Vol 81 (2000)

George M. Hollenback, «The Dimensions and Capacity of the 'Molten Sea' in 1 Kgs 7,23.26», Vol. 81 (2000) 391-392

The apparent discrepancy between the given dimensions and capacity of King Solomon's 'molten sea' in 1 Kgs 7,23.26 can be resolved in the light of insights provided by a particular kind of cylindrical capacity measure system attested in Old Babylonian metrology.

A seemingly intractable problem associated with the description of King Solomon's 'molten sea' in 1 Kgs 7,23.26 is the apparent discrepancy between its given dimensions and its given capacity. The given dimensions are a diameter of 10 cubits, a height of 5 cubits, and a circumference of 30 cubits. Assuming that these are the interior dimensions of a cylindrical vessel and that the given diameter and circumference reflect the Babylonian pi value of 3, the volume of the sea can be calculated as 375 cubic cubits 1. The given capacity is 2,000 baths, indicating 51/3 baths per cubic cubit. Because, however, the most commonly cited approximations of the Hebrew cubit and the bath are 444 mm and 22 l, there should be only 4 baths per cubic cubit, each bath comprising a square prism 1 cubit on a side and ¼ cubit thick 2. This would indicate that the capacity of the sea should have been 1,500 baths instead of 2,000 baths 3.

The discrepancy can be resolved if the particular bath associated with the sea is taken not as ¼ of a cubic cubit, but rather as ¼ of a cylinder with a height and diameter of 1 cubit. Instead of being a square prism 1 cubit on a side and ¼ cubit thick, this bath would be a cylinder 1 cubit in diameter and ¼ cubit thick. In Babylonian metrology, with its pi value of 3, a circle inscribed in a square would have ¾ the area of the square, and a cylinder inscribed in a square prism would have ¾ the volume of the prism. Thus a cylinder having a height and diameter of 1 cubit would have ¾ the volume of a cubic cubit, and the cylindrical bath proposed above would have ¾ the volume of the square prismatic bath. Conversely, the cubes and square prisms would therefore have 11/3 the volume of their corresponding cylindrical measures. In Babylonian reckoning, then, there would have indeed been 11/3 x 4 = 51/3 of these cylindrical baths per cubic cubit and 375 x 51/3 = 2,000 of them in the sea.

Although the assumption of the cylindrical bath makes these figures come out exactly right, the question naturally arises as to whether there are any metrological precedents that might substantiate the existence of cylindrical capacity measures having the same nominal value as their larger square

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