Weights and measures (Amos 8)

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Illustration: Weights and measures used in ancient times

Weights in the ancient world were crafted of either metal or semiprecious stones, often carved in the shape of ducks, lions or turtles. They had a flat base and were inscribed with their weight standard. The law called for standardized weights and measures (Leviticus 19:35-36), and yet, of the weights  that have been found, very few of the same denomination are identical. It is important to note that ancient weights were never able to achieve the precision of modern standard, due in part to the method of production, as well as to standards that varied at different times and in different regions. Thus, they must be thought of as commonly accepted estimates. Those who knowingly used dishonest weights and balances came under prophetic critique for defaulting God and their fellow human beings (Amos 8:5-6, Micah 6:11, Malachi 3:8-10).

The talent, the largest standard weight used for gold, silver, iron and bronze (1 Kings 10:14, 2 Kings 23:33), weighed approximately 34 kg. The mina, 0,017 of a telent, most likely was incorporated is a postexilic measure and was made infamous in the judgement of Belshazzar, who was “weighed” by God and found to be deficient (Daniel 5:27). The shekel, derived from the verb “to weigh”, was the primary weight unit of ancient Israel, yet its valuation displays a certain degree of variability. The common  shekel was approximately 11,6 grams (2 Samuel 14:26) and the sanctuary shekel about 9,9 grams (Leviticus 5:15). Subdivisions of the shekel include the beka, valued at half a sanctuary shekel (Exodus 38:26), and the gerah, valued at 0,05 of a sanctuary shekel (Exodus 30:13).

Since height and length were measured in ancient cultures by laying forearms or hands upon an object, linear measures were named after the parts of the arm by which they were counted. The cubit, or “forearm#, was the distance from the elbow to the tip of the middle finger and was used to measure height, depth and distance (Joshua 3:4, 1 Samuel 17:4, Zechariah 5:2). While the Bible records varying cubit standards in the Hebrew system of measurement, the “ordinary cubit” was approximately 44,5 cm. Other measures in decreasing size were: the span (Exodus 39:9), counted as the breadth of an outstretched hand from the thumb to little finger and equalling half a cubit; the palm (1 Kings 7:26), the width of the base of the hand; and the width of the finger (Jeremiah 52:21).

Capacity measures throughout the ancient Near East bore common names and were essentially similar. The homer, ” “donkey load”, was equivalent to a cor, both equalling an average of 150 l. and used for cereals such as wheat and barley. The ephah, measuring 0,10 of a homer, was a vessel large enough to hold a person (Zechariah 5:6-8). An omer, meaning “small bowl”, was equivalent to 0,10 of an ephah and identified as the daily bread ration (Exodus 16:32, 36). The bath and hin were the two major liquid measures used for water, wine and oil. The bath was the liquid equivalent to the ephah (2 Chronicles 2:10, Isaiah 5:10), while the hin, named after a measuring vessel, was equal to 0,1666 of a bath (6 l.).


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