym) is mentioned in a passage that was incomprehensible for a long time until the discovery of a weight of this name (1 Sam 13:21). There were no smiths in the land of Israel; therefore it was necessary for the Israelites to go to the Philistines to sharpen their instruments, “yet they had a file for the mattocks” (KJV). With a discovery of a pim weight a previous conjecture that the pim was the amount of weight paid in silver which was used in the transaction was confirmed so that the RSV translates the verse: “The charge was a pim for the plowshares and for the mattocks.” It may represent 2/3 shekel. Seven weights bearing the inscr. pim range between 7.18 and 8.59 grams with an average weight of 7.762 grams. The word may be of foreign origin and should not be explained in Hebrew, but it is the name of an early Hebrew weight standard.

Pound


Qesitah

The qesitah (קְשִׂיטָֽה) was used by Jacob when paying for the field of Shechem (Gen 33:19; cf. Josh 24:32; Job 42:11). It is otherwise not known as a unit of weight. The LXX trs. it as “male lamb” in Genesis 33:19 and as “female lamb” in Josh 24:32; Job 42:11. Perhaps it was a metal weight in the form of a lamb or a quantity of silver equal to the value of a lamb. The RSV trs. it as “a piece of money.”

Peres


Based on a shekel of 11.24 grams, the following values may be assigned to weights in the OT:

Weights in NT


A Perspective on Money

Remember that coinage was not used in Palestine until after the Exile. Ezra.2.69 is probably the first mention of coined money in the Bible (drachmas niv; drams kjv; daries rsv). During most of OT times, barter (e.g., Gen.30.27-Gen.30.34; Gen.31.8; 2Kgs.3.4), value determined by precious metal weighed out, was the means of exchange.

The shekel is a weight in the OT, not a coin (Ezek.4.10), and the verb shāqal means “to weigh out,” as in Jer.32.10. Simple balance scales were used, and stones of certain weight (often shekels) were used to determine the weight of the silver or gold involved in the transaction. Prov.16.11 reads literally, “the stones [English Bible “weights”] in the bag.”

A good illustration of an ancient business transaction occurs in a Canaanite poem (found at Ras Shamra) that describes the weighing of the marriage price for the wedding of Nikkal and the Moon:

Her father sets the beam of the balances

Her mother, the trays of the balances

Her brothers arrange the ingots(?)

Her sisters (attend) to the stones of the balances (77:34-39).

Difficulties in Measuring Ancient Weights

When one attempts to define the shekel in terms of presently understood weights, the difficulties are formidable. One of the best recent treatments of the problem is R. B. Y. Scott’s, which takes into account the many stone weights found in Palestine and computes values in great detail. The weight-pieces discovered vary greatly. In addition to the double standard mentioned above and the generally unregimented style of ancient Israelite life, the standards themselves may have tended to depreciate, as standards do. The influence of foreign systems may also have been a disturbing factor. The larger weights seem to indicate smaller shekel units than do the smaller weights.

The beqa‘ or half shekel is the only weight named both in the OT and on discovered weights, and of which the relationship to the shekel is given (Exod.38.26). Several stone weights have been found with Hebrew consonants BQ (beqa) cut on them, weighing on an average about .21 ounces (6 g.) (actual weights vary from .2 to .23 oz.—5.8 to 6.65 g.). One thing these beqa weights indicated is that the shekel weighed about .4 ounces (12 g.). Therefore the numerous stones bearing a symbol resembling a figure-eight with an open loop, weighing about .4 ounces (12 g.), must be shekel weights. This symbol seems to be a representation of a tied bundle of lump silver.

Scott concludes that there were three standards for a shekel: the temple shekel of .35 ounces (about 10 g.), the common or commercial shekel of about.4 ounces (11.5 g.), and a “heavy” shekel of about .45 ounces (13 g.). The last of these was probably used in weighing some special commodity.

Further Perspectives

The shekel was divided into gerahs, 20 to a shekel (Ex 30:13). The gerah (gerah) is supposed to be some kind of seed, perhaps a bean or some such plant. The shekel of which it formed a part was probably the royal or commercial shekel of 160 grains, derived from Babylon. But the Hebrews certainly had another shekel, called the Phoenician from its being the standard of the Phoenician traders. This would be natural on account of the close connection of the two peoples ever since the days of David and Solomon, but we have certain evidence of it from the extant examples of the monetary shekels of the Jews, which are of this standard, or very nearly so, allowing some loss from abrasion. The Phoenician shekel was about 224 grains, varying somewhat in different localities, and the Jewish shekels now in existence vary from 212 to 220 grains. They were coined after the captivity, but whether this standard was in use before we have no means of knowing.

Examples of ancient weights have been discovered in Palestine by archaeological research during recent years, among them one from Samaria, obtained by Dr. Chaplin, bearing the inscription, in Hebrew rebha` netseph. This is interpreted, by the help of the cognate Arabic, as meaning "quarter-half," i.e. of a shekel. The actual weight is 39.2 grains, which, allowing a slight loss, would correspond quite closely to a quarter-shekel of the light Babylonian standard of 160 grains, or the quarter of the half of the double standard. Another specimen discovered at Tell Zakariyeh weighs 154 grains, which would seem to belong to the same standard. The weights, of which illustrations are given in the table, are all in the collection of the Syrian Protestant College, at Beirut, and were obtained from Palestine and Phoenicia and are of the Phoenician standard, which was the common commercial standard of Palestine. The largest, of the spindle or barrel type, weighs 1,350 grains, or 87.46 grams, evidently intended for a 6-shekel weight, and the smaller ones of the same type are fractions of the Phoenician shekel. They were of the same standard, one a shekel and the other a two-shekel weight. They each have 12 faces, and the smaller has a lion stamped on each face save one, reminding us of the lion-weights discovered in Assyria and Babylonia. The spindle weights are of black stone, the others of bronze.

The above is the Phoenician standard. In the Babylonian the shekel would be 160 or 320 grains; the maneh 8,000 or 16,000, and the talent 480,000 or 960,000 grains, according as it was of the light or heavy standard.