One of the most fascinating episodes in the story of Elijah was his confrontation with the prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel. Elijah challenged the prophets of Baal to a theological debate, to prove who was the real God, Yahweh or Baal.
Elijah told the prophets of Baal to choose one bull for sacrifice. He would prepare a bull to sacrifice to Yahweh. The prophets of Baal were to call on their god and Elijah would call on his God. Elijah told the people who were assembled for the disputation, “The god who answers by fire is the real God” (1 Kings18:24).
The prophets of Baal took the bull, prepared it for the sacrifice, then they called on the name of Baal from morning until noon asking him to consume the sacrifice. Baal never answered.
Then Elijah began to prepare his sacrifice.
Elijah took twelve stones and with them he built an altar to Yahweh. Around the altar he made a trench large enough for two seahs of seed (1 Kings 18:32 NIV). Elijah arranged the wood, cut up the bull, and put it on the wood. Then he told the people to pour water on the offering and on the wood. He told them to do it a second time. And a third time. There was so much water that the water flowed around the altar, and even the trench was filled with water (1 King 18:25–35).
That was a sight to behold. A trench large enough to hold two seahs of seed filled with water.
A trench large enough to hold two seahs of seed! No wonder the people were amazed at what Elijah was doing.
The people who were there to watch the confrontation between Elijah and the prophets of Baal understood what Elijah was doing because they knew what two seahs of seed were, but most people reading the Bible today have no idea what two seahs of seed are.
I needed to know what the equivalent was today of two seahs of seed. And as educated people do today, I consulted the Wikipedia, that bastion of knowledge that is available for free on the Internet.
So, I consulted the Wikipedia to find out what two seahs of seed were. And sure enough, the Wikipedia had the answer: “The se’ah or seah is a unit of dry measure of ancient origin found in the Bible and in Halakha (Jewish law), which equals one third of an ephah, or bath. In layman’s terms, it is equal to the capacity of 144 medium-sized eggs.”
There was the answer: a seah is a unit of dry measure that is equivalent to an ephah, or bath. But most people in the English world (or almost in any other language) have no idea what an ephah or a bath is.
So, the Wikipedia puts it in layman’s terms.
In layman’s terms, a seah is equal to the capacity of 144 medium-sized eggs.
The answer still was not very clear. A seah is equal to the capacity of 144 medium-sized eggs. I was so desperate to find out what two seahs of seed was that I went to the store and bought twelve dozen eggs (144 eggs).
When I came home to test what a seah was, I had another problem: is a seah equivalent to 144 whole eggs? Or is a seah equivalent to 144 cracked eggs? The Wikipedia was of no help.
So, I decided to look at other English translations. The New Revised Standard Version says that the trench was “large enough to contain two measures of seed” (1 Kings 18:32 NRSV). Now, that is much better. So, I went to my kitchen to find a measuring cup. I have different measuring cups in my kitchen, but I doubt that they were large enough to contain water that was equal to the water around the altar that Elijah built.
And here is the problem. Sometimes the English translations of the Bible do not help readers understand what the Bible says when they read it. Most people do not know what a seah of seed is. The expression “two measures of seed” is so vague that it becomes meaningless to most readers of the text.
So, I searched other translations of the biblical text. The expression “half a bushel of grain” (1 Kings 18:32 CJB) is also vague because today’s generation do not know what a bushel is. The expression “the breadth of two furrows” (1 Kings 18:32 DRA) is just impossible to understand. The expression “12 quarts of grain” (1 Kings 18:32 GWN) is better and makes some sense. The expression “about three gallons” (1 Kings 18:32 NLT) is very helpful. The expression “about four gallons” (1 Kings 18:32 HCSB) is good but it contradicts the previous reference.
In my article “Establishing Weights and Measures in Ancient Israel” (click here to download a PDF of the article) I said that a seah is equal to 7 quarts which is equal to 1.75 gallons. Thus, two seahs of seeds is equal to 3.5 gallons.
Bravo to the NLT and to the HCSB.
P.S. I did not go to the store to buy twelve dozen eggs. I said that just to illustrate my point.
Emeritus Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary
NOTE: Did you like this post? Do you think other people would like to read this post? Be sure to share this post on Facebook and share a link on Twitter or Tumblr so that others may enjoy reading it too!
I would love to hear from you! Let me know what you thought of this post by leaving a comment below. Be sure to like my page on Facebook, follow me on Twitter, follow me on Tumblr, Facebook, and subscribe to my blog to receive each post by email.
If you are looking for other series of studies on the Old Testament, visit the Archive section and you will find many studies that deal with a variety of topics.