Catholic Planet
[ Home | Theology | Articles | Poetry | Music | Resources | Links | Contact ]
Roman Catholic Theology and Biblical Studies

Home > Theology > Design of the Tabernacle >

Which Cubit?

The Book of Exodus uses the cubit as the main unit of measure for the Tabernacle of the Testimony. But several different cubits are known: Egyptian, royal Egyptian, Hebrew, Roman, Greek, and English. Generally, the cubit is based on the distance from the elbow to the tip of the middle finger; this varies from one person to another. However, the length became standardized, according to varying standards, in different civilizations.

Now the Israelites built the Tabernacle in the desert soon after leaving behind generations of servitude in Egypt. They would not have known about the Roman or Greek or English cubit. The Hebrew cubit probably originated at a later time, after the Israelites entered the Promised Land. The Israelites who built the Tabernacle knew only the Egyptian and royal Egyptian cubit, because they had lived in that culture for over 400 years.

While in Egypt, some of the Israelites built the cities of Pithom and Raamses for Pharaoh.

{1:11} And so he set over them masters of the works, in order to afflict them with burdens. And they built for Pharaoh the cities of the tabernacles: Pithom and Raamses.

The royal Egyptian cubit was used in building projects for Pharaoh. It was longer than the ordinary Egyptian cubit, presumably because the Pharaoh was considered to be greater than other men. The royal cubit was standardized and carefully calibrated. The length of one royal cubit was about 523.5 millimeters. Cubit blocks were cut from stone, as a reference point. Cubit sticks were made based on these points of reference. The accuracy of Egyptian workmanship was impressive.

Now Moses was raised in the house of Pharaoh.

{2:9} And the daughter of Pharaoh said to her: “Take this boy and nurse him for me. I will give you your wages.” The woman took and nursed the boy. And when he was mature, she delivered him to the daughter of Pharaoh.
{2:10} And she adopted him in place of a son, and she called his name Moses, saying, “Because I took him from the water.”
{2:11} In those days, after Moses had grown up, he went out to his brothers. And he saw their affliction and an Egyptian man striking a certain one of the Hebrews, his brothers.

Moses was raised in early childhood, by his mother, a Hebrew woman. But in later childhood, he grew up in the palace of Pharaoh, and he was raised by the daughter of Pharaoh. As someone raised in the house of Pharaoh, he would be familiar with the royal cubit.

Therefore, there are several reasons why the Israelites would have chosen the royal Egyptian cubit as their standard of measure. First, many of them had been builders for Pharaoh. So those among them who were most skilled at building were familiar with that unit of measure. Second, the royal cubit was used for the best buildings, those buildings built in honor of royalty, that is, of Pharaoh. The Israelites would not have used a lesser standard for their God. Third, Moses was raised in the house of Pharaoh, where the royal cubit was the standard.

{12:35} And the sons of Israel did just as Moses had instructed. And they petitioned the Egyptians for vessels of silver and of gold, and very many garments.
{12:36} Then the Lord granted favor to the people in the sight of the Egyptians, so that they bestowed on them. And they despoiled the Egyptians.

Since the Egyptians gave the Israelites many valuable items, they may well have had items that were made using the royal cubit. Also, the most skilled of the workman would be able to measure a royal cubit from their own memory, experience, and by reference to their own tools or their own bodies. For example, a workman might know from experience that a royal cubit is the same as the length from his own elbow to the tip of his middle finger, plus a certain length measured with a number of his fingers. Or he may have marked the distance on his tools. Or he may have taken a cubit stick from Egypt with him.

Furthermore, as we learn in examining the length and width of the coverings for the Tabernacle, the canopies hung down in the front of the Tabernacle for 6 cubits, leaving 4 cubits for the height of the entrance to the Tabernacle.

1 Egyptian cubit = 17.717 inches or 450 millimeters
1 royal Egyptian cubit = 20.59 inches or 523 millimeters

4 Egyptian cubit = 5 feet, 10.87 inches or 1.8 meters
4 royal Egyptian cubit = 6 feet, 10.36 inches or 2.09 meters

If the regular Egyptian cubit was used, the entrance would not be high enough for the priests to enter, especially considering that they wore headdresses (as prescribed by the Book of Exodus). If the royal cubit was used, then the entrance would be high enough, even for a priest with a headress.

Therefore, for all of the above reasons, the cubit used in building the Tabernacle of the Testimony was almost certainly the royal Egyptian cubit.

Now the exact length of the royal Egyptian cubit (REC) is a matter of some dispute, and there was probably no exact standard (by today's level of accuracy). But the Egyptians did try to be as accurate as their tools permitted. This study of the Tabernacle will use a value for the REC at 523 millimeters, which is about 20.59 inches, and which is in the general range of accepted lengths for the REC.

Finally, it is no coincidence that one fiftieth part of a royal Egyptian cubit cubed is almost exactly the volume required for one talent of silver. The calculations are as follows:

0.523 meters is one royal Egyptian cubit (REC) 0.523 cubed times 10490 (the density of silver in kilograms per cubic meter) gives us 1500.654 kilograms. Dividing this number by 50 gives us 30.013 kilograms per talent.

Of course, the exact weight of a talent of silver is also a matter of some dispute.

by Ronald L. Conte Jr.

Home > Theology > Design of the Tabernacle > Top