A STUDY of the system of measures used in Palestine presents many complications. As the land was successively dominated by Egypt, Assyria, Babylon, Medo-Persia, Greece and Rome, new systems were imposed, and for this reason there is considerable variation in the samples of weights and measures unearthed by archaeologists.1 Although there may be some variation in opinion as to precise values involved, yet the information available sheds considerable illumination on scriptures that refer to measurements.
The system prevalent in Babylonia was sexagesimal, being based on the number sixty; our division of time is an evidence of that practice carried over to our day. The Egyptian system was apparently decimal. The Hebrew scale adhered to neither of these exclusively, but rather employed a combination of systems.2
The Hebrews and some neighboring peoples employed an arrangement obviously derived from the human body: the finger, hand, arm, span, foot and pace being used for measurement.3 Obviously, these differ with each individual; so some standard set of measures was needed for general use. The result was the use of the “fingerbreadth” as equal to approximately three-fourths of an inch, using its width for measuring. According to rabbinic tradition this represented seven barleycorns laid side by side. Four fingers would equal a “handbreadth,” three handbreadths came to a “span” (the distance between the tip of the thumb and the little finger when extended) and two spans made a “cubit,” or an “ell,” as Jewish authorities term it. There was also the pace, which is similar to our yard, and the “reed,” which was made up of six long cubits. The furlong or stade was one-eighth of a mile.4
There has been considerable discussion about the value of the cubit, some arguing for as many as three different cubits of varying lengths. Some have claimed that it should be measured from the elbow to the tip of the center finger, or possibly to the knuckles, or to the wrist, or from the armpit to the tip of the outstretched fingers.5 Such variation in usage does not seem to be called for, however, and The Westminster Dictionary of the Bible, published in 1944, points out that it is probably “about 18 inches,” or about six handbreadths.6 This was in common usage and was probably the older of the two cubits used, the second being a cubit “of a cubit and a handbreadth each.” (Ezek. 40:5, AS) The Egyptians too had an arrangement something like this, with a common cubit and a royal cubit one-sixth longer, but they used it to give the king selfish advantage in trade. This was not done in Israel.
Let us apply this cubit measuring-stick to some of the Bible accounts and see what kind of picture it conveys. Regarding the ark in which Noah, his family and some of each of the animal kinds survived the Flood, Genesis 6:15, 16 (NW) says: “And this is how you will make it: three hundred cubits the length of the ark, fifty cubits its width, and thirty cubits its height. . . . you will make it with a lower story, a second story and a third story.” That was no week-end pleasure yacht, but a giant chest 450 feet long, 75 feet wide and 45 feet high, designed to house for more than a lunar year all that survived.
Much later on the flat plain of Dura in Babylonia King Nebuchadnezzar set up an image to which all were ordered to bow in worship. Its “height was threescore cubits, and the breadth thereof six cubits”; yes, that idol with a breadth of nine feet towered ninety feet up into the air to command the attention and worship of the people. (Dan. 3:1) Though this monstrosity filled the people with awe, faithful Hebrews did not bow in its service.
In Biblical times how far would one travel in a day? Well, that might depend on what day it was, who was in the party and how rough the country was. So when reference is made to “a day’s journey” we can hardly stamp it with a fixed distance. Perhaps we can say that it would average about twenty miles. Some might go thirty miles, but if one was traveling with a sizable group it might not amount to more than ten miles or so.7 Perhaps this was the case with Jesus’ parents. When they were returning home from the festival “the boy Jesus remained behind in Jerusalem, and his parents did not notice it. Assuming that he was in the company traveling together, they covered a day’s distance and then began to hunt him up among the relatives and acquaintances. But, not finding him, they returned to Jerusalem, making a diligent search for him. Well, after three days they found him in the temple sitting in the midst of the teachers and listening to them and questioning them.”—Luke 2:43-46, NW.
If, now, it was the sabbath day in Israel, one would not be going very far at all. Less than a mile from the city gate was permitted. (Acts 1:12) This is based on the thought that, while the tabernacle was 2,000 cubits (or 3,000 feet) from the camp of Israel, the people were permitted to go at least that far on the sabbath.8 (Josh. 3:4) Undoubtedly it was due to this restricted travel that some who saw the dead heaved up from their tombs at the time of Jesus’ death did not come into the holy city Jerusalem and report the occurrence until the first day of the week, after the Lord was raised. What force, too, this appreciation of the sabbath day’s journey lends to Jesus’ words: “Keep praying that your flight may not occur in wintertime nor on the sabbath day.” (Matt. 24:20; 27:52, 53, NW) A flight of less than a mile would be of little value in escaping the vengeance of destroying armies.
For land measures two methods were in use in Israel. One designated the amount of land a yoke of oxen could plow in a day; literally the expression is a “span of a field.” It is translated “acre” in the American Standard Version of the Bible. (1 Sam. 14:14; Isa. 5:10) The second method stated the amount of seed required to sow a given area. Thus, the ‘sowing of a homer of barley’ was computed at the price of fifty shekels of silver. (Lev. 27:16) This is the same type of measurement as given in connection with the altar built by Elijah on Mount Carmel. The priests of Baal had prayed in demonic frenzy, slashing themselves with knives, begging their god to answer them, but to no avail. Elijah, confident in Jehovah, built an altar for sacrifice “and he made a trench about the altar, as great as would contain two measures of seed.” This was not a trench that would hold two measures of seed, but it enclosed the area that would require that much seed to sow it. The Talmud defines it as an area of 5,000 square ells or cubits, or an area seventy-five by one hundred and fifty feet.9 Elijah practically converted this large area into a pond; but did it hinder the sacrifice? “Then the fire of Jehovah fell, and consumed the burnt-offering, and the wood, and the stones, and the dust, and licked up the water that was in the trench.” (1 Ki. 18:32, 38, AS) It was an outstanding spectacle that impressed deeply into the minds of the people that Jehovah is the true God.
Were one to visit the market place or enter the kitchen of an ancient Hebrew family he might observe their measuring instruments in use. Sturdy, well-shaped pottery or stone vessels were most common. For liquids there was the “log,” equal to about a pint and which was often used to measure out oil to accompany a sacrifice.10 Four logs equaled one “cab,” three cabs made a “hin,” and six hins equaled one “bath,” which may have been similar to the Greek “firkin.”11 Do we need a larger measure? Well, then, the “cor” should serve the purpose. It was equal to ten baths, or about 98 U.S. gallons.12
Shift your attention now to the north, to Cana of Galilee, and observe what happened at the marriage feast that Jesus attended there. Wine had run out. “As it was, there were six stone water-jars sitting there as required by the purification rules of the Jews, each able to hold two or three liquid measures. Jesus said to them: ‘Fill the water-jars with water.’ And they filled them to the brim. And he said to them: ‘Draw some out now and take it to the director of the feast.’ So they took it.” (John 2:6-8, NW) Note the quantity: six jars each able to hold two or three firkins. It may be, as suggested by The Westminster Dictionary of the Bible, that the firkin was equal to approximately nine U.S. gallons. If only two firkins was put in each jar, it would mean that Jesus miraculously produced about 108 gallons of wine for the feast; or if they each held three full measures, it was about 162 gallons.13 And it was not quantity at the expense of quality, for the director of the occasion pronounced it the best they had at the feast.
Perhaps if we turn our attention now to one of the Israelite housewives we shall observe more things of interest. See the vessel with which she measures flour; it is a “seah.” Large? Yes, but so is the family, and although it holds nearly a peck and a half, it will be needed. There is a smaller measure though; it is the “omer,” equal to 3.36 U.S. quarts.14 We find the merchants in the market place using even larger vessels: the “ephah,” which holds ten omers, and the “homer,” which is the same as ten ephahs.
These are the same measures that were used over a period of many centuries. Note their mention in connection with Gideon. When the angel of Jehovah appeared “Gideon went in and proceeded to make ready a kid of the goats and an ephah of flour [1 bushel 1 quart 1.2 pints] as unfermented cakes. The meat he put in the basket and the broth he put in the cooking pot, after which he brought it out to him under the massive tree and served it.” (Judg. 6:19, NW) That banquet was served at a time when great economic hardship pressed upon the people. How devoted Gideon was, how appreciative of Jehovah’s interest in his people, how confident that Jehovah would continue to provide!
Israel daily experienced Jehovah’s loving care and they were constant recipients of his provisions, manna being given them daily for their nourishment during the wilderness trek. They did not suffer from any lack; an omer, or approximately three and a third quarts, of manna was provided for each one daily. Would you need more than that? Israel thought they did. They longed for meat. God’s hand was not short. “A wind burst forth from Jehovah and began driving quails over from the sea and letting them fall above the camp about a day’s journey this way and about a day’s journey that way all around the camp and about two cubits above the surface of the earth. Then the people got up all that day and all night and all the next day and kept gathering the quail. The one collecting least gathered ten homers, and they kept spreading them extensively all around the camp for themselves.”—Num. 11:31, 32, NW.
Extending out from this gigantic camp of two to three million persons about twenty miles on each side was a mammoth meat market to satisfy their craving. But greed and gluttony seized them. The one gathering least had over one hundred bushels. If we reason that only the men twenty-five years and older did the gathering, they took in over sixty million bushels of quail. They failed to exercise proper self-restraint and, above all, they failed to express thanks and appreciation to Jehovah for his bountiful provision. So the thirty-third verse Nu 11:33 relates: “The meat was yet between their teeth, before it could be chewed, when Jehovah’s anger blazed against the people and Jehovah began striking at the people with a very great slaughter.” How much more fully we can appreciate these Bible accounts with a little knowledge of the meaning of these units of measure!
Note briefly the interrelation of these many units of measure we have discussed. Linear measure follows this pattern: one cubit equals 2 spans, 6 handbreadths or 24 fingers. In liquid measure, one cor is the same as 10 baths, 60 hins, 180 cabs, or 720 logs. A homer, the large unit of dry measure, is equivalent to 10 ephahs, 30 seahs, 100 omers, 180 cabs or 720 logs.16 And comparing the last two systems, we note that the ephah is the same as the bath and the homer is equal to the cor. McClintock and Strong’s Cyclopædia comments on this relationship of measures: “The scale is constructed, it will be observed, on a combination of decimal and duodecimal ratios, the former prevailing in respect to the omer, ephah, and homer, and the latter in respect to the cab, seah, and ephah. In the liquid measure the duodecimal ratio alone appears, and hence there is a fair presumption that this was the original, as it was undoubtedly the most general principle on which the scales of antiquity were framed.”16
Perhaps an endeavor to reconcile the many slight differences in precise measures as set out by archaeologists would be a forbidding task, but a simple knowledge of the relative values of measures used in the Bible is of practical value to all who read it.
1 Harper’s Bible Dictionary, 1952.
2 McClintock and Strong’s Cyclopædia, Vol. 6, p. 197.
3 Jewish Encyclopedia, 1905, Vol. 12, p. 483.
4 Ibid., p. 483.
5 McClintock and Strong’s Cyclopædia, Vol. 6, p. 193; Jewish Encyclopedia, Vol. 12, p. 487.
6 The Westminster Dictionary of the Bible, 1944,
7 McClintock and Strong’s Cyclopædia, Vol. 6, p. 196.
8 The Westminster Dictionary of the Bible, p. 523.
9 Jewish Encyclopedia, Vol. 12, p. 487.
10 The Westminster Dictionary of the Bible, p. 362; Lev. 14:10, footnote, NW.
11 John 2:6, footnote, NW, but see Westminster.
12 The Westminster Dictionary of the Bible, 1944, p. 61.
13 Ibid, p. 184.
14 Ibid., p. 440. Also Exodus 16:16, footnote, NW.
15 Ibid. p. 386.
16 McClintock and Strong’s Cyclopædia, Vol. 6, p. 197.
[Picture on page 241]
1 Cubit = 2 Spans = 6 Handbreadths = Fingers
1 Cor = 10 Baths = 60 Hins = 180 Cabs = 720 Logs
1 Homer = 10 Ephahs = 30 Seahs = 100 Omers = 180 Cabs = 720 Logs