Our work at the burial caves at St. Étienne has yielded an unexpected bonus by clarifying the length of the cubit and the reed, units of measurement mentioned frequently in the Bible.
The cubit—actually the Egyptian cubit—was the standard measure of length in the Biblical period. The priestly tabernacle, the Temple of Solomon and many other structures are described in the Bible in cubit measurements. In fact, there were two different cubits, the long or royal cubit and the short cubit. Scholars have used various means to determine the length of the cubits, more or less with success. The long cubit is approximately 52.5 centimeters and the short cubit is about 45 centimeters.
When we began measuring the tomb complexes at St. Étienne, we immediately noticed that the entrance chamber of Cave Complex 1 measured 5.3 meters by 4.2 meters. Thus it was 10 long (or royal) cubits by 8 long cubits. The ceiling was 7 long cubits high. The width of the step at the entrance to the Cave Complex 1 is 52 centimeters, 1 long cubit; the distance between the two sockets on top of the step is also 52 centimeters. The length of the pit in which the metal box was found is 105 centimeters, 2 long cubits. The width of this pit is 50 centimeters, about 1 long cubit.
In Cave Complex 2 we were amazed to find a different measurement, the short cubit. The entrance chamber is 4.5 meters by 7.2 meters, that is, 10 short cubits by 16 short cubits. The width of the step at the entrance to Cave Complex 2 is 1.33 meters, 3 short cubits; the depth of the step is .68 meter, 1.5 short cubits.
Although the two cave complexes at St. Étienne were hewn on the same plan and most probably at almost the same time, they used different cubits. In Cave Complex 1, the long or royal cubit was used. In Cave Complex 2, the measurements indicate that the short cubit was used. It seems therefore that the short cubit and long cubit were both used in the eighth to seventh centuries B.C.
The use of two different cubits is reflected in the Bible. In 2 Chronicles 3:3, we are told that Solomon built his Temple according to the “first” cubit. Unfortunately, we still don’t know if the “first” cubit refers to the long cubit or the short one.
We have already noted that the entrance chamber to Cave Complex 1 was 8 by 10 long cubits (about 22 square meters); the entrance chamber to Cave Complex 2 was larger, 10 by 16 (2 multiplied by 8) short cubits (about 32.5 square meters). In 1 Kings 7:10 we learn that the buildings comprising Solomon’s palace area were built of stones 10 cubits long and stones 8 cubits long. Apparently the proportion 8:10 was a common one, considered most appropriate and pleasing at that time.
The reed (kaneh in Hebrew) is mentioned 19 times in the Bible; most of its occurrences are in the Book of Ezekiel, where it is used both as a unit of measurement (“the threshold of the gate which was one reed broad” [Ezekiel 40:6]) and as a measuring instrument (“He measured the east side with the measuring reed” [Ezekiel 42:16]).
Ezekiel 41:8 defines the reed as “six noble cubits.”
Just as there were two kinds of cubits, the long cubit and the short one, apparently there also were two different reeds corresponding to the two cubits.
Evidence for use of the six-cubit reed is clearly present in Cave Complex 2 at St. Étienne, where we find repeated units of six cubits and fractions of six cubits, as shown in the plan. The distances between the center of each burial chamber doorway to the centers of those doorways adjacent to it on the same wall are in every case six cubits, or one reed. Measuring from each corner of the chamber to the center of the nearest burial chamber doorway we find a distance of two cubits (one-third of a reed). The reed of Cave Complex 2 is 2.7 meters long (45 centimeters multiplied by 6) because the measurements in Cave Complex 2 are based on the short cubit.
The six-cubit measurement and its multiples, 12, 18, 30, 60 and 300 appear in the Bible 31 times. (Seven cubits and its multiples appear only three times.) The frequent Biblical references to six cubits and its multiples, plus the on-site evidence of six-cubit units in Cave Complex 2 at St. Étienne, enable us to understand the length of the Biblical reed.
Most likely, the hewers of Cave Complex 2 and the builders of other large structures found the cubit “ruler” to be too small for convenient use and used a six-cubit reed stick instead, just as a modern builder prefers a yardstick to a one-foot ruler.