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Weights and measures

(See also Money.) The meanings of the terms that are used in the Bible for measurements and weights, with their relative values and ratios, varied from time to time, which makes it difficult to arrive at a correct understanding of these things today. Such terms must be interpreted in the light of the period of time in which they are used. Early systems of measurement were quite imprecise, as, for example, a bowshot (Gen. 21:16); a donkey load (being a “heap” of grain or a “homer”); a furrow length (source of our word furlong); a day’s journey (Num. 11:31); three days’ journey (Gen. 30:36; see also 31:23); and such other measures as span, handbreadth, cubit, fathom (a full stretch of the arms, or about 5½ to 6 feet), pace, etc. These often used as a standard a part of the human body. Furthermore, an acre was originally the amount of land that could be plowed in a day using a yoke of oxen, as in 1 Sam. 14:14. Land area was also measured by the amount of grain needed to sow it, as in Lev. 27:16. This system of measurement was simply not accurate enough for commercial use. Later, international trade, and subsequent political domination by the Greeks and the Romans, forced some degree of standardization for purposes of tribute, taxation, architecture, and the like. Thus the same term may vary in meaning in Old Testament and New Testament times.

Metals were at first primarily measured by weight, whereas other things were measured by bulk or by size. Thus silver and gold were calculated by weight until coinage became popular (probably 5th century B.C., after the Babylonian exile), and then the standard shifted from weight to value. Hence, a silver coin of a certain value would not weigh the same as an equivalent value of silver measured by the earlier standard of weight. Originally a shekel was a term for a certain weight; later it became a term for the value of a piece of money.

Some of the principal weights mentioned in the Bible are:

Shekel. It is uncertain what its exact weight was in early times; from the 2nd century B.C. onward it was 218 grains (15.126 grams).
Pound. (Hebrew Maneh); equivalent to 50 shekels; 20 ounces, or 571.2 grams.
Talent. (Hebrew kikkar); equivalent to 3,000 shekels (see Ex. 38:25, 26); about 75.6 pounds, or 34.272 kilograms.

(Note: The foregoing are relevant to the Old Testament. The words talent and pound in the New Testament refer not to weights, but to sums of money.)

Bekah. Half a shekel; 88.14 grains, or 5.712 grams.

Some measures of length are:

Cubit. The distance from the elbow to the tip of the finger, normally about 17½ inches, or 444.25 millimeters (approx. 44.43 centimeters).
Sabbath day’s journey. About 2,000 cubits.
Fathom. Approximately 6 feet, or 1.84 meters.
Furlong. 220 yards, or 201.17 meters.
Mile. A U.S. or English mile = 1,760 yards or 1.609 kilometers. A Roman mile = 1,620 yards or 1.482 kilometers.

Some measures of capacity are:

Bath (liquid). Said to be approximately 8¼ U.S. gallons, or 31.3 liters.
Cab (liquid and dry). Said to be less than 2 quarts, or less than 1.8 liters.
Cor (liquid and dry). Said to equal 10 baths.
Ephah (dry). Said to be equivalent to a bath; one-tenth of a homer.
Firkin (liquid). Said to be slightly more than a bath.
Homer (dry). Said to be 10 ephahs. A homer is also believed to be 230 liters (or about 6½ U.S. bushels dry measure).