The Cubit in Bible Times

The Cubit in Bible Times

     Understanding Eastern manners and customs helps us to visualize what we read and study in God’s Word. When we can picture what we are reading about, we not only gain greater understanding, but we are better able to remember it. An example of this is being able to picture the cubit, a unit of length in Bible times. It was commonly used to measure objects and people, as well as depth and distance. We first find the term “cubit” in Genesis 6 regarding a very large object—the ark that God instructed Noah to build.
Genesis 6:15 and 16:
And this
is the fashion which thou shalt make it of: The length of the ark shall be three hundred cubits, the breadth of it fifty cubits, and the height of it thirty cubits.
A window shalt thou make to the ark, and in a cubit shalt thou finish it above; and the door of the ark shalt thou set in the side thereof;
with lower, second, and third stories shalt thou make it.
     God provided Noah with the ark’s dimensions in cubits, a term which would have been familiar to him in his culture. But this is not a familiar term in our day. Unless we know how long a cubit is, we can’t really picture the approximate size of the ark, for example. Let’s look at some examples of objects, people, depth, and distance described by the cubit in the Scriptures. When we understand what a cubit is, we can picture more clearly what God describes in many records.
     A number of sources can help us understand this ancient measure of length. One English dictionary explains that the cubit is “any of various ancient units of length based on the length of the forearm from the elbow to the tip of the middle finger and usually equal to about 18 inches (46 centimeters).” We can find excellent background on the word “cubit” in Manners and Customs of the Bible, by James Freeman: “The word cubit is derived directly from the Latin cubitus, the lower arm. The Hebrew word is ammah, the mother of the arm, that is, the fore-arm. It is evidently a measure taken from the human body; as were other measures of length among the Hebrews and other nations.” The term “mother of the arm” refers to the beginning of the arm.
     So we see that the natural measure of the forearm set the standard for this unit of measure called the cubit. This readily available unit of measure continued in New Testament times, and we find that the Greek term for cubit (pēchus) was also taken from the forearm.
     Although the cubit was regarded as a standard measure, its length varies in different sources—ranging from 17½ to 25 inches. If we go to The Amplified Bible, we find that its translators used the 18-inch measurement for the cubit, as we see in these verses describing the dimensions of Noah’s ark.
Genesis 6:15 [The Amplified Bible]:
And this is the way you are to make it: the length of the ark shall be 300 cubits, its breadth 50 cubits, and its height 30 cubits [that is, 450 ft. x 75 ft. x 45 ft.].

     Using simple arithmetic, we can divide 300 cubits into 450 feet and verify that the length of the cubit in this version of the Bible is 1½ feet (or 18 inches). The next verse bears this out.
Genesis 6:16 [The Amplified Bible]:
You shall make a roof or window [a place for light] for the ark and finish it to a cubit [at least 18 inches] above—and the door of the ark you shall put in the side of it; and you shall make it with lower, second, and third stories.

     Estimating the cubit as 18 inches means that at a length of 450 feet, Noah’s ark would have been considerably longer than an American football field, which measures 300 feet from goal line to goal line. The Dake Annotated Reference Bible uses a measurement at the high end, the 25-inch cubit, so the estimate of the size of Noah’s ark in that work is about 625 feet long, 104 feet wide, and its three stories 62½ feet high. The estimates from both The Amplified Bible and Dake’s Bible help us understand that the ark was likely at least 1½ times the length of a football field, giving us an even better idea of how large the ark was!
     In addition to giving the measurements for Noah’s ark in cubits, God frequently gives the dimensions for other structures and objects by way of the cubit. By far, most occurrences of “cubit” refer to the dimensions for the various aspects of the tabernacle and the Temple and their furnishings. (For some details, see Exodus 25–27; I Kings 6 and 7; II Chronicles 3 and 4. Also see Ezekiel 40–43 for measurements relating to the Temple in Ezekiel’s vision.)
     For examples of these dimensions, let’s look at one notable furnishing of the tabernacle. In Exodus 25 we find that God also gave the measurements for another kind of ark—the ark of the covenant. How large was the ark of the covenant that the Lord instructed Moses to have built for the tabernacle?
Exodus 25:10:
And they shall make an ark
of shittim wood: two cubits and a half shall be the length thereof, and a cubit and a half the breadth thereof, and a cubit and a half the height thereof.
     Based on an 18-inch cubit, this ark would have measured 3¾ feet (45 inches) in length and 2¼ feet (27 inches) in width and in height—a size that we can readily picture. We can see that it was a manageable size as the children of Israel carried it from place to place….

This is an excerpt from the July/August 2014 issue of The Way Magazine.
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