Sunday, July 23, 2006

The Sea

This is a bit of a technical post, but I know there are some technical types who read this, and I'm hoping for a bit of help.

This morning, I was reading 2 Chronicles 4, where it says this:

Then he [Solomon] made the sea of cast metal. It was round, ten cubits from brim to brim, and five cubits high, and a line of thirty cubits measured its circumference. Under it were figures of gourds, for ten cubits, compassing the sea all around. The gourds were in two rows, cast with it when it was cast. It stood on twelve oxen, three facing north, three facing west, three facing south, and three facing east. The sea was set on them, and all their rear parts were inward. Its thickness was a handbreadth. And its brim was made like the brim of a cup, like the flower of a lily. It held 3,000 baths.
2 Chronicles 4:2-5, ESV

This passage is quite famous, because along with a parallel passage in 1 Kings, of which more later, it is the earliest evidence for an estimate of pi - in this case 30/10 = 3. I've also used this passage quite a bit as a way of spotting when people claiming to find mistakes in the Bible text are just being silly or not. If they are being silly, they tend to pick up on this as evidence that the Bible is wrong, because we know that pi isn't exactly 3. But on the other hand, both the 30 and the 10 are given to 1 significant figure (implicit, measurements can't be exact) and so the value for pi is within the expected range.

That's standard stuff and not my problem here. My difficulty here is when it comes to the capacity of the Sea. It's interesting that the parallel passage in 1 Kings has the capacity as 2000 baths. I used to think that one was a "full" figure and one was a "when in use" figure. But now I don't.

Taking the standard values of the cubit as 45cm and the bath as 22 litres gives the following figures:

  • The capacity of the Sea is stated as 66 kilolitres in 2 Chron 4:5 and 44 kilolitres in 1 Kings 7:26
  • If the radius is 5.0 cubits, and the Sea is hemispherical, it would have a capacity of 24000 litres
  • If the radius is 5.5 cubits and it is hemispherical, it has a capacity of 32 kilolitres
  • If the radius is 5.5 cubits and it is a cylinder, it has a capacity of 48 kilolitres - enough for 1 Kings 7:26, but not enough for 2 Chron 4:5 - ditto if it is a hemi-ellispoid with a mean depth of 5.5 cubits.

Neither is the error small enough to be a rounding error in the 3000.

I therefore conclude that one of the following must be true:

  • 2 Chronicles 4:5 has one of the rare copying errors in Scripture - there are a couple of others, including I think another one with numbers near the beginning of 2 Chronicles. Maybe the scribe who was making an early copy had an off day (on balance, my guess).
  • I've missed something here (possible, but unlikely)
  • The Hebrew "3000" can mean "more than 2000, but not as many as 4000", and the actual figure was just over 2000. (possible, I guess, but I'd want another example of that use)
  • This was a special, magical, Sea, and the laws of geometry don't apply to it (yeah, right)
  • Biblical history isn't that accurate in general either (just plain wrong)

Any thoughts?

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