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.