Your E-Mails: May 2022

Can you give modern equivalents of the weights and measures we come across in the Bible?

Ed: THE ACTION of the Bible spans 4,000 years and many different civilisations. It contains many references to weights and measures. Sometimes units of measurement might vary between different cultures and different periods in history, and to add confusion there were sometimes ‘royal’ measures and ‘common’ measures which were different. Here’s a selection of weights and measures with equivalents about which we can be fairly certain:

An omer is around 2 litres. An omer of manna was enough to feed someone for a day (Exodus 16:16).

An ephah is 10 omers, that is around 22 litres. So when Ruth gleaned in Boaz’s barley field and he told his reapers to leave a bit extra for her, she went home laden with 10 days’ worth of food (Ruth 2:17).

A cubit is based on the length of a man’s forearm, and is around 50 centimetres. Noah’s ark was therefore around 150 metres long (Genesis 6:15), and would be the biggest ship the world had seen until the colossal treasure ships of the Chinese Ming Dynasty in the 15th Century.

One of the more obscure measures in the Bible is the account of a Syrian siege of Samaria in the days of the Kingdom of Israel, when they sold ‘the fourth part of a kab of dove’s dung for five shekels of silver’ (2 Kings 6:25). A kab is around a litre; ‘dove’s dung’ was probably the colloquial name for a cheap vegetable pulse.

The shekel is the basic unit of currency in modern Israel. The Hebrew word ‘shekel’ means ‘weight’ and in Bible times it was a weight of valuable metal, usually silver. Archaeological evidence suggests that a shekel was about two weeks’ wages for a labourer. In the Law of Moses there was a ‘poll tax’—when a census was taken, they paid half a shekel per person. It’s called the ‘shekel of the sanctuary’, suggesting that the priests were in possession of a standard weight against which offerings were checked (Exodus 30:11–16). The poll tax was still being collected in New Testament times (Matthew 17:27). By this time the shekel was a silver coin weighing around 11 grams.

In Matthew 18:21–35 Jesus told a parable in which a man refused to forgive his fellow a debt of 100 denarii (a denarius was a Roman coin which represented the standard daily wage for a labourer). He ignored the fact that he himself had been forgiven a debt of 10,000 talents (one talent was worth around 20 years’ wages). The message of the parable is that if God is prepared to forgive us our unimaginably large debt of sin against Him, we must be prepared to forgive our fellows when they sin against us.