Weights and Measures
WEIGHTS AND MEASURES. The modern reader of the Scriptures lives in a world dominated by the scientific method and the reign of “fact”—measurable fact. Meat is weighed in pounds and ounces on scales checked periodically by a bureau of weights and measures. Exact measurements in miles and fractions of miles state the distance between places. Liquids are measured exactly, from the contents of an oil tanker to that of a hypodermic needle. Such exact measurements cannot be expected in the Bible. The ancient Hebrew lived in a different kind of a world. The lack (for most of biblical times) of a strong, paternalistic central government, the simple life of self-sufficient country folk, and the frequent influence of foreign nations whose standards differed from those of the Hebrews help to account for the lack of consistent and specific measurements. One must be content with round numbers in the study of the weights and measures of the Bible.
Our information is gained from two sources—written and archaeological. Written sources include the Bible and other ancient books such as the works of Josephus, Herodotus, the Talmud, and references in classical literature. Archaeological information is uncovered by the excavator in the lands of the Bible—labeled weight-stones, jars, and other objects that will be mentioned in this article, which attempts a synthesis of the information from all the sources.
I. Measures of Length. Hebrew measures of length arose (as did the English foot) from the simple estimating of distance in terms of the body. Farmers today measure the height of horses by “hands.” The ancient Hebrews used the terms pace (about a yard), cubit (the length of the forearm), span (length of a hand; about half a cubit), palm (hand-breadth; about one-third of a span), and a finger (about one-quarter of a palm). In Egypt a similar system was used.
The ordinary cubit is equivalent to about seventeen and one-half or eighteen inches (forty-five or forty-six cm.) today; it is once referred to as “the cubit of a man”—i.e., the distance that might be measured by a man’s forearm (Deut.3.11; rsv “the common cubit”). There was a longer cubit, just as we today have a land mile (5,280 ft. [1,650 m.]) and a nautical mile (6,080 ft. [1,900 m.]). Ezekiel mentions a “long cubit,” which he equates with a cubit and a hand-breadth (40:5; 43:13), roughly equivalent to twenty and one-half inches (fifty-three cm.). The Egyptians had two cubits of about the same length (about seventeen and one-half and twenty and one-half in. [forty-five and fifty-three cm.]). The usual cubit in the Bible is the shorter one. The longer cubit is used in Ezekiel’s measurements and possibly in Solomon’s temple (2Chr.3.3 may be a reference to it).
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.
Some other terms of measurement in the Bible are the reed, the gōmedh, and the fathom. The reed, mainly an instrument for measuring rather than a unit of measurement, was six cubits long (Ezek.40.5). The term gōmedh, which occurs only in Judg.3.16 and is translated “cubit” (niv “about a foot and a half” [one-half m.]), is thought by present scholars to refer to a shorter distance—two-thirds of a cubit at most—for a dagger rather than a sword is referred to. The fathom (armstretch; Acts.27.28) was about six feet (almost two m.).
II. Measurements of Distance and Area. In OT times distance was usually measured by the length of time necessary to traverse it. Thus we read of the “three-day journey” (Gen.30.36) and “for seven days” (Gen.31.23). In the NT these terms are used: stadium (“furlong” kjv, Luke.24.13; John.6.19), about 606 feet (189 m.); mile (Matt.5.41), about 4,860 feet (1,519 m.). About the Sabbath day’s journey there is some uncertainty. The term, used to indicate the distance one might walk without breaking the Sabbath law, seems to have been an elastic one. Josephus calls it five stadia in one place and six in another, making it equal 3,000 or 3,600 feet (938 or 1,125 m.). This is about the distance from Jerusalem to the Mount of Olives (Acts.1.12).
Land measurements were indicated in terms of the area that a team of oxen could plow in one day (1Sam.14.14). This is the meaning of “acre” in Isa.5.10, where the Hebrew is semedh—“yoke [of oxen].” In Mesopotamia this area equaled two-fifths of an acre. Elsewhere land area was stated as the part of a field that could be seeded with barley in one day (Lev.27.16).
III. Measures of Capacity. Our uncertainty about the units of capacity is understandable when one considers the origin of these terms. They seem to have arisen from common household pots (all handmade locally), or from the farmer’s estimate of the carrying ability of a man or beast. The hin was a pot and the ephah a basket (both words are of Egyptian origin). The omer was a sheaf and the homer a donkey load. The word bath means “daughter”; could this jar be the one that one’s daughters carried home from the well? (Gen.24.15).
The student of the English Bible will have difficulty in following this discussion in his Bible because of the untechnical character of his translation. Many of the terms mentioned below are translated “measure” in quite a few places in the standard English versions. The best way to discover which unit the Hebrew or Greek text refers to is to use a comprehensive concordance (such as Strong’s or Young’s), where the Hebrew and Greek terms are clearly distinguished.
The bath was the standard liquid measure in OT times. Its value is a matter of dispute. At present scholars regard it as equal to about six gallons (twenty-three l.), rather than ten gallons (thirty-nine l.) as formerly. The finding of fragments of large jars, inscribed “bath of the king” (perhaps an attempt to standardize the bath for use in tax payments) or simply “bath” have helped to bring about this reduction in size. Unfortunately, these jars cannot be completely restored, hence there is still some uncertainty. Subdivisions of the bath are hin (one-sixth bath) and log (one-twelfth hin).
The liquid measures of NT times are difficult to equate with those of the OT. The English “measure” may equal a kōr, as in Luke.16.7, or a bath, as in Luke.16.6. The firkin of John.2.6 (kjv) held about 10.3 gallons (40 l.).
The homer was the standard dry measure of the OT. Homer means “donkey,” and therefore a donkey-load, or about 6.25 bushels (208 l.) It is to be equated with the cor. The ephah (about 3/5 bu.—20 l.) is the dry equivalent of the liquid measure bath (Ezek.45.10). The lethekh is mentioned only in Hos.3.2 and is probably given its correct value in the KJV, which translates it “half homer.”
Three smaller dry measures are: the se’âh, about one-fifth bushel (seven l.); the omer, four dry pints (two l.); the ‘issārôn (kjv “tenth deal,” rsv “tenth measure”), evidently equivalent to the omer; and the cab, a little more than two dry pints (one l.). However, modern authorities differ greatly as to the value of the dry measures, some inclining toward a substantially higher value for each. The system followed here is substantially that of R. B. Y. Scott in the article referred to at the end of this subject.
NT dry measures are: bushel (Matt.5.15), about seven and one-half dry quarts or slightly less than one-half US bushel; measure (“quart,” rsv), about one dry quart; pot (Mark.7.4), about one dry pint.
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).
In addition to the biblical references to weights, quite a few stone weight-pieces (especially shekels) have been found in the excavations in Palestine, many of them labeled. There is a certain amount of disparity among these. Some have speculated that this is graphic evidence for the necessity of the prophetic indictment of the dishonest merchants who “make the ephah small and the shekel great, and deal deceitfully with false balances” (Amos.8.5rsv). While this explanation is not to be ruled out completely, it must never be forgotten that life in ancient Palestine was simple, rural, and predominantly agricultural. Most of the time there was no strong central government and certainly no bureau of weights and measures. To some extent, the period of David and Solomon is an exception to this. David seems to have had a “royal standard” (2Sam.14.26). The standardization that controls every aspect of modern life was completely lacking. Many years ago the writer of this article found farmers in eastern Jordan selling grapes and melons by simple balance scales, with roughly cut stones for weights. No doubt such simple arrangements usually sufficed in Bible times. Estimates of values of ancient weights must therefore be rather general; taking figures to two decimal places is a futile attempt to reduce ancient people to modern uniformity.
The Hebrews used a modified sexagesimal system of weights modeled on that of the Babylonians. The shekel (called by the Babylonians shiqlu) was the basic unit. Fifty shekels equaled a maneh (or mina; Babylonian manû) and sixty manehs a talent (Heb kikkār; Babylonian biltu). A shekel as made up of twenty gerahs. A bekah was a half shekel.
The Babylonians had 60 shekels in their maneh, but from Exod.38.25-Exod.38.26 it appears that the Hebrew maneh consisted of only 50. Half a shekel each was paid by 603,550 men, and totaled 100 talents and 1,775 shekels; this means that the talent here equaled 3,000 shekels. Since the talent was almost 60 manehs, the maneh here equals 50 shekels. Ezekiel uses a different system, with 60 shekels to the maneh (45:12).
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 (see bibliography at the end of article), 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.
Certain recent excavations have yielded weights inscribed pim, weighing about two-thirds of a shekel. Thus the name of another unit of Hebrew weight is recovered and light is shed on a difficult statement in 1Sam.13.21. This verse contains the word pim, which was unknown elsewhere and believed to be a textual corruption. Now that pim is known to be the name of a weight, the NIV was able to give an improved translation, which indicates that the Philistines, to keep the Hebrews in subjection, made it difficult for the Hebrews to get iron implements and probably overcharged them for repairing them.
Few weights are mentioned in the NT. Talent and pound (niv “mina”) in Luke.19.13-Luke.19.25 are sums of money. Pound in John.12.3 (niv “pint”) and 19:39 represents another Greek word, litra, a weight of some .75 pound avoirdupois (.3 kg.).
Bibliography: R. B. Y. Scott, “Weights and Measures of the Bible,” BA, 22 (1951): 22-40, and PEQ, 97, 1965, pp. 128-39; E. W. Heaton, Everyday Life in Old Testament Times, 1965, pp. 189-91; D. W. Thomas (ed.), Documents From Old Testament Times, 1958, pp. 227-30.——JBG
WEIGHTS AND MEASURES. It is not surprising to find that, because of the Hebrew lack of precision in mathematics, Biblical metrology (the determination of distances, capacities, and weights) is far from being an exact science, and no reliable or coherent system has been worked out. Evidence is insufficient and often ambiguous; systems varied from city to city and from region to region. As trade developed beyond simple barter in primitive times, it became necessary to develop some kind of system to determine the quantity of goods involved. The earliest measurements were related to well-known objects, such as the number of grains of cereal or the eggs of a certain fowl; measurements of length were related to parts of the body such as finger, palm, span, and the distance between the tip of the middle finger and the elbow. Distances were related to the distance a person could walk in a day, or the distance traveled by an arrow, etc. Stones came to be used very early as a standard for weighing.
The Hebrews recognized the importance of exact weights and measurements in the commercial, ethical, and legal life of the nation (cf. Lev 19:35, 36; Deut 25:13-16; Prov 11:1; 20:10). The systems they developed, though not uniform, were influenced by the civilizations of the ancient Near E that had existed long before the appearance of the Hebrews (Egyptian, Mesopotamian, and Canaanite) and in later times the Pers., Gr., and Rom. systems. The Levites had official responsibility for “all measures of quantity or size” (1 Chron 23:29). The Talmud contained strict regulations for the business world concerning honesty of measurements. Present information concerning Israelite metrology comes from a number of sources such as the Bible itself, the Talmud, the treatise of Epiphanius on weights and measures (a.d. 392), Herodotus, Josephus, and the archeological evidence from Pal. and surrounding nations.
Measures of length
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.
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).
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.
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” (σπθιθαμη̂ς), 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:
The cubit (πη̂χυς, 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.
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.).
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).
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.
Measures of area
It was a widely practiced custom in ancient times to state land areas in terms of what a yoke of oxen could plow in one day, or the amount of seed required to sow a given area.
The cubit (mḥ) was used in Egypt for determining areas. A piece of land one cubit wide and one hundred cubits long was considered as a cubit in area. A hundred cubits (an area of one hundred cubits square) was a sṯ’t, and was equal to roughly 2/3 acre.
Land was measured in Babylonia and Assyria by the area a team of oxen could plow in a day. This area was defined as 6,480 square cubits (or 20.4 in.) or about 4/10 acre. Land was also measured according to the quantity of grain necessary to sow it; thus one finds such expressions as an imeru of land. Area measures varied in different times and places.
The Lat. jugum (yoke, team) was used to describe the area plowed by a team. It was later defined as a jugerum of 28,800 square (Rom.) ft., or 5/8 acre. It has been calculated that 3 3/5 seahs were required to sow one jugerum of land in the Graeco-Rom. period which would be .173 acres. The Rom. furrow (actus) was 120 Rom. ft. in length, and land was measured according to the square actus.
Measures of capacity
Just as the linear measures of cubit, finger, and span were derived from various parts of the human body, so also the ancient units of capacity were originally non-specific, and their names were taken from terms commonly used in the home or in commerce, such as the more imprecise “bowlful” (Judg 6:38; Amos 6:6) and “handfuls” (1 Kings 20:10); to more definite terms such as the homer, which is by derivation an “ass-load”; the hin, which is a pot; the omer, which is a sheaf; and the ephah, which is a basket. The standard measure of capacity in ancient Egypt was the ḥḳt, and is considered to be 5.03 liters, about 1 1/4 American gallons and was used to measure grain or metal. The “hin” jar (hnw) which was 1/10 of a ḥḳt was used to measure certain liquids such as beer, milk, and honey, as well as being a dry measure; it amounted to c. 0.503 liters, or slightly more than a pint. There was wide variation in Mesopotamian standards as judged by the many names for measures of capacity which are found in Sumerian, Assyrian, Neo-Babylonian, and Nuzian texts. The basic measure of capacity was prob. the qa, equivalent of the Sumer. sila; it has been estimated to be between 1.004 liters and 1.34 liters. Another standard measure of capacity was the sutu of ten qas (c. 13.4 liters or 1 1/2 pecks) and the imeru (which means “ass,” and represented the normal load carried by this animal) which is considered to be 134 liters or 3.8 bushels; this term is found in Middle Assyrian and Nuzian texts. There is not sufficient evidence to determine the Canaanite units of measure, though they were prob. like the Mesopotamian system. The ḥmr (homer) was a unit of dry measure, as well as the ltḥ (lethech). The lg (log) was a nother unit of measure encountered in Ugaritic lit. The Heb. measures of capacity were never standardized and occasionally different names were used to designate the same unit. They were sometimes used to determine both liquid and dry measures, as the liter today. The Rom. measures of capacity were the quartarius, sextarius, congius, urna, and amphora. The major units in the Bible are:
The log (לֹג, H4253, Ugaritic lg, Coptic lok) was the smallest of the liquid measures, equal to 1/12 hin, and is mentioned only in Leviticus 14:10-24 as a measure of oil used in the ritual for the purification of lepers. The LXX trs. it as κοτύλη, about 1/2 pint; and the Vul. trs. as sextarius. The Talmud figured the log as the amount of water displaced by six hens’ eggs, roughly the equivalent of one pint. It is prob. 0.67 pint.
The homer (חֹ֫מֶר, H2818) was the standard unit of dry measurement in the OT; it was also called the cor because of the assimilation of two systems. It is from a word meaning an “ass-load.” It has been estimated variously as 3.8 bushels or 6.524 bushels and by older estimates as eleven bushels. It was equal to the cor and contained ten baths or ephahs (Ezek 45:11-14). It was used for fairly large measurements in the OT. It was a large measure for cereals (Ezek 45:13; Hos 3:2), a homer of barley being worth fifty shekels of silver (Lev 27:16). It was used, by way of exception, to measure the quails which fell in the desert. They covered the ground to a depth of two cubits for a day’s march around the camp, and the people gathered the birds all day and all night, and the next day “he who gathered least gathered ten homers” (Num 11:32). The most conservative estimate of the homer would make this thirty-eight bushels, and would reveal the gluttony of the people. “A homer of seed shall yield but an ephah” (Isa 5:10) is the expression of a curse on the land because of the sins of the people.
The cor (כֹּר, H4123) was equal to the homer. The KJV usually trs. it as “measures.” It was a large measure for flour (1 Kings 4:22) and for grain (5:11; 2 Chron 2:10). It was a dry measure, though Ezekiel 45:14 makes cor a liquid measure for oil, and, like the homer, it contains ten baths. The mention of cor for oil in 1 Kings 5:11 should be bath. It has been estimated to contain 3.8-6.524 bushels or 35.4-60.728 gallons. A half-homer of rust-colored stone used about 3,000 years ago in Jerusalem was found in an excavation.
The lethech (לֵ֫תֶכְ, H4390, Ugar. lth), mentioned only in Hosea 3:2 where Hosea was told to buy the woman for fifteen shekels of silver and a homer and a lethech of barley, (“half homer,” KJV) was a dry measure, possibly Phoen. Aquila, Symmachus, Theodotion, and the Vul. interpret as 1/2 cor. If correct, the lethech would be between 1.9-3.262 bushels.
The seah (סְאָה, H6006, tr. as “measure” RSV, KJV), was a dry measure for flour and cereals (Gen 18:6; 1 Sam 25:18; 1 Kings 18:32; 2 Kings 7:1). It is difficult to determine its size. It has been estimated to be 0.367 bushels or 1.452 pecks. If the šalîš (which means “third” and tr. “measure,” RSV, KJV) of Isaiah 40:12 is the equivalent of the seah, then it is 1/3 ephah or 1/30 of a homer. If so, it would be 0.127-0.217 bushel. Erubin 83a of the Babylonian Talmud says the seah of the desert was equal to the volume of 144 eggs and the seah of Jerusalem was equal to 173 eggs (1/6 greater than the desert seah) and that of Sepphoris (a sacred measure used for religious ceremonies) was equal to 207 eggs.
The omer (עֹ֫מֶר, H6685, γόμορ, LXX; from a word meaning sheaf) is found only in the story of the gathering of the manna (Exod 16:13-36) where every man gathered an omer a day. It represented a day’s ration; two omers were to be gathered for the sixth day and the sabbath; one omer was to be kept as a memorial (vv. 32-34). It is identified in Exodus 16:36 as 1/10 ephah, and would thus be equivalent to the issaron or “tenth” of Exodus 29:40. It would be 2.087 dry quarts or 2.299 liters. The omer should not be confused with the homer.
The Issaron (עִשָּׂרוֹן, H6928) a dry measure, was prob. another name for the omer, and was 1/10 ephah. It is called only a “tenth” in Exodus 29:40, and is found as a measure of meal in the liturgical texts (29:40; Lev 14:10, 21, etc.). The RSV in some passages adds “of an ephah” whereas the KJV uses a more general word “deal.”
The kab קַב, H7685, (“cab,” KJV) appears only once in the OT (2 Kings 6:25). During the siege of Samaria by the Assyrians an ass’s head was sold for eighty shekels of silver, and the fourth part of a kab of dove’s dung (wild onions, de Vaux) sold for five shekels. The Heb. of this v. is corrupt and it is difficult to determine what it was. Josephus (Antiq. IX. iv. 4) considered 1/4 kab as being a sextarius (ξέστης, G3829). It has been estimated as 1/18 ephah, or 1.159 dry quarts.
Of the above liquid measures only the bath is found in the NT (Luke 16:6; “measures,” RSV). Of the above dry measures only two appear in the NT: the seah (σάτον, G4929, Matt 13:33) and the cor (κόρος, G3174, Luke 16:7). The saton was a commonly used measure of capacity throughout the Rom. empire. It was the equivalent of 10.91 liters, or 1/2 ephah. The Hebrews used three sata of varying capacity. Other measures found in the NT include:
The choinix (χοι̂νιξ, G5955) was a Gr. dry measure equal to about two dry pints (Rev 6:6, “quart,” RSV; “measure,” KJV).
The xestes (ξέστης, G3829, Lat., sextarius) was the name of a household vessel and was equal to about 1 1/6 pints (Mark 7:4, “pot” RSV).
Metretes (firkin, gallon).
The metretes (μετρητη̂ς) was a liquid measure equal to about 39 liters or 10.3 gallons. The Heb. bath is tr. once in the LXX as metrētēs, twice by chous (equal to 1/12 metrētēs), and three times in one v. by kotulē (equal to 1/12 chous). Josephus makes the bath equal to the metrētēs (Antiq. III. viii. 3; VIII. ii. 9). Based on a jar found at Qumran marked “2 se’ah and 7 log” the metretes has been estimated to be about twelve gallons. It is tr. as “firkin” in the KJV (John 2:6). The RSV trs. two or three metretai as “twenty or thirty gallons” (John 2:6).
The modius (μόδιος, G3654, Lat. modius) was a dry measure equal to about 8.49 liters or 7.68 U.S. dry quarts. It is the bushel of Matthew 5:15; Mark 4:21; Luke 11:33, which is used to mean a vessel which could cover a light. The measure used in Jerusalem during the Hel. and Rom. ages was equal to the Italic modius.
The litra (λίτρα, G3354, Lat. libra) was a Rom. pound of twelve oz., and was used as a measure for both capacity and weight. It was the amount of ointment which Mary used to anoint the feet of Jesus (John 12:3). Nicodemus brought a mixture of myrrh and aloes which weighed c. 100 litras (“pounds” RSV) for the dressing of Jesus’ body (19:39).
The artabe was a Pers. measure equal to about 1 4/5 bushels. Bel 3 tells that the Babylonians offered twelve artabai (ἀρτάβαι, “measures”) of fine flour and six metretai (μετρήται, from a word meaning “measurer”) of olive oil (“wine” KJV, RSV, following Theod.) daily to their idol Bel as food. The metretes was an Attic measure which contained eight to ten gallons.
Translation of μόδιος, G3654, (q.v. as Modius) equal to 0.245 American bushels, found in Matthew 5:15; Mark 4:21; Luke 11:33, where it refers to a vessel which would cover a light. Also tr. of ἀρτάβαι in Bel 3 (“measures” KJV), a Pers. measure (q.v. as Artabe).
A tr. of χοι̂νιξ, G5955, (choinix, q.v.) in Revelation 6:6 (“measure” KJV); slightly less than a quart.
Measures of weight
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 Pal. The fact that most of the early Heb. weights which have been discovered were of hard stone is reflected in the general word used in the Bible for weights, the Heb. 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 intro. into Pal. until the Pers. 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 E. 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 inscr.
The basic unit of weight for the ancient Egyp. 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 Rom. period, which was 1/10 dbn, and the š’ty (seal) which was 1/12 dbn. The OT does not mention any Egyp. weights.
The Heb. system was derived from the Canaanites who in turn had received it from the Babylonians. שֶׁ֫קֶל, H9203, is the Heb. 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 Egyp. 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, Heb. 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 Heb. 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 (Heb. talent, כִּכָּר, H3971) and the tkl (Heb. shekel, שֶׁ֫קֶל, H9203).
The Heb. 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 Heb. 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.
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.
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.).
The gerah (גֵּרָה, 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.
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.
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 Heb. 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.
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 trs. the v.: “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 Heb., but it is the name of an early Heb. weight standard.
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.”
Based on a shekel of 11.24 grams, the following values may be assigned to weights in the OT:
Weights in NT.
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 cent. 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.
From the preceding study it can be seen that there were no weights or measures sufficiently fixed in Biblical times to enable one to determine the exact metrical equivalents. Different countries had different standards, and these varied within the country and in different periods. Often there were two standards in use at the same time, the common and royal, light and heavy. However, archeological information is sufficient to determine approximate values.
A. R. S. Kennedy, “Weights and Measures,” HDB, IV (1902), 901-913; J. E. Dean, Epiphanius’ Treatise on Weights and Measures (1935); G. A. Barton, Archaeology and the Bible (7th ed. rev. 1937), 199-203; W. F. Albright, The Excavation of Tell Beit Mirsim, AASOR, XXI-XXII (1941-1943), 76, 77; D. Diringer, “The Early Hebrew Weights Found at Lachish,” PEQ (1942), 82-103; H. Lewy, “Assyro-Babylonian and Israelite Measures of Capacity and Rates of Seeding,” JAOS, LXIV, 2 (April-June, 1944), 65-73; A. Segrè, “Babylonian, Assyrian and Persian Measures,” JAOS, LXIV, 2 (April-June, 1944), 73-81; A. Segrè, “A Documentary Analysis of Ancient Palestinian Units of Measure,” JBL, LXIV (Sept., 1945), 357-375; G. A. Barrois, “Chronology, Metrology, etc.,” IB, I (1952), 153-157; A. C. Bouquet, Everyday Life in NT Times (1953), 123, 124; M. S. and J. L. Miller, Encyclopedia of Bible Life (1955), 144-147; E. W. Heaton, Everyday Life in OT Times (1956), 189-191; W. M. F. Petrie, “Measures and Weights, Ancient,” EBr, XV (1957), 142-145; D. W. Thomas, ed., Documents from OT Times (1958), 227-230; R. B. Y. Scott, “Weights and Measures of the Bible,” BA, XXII, 2 (May, 1959), 22-39; R. de Vaux, Ancient Israel (1961), 195-206; O. R. Sellers, “Weights and Measures,” IDB, IV (1962), 828-839; R. B. Y. Scott, “Weights, Measures, Money and Time,” Peake’s Commentary, Edd. M. Black and H. H. Rowley (1963), 37, 38; M. Noth, The OT World (1966), 167.
International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (1915)
me’-zhur : The system of weights and measures in use among the Hebrews was derived from Babylonia and Egypt, especially from the former. The influence of these countries upon Palestine has long been recognized, but archaeological investigations in recent years have shown that the civilization of Babylonia impressed itself upon Syria and Palestine more profoundly in early times than did that of Egypt. The evidence of this has been most clearly shown by the discovery of the Tell el-Amarna Letters, which reveal the fact that the official correspondence between the Egyptian kings and their vassals in these lands was carried on in the language of Babylonia long after its political influence had been supplanted by that of Egypt. It is natural, then, that we should look to Babylonia for the origin of such important elements of civilization as a system of weights and measures.
1. Linear Measures:
It was quite natural that men should have found a standard for linear measures in the parts of the human body, and we find the cubit, originally the length of the forearm, taken as the standard, and the span, the palm and the digit, or finger-breadth, associated with it in linear measurement. They do not seem to have employed the foot, though it is represented in the two-thirds of the cubit, which was used by the Babylonians in the manufacture of building-brick.
This system, though adequate enough for man in the earliest times, was not so for an advanced stage of civilization, such as the Babylonians reached before the days of Abraham, and we find that they had introduced a far more accurate and scientific system (see Cubit). They seem to have employed, however, two cubits, of different lengths, one for commercial purposes and one for building. We have no undoubted examples of either, but judging by the dimensions of their square building-bricks, which are regarded as being two-thirds of a cubit on a side, we judge the latter to have been of about 19 or 20 inches. Now we learn from investigations in Egypt that a similar cubit was employed there, being of from 20.6 to 20.77 inches, and it can hardly be doubted that the Hebrews were familiar with this cubit, but that in more common use was certainly shorter. We have no certain means of determining the length of the ordinary cubit among the Hebrews, but there are two ways by which we may approximate its value. The Siloam Inscription states that the tunnel in which it was found was 1,200 cubits long. The actual length has been found to be about 1,707 feet, which would give a cubit of about 17.1 in. (see PEFS, 1902, 179). Of course the given length may be a round number, but it gives a close approximation.
Again, the Mishna states that the height of a man is 4 cubits, which we may thus regard as the average stature of a Jew in former times. By reference to Jewish tombs we find that they were of a length to give a cubit of something over 17 inches, supposing the stature to be as above, which approximates very closely to the cubit of the Siloam tunnel. The consensus of opinion at the present day inclines toward a cubit of 17.6 inches for commercial purposes and one of about 20 inches for building. This custom of having two standards is illustrated by the practice in Syria today, where the builder’s measure, or dra’, is about 2 inches longer than the commercial.
Of multiples of the cubit we have the measuring-reed of 6 long cubits, which consisted of a cubit and a hand-breadth each (Eze 40:5), or about 10 feet. Another measure was the Sabbath day’s journey, which was reckoned at 2,000 cubits, or about 1,000 yards. The measuring-line was used also, but whether it had a fixed length we do not know.
See SABBATH DAY’s JOURNEY; MEASURING LINE.
In the New Testament we have the fathom (orguia), about 6 feet, and the furlong (stadion), 600 Greek feet or 606 3/4 English feet, which is somewhat less than one-eighth of a mile. The mile (milion) was 5,000 Roman feet, or 4,854 English feet, somewhat less than the English mile.
2. Measures of Capacity:
Regarding the absolute value of the measures of capacity among the Hebrews there is rather more uncertainty than there is concerning those of length and weight, since no examples of the former have come down to us; but their relative value is known. Sir Charles Warren considers them to have been derived from the measures of length by cubing the cubit and its divisions, as also in the case of weight. We learn from Eze 45:11 that the bath and ephah were equivalent, and he (Warren) estimates the capacity of these as that of 1/30 of the cubit cubed, or about 2,333.3 cubic inches, which would correspond to about 9 gallons English measure. Assuming this as the standard, we get the following tables for liquid and dry measure: Ce’ah and lethekh, in the above, occur in the Hebrew text, but only in the margin of the English. It will be noticed that the prevailing element in these tables is the duodecimal which corresponds to the sexagesimal of the Babylonian system, but it will be seen that in the case of weights there was a tendency on the part of the Hebrews to employ the decimal system, making the maneh 50 shekels instead of 60, and the talent 3,000 instead of 3,600, of the Babylonian, so here we see the same tendency in making the `omer the tenth of the ’ephah and the ’ephah the tenth of the chomer or kor.
Weights were probably based by the ancients upon grains of wheat or barley, but the Egyptians and Babylonians early adopted a more scientific method. Sir Charles Warren thinks that they took the cubes of the measures of length and ascertained how many grains of barley corresponded to the quantity of water these cubes would contain. Thus, he infers that the Egyptians fixed the weight of a cubic inch of rain water at 220 grains, and the Babylonians at 222 2/9. Taking the cubic palm at 25,928 cubic inches, the weight of that quantity of water would be 5,760 ancient grains. The talent he regards as the weight of 2/3 of a cubit cubed, which would be equal to 101,6 cubic palms, but assumes that for convenience it was taken at 100, the weight being 576,000 grains, deriving from this the maneh (1/60 of the talent) of 9,600 grains, and a shekel (1/50 of the maneh) 192 grains. But we have evidence that the Hebrew shekel differed from this and that they used different shekels at different periods. The shekel derived from Babylonia had a double standard: the light of 160 grains, or 1/3600 of the talent; and the heavy of just double this, of 320 grains. The former seems to have been used before the captivity and the latter after. The Babylonian system was sexagesimal, i.e. 60 shekels went to the maneh and 60 manehs to the talent, but the Hebrews reckoned only 50 shekels to the maneh, as appears from Ex 38:25,26, where it is stated that the amount of silver collected from 603,550 males was 100 talents and 1,775 shekels, and, as each contributed a half-shekel, the whole amount must have been 301,775. Deducting the 1,775 shekels mentioned besides the 100 talents, we have 300,000 or 3,000 to the talent, and, as there were 60 manehs in the talent, there were 50 shekels to each maneh. When the Hebrews adopted this system we do not know, but it was in vogue at a very early date.
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 (see Coins), 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.