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Measurements in the Bible

The science of measurement, metrology, is foundational for science and critical for much of human activity. To measure something is to assign an object or event a number so that it can be compared to other similar objects or events. Much of man’s understanding of God’s creation is based on measurements. Measurements are used in all the physical sciences—physics, chemistry, biology, earth sciences, anatomy, engineering, aerospace, and the rest. Measurements are used in many human activities, including construction, trading, buying and selling, baking, and much more.  

The science of measurement is divided into three basic activities.  

  1. Defining units of measurement  
  1. Methods or practices of taking measurements 
  1. Establishing traceability of measurements back to a common standard or reference measurement 

Defining units of measurement is extremely important. Scientists around the world rely on the International System of Units as a common foundation to record, interpret, and report their findings. These units consist of the meter, kilogram, second, kelvin, ampere, etc. A science teacher will likely deduct points from your correct numeric answer if you forget to label your answer with the correct units of measurement. When units are mixed up, calamity can be expected. With a mix-up between the metric and English systems of units, NASA lost a Mars orbiter costing $125 million dollars. All this points to the importance of defining the units of measurement.  

Measurement methods or practices are vast and specific for science, industry, and the trades. We can think of a skillful contractor with a tape measure on his belt ready to be his guide. The tape measure provides the necessary information for the craftsman to develop a plan, make an accurate cut, and complete his work.  

I too am fascinated with measurement and the uncertainty surrounding measurement methods. As a student, I am researching air pollution measurement methods and have found that all measurement methods have uncertainty and measurement errors. Air pollution can be measured by highly accurate (expensive) instrumentation or by low-cost sensors that may have large measurement errors and uncertainties. Some pollutants, like dust in the air, can be measured by passing satellites equipped with specialized imaging equipment as they fly overhead. These remote satellite measurements are limited with regards to time, as measurements are taken when the satellite flies overhead and no clouds obstruct the measurements.   

The third activity of metrology involves the traceability of measurements back to a common standard or reference measurement. For measurements of like objects to be comparable, the measurements need to be based on a standard. With regards to weight, special prototype standards have been developed for the kilogram and distributed out to countries to serve as national standards. These national prototypes serve as standards to calibrate scales that are used throughout every facet of society, including laboratories, factories, bakeries, marketplaces, and even the scale in your home. 

Measurements in the Bible 

Metrology is not a new science. Practices and methods of measurements can be found throughout the Bible.  In Genesis 6, God commands Noah to build an ark and provides the specifications by which Noah was to fashion that ark: 300 x 50 x 30 cubits. According to Genesis 6:22, Noah did all that the Lord commanded him and built an ark according to those dimensions. A cubit is considered the length from the elbow to the tip of the middle finger of a man and is estimated at 18 inches. This length would differ between individuals and would therefore need to be standardized. In the construction of the temple, the cubit was standardized according to the “length by cubits after the first measure” (2 Chron. 3:3). This first measure can be understood as a standard by which the temple was built so that men of different stature (arm lengths) could build the temple accurately and according to the pattern that God provided (1 Chron. 28:11–13). We find parallelism in the construction of the tabernacle, with God providing Moses a pattern for the construction of the tabernacle and instruments in Exodus 25:9. As the tabernacle and temple represent God dwelling with his people ultimately in Christ, the accuracy and precision in constructing these buildings according to their God-given dimensions was of utmost importance. God commanded Moses in Exodus 25:40 to “look that thou make them after their pattern, which was shewed thee in the mount.”  

Not only would the builders have taken care that the measurements were correct, but the structure would be checked for plumbness (vertically straight up or down) with a plumb line. A plumb line is a string with a weight at the bottom of it and is used by carpenters to build pillars and posts that are perfectly plumb or vertically straight up and down. The plumb line is not only used to build walls and pillars, but it is also used to test or evaluate what has been built to determine if the wall is truly plumb. Suppose in the construction of the temple that a wall was found that deviated from being perfectly plumb, or the length of a wall did not measure in length according to the pattern given to David by God. When tested and found to deviate from the pattern or plumb line, this wall would have undoubtedly been destroyed and rebuilt to be perfectly plumb and according to God’s pattern.  

Not only did God give measurements for the construction of the temple, but God measures his church. God commissioned John to measure the temple in a vision recorded in Revelation 11: 1–2. This temple represents the present church militant that is “built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ himself being the chief corner stone; In whom all the building fitly framed together groweth unto an holy temple in the Lord: In whom ye also are builded together for an habitation of God through the Spirit” (Eph. 2:20–22). While the temple of God, the altar, and the worshipers are measured in Revelation 11, God forbids John to measure the outer court and the holy court, which is given to the Gentiles to tread under foot for a specific time period—42 months. The passing of time before Jesus Christ returns is measured precisely and known only by our heavenly Father (Matt. 24:36). The last days will be as the days of Noah, with great wickedness abounding. The cup of iniquity will be full, reaching even unto heaven, where God will remember these sins and pour out his judgment upon the world (Rev. 18:5–8). In contrast to the cup of iniquity remembered by God, Christians have confidence that God will forgive and not remember the trespasses of his dear children. For God hath made his beloved Son to be sin for us, who knew no sin, that we might be made the righteousness of God. Knowing that God will not impute our sins to our account, let us be thankful for this great gift and be ambassadors for Christ (2 Cor. 5:18–21).   

Next time we will examine our sense of measurement with respect to the pattern for our lives that God gave Moses on the mount.