How Much Water Could "the Sea" Hold?
by Eric Lyons, M.Min.
Almost 1,000 years before Jesus set foot on the Earth, the first temple dedicated to Jehovah was built out of Lebanon cedar (the finest there was), costly stones, and pure gold. The Bible indicates that over 183,000 men were involved in the construction of this glorious house of worship during the reign of King Solomon (1 Kings 5:13-16). The vessels that were housed within the temple, and those that remained in the inner court, were equally as elaborate. One of these vessels that stood on the right side of the sanctuary between the altar and the porch of the temple was an immense bronze basin known as “the Sea” (1 Kings 7:23). It was five cubits (7½ feet) high, ten cubits (15 feet) in diameter at the brim, thirty cubits (45 feet) in circumference and rested on 12 bronze oxen (1 Kings 7:23-26, 39; 2 Chronicles 4:2-5,10). Unlike the ten lesser basins that were used to bathe portions of the burnt offerings, the Sea served as a washing pool for the priests (2 Chronicles 4:6). For many years the capacity of the inner court’s large basin known as “the Sea” has been at the center of controversy. The reason: 1 Kings 7:26 indicates that it held 2,000 baths. (A bath was the largest of the liquid measures in Hebrew culture; estimates are that it corresponds to anywhere from 4½-9 U.S. gallons). However, 2 Chronicles 4:5 says that the Sea held 3,000 baths. Thus, critics of the Bible’s inerrancy have charged that a blatant contradiction exists and that such lack of agreement discredits divine authorship.
There are at least three possible solutions to this alleged contradiction. First, the answer could be that a copyist, while attempting to ensure a “carbon copy” of the manuscript from which he was working, made an error. [For a general background on copyists’ errors, please see our foundational essay on that subject.] Keil and Delitzsch, in their commentary on 2 Chronicles, indicated their support of this theory. They tend to believe that the number 3,000 given in 2 Chronicles 4:5 has arisen from the confusion of the letter gimel (Hebrew transliterated letter-number for “3”) with beth (Hebrew transliterated letter- number for “2”). By a comparison of the two Hebrew letters, it easily is seen that their shape is quite similar. Even a tiny smudge from excessive wear on a scroll-column or a slightly damaged manuscript could have resulted in making the gimel look like a beth. With such an adjustment, the statements in 1 Kings and 2 Chronicles are harmonized easily. However, it very well may be that this is not a copyist’s error at all.
A second possible explanation to this alleged contradiction revolves around a Hebrew word used in 2 Chronicles 4:5 that does not appear in 1 Kings 7:26. Whereas in 1 Kings it says that the molten Sea “held” (ASV) 2,000 baths, 2 Chronicles says that it “received (Hebrew machaziyq) and held three thousand baths” (ASV, emp. added). The difference in phraseology may indicate that the Sea ordinarily contained 2,000 baths, but when filled to its utmost capacity it received and held 3,000 baths (Haley, 1951, p. 382). Thus, the chronicler informs the reader that 3,000 baths of water were required to completely fill the Sea, which usually held 2,000 baths (Barnes). Anyone who has ever been around large pools of water (like a swimming pool) knows that the pool actually can hold a few thousand gallons of water more than generally is kept in it. It very well may be that the wording in 2 Chronicles indicates such a difference about the water level in the Sea.
A third possible solution to this “problem passage” is that the “bath” unit mentioned in 1 Kings was larger than the “bath” unit used in 2 Chronicles. Since the latter account was written after the Babylonian exile, it is quite possible that reference is made to the Babylonian bath, which might have been less than the Jewish bath used at the time of Solomon. As Adam Clarke observed: “The cubit of Moses, or of the ancient Hebrews, was longer than the Babylonian by one palm…. It might be the same with the measures of capacity; so that two thousand of the ancient Jewish baths might have been equal to three thousand of those used after the captivity.” In considering a modern-day example, a 20% difference exists between the U.S. gallon and the Imperial gallon, even though the same term is used for both quantities. Thus, this alleged discrepancy may be simply a misunderstanding on the part of 21st-century readers.
The fact of the matter is that critics of the Bible cannot prove that this is a legitimate contradiction. Second Chronicles could represent a copyist’s error. On the other hand, I believe that one of the last two explanations represents a more plausible solution to the problem: either (1) the addition of the Hebrew word machaziyq (“received”) in 2 Chronicles 4:5 means that the Sea could actually hold 3,000 baths (though it normally held 2,000 baths); or (2) the “bath” unit used during the time of Solomon was larger than the one used after the Jews were released from Babylonian captivity. Until one can prove that these three solutions are not possibilities, he should refrain from criticizing the Bible’s claim of divine inspiration.
Barnes, Albert (1997), Barnes’ Notes (Electronic Database: Biblesoft).
Clarke, Adam (1996), Adam Clarke’s Commentary (Electronic Database: Biblesoft).
Haley, John W. (1951 reprint), Alleged Discrepancies of the Bible (Nashville, TN: Gospel Advocate).
Jamieson, Robert, et al. (1997), Jamieson, Faussett, Brown Bible Commentary (Electronic Database: Biblesoft).
Keil, C.F. and F. Delitzsch (1996), Keil and Delitzsch Commentary on the Old Testament (Electronic Database: Biblesoft), new updated edition.