Ancient Israel: Its Life and Institutions

By Roland De Vaux ; John McHugh | Go to book overview

CHAPTER THIRTEEN
WEIGHTS AND MEASURES

1. Israelite 'metrology'

METROLOGY is by definition an exact science. It presumes that units of length, volume and weight can be mathematically determined and rigorously classified. In practice, it requires the sanction of an authority to impose a system and to ensure that the measures used by everyone are in conformity with the statutory standards. This is the law in modern states and was, in varying degrees, the practice in the great empires of antiquity, but it is doubtful whether any such regulations existed in Israel. Some have claimed that 2 S 8: 1 contains a mention of a 'standard cubit' captured by David from the Philistines, but the text is corrupt and may conceal a geographical name. We hear of swindlers who gave short measure and overcharged ( Am 8: 5), of weights which were 'heavy' or 'light' ( Dt 25: 13), of a short bushel and of faked weights ( Mi 6: 10-11; cf. Pr 20: 10). By contrast, Lv 19: 35-36 prescribes just weights, a just measure, a just ephah (cf. Ez 45: 10). But all these texts refer to commonly accepted estimates, not to official standards. The Rabbinical tradition that samples of the standard cubit were kept in the Temple is unverifiable and is perhaps based only on 1 Ch 23: 29, where the Levites are placed in charge of the loaves of oblation, the flour of wheat, the wafers and all sorts of measures. From the context, this simply means they were to see that the offerings were of the required quantity (cf., e.g. Ex 29: 40) and that God was not defrauded (cf. Ml 3: 8-10). We must not turn them into inspectors of weights and measures. We may appreciate these texts better if we see what happens to-day in Jerusalem, even after the metric system has been imposed, and all are required to use the authorized measures; certain shopkeepers in the bazaars weigh their wares with a small stone or a horse-shoe, peasants measure out milk or oil in jam-pots, Bedouin measure the rope they buy with outstretched arms. Like the Arabs of to-day, the Israelites of old were satisfied with a measure which conformed to custom. We shall see that in certain cases this measure was guaranteed by a mark or inscription on the receptacle or the measuring instrument, but this was not as accurate as our modern systems, nor, it seems, as those of ancient Mesopotamia or Egypt. It is useful to compare the data of the Bible with these ancient Eastern systems and (by way of filling the gaps) with the Graeco- Roman metrology. But it must be remembered that our estimate of their

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