People in the ancient world had different ways of measuring than most societies today. While their calculations could be remarkably precise, their tools had less sophistication than current technologies. Some terms of measurement in the Bible are unknown to modern readers. An example is the cubit which appears hundreds of times in the Old Testament and a few times in the New.
In the Bible, a cubit is a term of measurement that quantifies length. One cubit equals approximately 17.5 to 18 inches (or 45 to 46 cm). The measurement originates from the length of a man’s forearm. In the ancient world, without sophisticated tools, people used body parts like arms to measure length.
What’s the difference in length between a pace, span, finger, and cubit? How often do “cubit” or “cubits” appear in the KJV and NIV Bibles? What’s the difference between a short and long cubit? How did the discovery of King Hezekiah’s tunnel confirm the length of a cubit for Bible readers? Keep reading to learn the answers to these questions and others.
Also, see What Does the Rainbow Mean in the Bible? to learn more.
Cubits and Lengths Measurements In the Hebrew Bible
Before the creation of modern tools, people often used their bodies to measure lengths. For example, some historians believe the English measurement “foot” came from King Henry I (1068-1135 A.D.), who reportedly had 12-inch feet and sought to standardize measurements in England. Others argue that the term existed before Henry; nevertheless, its origin is likely the bottom of someone’s foot.
|(1) “pace” (NASB); “step” (NIV)||About 1 yard (or three feet)|
|Hebrew: tsaad; צַעַד||Example: 2 Sam. 6:13|
|(2) “span” (NASB); “nine inches” (NLT)||About half a cubit|
|Hebrew: zereth, זֶרֶת||Example: Exod. 28:16|
|(3) “fingers” (NASB); “three inches” (NLT)||About one-quarter of a palm|
|Hebrew: etsba, אֶצְבַּע||Example: Jer. 52:21|
|(4) “cubit” (NASB); “eighteen inches” (NLT)||About 17.5 to 18 inches|
|Hebrew: ammah, אַמָּה||Example: Exod. 26:13|
Cubits in the Old Testament
In the KJV Bible, the word “cubit” appears 47 times, and “cubits” occurs 215 times. In the NIV Bible, “cubit” occurs 37 times and “cubits” 220 times. Most modern Bible translations render the word “cubit” or “cubits,” but some update the terminology to align with modern vocabulary.
|NIV||“The length of the measuring rod in the man’s hand was six long cubits, each of which was a cubit and a handbreadth. He measured the wall; it was one measuring rod thick and one rod high.”|
|NLT||The man took a measuring rod that was 10 1 / 2 feet long and measured the wall, and the wall was 10 1 / 2 feet thick and 10 1 / 2 feet high.”|
Also, see How Long Is a Generation in the Bible? to learn more.
Long and short cubits
The New International Bible Dictionary explains, “The ordinary cubit is equivalent to about seventeen and one-half or eighteen inches (forty-five or forty-six cm).” Yet, there was another cubit, too. “There was a longer cubit, just as we today have a land mile (5,200 feet) and a nautical mile (6,080 feet).” 
The longer measurement consisted of a cubit plus the length of a hand. Some translations make a distinction between the cubit sizes in certain verses.
For example, in the ESV, Deuteronomy 3:11 reads, “(For only Og the king of Bashan was left of the remnant of the Rephaim. Behold, his bed was a bed of iron. Is it not in Rabbah of the Ammonites? Nine cubits was its length, and four cubits its breadth, according to the common cubit.)”
Ezekiel 43:13 refers to a longer cubit, “These are the measurements of the altar by cubits (the cubit being a cubit and a handbreadth): its base shall be one cubit high and one cubit broad, with a rim of one span around its edge. And this shall be the height of the altar” (ESV).
Also, see How Many Books Are in the New Testament? to learn more.
Confirmation of the Cubit: Hezekiah’s Tunnel
2 Kings 20:20 mentions King Hezekiah’s tunnel. “The rest of the deeds of Hezekiah and all his might and how he made the pool and the conduit and brought water into the city, are they not written in the Book of the Chronicles of the Kings of Judah?” (ESV)
The tunnel was rediscovered in the 17th century, leading the way to several explorations in the 18th century. In 1880, explorers found an ancient inscription in the tunnel, which referred to its length as 1,200 cubits. Modern measurements of the tunnel reveal that it’s 1,749 feet in length.
The inscription and measurement indicate that a cubit is 17.49 inches long. One scholar explains, “This does not mean, however, that the cubit in Hezekiah’s time was exactly 17.49 inches long; the figure of 1,200 cubits is a round number.”
He continues, “Also it is not certain at what point the ancient measuring of the tunnel began. The Siloam Inscription indicates only that our approximate length for the cubit – a little less than 18 inches – is not too far off, which is as positive a conclusion as can be hoped for under the circumstances.” 
New Testament References to Cubits
The New Testament only refers to cubits four times, three times in the Gospels and once in Revelation.
(1) Matthew 6:27 reads, “Which of you by taking thought can add one cubit unto his stature?” (KJV) Other translations update the description. For example, the NIV reads, “And which of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his span of life?”
(2) Luke 12:35 is a parallel to Matthew 6:27, “And which of you with taking thought can add to his stature one cubit?” (KJV). Like the NIV, other translations update the terminology.
(3) John 21:8 reads, “And the other disciples came in a little ship; (for they were not far from land, but as it were two hundred cubits,) dragging the net with fishes.” (KJV) The NIV updates the description, “The other disciples followed in the boat, towing the net full of fish, for they were not far from shore, about a hundred yards.”
(4) Revelation 21:17, “And he measured the wall thereof, an hundred and forty and four cubits, according to the measure of a man, that is, of the angel.” (KJV) In this case, the NIV and ESV don’t update the terminology, but the NLT does, “Then he measured the walls and found them to be 216 feet thick (according to the human standard used by the angel).”
Also, see What Does Halloween Mean in the Bible? to learn more.
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