SPECIAL TOPIC: ANCIENT NEAR EASTERN WEIGHTS AND MEASURES (METROLOGY)

The weights and measurements used in commerce were crucial in ancient agricultural economy. The Bible urges the Jews to be fair in their dealings with one another (cf. Lev. 19:35-36; Deut. 25:13-16; Pro. 11:1; 16:11; 20:10). The real problems were not only honesty, but the non-standardized terms and systems used in Palestine. It seems that there were two sets of weights; a "light" and a "heavy" of each amount (see The Interpreter's Dictionary of the Bible, vol. 4, p. 831). Also the decimal system (base of 10) of Egypt had been combined with the sexagesimal (base of 6) of Mesopotamia.

Many of the "sizes" and "amounts" used were based on human body parts, animal loads, and farmer's containers, none of which were standardized. Therefore, the charts are only estimations and are tentative. The easiest way to show weights and measures is on a relational chart.

I. Volume terms used most often

A. Dry measures

1. Homer (BDB 330, possibly a "donkey-load," BDB 331), e.g., Lev. 27:16; Hosea 3:2

2. Letekh (or lethech, BDB 547, possibly alluded to in Hosea 3:2)

3. Ephah (BDB 35), e.g., Exod. 16:36; Lev. 19:36; Ezek. 45:10-11,13,24

4. Se'ah (BDB 684), e.g., Gen. 18:6; 1 Sam. 25:18; 1 Kgs. 18:32; 2 Kgs. 7:1,16,18

5. Omer (BDB 771 II, possibly "a sheaf" [a row of fallen grain], BDB 771 I), e.g., Exod. 16:16,22,36; Lev. 23:10-15

6. 'Issaron (BDB 798, "a tenth part" of ephah), e.g., Exod. 29:40; Lev. 14:21; Num. 15:4; 28:5,13

7. Qav (or Kab, BDB 866), cf. 2 Kgs. 6:25

B. Liquid Measures

1. Kor (BDB 499), e.g., Ezek. 45:14 (can be dry measure, cf. II Chr. 2:10; 27:5)

2. Bath (BDB 144 II), e.g., I Kgs. 7:26,38; II Chr. 2:10; 4:5; Isa. 5:10; Ezek. 45:10-11,14

3. Hin (BDB 228), e.g., Exod. 29:40; Lev. 19:36; Ezek. 45:24

4. Log (BDB 528), cf. Lev. 14:10,12,15,21,24 

C. Chart (taken from Roland deVaux, Ancient Israel, vol. 1, p. 201 and Encyclopedia Judaica, vol. 16, p. 379)

 

homer (dry) = kor (liquid or dry) 1            
ephah (dry) = bath (liquid) 10 1          
se'ah (dry) 30 1        
hin (liquid) 60 6 2 1      
omer/issaron (dry) 100 10 - - 1    
qav/kab (dry) 180 18 6 3 - 1  
log (liquid) 720 72 24 12 - 4 1

 II. Weight terms used most often

A. The three most common weights are the talent, the shekel, and the gerah.

1. The largest weight in the OT is the talent. From Exod. 38:25-26 we learn that one talent equals 3,000 shekels (i.e., "round weight," BDB 503).

2. The term shekel (BDB 1053, "weight") is used so often that it is assumed, but not stated in the text. There are several values of shekel mentioned in the OT.

a. "commercial standard" (NASB of Gen. 23:16)

b. "the shekel of the sanctuary" (NASB of Exod. 30:13)

c. "by the king's weight" (NASB of II Sam. 14:26), also called "royal weight" in the Elephantine papyri.

3. The gerah (BDB 176 II) is valued at 20 per shekel (cf. Exod. 30:13; Lev. 27:25; Num. 3:47; 18:16; Ezek. 45:12). These ratios vary from Mesopotamia to Egypt. Israel followed the evaluation most common in Canaan (Ugarit)

4. The mina (BDB 584) is valued at either 50 or 60 shekels. This term is found mostly in later OT books (i.e., Ezek. 45:12; Ezra 2:69; Neh. 7:71-72). Ezekiel used the 60 to 1 ratio, while Canaan used the 50 to 1 ratio.

5. The beka (BDB 132, "half a shekel," cf. Gen. 24:22) is used only twice in the OT (cf. Gen. 24:22; Exod. 38:26) and is valued at one-half a shekel. Its name means "to divide."

B. Chart

 

1.  Based on Pentateuch          
  talent 1        
  mina 60 1      
shekel 3,000 50 1
  beka 6,000 100 2 1  
 

gerah

60,000 1,000 20 10  
2. Based on Ezekiel          
  talent 1        
 

mina

60 1      
  shekel 3,600 60 1    
  beka 7,200 120 2 1  
  gerah 72,000 1,200 20 10 1

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