Noah’s Cubit

By Linda G. Shail

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    (See Bible Dictionary—Weights and Measures; Eerdman’s Concise Bible Encyclopedia, page 249; World Book Encyclopedia—Measurement.)Thou shalt have a perfect and just weight, a perfect and just measure shalt thou have (Deut. 25:15).

    When God told Noah how to build the ark, He said, “This is the fashion which thou shalt make it of: The length of the ark shall be three hundred cubits, the breadth of it fifty cubits, and the height of it thirty cubits” (Gen. 6:15).

    Have you ever asked yourself, “What’s a cubit, anyway?”

    In Noah’s time, people used the cubit to measure length, just as we use the foot or meter today. Every civilization has had a system for measuring goods, building materials, distances, weights, and volumes. Many of these early systems used parts of the body for setting lengths and other amounts.

    For example, a person’s stride, an arm’s length, a foot’s length, or a handful could be set as a standard of measure. Noah’s cubit was the distance from his elbow to the tip of his longest finger.

    The ancient Egyptians used the cubit as did Noah. Many of them farmed along the Nile, which flooded its banks every year, washing away markers and fences. The Egyptian farmers had to remeasure and lay out their fields. It would have taken them forever to do this measuring with their forearms, so they used a rope with knots tied in it at regular intervals. With the rope as their guide, they drew lines in the mud, putting new markers along the boundaries of their fields.

    The Egyptians had many other simple measuring units, such as the fathom, the distance from the longest finger of one hand to the longest finger of the other hand when the arms were outstretched. A fathom equaled about four cubits.

    Occasionally it was necessary to measure things that were smaller than a cubit or a fathom. A span was the distance between the tips of the thumb and the little finger on an outstretched hand. The width of a person’s hand was called a palm, and the width of the pointer finger was called a digit.

    Problems with measurement began to arise when people started living closer together and trading with one another. They argued. They fought. No two arms were the same length. No two hands were the same size. Whose units of measure were better? Whose were more accurate? People couldn’t agree on how long, how big, or how much of something there was.

    As travel and trading between countries increased, there was an even greater need for a standard for measuring things. This didn’t come about very fast. King Edward I of England introduced the yardstick in the thirteenth century. It was made of iron and was divided into three parts, each called a foot. Each foot was divided into twelve smaller parts called inches.

    The King’s system used pounds and ounces for measuring weight and used gallons, quarts, and pints for measuring volume. Does that sound familiar? This is basically the system still used in the United States. But children there are learning in school that it’s time to try the much simpler metric system, which almost all other countries in the world use.

    The metric system was proposed first in France by Gabriel Moulton in 1670. It was tested, changed, and made as simple as possible over the next two hundred years by many scientists and educators. Basic to the metric system is the rule of ten. This means that any unit in the metric system can be made into the next larger or the next smaller unit by multiplying or dividing by ten.

    In King Edward’s system, if you want to divide feet into inches, you divide by twelve; if you want to divide a yard into feet, you divide by three; if you want to divide a gallon into quarts, you divide by four. This can get complicated at times. In the metric system, you always multiply or divide by ten. Easy to remember, right?

    It took man thousands of years to work out a system of weights and measures that is accepted by most of the world, and soon we may all be measuring and weighing using the same standard. It doesn’t use Noah’s cubit, but it does closely follow the Lord’s admonition to have a “perfect and just measure” (Deut. 25:15).

    Illustrated by Dick Brown