Evidence #232 | August 31, 2021

Near Eastern Measures

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The monetary system outlined in Alma 11 has a number of parallels with ancient Near Eastern weights and measures, including from the kingdom of Judah.

In Alma 11:1–19, Mormon provides readers with an explanation of the Nephite monetary system that was established by King Mosiah. This system of exchange was based on pieces of gold and silver that were convertible into measures of barley or other types of grain. In various ways, Mosiah’s monetary system relates well to systems of weights and measures from the ancient Near East. The following chart presents each of the Nephite units of gold and silver, their equivalents in measures of grain, and their mathematical ratios (in relation to the smallest unit):1

An Absence of Coins

The text of the Book of Mormon never mentions coins or coinage.2 Instead, the Nephite system discusses the “measure” and “reckoning” of “different pieces of their gold, and of their silver, according to their value” (Alma 11: 4; emphasis added). This absence of coinage is consistent with the monetary practices in ancient Israel and other Near Eastern societies both before and during Lehi’s day. As explained by Raz Kletter, “It was a world without coins, without money—or nothing that we today define as money. No coins of gold or silver with heads of rulers, no cheque books, no banknotes and no plastic credit cards. The value of commodities was largely determined by contents in volume or weight.”3 Only after Lehi and his family left were coins introduced into Israel and its surrounding regions.4

Silver and Gold

Weighted measures of gold and silver served as the primary basis for exchange for several ancient Near Eastern societies, just as they did in the Book of Mormon.5 In Mesopotamia, where first silver and later gold provided base standards of value,6 there is good evidence that silver was used fairly extensively and directly (although not exclusively) as a medium of exchange.7

Raw pieces of silver. Image via dreamstime.com.

While Egypt also dealt in silver and gold, it is assumed that in this region commodities were more often bartered. Even in situations where no gold or silver was actually changing hands, however, the “value of the exchanged goods [was] measured in quantities of metal.”8 This may have been the case in the kingdom of Judah as well, which also traded in gold and silver (especially at the national and international level) but where “day-to-day transactions in small communities were most probably made by exchange (barter), which did not necessitate formal weighing and actual exchange of precious metals.”9

Whether or not metals were directly used in most economic transactions among the Nephites, the principle of metal equivalency was key to their economy, in which a “senum of silver was equal to a senine of gold, and either for a measure of barley, and also for a measure of every kind of grain” (Alma 11:7; emphasis added).

Barley and Every Kind of Grain

The fact that barley is the only grain mentioned by name in the Nephite system suggests it was a primary commodity of exchange. Barley also played an important role in many ancient Near Eastern economies.10 For instance, the Law of Eshnunna (from Babylon) opens with an equivalency between a measure of barley and a weight of silver: “1 kor of barley is (priced) at 1 shekel of silver.”11 As noted by John W. Welch, “A similar conversion between silver and barley was also used among the Hittites.”12 One study has even proposed that a measure of barley provided the most fundamental basis for ancient Near Eastern weights and measures.13

Stocks of barley. Image via foodsguy.com.

Other commodities, including wheat and various other grains, also had standardized measures.14 In fact, many Mesopotamian weights themselves were shaped as seeds of grain. “This shape proved so popular that it became common in Phoenicia (Byblos, Ugarit, Sarepta, Alalakh), Cyprus and even Egypt.”15 Thus, the inclusion of equivalencies for “every kind of grain” in the Nephite system is consistent with ancient systems (Alma 11:7).16


The Nephite monetary system expresses several units as fractions: shiblon (1/2), shiblum (1/4), leah (1/8). None of these have a numerator greater than 1 and all are described as merely being half the value of another weight (Alma 11:15–17). The simplicity of this system works in its favor. As noted by John Bosak, “the ancients were notoriously bad with fractions, so any system of relationships must have been based on the simplest of ratios that workably represented the average densities of actual trade goods.”17

Along similar lines, Welch noted that “arithmetic had not developed far enough in ancient times to allow for the full expression of complex fractions or mixed integers and fractions in other cultures. People in the ancient Near East knew how to say 12, 14, or 110, but if an ancient Egyptian or Greek wanted to say 38, he would usually have to say ‘one fourth plus one-eighth.’”18 This practice is reminiscent of the gold antion among the Nephites. While technically being 112 times the value of the system’s base units (senine and senum), the text avoids describing it as a mixed fraction and instead presents it as a multiple of a lesser unit: “Now an antion of gold is equal to three shiblons” (Alma 11:19).  

As a final fraction-related resemblance, it is interesting that just like Mosiah’s system of exchange, some other ancient Near Eastern systems used just three units that were a fraction of the base standard. This is true for a system derived from limestone weights from Judah (based on the shekel),19 as well as a two-standard system reconstructed from examples of Egyptian weights (based on the qdt and dbn).20 The progression of each system’s standardized values (from least to greatest) is given in the chart below:























































Doubling Principle

The Nephite monetary system operates on the principle of binary progression, where most units of measure (except the limnah, onti, and antion) are twice or half the value of another unit. Various applications of this doubling principle, including extended binary progressions, can also be found in other ancient Near Eastern systems of weights and measures.

For instance, the limestone weights from Judah (presented in the chart above) have values of ½, 1, 2, and 4—just like the Nephite system. It also has 8 (a double of 4) and 16 (a double of 8), as well as 12 and 24, which also half or double one another. While this system primarily progresses on multiples of 4 and 8, doubling is present throughout.21

More akin to the Nephite system, an ancient Arabian system in use as early as the 5th century BC, has seven units that progressively double one another:22

2 kyš = 1 šśʿ

2 šśʿ = 1 tmrt

2 ʾtmr = 1 gms

2 ʾgms = 1 nṣf

2 ʾnṣf = 1 K

2 K = 1 ʾrbʿt 

An Egyptian system features a similar progression, although expressed as fractions.23 As explained by Welch,

In ancient Egypt, the heqat was a full measure of grain. The fractions of the heqat were 12, 14, 18, 116, 132, and 164. As in the Nephite system, the Egyptian grain measures were binary—fractions that came about by halving. In Egyptian hieroglyphs, these fractions “were written in a special way, quite unlike ordinary fractions.” … In other words, the pupil of the eye became the hieroglyph for 14; the eyebrow, 18; the eyelash, 132; the tear duct, 164; and so on.24

Additive Principle

According to Welch, “The full Horus-eye then symbolized the full measure of grain, or in other words the wdjt-eye was the sum of them all.”25 This additive principle is also present in Mosiah’s monetary system. After explaining the relative values for the gold units (the senine, seon, and shum), Mormon explained that the “limnah of gold was the value of them all” (Alma 11:10). Likewise, after detailing the silver units (the senum, amnor, and ezrom), it is reported that the “onti was as great as them all” (Alma 11:13).26

To a lesser extent, the additive principle is also present in the Judean system based on the shekel:27

Judean Weight and Measures (based on the shekel)

Unit Number












Unit Value












While not the value of all lesser units, the final unit in this system (#11) is still the sum of various groupings of lesser units:28

  • #11 = #10 + #9
  • #11 = #10 + #8 + #6
  • #11 = #9 + #8 + #7 +#6


Various descriptions of weights and measures are found throughout the Bible, yet the relationships among these units aren’t apparent from the text itself. Concerning the biblical shekel, Raz Kletter explains, “The trouble is that we have no information in the Old Testament on the relationships between its weight units.”29 It is thus unlikely that the units and conversion ratios present in Mosiah’s system were derived from biblical evidence.

Even if the Bible did contain all the information needed to reconstruct its weight and measures, Mormon noted that the Nephites didn’t “measure after the manner of the Jews; but they altered their reckoning and their measure, according to the minds and the circumstances of the people, in every generation, until the reign of the judges, they having been established by king Mosiah” (Alma 11:4). It therefore shouldn’t be a surprise that Mosiah’s monetary system is not a perfect match with any known system of ancient weights and measures.

On the other hand, as a system purportedly created by displaced Israelites, one might still expect the Nephite system of exchange to resemble features of Judean weights and measures, or perhaps other Near Eastern systems. And this it does on numerous points: (1) the lack of coinage, (2) the use of gold and silver, (3) equivalencies between metals and grains, (4) barley’s prominent status, (5) the usage of both whole numbers and fractions, (6) the use of just three fractional units (7) the avoidance of expressing a mixed fraction, (8) binary progression, and (9) a final unit that is the sum of the system’s lesser units. This assemblage of parallels suggests that the Nephite’s economic system may have been modeled to some degree after Near Eastern precedents.

John Gee, “Wages and Measures in the Book of Mormon,” Ether’s Cave: A Place for Book of Mormon Research, September 15, 2013, online at etherscave.blogspot.com.

John W. Welch, “Weighing and Measuring in the Worlds of the Book of Mormon,” Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 8, no. 2 (1999): 36–45, 86.

John W. Welch, “The Laws of Eshnunna and Nephite Economics,” in Pressing Forward with the Book of Mormon: The FARMS Updates of the 1990s, ed. John W. Welch and Melvin J. Thorne (Provo, UT: FARMS, 1999), 147–149.

Robert F. Smith, “Table of Relative Values,” Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 8, no. 2 (1999): 46.

Alma 11:1–20

Alma 11:1–20

  • 1 For a discussion of these units’ value, in comparison to Near Eastern weights and measures, see John Gee, “Wages and Measures in the Book of Mormon,” Ether’s Cave: A Place for Book of Mormon Research, September 15, 2013, online at etherscave.blogspot.com.
  • 2 Although the heading and index information found in some prior editions of the Book of Mormon (1920, 1981) describe the monetary labels in Alma 11 as “coins” or “coinage,” these designations were supplied in modern times and aren’t present in the earliest manuscripts. The chapter heading of the current (2013) edition simply notes: “The Nephite monetary system is set forth” (Alma 11; emphasis added). For a history of the publications of the Latter-day Saint scriptural canon, including discussions of when Book of Mormon chapter headings and other study aids were added and revised, see “History of the Scriptures,” online at churchofjesuschrist.org.
  • 3 Raz Kletter, Economic Keystones: The Weight System of the Kingdom of Judah, JSOT 276 (United Kingdom: Sheffield Academic Press, 1998), 13. See also p. 93.
  • 4 See John W. Welch, “Weighing and Measuring in the Worlds of the Book of Mormon,” Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 8, no. 2 (1999): 43: “The first coins known to history—at least coins in the modern sense—appeared in Lydia in western Asia Minor by the seventh century b.c., spreading into the Mediterranean region only after Lehi had left Jerusalem.”
  • 5 See Marc Van De Mieroop, “Silver as a Financial Tool in Ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia,” in Explaining Monetary and Financial Innovation: A Historical Analysis, ed. Peter Bernholz and Roland Vaubel (Switzerland: Springer, 2014), 17–29.
  • 6 See Van De Mieroop, “Silver as a Financial Tool in Ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia,” 22: “From the mid-third millennium on, value was expressed with amounts of silver and this remained the practice, with numerous attestations, until the year 1600 when the so-called Old Babylonian period ended. After a 200-year long interval without textual evidence, the later second millennium data show a gold standard instead of silver (Müller 1982)—a remarkable practice in a land fully dependent on distant Egypt for supplies of that metal. At the same time in gold-rich Egypt villagers at Deir el-Medinah measured value in silver.”
  • 7 Van De Mieroop, “Silver as a Financial Tool in Ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia,” 24: “Although in many instances the silver reported in texts may just have been a measure of value for another commodity it is clear that the metal was extensively used in Mesopotamia. Texts and some archaeological remains show that it was often kept in the shape of rings or coils and from the mid-third millennium on there is evidence of small pieces snipped off for payment, and some hoards of scrap metal have been excavated. People did weigh out amounts of silver at times.”
  • 8 Van De Mieroop, “Silver as a Financial Tool in Ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia,” 19; emphasis added.
  • 9 Kletter, Economic Keystones, 94.
  • 10 For a discussion of the presence of barley in the Americas, see Evidence Central, “Book of Mormon Evidence: Barley,” September 19, 2020, online at evidencecentral.org.
  • 11 Albrecht Goetze, “The Laws of Eshnunna,” The Annual of the American Schools of Oriental Research
  • 31 (1951–1952): 24. See also, Evidence Central, “Book of Mormon Evidence: Monetary Systems of Mosiah and Eshnunna,” August 30, 2021, online at evidencecentral.org.
  • 12 Welch, “Weighing and Measuring in the Worlds of the Book of Mormon,” 41. In the end note, Welch provides the following reference: Harry A. Hoffner Jr., The Law of the Hittites (Leiden: Brill, 1997), 10: “The silver equivalent is calculated on the basis of the probable rate of exchange of 4 PARISU of barley for [1/2 shekel] of silver in section 183 and a 30-day Hittite month.”
  • 13 See Jon Bosak, “Canonical Grain Weights as a Key to Ancient Systems of Weights and Measures,” online at ibiblio.org.
  • 14 See Goetze, “The Laws of Eshnunna,” 24–25; Van De Mieroop, “Silver as a Financial Tool in Ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia,” 21–22; Bosak, “Canonical Grain Weights,” 8, 11–12, 17.
  • 15 Kletter, Economic Keystones, 127.
  • 16 It seems likely that other commodities among the Nephites had metal or grain equivalencies as well, but simply weren’t regulated to the same extent by the government.
  • 17 Bosak, “Canonical Grain Weights,” 2.
  • 18 Welch, “Weighing and Measuring in the Worlds of the Book of Mormon,” 41.
  • 19 Kletter, Economic Keystones, 76.
  • 20 Kletter, Economic Keystones, 119.
  • 21 See Kletter, Economic Keystones, 26.
  • 22 See John Gee, “Nephite Weights and Measures Again,” Ether’s Cave: A Place for Book of Mormon Research, April 30, 2021, online at etherscave.blogspot.com.
  • 23 See Robert F. Smith, “Table of Relative Values,” Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 8, no. 2 (1999): 46.
  • 24 Welch, “Weighing and Measuring in the Worlds of the Book of Mormon,” 41. Welch further explains, “These fractions were called horus-eye fractions because, according to an ancient myth, the eye of the falcon-god Horus (often called the wdjt-eye) was said to have been torn into fragments by the wicked god Seth. Horus was the son of Osiris. When Osiris was killed by his brother Seth, Horus killed Seth, his uncle, but in the fight, Horus’s eye was broken into parts. Horus’s eye was later healed by the god Thoth, but the parts of the wdjt-eye came to symbolize each of these fractions” (p. 41).
  • 25 Welch, “Weighing and Measuring in the Worlds of the Book of Mormon,” 41.
  • 26 This resemblance, of course, only works when fractional units are excluded in the Nephite system (limiting the values to 1 + 2 + 4 = 7). It should be remembered, however, that the Nephite text itself presents the whole-numbered units in gold and silver (1, 2, 4, 7) as a subset in its system, which means that the resemblance on this point isn’t arbitrarily assumed.
  • 27 Chart adapted from information in Kletter, Economic Keystones, 76.
  • 28 Moreover, if there were ever multiples of the same weight in a weight set, many different combinations of lesser units could equal greater units. Such flexibility was surely of practical value to those who utilized this system.
  • 29 Kletter, Economic Keystones, 103.
Weights and Measures
Near Eastern Measures
Book of Mormon

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