Image: A series of old Babylonian weights ranging from 1 mina to 3 shekels
The terms Israel used to classify weights and measures came from items in everyday life. They derived measurements of length from the length of the limbs of the human body. The cubit was the distance between the end of one’s elbow to the tip of the middle finger (approximately 18 inches). The span was measured from the tip of the thumb to the tip of the little finger while both are extended (half a cubit). Only once does the Old Testament use the finger as a unit of measurement (Jer. 52:21).
The names the Israelites used for measuring capacities were generally the terms they used for the receptacles that held the provisions. The omer (Lev. 27:16), a word derived from the Hebrew term for “donkey,” refers to a load the animal would carry. The kor (1 Kings. 4:22) was a container to measure flour, wheat, and barley. The kor was also a measurement for oil (5:11). The letek is a smaller container, equal to half a homer (Hos. 3:2).
The Hebrew term ephah (Lev. 5:11) referred originally to a basket but later came to refer to a measure of flour, barley, and other grains. The seah was a container the Israelites used to measure grain (1 Sam. 25:18, NIV). The bath was used to measure liquids such as oil (Ezek. 45:14), water (1 Kings 7:26), and wine (Isa. 5:10).
Precious material and metals were weighed on balances with two scales. The weights were made of hard stones called eben, a Hebrew word that means “stone” and “weight.” These stones were kept in a bag (Deut. 25:13; Mic. 6:11; Prov. 16:11). The Hebrew word that means “to weigh” is shaqal, which is the root for the word shekel. Thus, the shekel became the basic unit of weight.
The value of the shekel was equivalent to the weight of 180 grains of wheat. Three kinds of shekels were in use in the Old Testament Era: the king’s shekel or the royal standard (2 Sam. 14:26); the shekel of the sanctuary (Ex. 30:13); and the common shekel (Josh. 7:21).
Genesis 23:16 speaks about the shekel “current among the merchants.” Determining the value of this shekel is difficult, however, since many merchants had two kinds of weight, one for buying and one for selling.
The material above is an excerpt from my article, “Establishing Weights and Measures in Ancient Israel.” The article was published in the Biblical Illustrator (Winter 2011-12): 35-39.
At the end of the article there is a table which provides a list of weights, lengths, dry measures, and liquid measures. The table provides the name of the unit of measurement, what the unit measures, the value of each unit in USA equivalency, and the various ways the Hebrew words are translated in English versions.
You can read my article in its entirety online or you can download a PDF version of the article by clicking here.
Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary