What Is a Shekel?

An Ancient Coin Worth Its Weight in Gold

Gold Half Shekel Coin
Gold Half Shekel Coin from Judea, dating back to BC 10.

Aviron / Getty Images 

The shekel is an ancient biblical unit of measurement. It was the most common standard used among the Hebrew people for both weight and value. In the New Testament, the standard wage for one day of labor was a shekel.

Key Verse

"The shekel shall be twenty gerah; twenty shekels plus twenty-five shekels plus fifteen shekels shall be your mina." (Ezekiel 45:12, ESV)

The word shekel means simply "weight." In New Testament times, a shekel was a silver coin weighing, well, one shekel (about .4 ounces or 11 grams). Three thousand shekels equaled one talent, the heaviest and largest unit of measurement for weight and value in Scripture.

In the Bible, the shekel is used almost exclusively to designate monetary value. Whether gold, silver, barley, or flour, the shekel value gave the commodity a relative value in the economy. The exceptions to this are Goliath’s armor and spear, which are described in terms of their shekel weight (1 Samuel 17:5, 7).

History of the Shekel

Hebrew weights were never a precise system of measurement. Weights were used on a balance scale to weigh out silver, gold, and other goods. These weights varied from region to region and often according to the type of goods for sale.

Before BC 700, the system of weights in ancient Judea was based on the Egyptian system. Sometime around BC 700, the system of weights was changed to the shekel.

Three types of shekels appear to have been used in Israel: the temple or sanctuary shekel, the common or ordinary shekel used by merchants, and the heavy or royal shekel.

The sanctuary or temple shekel was believed to be about twice the weight of the ordinary shekel, or equal to twenty gerahs (Exodus 30:13; Numbers 3:47).

The smallest division of measurement was the gerah, which was one-twentieth of a shekel (Ezekiel 45:12). A gerah weighed around .571 grams.

Other portions and divisions of the shekel in Scripture are:

  • The beka (a half shekel);
  • The pim (two-thirds of a shekel);
  • The drachma (one-quarter shekel);
  • The mina (about 50 shekels);
  • And the talent, the heaviest or largest biblical unit of measurement (60 minas or three thousand shekels).

God called his people to observe an honest or “just” system of weights and balances (Leviticus 19:36; Proverbs 16:11; Ezek. 45:10). Dishonest manipulation of weights and scales was a common practice in ancient times and displeased the Lord: “Unequal weights are an abomination to the LORD, and false scales are not good” (Proverbs 20:23, ESV).

The Shekel Coin

Eventually, the shekel became a coined piece of money. According to the later Jewish system, six gold shekels were equal in value to 50 silver ones. In Jesus’ day, the mina and the talent were considered huge sums of money.

According to New Nave's Topical Bible, one who possessed five talents of gold or silver was a multimillionaire by today's standards. A silver shekel, on the other hand, was probably worth less than a dollar in today’s market. A gold shekel was perhaps worth a little more than five dollars.

Shekel Metals

The Bible mentions shekels of various metals:

  • In 1 Chronicles 21:25, shekels of gold: “So David paid Ornan 600 shekels of gold by weight for the site” (ESV).
  • In 1 Samuel 9:8, a silver shekel: “The servant answered Saul again, ‘Here, I have with me a quarter of a shekel of silver, and I will give it to the man of God to tell us our way’ ” (ESV).
  • In 1 Samuel 17:5, shekels of bronze: “He had a helmet of bronze on his head, and he was armed with a coat of mail, and the weight of the coat was five thousand shekels of bronze” (ESV).
  • In 1 Samuel 17, shekels of iron: “The shaft of his spear was like a weaver’s beam, and his spear’s head weighed six hundred shekels of iron” (ESV).

Sources

  • “The Enigma of the Shekel Weights of the Judean Kingdom.” Biblical Archaeologist: Volume 59 1-4, (p. 85).
  • “Weights and Measures.” Holman Illustrated Bible Dictionary (p. 1665). 
  • “Weights and Measures.” Baker Encyclopedia of the Bible Dictionary (Vol. 2, p. 2137).
  • Manners and Customs of the Bible (p. 162). 
  • "Shekel." Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament (electronic ed., p. 954).