Hebrew Weights and Money
MONEY has not always been conveniently carried in a change purse ready for use. The time was, and still is in some places, when payment of a debt was made in cattle. A little large for one’s wallet, but nonetheless acceptable for commercial purposes. In ancient Babylonia rates of exchange were worked out for such items as oxen, sheep, dates, oil, barley and silver. Even today some contracts may stipulate payment in sugar, dried fish, cattle or corn, or if not stipulated, they may be accepted.
It is of interest to note that this early form of exchange is reflected in the term “pecuniary,” signifying, “pertaining to or consisting of money.” It comes from the Latin pecus, which means cattle, and which was apparently the first money of the Romans. The Bible relates that barter, or exchanging cattle and goods as payment, was resorted to by all Egypt and Canaan during the severe famine of the eighteenth century B.C.—Gen. 47:14-17.
MONEY WAS WEIGHED
Money is mentioned in that Bible account, but this does not mean money as we know it today. This is shown by the related account in Genesis 43:20, 21, where reference is made to the “money in full weight.” It consisted of pieces of silver that were weighed to determine value. Jeremiah 32:10 (AS) speaks of a similar payment: “And I subscribed the deed, and sealed it, and called witnesses, and weighed him the money in the balances.” This money bore no stamp of authority.
With this system of exchange it was necessary to have along balances, weights and some silver in order to pay a debt. For the most part these weights consisted of stones, and later lead pieces, hung from one’s girdle in a pouch. However, at Lachish and elsewhere a number of weights have been unearthed that are shaped as crouching lions, bulls, geese and ducks. It may be that a similar reference is involved when the Hebrew text at Genesis 33:19 says that Jacob purchased a field for one hundred kesitahs, which possibly means lambs. That may have designated the weight used or it may have been a coin with the likeness of a sheep stamped on it; but this is quite early to say definitely that it was a coin in use.
Consistent with the practice of using stones of specific weights is the Hebrew word eben, or stone, which also means weight. Considerable accuracy was possible through these weights. But in Babylon, and elsewhere, this use of unmarked money gave rise to considerable fraud. A merchant might use two sets of weights, one for buying and another for selling. That such practice did exist is shown by Jehovah’s specific condemnation of it for his people: “You must not come to have in your bag two sorts of weights, a great one and a small one.” “Diverse weights, and diverse measures, both of them alike are an abomination to Jehovah.” (Deut. 25:13, NW; Prov. 20:10, AS) Layard’s studies reveal that Babylon had a royal and a common set of weights, used to give the king the advantage in all business transactions to which he was a party; also there were heavy and light weights in use, the latter being just half as heavy as the former.
We are not to assume from this discussion that their currency was totally void of any specific size or shape, only weights having a definite shape. Indications are to the contrary. Although the pieces were not officially stamped with a designation of value, many of the smaller units in common use were no doubt of a recognized value, since they were used so often. The account in Genesis 24:22 (NW) seems to indicate this: “Consequently it came about that, when the camels had finished drinking, then the man took a gold nose ring of a half shekel in weight and two bracelets for her hands, ten shekels of gold was their weight.” These rings were of a specific and known weight. Aside from ornamentation, they may also have served as money. This was later true of Egyptian money as well. In Assyria, however, it is reported that silver and gold bars or wedges were used for money. This is reflected in the Bible account that tells of Achan’s taking these as loot from Jericho.—Josh. 7:21.
During this early period of time and even in David’s day gold was not the ordinary medium of exchange. It was simply used as an article of merchandise, a precious metal in most cases, but not the standard of value. You may recall that Abraham paid for the field he purchased from Ephron the Hittite with silver, “four hundred silver shekels current with the merchants.” (Gen. 23:16, NW) This practice was true among others besides the Hebrews, for the Midianites, Philistines and Syrians, among others, also employed silver as their commercial standard of value.
Since money had been weighed out for so long, it is not surprising to learn that monetary designations are also designations of weights. Principally, there are five divisions: the gerah, bekah, shekel, maneh and talent. The Bible itself gives us much information on their value in relation to one another, but it is rather difficult to say definitely what their specific values are in terms of present-day science of weights and measures.
Exodus 38:25, 26 (NW) gives us the key to the relationship of the talent and the shekel: “And the silver of the ones registered of the assembly was a hundred talents and one thousand seven hundred and seventy-five shekels by the shekel of the sanctuary. The half shekel for an individual was the half of a shekel by the shekel of the sanctuary, for every man who was serving according to those who were registered from twenty years of age and upward, amounting to six hundred and three thousand five hundred and fifty.” A half shekel from each of 603,550 persons would yield 301,775 shekels of silver. The account tells us that this is equal to one hundred talents and 1,775 shekels. That means that each talent contained three thousand shekels.
Talent is our word for the Hebrew kikkarʹ, which means circle, round or oval. Maneh is from a root meaning to count or reckon. The Greek mina means a portion, that is, a subdivision of the talent; sixty manehs equaled a talent. Shekel comes from an expression in Hebrew meaning to weigh, and it did actually signify the common unit of weight. Weight was usually expressed in terms of shekels. Bekah, the half shekel, is from the Hebrew for a cleft or fraction; it signifies a division or a half. And the gerah, or bean or kernel, was similar to the grain now used in weighing. This gerah was one-twentieth of a shekel; as Leviticus 27:25 (NW) says: “The shekel should amount to twenty gerahs.”
Some feel that the Hebrew talent may have been equal to 115 pounds troy. If such was the case, then figuring gold at $32 an ounce and silver at 88 cents an ounce, we should be presented with a picture like this: In silver the gerah would be worth about 2 cents, the bekah 20 cents, the shekel 40 cents, the maneh $20.24 and the talent $1,214.40. In gold the value of the gerah would be about 74 cents, the bekah $7.36, the shekel $14.72, the maneh $736 and the talent $44,160. Although other authorities do not give exactly the same figures, still this gives us something to start with, and from here the relative weight and value of the other denominations may be figured. On our scale one talent equals sixty manehs; a maneh is fifty shekels; each shekel is two bekahs and the bekah is ten gerahs.
Some question may arise as to the relation between the shekel and the maneh in view of Ezekiel 45:12, which says, “And the shekel shall be twenty gerahs: twenty shekels, five and twenty shekels, fifteen shekels, shall be your maneh.” This would appear to say that the maneh has sixty shekels instead of the fifty mentioned above. However, many scholars prefer the Greek reading of the text as given in the Codex Alexandrinus: “Five shekels are five, and ten shekels are ten, and fifty shekels shall be your maneh.” In other words, the weights were to be honest and according to the accepted standard, neither more nor less.
Applied to Bible accounts what light does this throw on our understanding of the texts? Well, did you ever wonder how much money Joseph’s brothers accepted when they sold him into Egyptian slavery? In terms of the value of equivalent silver in our day the “twenty pieces of silver” would be only about $8. (Gen. 37:28) Later on the Mosaic law stipulated the price of a slave as thirty pieces of silver, which would come to around $12. (Ex. 21:32) Remember, it was for thirty pieces of silver that Judas was willing to betray Jesus.—Matt. 27:3.
We have often read the account of Haman and his hatred for the people of God, but it is difficult to conceive of a man as filled with bitterness toward anyone as he was toward the Jews. The account at Esther 3:9 (NW) tells us about it, saying: “If to the king it does seem good, let there be a writing that they be destroyed, and ten thousand silver talents I shall pay into the hands of those doing the work by bringing [it] into the king’s treasury.” Can you imagine a man with such hatred that he was willing to pay $12,144,000 to have the object of his hatred removed?
Every Bible reader is acquainted with David, and most of us have some idea of the picture David and Goliath must have presented as they faced each other on the battlefield. Goliath was insulted as he saw the lad David coming out with a simple sling in his hand. There in front of young David stood a giant, “his height being six cubits and a span,” or nine feet nine inches. “And there was a helmet of copper on his head, and he was clad with a coat of mail, of overlapping scales, and the weight of the coat of mail was five thousand shekels of copper. And there were greaves of copper above his feet and a javelin of copper between his shoulders. And the wooden shaft of his spear was like the beam of loom workers, and the blade of his spear was six hundred shekels of iron.” (1 Sam. 17:4-7, NW) His coat of mail alone weighed over 157 pounds and just the head of his spear came to almost 19 pounds. But this metal-clad monstrosity did not cause David to turn back in dismay. Fully confident that Jehovah was with him David went through with his assignment and came off victorious.
It is often observed in these Bible accounts, especially in the Law of Moses, that weights, or payment of money, were to be figured according to the shekel of the sanctuary. What was that shekel of the sanctuary, as it is so often called? McClintock and Strong’s Cyclopædia views the matter this way: “The Weight of the Sanctuary, or Weight of the Temple (Exodus 30:13, 24), was probably the standard weight, preserved in some apartment of the Temple, and not a different weight from the common shekel; for though Moses appoints that all things valued by their price in silver should be rated by the weight of the sanctuary, he makes no difference between this shekel of twenty oboli, or twenty gerahs, and the common shekel.” (Volume 10, pages 900, 901) In other words, the expression may indicate nothing other than that the weight should be accurate, following the standard weights kept by the priests in the temple.
Since the practice was to weigh silver to determine its value, counting money was rare, and then it was probably done only to get an estimate of value. (2 Ki. 12:10) When coins came into use, of course, it was different. But in Israel this was not until after their exile in Babylon.
The Lydians in Asia Minor were probably the first to issue coins, doing so toward the end of the eighth century B.C. History shows that staters, made of an alloy of gold and silver called electron, were struck at Lydia about that time. It was along in the sixth century B.C. that the practice reached Persia, where a thick gold coin, the daric, featuring the king kneeling and holding a javelin, was issued. The Jews became acquainted with these coins through Persia, no doubt taking some back to Jerusalem with them. (Ezra 1:4) The post-captivity books of Ezra, Chronicles and Nehemiah make reference to them. (Ezra 2:69; 1 Chron. 29:7; Neh. 7:70-72) Later Grecian and Roman currency circulated in Palestine, and at times even the Jews coined money.
By Jesus’ day a strange complexity of coins was in use around Jerusalem. When Jews traveled to the temple from foreign lands they brought their own money with them. The Greeks had brought in their talent (smaller than the Hebrew talent) and mina, and the drachma and stater or tetradrachma coins; now the Romans used the denarius, quadrans and assarion. But this money was not accepted for contributions in the temple. Whether the poll tax or a freewill offering, it had to be presented in the native coin.
Thus arose the need for money-changers. They set up stalls for business in the city and at the time of the passover they actually moved into the temple area, setting up their tables in the Court of Gentiles. They made about three cents profit on just a single half shekel change. Their dishonesty and selfishness were entirely out of harmony with the true worship that should have been practiced there. Twice during his earthly ministry Jesus overturned their tables, spilling their money and denouncing their commercializing of the worship there.—John 2:14-16; Matt. 21:12, 13.
On one occasion as Jesus, using an illustration, spoke to his disciples he said: “The kingdom of the heavens is like a man, a householder, who went out early in the morning to hire workers for his vineyard. When he had agreed with the workers for a denarius a day, he sent them forth into his vineyard.” (Matt. 20:1, 2, NW) This statement of one denarius, or about 17 cents, as an acceptable day’s wage at that time sheds much light on Revelation 6:6, which says: “And I heard a voice as if in the midst of the four living creatures say: ‘A quart of wheat for a day’s wage [denarius, rendered penny in the King James Version and shilling in the American Standard Version], and three quarts of barley for a day’s wage; and do not harm the olive oil and the wine.’” (NW) That denarius represented a day’s wage—a great deal of money for a single quart of wheat. The text speaks of real famine, just as Jesus foretold at Matthew 24:7.
Application of your knowledge of Biblical weights and money does not take much time, but it may add considerably to your appreciation of the accounts you read. Next time you see in your Bible a reference to some one of the units of weight or money stop and think what it means in the standard that you use each day.