A study of the system of weights and measures of a nation provides the foundation for the proper understanding of some of the factors that shaped the social and economic development of that nation. The systems of weights, measures of length, and measures of capacity in ancient Israel were related to the ancient metrological systems common in Mesopotamia. The ideal condition for trade and commerce in Israel and among the nations of the ancient Near East required an accurate system of weights and measures.
The Metrology of Ancient Israel
In Israel, the demands of the covenant required an honest use of weights and measures since members of the covenant community were to treat each other with respect. Honesty in merchandising is related to the injunction in the Decalogue that prohibits a person to covet that which belongs to another person (Kaiser 1983: 136). This is the reason the laws of holiness in the book of Leviticus urged the Israelites not to defraud each other: “Do not defraud your neighbor” (Leviticus 19:13 NIV).
The metrology of ancient Israel was derived from systems found in Mesopotamia, primarily in Babylon. As early as the third millennium B.C., the Babylonians had developed an elaborate system of weights and measures based on the sexagesimal system. Today’s division of hours into sixty minutes and minutes into sixty seconds is based on the Babylonian sexagesimal system (Matheney 1991: 1403). Because of commerce and trade, the Babylonian system of weights and measures was introduced into Syria and Canaan.
Since the ancient patriarchs of Israel came from Mesopotamia, it is possible that they brought with them a system of weights and measures that was used in their society. However, a reconstruction of this system is difficult. What the Bible has to teach about the metrology of ancient Israel must be adduced from archaeology, the biblical texts, and from the literature of the ancient Near East.
Although the people of Israel used a system of weights and measures that was derived from Babylon, it is evident that Israel’s system was not the exact equivalent of the systems used there. Israel adapted those systems to meet its social and economic needs. Any attempt at comparing the biblical standards of weights and measures with contemporary standards is not possible, since values change with the passage of time and modern American and British standards are radically different from Mesopotamian and biblical systems.
Weights and Measure in Israel
The terms used to classify weights and measures in Israel came out of items found in everyday life. Measurements of length were derived 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. The span was measured from the tip of the thumb to the tip of the little finger. The finger is used only once in the Old Testament as a unit of measurement (Jeremiah 52:21).
The names used for measuring capacities were generally those used for the receptacles which contained the provisions. The homer (Leviticus 27:16), a word that is derived from the Hebrew word for “ass,” refers to a load a donkey would carry. The qor (1 Kings 4:22) was a container to measure flour, wheat, and barley. The qor was also used for measuring oil (1 Kings 5:11). The lethek is a smaller container, equal to half a homer (Hosea 3:2). The ephah (Leviticus 5:11) was a container that measured flour, barley, and other grains. The seah was a container used to measure grain (1 Samuel 25:18 NIV). The bath was used to measure liquids such as oil (Ezekiel 45:14), water (1 Kings 7:26), and wine (Isaiah 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 which means “stone” and “weight.” These stones were kept in a bag (Deuteronomy 25:13; Micah 6:11; Proverbs 16:11). The Hebrew word that means “to weigh” is shaqal, from which the word shekel is taken. Thus, the shekel became the basic unit of weight. The value of the shekel was equivalent to the weight of 180 grains of wheat. The Old Testament mentions two kinds of shekels: the king’s shekel or the royal standard (2 Samuel 14:26) and the shekel of the sanctuary (Exodus 30:13). Genesis 23: 16 speaks about the shekel “current among the merchants.” However, it is difficult to determine the value of this shekel, since the Bible says that many merchants had two kinds of weight, one for buying and one for selling.
Since the shekel was the basic measure of weight, it is important to determine the value of the shekel (Vaux 1965: 203-205). This unit of weight was common to most societies in Mesopotamia. The book of Ezekiel provides the value of the shekel: “The standard unit for weight will be the silver shekel. One shekel will consist of twenty gerahs, and sixty shekels will be equal to one mina” (Ezekiel 45:12 NLT). Another translation of the same passage in Ezekiel better reflects the Hebrew text: “The shekel is to consist of twenty gerahs. Twenty shekels plus twenty-five shekels plus fifteen shekels equal one mina” (Ezekiel 45:12 NIV). This division of the mina into three different categories may indicate that there were weights of 25, 20, and 15 shekels.
Another value for the shekel is given in Exodus 38:25-26: “The silver obtained from those of the community who were counted in the census was 100 talents and 1,775 shekels, according to the sanctuary shekel–one beka per person, that is, half a shekel, according to the sanctuary shekel, from everyone who had crossed over to those counted, twenty years old or more, a total of 603,550 men” (Exodus 38:25-26 NIV).
Taking this information about the shekel of the sanctuary in Exodus 38:25-26, the value of the shekel is as follows: 1 talent was worth 60 minas; 1 mina was worth 50 shekels; and one shekel was worth 2 bekas. Using the information provided by Ezekiel, the value of the shekel is as follows: 1 talent was worth 60 minas, 1 mina was worth 60 shekels, and one shekel was worth 20 gerahs. Since Ezekiel was writing while in exile in Babylon, the value of the mina (60 shekels) corresponds to the value of the mina in Babylon during the exile.
Laws about Weights and Measures
For a system of weights, measures of length, and the measures of capacity to be fair, it requires the sanction of authoritative law in order to ensure that the weights and scales used for buying and selling conform to a standard set by the community (Vaux1965: 195). The law about weights and measures found in the book of Deuteronomy was enacted in order to promote economic honesty in buying and selling: “You must not have two different weights in your bag, one heavy and one light. You must not have two differing dry measures in your house, a larger and a smaller. You must have a full and honest weight, a full and honest dry measure” (Deuteronomy 25:13-15 HCSB).
What the law forbids is the practice of employing a double set of stones or weights and different ephahs or dry measures, one used for buying and the other used for selling. Babylonian wisdom literature speaks of merchants who use different sets of weights (Lambert 1996: 133). Thus the law requires that in buying and selling, the people of Israel must use “full and honest weights” and accurate ephahs. A similar law for just balances, just weights, just ephahs, and just hins is emphasized in the section of the book of Leviticus commonly known as the Holiness Code: “You shall do no injustice in judgment, in measurement of length, weight, or volume. You shall have honest scales, honest weights, an honest ephah, and an honest hin” (Leviticus 19:35-36 NKJV).
The prophets of Israel accused the merchants of cheating people with dishonest scales, bags of deceits, and “making the ephah small and the shekel great” (Amos 8:5; Hosea 12:7; Micah 6:10-11). During his religious and economic reforms at the end of the eighth century B.C., King Hezekiah of Judah introduced official weights called lmlk weights. The word lmlk means “belonging to the king.” The introduction of standardized weights and measures was an attempt at stopping the dishonest practices of merchants prevalent in Judah in the eighth century. The royal seal guaranteed that the measuring weights were accurate and followed an official standard (Bright 1981: 283).
According to the law in Deuteronomy, dishonest scales were an abomination to the Lord. The word “abomination” occurs several times in Deuteronomy in passages that deal with moral and religious violations of God’s law. In the book of Proverbs, the word refers to the actions of a perverse individual in contrast to the action of a righteous person (Weinfeld 1972: 268). Since false weights and deceptive measures cause deception, any false dealing between members of the covenant community becomes an abomination to the Lord.
Claude F. Mariottini
Emeritus Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary
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Bright, John. A History of Israel. Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1981.
Kaiser, Walter C., Toward Old Testament Ethics. Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1983.
Lambert, W. G. Babylonian Wisdom Literature. Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 1996.
Matheney, M. Pierce, “Weights and Measures,” Holman Bible Dictionary. Edited by Trent C. Butler. Nashville: Holman Bible Publishers, 1991.
Vaux, Roland de, Ancient Israel. New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1965.
Weinfeld, Moshe. Deuteronomy and the Deuteronomic School. New York: Oxford University Press, 1972.