Biblical units

February 6, 2011

Bible prophecies about spiritual concepts employ the units used for earthly things, including units of length and of time. But it is unlikely that the dimensions of spiritual things would be constrained by any earthly units. The same applies to the times involved in building the heavenly Jerusalem. In this post I discuss some of the units mentioned in Scripture.

Talent

In ancient times a talent was approximately the mass of the water required to fill an amphora, which was a ceramic vase, or large bottle with two handles and a long neck narrower than the body.

1 Egyptian talent = 27 kg = 60 lb
1 Babylonian talent = 30.3 kg = 67 lb
1 Roman talent = 32.3 kg = 71 lb

The talent was the unit used for measuring gold. Solomon’s annual income was 666 talents of gold. [1 Kings 10:14] Some believe that this indicates the significance of the number of the beast. [Revelation 13:18]

In Jesus’ parable of the talents, those who used their talents wisely and gained other talents, were commended. [Matthew 25:14-29] This parable gave rise to the use of the word “talent” to refer to a “gift” or “skill” in the English language.

Shekel, Mina, Pares

The talent was subdivided to 60 mina in the Babylonian kingdom.

1 talent = 60 mina
1 mina = 1.25 pounds = 0.571 kilograms
1 mina = the weight of about 0.505 liters of water
1 mina = 60 shekels
1 shekel = 24 giru

The writing on the wall at the feast of Belshazzar consisted of a list of three units of money, one of which was written twice. [Daniel 5] The words were “mene, mene, tekel, upharsin.” They allude to the shekel, mina (twice), and  pares, which is a half-mina. This resembles the pattern in the expression “a time, times and a half.”

Pieces of silver

Joseph was sold to Ishmeelite merchants by his brothers, for twenty pieces of silver. [Genesis 37:28]

In Matthew 26:15, thirty pieces of silver was the price for which Judas Iscariot betrayed Jesus. These may have been either shekels, staters, or tetradrachms.

Penny

A penny a day was the wages promised to the laborers in the parable of Jesus, Matthew 20:1-16.

It was the price of a measure of wheat or of three measures of barley in the third seal, Revelation 6:6.

Farthing

A farthing represents the very last bit of a debt in Matthew 5:26. It could buy two sparrows. [Matthew 10:29]

Mite

Two mites make a farthing. [Mark 12:42]

Measure

This is a vague term applied to indeterminate things, such as the amount of the Spirit of God a person has received, [John 3:34] the amount of faith, [Romans 12:3] affliction, [2 Corinthians 11:23] or exultation. [2 Corinthians 12:7]

There are many other indeterminate expressions. Zechariah refers to Jerusalem as “a burdensome stone for all people.”

Ancient temples were often built on foundation stones of enormous dimensions, and the technology used to transport and set the more massive of these stones in their positions remains a mystery. Foundation slabs typically weighed hundreds of tons; at Baalbek, some were estimated to weigh as much as 1,500 tons.

“As far as the east is from the west” occurs in Psalm 103:12.

Omer, Ephah, Bath

One omer was the amount of manna collected for each person for one day in the wilderness. [Exodus 16:16]

1 ephah = 1 bath
1 ephah = 72 logs = 72 Sumerian mina
1 ephah = 10 omer

Cubit

The cubit is frequently mentioned in the Bible.

1 cubit = 18.9 inches.

Jesus said, “Which of you by taking thought can add one cubit unto his stature?” [Matthew 6:27]

Angelic cubit

In the description of the holy city, the wall is given the dimension of 144 cubits, “according to the measure of a man, that is, of the angel.” [Revelation 21:17] This suggests the number is symbolic, not literal, and furthermore, this suggests all the other numbers and units that are employed in descriptions of the holy city of the saints may be symbolic too; not only its dimensions, but also the time units that apply to the duration of the construction of the heavenly Jerusalem.

Ell

In Ezekiel’s measurements of the temple, he uses “a cubit and an hand breadth.” [Ezekiel 40:5; 43:13] This unit was called an ell. It is 1 cubit plus 1 palm.

Furlong

This unit is found only in the New Testament.

1 furlong = 1 stadium
1 furlong = 606 feet 9 inches

When used for the holy city, the symbolic nature of the furlong is apparent; the height of the city is very much out of proportion to the dimension given for the wall. It is 36,666 times higher than its wall!

Time

A “time” is indeterminate, not a specific unit. It could be assigned any one of various time units, such as day, month, year, week, decade, etc. There are several expressions where “times” are referred to in prophecy, such as “times of the Gentiles” and “a time, times and a half.” The latter is half of “seven times” and in Leviticus 26 there are four periods of seven times of punishment that would occur, if Israel failed to keep the covenant.

Day

A day is technically the time required for one revolution of the earth about its axis. In scripture it is an evening and morning; that is the night time plus the day time. It was considered to begin at evening.

Just as “time” is indeterminate, in prophecy “day” is too. A “day” is used figuratively whenever it is applied to the works of God. For example, in the first day, God created light. But obviously, light is generated continually. It is generated by the nuclear reactions occurring in the sun and other stars. It is produced by lightning, auroras, meteorites, and by sparks when steel is struck with a hard stone. It is generated in lamps, candles, light bulbs, insects like the firefly, and some fish. The creation of light is the work of the first day.

The “day of the Lord” is a special time in scripture. It is the period of time to which most prophecy applies, and there are some indications that it spans the whole age of the church.

Month

A real month is 29.53 days. But in scripture, months are often equated to 30 days, and this usually indicates that an ideal or figurative period is meant. The time of trampling of the holy city by the Gentiles is represented by 42 months, [Revelation 11:2] and this is also the duration of the power of the beast which makes war with the saints. [Revelation 13:5]

These are symbolic months, as they are associated with the 1,260 days in Revelation 11:3, the duration of the ministry of the two witnesses.

Week

The seven-day week was a memorial of the creation. However, a symbol, or type, does not necessarily determine the whole character of the thing it represents. A vine, or a tree can represent the kingdom or the church, but the church is unlike those things in many ways. A field of wheat can represent the kingdom or the church, but the church is unlike a field of wheat in many ways. A woman can represent the church, but the church is unlike a woman in many ways. It is similar with the week of creation. The seven-day week represents creation, but the duration of the literal week does not set bounds and limits to God’s work of creation, which is on-going and continues today. For example, the saints are his creation. [Ephesians 2:10] All things made by God are included in the six days. [Exodus 20:11]

Sunsets, raindrops, meteorites, sunspots, volcanoes, lightning, hurricanes, a baby’s face, are all among the things made by God, and so are included in the six “days.”

Year

Hebrew and Babylonian calendar years had either 12 or 13 months, and so years were either about 354 days or about 384 days. But the period of three years and a half, or “a time, times and a half” in Daniel and Revelation is represented in various ways. When the numbers mentioned do not correspond to the number of days in a real three and a half years, they must be symbolic.

In a real three and a half years, the number of days is about 1,278 for solar years; and about 1,240 for 42 months. If a leap year is included, then it is about 1,270 days. So the prophetic numbers used to represent the three and a half years, 1,335 days, 1,290 days, and 1,260 days, do not correspond to literal years.

The numbers not corresponding to reality indicates that they represent a symbolic and figurative period, to which earthly units do not apply. They are used for describing time schedules for building the heavenly Jerusalem, which is the city built “without hands.” Its “builder and maker is God.” [Hebrews 11:10]

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