How to read weights and measures in the Bible
15th February 2021
Knowing our talents from our tekels can enrich our understanding of some of the Bible’s narratives, says James Bejon.
The ways we describe weights and measures generally evolve over time. If you rewind a hundred years and consider some of the weights and measures in use in England, many of them will (I suspect) be unfamiliar to you. The troy pound, the gill, the dram, the scruple, the chaldron, the minim, the list goes on. The situation is much the same in other countries, as it is in Scripture.
Scripture refers to weights and measures which are alien to most people today: the seah, the kor, the shekel, the mina. These particular terms are transliterations (English phonetic representations) of the text of the Old Testament. In older and/or more conservative translations, they’re typically left as they are rather than converted into modern measures. For instance, the ESV has “three seahs” in Genesis 18:6, and “30 kors” in 1 Kings 4:22. That means we get a sense of the original inspired words and numbers. What we might not immediately know, however, is exactly how much weight, or how large a quantity, they designate. As a result, we might fail to appreciate measures in the way early readers of Scripture would have appreciated them.
The original hearers or readers of Scripture would have had very different ways of seeing, and measuring, the world from us in the 21st century. To first- or third-century eyes, these details would have added extra weight to a scene or story — significance we might miss when reading with modern eyes. Below, I’ll discuss a few passages where that makes a difference. If we believe every word of Scripture has a purpose, even the details of weights and measurements form part of its message.
The measure of a woman
Our first example is found in the book of Ruth, a familiar Bible narrative peppered with some very unfamiliar cultural markers. Chapter two describes Ruth’s first encounter with Boaz (whom she will later marry) when she arrives in Judah, hungry and penniless, following the death of her husband. Boaz tells his men to make it very easy for Ruth to “glean” in his field, picking up the leftover grain the harvesters had missed.
At the end of her day’s labour Ruth goes home with an ephah’s worth of barley (2.17). How much is an “ephah” exactly? Put briefly, it’s a lot. An ephah is 10 omers’ worth (Exodus 16:36), and an omer’s worth of manna was enough to feed someone for a day (Exodus 16:16, 18, 22). An ephah’s worth of barley would, therefore, have been equivalent to about 10 days’ worth of food. That would explain why when David is sent with provisions for his brothers, who were facing the Philistine army, he takes “10 loaves” and “an ephah of roasted grain” (1 Samuel 17:17–18), since both quantities would amount to about 10 days’ worth of food. Either way, our knowledge of ancient agriculture suggests Ruth gleaned much more than even a paid harvester would be expected to gather in.
Boaz’s generosity to Ruth is an important detail in the book of Ruth. He is portrayed as a man who goes beyond what the law requires. The law required landowners not to be too scrupulous when they harvested their fields, so Israel’s sojourners, fatherless and widows (like Ruth and Naomi) would have leftover grain to collect (Deuteronomy 24:19). Boaz, however, went beyond this: he told his men to leave whole bundles of wheat in Ruth’s path.
In much the same way, as a relative of Ruth’s widowed mother-in-law, Naomi, the law strictly only required Boaz to buy back Naomi’s recently sold land (Leviticus 25:25–30), yet Boaz sought to look after the land’s occupants too (namely Naomi and Ruth: 4:5), in keeping with the spirit of the law (compare, for example, Deuteronomy 25:5–6 with Leviticus 25:25–30).
So what do we miss if we can’t picture the weight of Ruth’s ephah of barley? We miss the extent of Boaz’s generosity, and his assessment of Ruth’s worth and faithfulness, as we see Ruth’s eyes widen at the sight of an ephah of barley and she does the mental calculations to work out how long this grain will feed her and her mother-in-law.
The measure of a king
Another passage of Scripture where an appreciation of particular weights and measures gives us a fuller picture of a person’s life is Daniel 5. While King Belshazzar is feasting, God inscribes a series of mysterious characters on the wall, which the prophet Daniel reads as “Mene, Mene, Tekel, and Parsin”. Each of these words designates a particular weight. The word “Mene” designates a mina. The word “Tekel” represents a known pronunciation of the word “shekel”. And the word “Parsin” refers to a number of “half-minas” (most likely two).
These days, it’s easy to weigh something: we put it on a set of scales and, with a fair amount of confidence, read an accurate measurement from the display. In the ancient Near East, things weren’t so straightforward. First, you needed a standard — a weight stone of a known quantity which you could trust to be accurate. You’d then put the substance to be weighed in a basket on one side of a set of scales and compare it to your “standard” weight stone on the other side. Consequently, we find expressions in Scripture such as, “Men … are but a breath; they … rise in the balances” (Psalm 62:9), since a substance lighter than the weight on the other side of a set of scales would “rise up”.
Daniel’s explanation of the writing on the wall — that Belshazzar’s worth is being “weighed” by God and found to be too light — is, therefore, a powerful image. As a king, Belshazzar would have prescribed his own standards in life. Indeed, “the mina of the king” — an official weight defined by the palace and on the basis of which other weights were calibrated — is a well-known concept in the ancient Near East. Yet in the events of Daniel 5, Belshazzar was weighed on the basis of God’s standards, life’s only objective measure. God defined the standard he required from Belshazzar, and Belshazzar came up a long way short.
While we can’t read this message with the depth of understanding that Daniel does, with a clearer knowledge of these words as measurements of weight, we can feel the heaviness of each one as they stack up against Belshazzar.
The measure of a life
By the time of the New Testament, sums of money seem to have been counted (in coins) rather than weighed on a scale. Matthew’s Gospel contains stories that refer to two particularly large sums. First, in Matthew 18, Jesus tells a parable in which a king settles accounts with his servants. One of his servants owes him a total of 10,000 talents. Jesus’s reference to “talents” most likely designates talents of silver. (For other passages where the word “silver” is implicit, see Leviticus 27:4, 7; and Numbers 3:47, 18:16.) This quantity of talents would have been an enormous sum of money. In Israel during the first century AD, a low-skilled labourer wouldn’t have earned much more than a couple of talents of silver in his entire lifetime. Hence, the only Israelite in Scripture to make a payment of the magnitude of 10,000 talents is King David (1 Chronicles 22:14, 29:7). In this light, the figure of 10,000 talents takes on an increased significance. The servant’s debt is the kind of debt only a king could pay off. And the servant’s offer to pay it off over time is a futile gesture (18:26). His only hope is the king’s mercy.
Later on, in Matthew 25, Jesus tells a parable where a master entrusts five talents to one servant, two talents to another, and one talent to a third. These talents are perhaps best seen as opportunities to serve God and are distributed in accordance with each person’s abilities (25:15). Either way, the master entrusts a considerable sum of money to each servant — money which could be used to earn a serious return. Each servant has great potential. Despite the accusation made by the servant given the single talent, the master is not a “hard man” (25:24). While the servant with five talents earns another five, the master doesn’t expect the servant with two talents to earn another five. When he sees the two-talent servant’s two-talent return, he gives him exactly the same commendation as the five-talent servant (compare 25:23 with 21).
In all three of these examples, a person’s life or value is described by reference to a particular measure. Ruth’s worth in barley, Belshazzar’s life weighed on a scale, and the debt or potential of a servant counted out in silver. Of course, we can understand these passages without knowing precisely how much these measures amount to, but when we have that information it adds a splash of colour that helps us experience the lessons in a way that’s closer to the experience of the first audience.
James Bejon is a Junior Researcher at Tyndale House
Follow him on Twitter @JamesBejon