Source:Echoes:Ch11:6:Ancient parallels to Nephite weights and measures

Ancient Parallels for Mosiah's System of Weights and Measures

Ancient Parallels for Mosiah's System of Weights and Measures

In 1981 I began teaching a course in BYU's J. Reuben Clark Law School on ancient Near Eastern law in the world of the Bible and Book of Mormon. One of the earliest collections of laws that we study is the Code of Eshnunna. In order for ancient economies to work effectively, kings had to spell out the value of various commodities and establish exchange ratios, especially between consumable goods and precious metals. Thus, the laws of Eshnunna, promulgated in Babylonia probably during the early eighteenth century BC but not discovered until the mid-twentieth century AD, instituted an elaborate system of weights and measures. The following initial provisions stand at the head of this ancient law code:

1 kor of barley [she'um] is (priced) at [ana] 1 shekel of silver;
3 qa of "best oil" are (priced) at 1 shekel of silver;
1 seah (and) 2 qa of sesame oil are (priced) at 1 shekel of silver [and so on]. . . .
The hire for a wagon together with its oxen and its driver is 1 massiktum (and) 4 seah of barley. If it is (paid in) silver, the hire is one third of a shekel. He shall drive it the whole day.21

On their first reading of this text, my law students are readily impressed with several parallels between these laws and the economic system decreed by King Mosiah and found in Alma 11:3–19, especially since any evidence of this ancient pattern of establishing a commercial economy was unknown in Joseph Smith's day. Consider these parallels:

First, the basic legal form of these two texts is consistent. The standard phrasing "1 kor of barley is (priced) at 1 shekel of silver" resembles that in the Book of Mormon, "A senum of silver was equal to a senine of gold" (Alma 11:7).

Second, the primary conversion in Babylonia was between barley and silver. Nine other Babylonian provisions converted various additional commodities into silver values, followed by three more provisions that converted others into measures of barley. Thus, precious metal and grain measures were convertible into each other. The law of Mosiah featured precisely the same conversion capability: the basic measure for either gold or silver was equated with "a measure of barley" (Alma 11:7).

Third, in Babylonia the basic commodity valuation system allowed traders to deal in a variety of items, all convertible into silver or barley. Similarly, Mosiah's system covered transactions from silver into "a measure of every kind of grain" (Alma 11:7).

Fourth, both economic systems were announced by kings to have been instituted for similar reasons. The laws of Eshnunna began with a royal superscription that proclaimed this standardization as instrumental in establishing justice, eliminating enmity, and protecting the weak. Likewise, King Mosiah enacted his laws expressly to establish peace and equality in the land (see Mosiah 29:38, 40).

Fifth, the ideal, practical motivation behind the laws of Eshnunna seems to have been to undergird the rental market and to standardize values on daily wages and the computation of various damages and penalties. Similarly, a motivation for the economic part of King Mosiah's reforms was to provide a standard system under the new reign of judges for the payment of judges on a daily basis: "a senine of gold for a day, or a senum of silver" (Alma 11:3).

In enacting his law, as the Book of Mormon takes pains to tell us, King Mosiah "did not reckon after the manner of the Jews who were at Jerusalem" (Alma 11:4). Evidently he drew on some other system of weights and measures. Perhaps Mosiah obtained the legal form of his economic decree from the Mulekites, who had had contact with the Jaredites, who had left from Mesopotamia not long before the time of Eshnunna.

Moreover, Mosiah's system is distinctively binary: each unit of measure is half the size of the next larger unit. Perhaps Mosiah found this binary manner of reckoning somewhere on the plates of brass, which, after all, were written in a type of Egyptian text. Indeed, as became known in the early twentieth century, the units in the ancient Egyptian grain measure were also binary in ratio.22

Of course, we cannot be sure how to explain the similarities between the laws of Mosiah and Eshnunna or between the Nephite and Egyptian grain measures, but this much can be said: Such similarities between the laws of Mosiah and Eshnunna and the Egyptian mathematical papyri (which were unknown in Joseph Smith's day) show yet another way in which the Book of Mormon presents specific details whose roots run unexpectedly deep in ancient societies.[1]


  1. John W. Welch, "A Steady Stream of Significant Recognitions," in Echoes and Evidences of the Book of Mormon, edited by Donald W. Parry, Daniel C. Peterson, and John W. Welch (Provo, Utah: FARMS, 2002), Chapter 11, references silently removed—consult original for citations.