The normal practice in the ancient near east was to use parts of the human body to measure lengths. This had the advantage of being very convenient, but the obvious disadvantage was that these lengths varied considerably between different individuals and between different peoples.
The standard unit of measuring lengths in OT Israel and around the ancient near east was the cubit. A cubit is understood to be measured by the distance from the elbow to the end of the middle finger. Because of this, the actual length of a cubit could vary considerably. The length of cubit measuring sticks discovered from the 12th dynasty in Egypt varied by as much as 2.5 cm (one inch).
The length of a cubit also varied in the different civilizations. The average Egyptian cubit was about 52 cm (20.5 inches), which is about 2.5 cm (1 inch) longer than the Mesopotamian cubit, which was about 49.5 cm (19.5 inches). Both of these are longer than the standard cubit in Israel which is normally accepted to be 44.4 cm (17.5 inches). This is based on the length of Hezekiah's tunnel built to bring water into the city of Jerusalem (2 Kg 20:20). The inscription from Hezekiah's tunnel gives the length of the tunnel as 1200 cubits. The length of the actual tunnel is 533 metres (1749 feet). From this, the length of a cubit is then calculated to be 44.4 cm (17.5 inches).
The span is the distance between the thumb and the little finger when the hand is held with the fingers outspread. The span was half the length of a cubit. The span is only infrequently used in the OT. The breastplate of the high priest was to be a square measuring a span, "You shall make a breastplate of judgement, in skilled work; you shall make it in the style of the ephod; of gold, of blue and purple and crimson yarns, and of fine twisted linen you shall make it. It shall be a square and doubled, a span in length and a span in width." (Ex 28:15-16, 39:9). It is referred to otherwise as half a cubit.
The handbreadth or palm was the breadth of the four fingers held together, excluding the thumb. It was one third of the length of a span and a sixth the length of a cubit. The rim of the table of the bread of the presence was to be a handbreadth wide (Ex 25:25, 37:12), the same thickness as the sea of bronze in Solomon's temple (1 Kg 7:26, 2 Chr 4:5).
The finger was the width of a single finger, making it a quarter the width of a handbreadth, as stated in Jeremiah's description the pillars of the temple, "As for the pillars, the height of one pillar was eighteen cubits, its circumference was twelve cubits; it was hollow and its thickness was four fingers" (Jer 52:21).
Summary of the lengths
1 handbreadth = 4 fingers
1 span = 3 handbreadths (12 fingers)
1 cubit = 2 spans (6 handbreadths, 24 fingers)
In the vision of the temple in the Book of Ezekiel, the measurements are given in 'long cubits', which is believed to be a cubit, plus a handbreadth. The temple was measured using a reed, which was six long cubits in length. "The length of the measuring reed in the man's hand was six long cubits, each being a cubit and a handbreadth in length ..." (Ezek 40:5).
1 long cubit = 1 cubit + 1 span
1 reed = 6 long cubits
Converting to modern units
There are many places in the Bible where distances or lengths are given. It can be helpful to convert these into modern units, so we can appreciate the size of the objects being measured.
These are some examples:
The size of the ark built by Noah is given as 300 cubits long, 50 cubits wide, and 30 cubits high (Gen 6:15).
The size of the bed belonging to King Og of Bashan was 9 cubits long, and 4 cubits wide (Deut 3:11).
Goliath was 6 cubits and a span high (1 Sam 17:4).
The holy of holies in Solomon's temple was the shape of a cube, with each length 20 cubits (1 Kg 6:20)
The following conversion values are used on the page
|Unit of measurement
||3108 mm (3 m)
||122.4 inches (10 feet)
Enter the number of cubits in the box below, and select the units. The default unit is the cubit. The distance in metric and imperial units will be given below.