The Temple of God, built by David's son, King Solomon, was certainly one of the architectural wonders of the ancient world. You can read a description of its history, design, construction, and dedication in I Kings 5-8 and II Chronicles 2-7. One particularly fascinating detail of that construction was the Molten Sea of Brass, described in I Kings 7:23-26 and II Chronicles 4:2-5. There is, however, a puzzling mystery associated with this massive temple furnishing.
Figure 1. The Molten Sea as commonly depicted by commentaries.
Down through the years, skeptics have delighted in locating and loudly proclaiming the existence of various "contradictions" in the pages of the Bible. They apparently feel that, in so doing, they are justified in ignoring any claims the Bible may otherwise appear to have on their lives.
One particular problem of this type is the Biblical description of the Molten Sea, part of the spectacular furnishings of Solomon's temple. I found this problem particularly irksome because it is mathematical in nature. Engineering is my livelyhood, and the notion of a mathematical "error" in Scripture was unthinkable.
The problem is found in two locations: I Kings 7:23 and II Chronicles 4:2. We are told:
"Now he made the sea of cast metal ten cubits from brim to brim, circular in form, and its height ws five cubits, and thirty cubits in circumference." I Kings 7:23
What is wrong with this picture? Anything truly circular in form has a precise, well known, mathematical ratio between its diameter and its circumference; that ratio is known as "pi". Pi is approximately 3.14159....., having a decimal portion which extends endlessly.
Therefore, if the Sea of Brass were really 10 cubits in diameter, then its circumference MUST be 31.4159..... etc., NOT the 30 cubits reported in the text (See Figure 2). "Aha!" claim the critics, "A gross biblical error! Some ignorant scribe trying to legislate a value for pi!"
Figure 2: A circle, showing a diameter of 10 cubits.
As believers, however, we approach Scripture from an entirely different perspective:
"By faith we understand that the worlds were prepared by the word of God, so that what is seen was not made out of things which are visible." Hebrews 11:3
Likewise, we, by faith, accept the Bible only and completely as the very Word of God. When an unbeliever comes along and challenges our faith, however, we are sometimes left at a loss for words. We may feel somewhat embarrassed or distressed, wishing we had a ready answer. At best, we will respond by digging into a further study of the apparent problem, and perhaps be blessed with new insight and understanding.
Past attempts to solve the mystery of the Molten Sea of Brass have not really taken the problem seriously. Some have asserted, for example, that the given measurements are merely approximate, not intended to be exact (Note 1). This explanation never satisfied me, and certainly never impressed the skeptics.
In fact, there is internal evidence in the biblical accounts that much closer measurements could certainly have been given. For example, I Kings 7:32 describes the height of a wheel as "a cubit and a half". If wheels could be measured to within a half cubit, there is no reason the circumference of the Sea could not have been more accurately reported as "thirty one and a half" cubits - not precise, but far, far closer to the supposed "correct" value.
So, what then is the solution to the mystery?
First, I reasoned backwards, starting from the assumption that the word translated "circular" in our English Bible may not necessarily require a "circle" in the purely geometric sense. Further research into other passages where this word is used indicate that this is a reasonable conclusion; for example, the Preacher speaks of the wind traveling in "circular courses" (Ecc 1:6), and travelers are spoken of as journeying in a "circle" (I Sam 7:16). It is obvious that in these uses, perfect geometric circles are not called for.
Even in modern, "enlightened" English we speak of "circling" a building, or taking a "circular" route - in neither case do we mean our listener or reader to visualize a precise circle; only to infer that we are describing a closed figure, one in which start and end points meet. Therefore, to insist that Solomon's sea of brass be precisely a geometric circle is to strain the normal use of language.
Next, I asked myself, "What nearly circular regular form comes closest to fitting the ratio of 10 to 30, or 1 to 3, which is given in Scripture?" It turns out that a hexagon fits this ratio exactly. If you have a hexagon which measures 10 cubits from point to point, its circumference will be exactly 30 cubits (See Figure 3).
Figure 3: A hexagon, showing a distance point-to-point of 10 cubits.
Having established this mathematically, I then wondered whether there might be any evidence in the context which might support or refute this possible explanation. I Kings 7:26 states regarding the Sea:
"And it was a handbreadth thick, and its brim was made like the brim of a cup, as a lily blossom; it could hold two thousand baths".
Many commentaries on the passage simply depict the Sea as being decorated with images of lily blossoms (Notes 2 & 3). However, in light of the associated dimensions this possibility overlooks the obvious.
It seems there are many kinds of flowers called lilys, but they all have one thing in common: they have six petals. Further investigation reveals that the Hebrew word for lily is shushan, which comes from a word meaning "six-sided" in an earlier Semitic language (Note 3).
The astonishing and completely consistent conclusion, then, is that rather than a round sea with an edge decorated with engraved images of lily blossoms, the sea itself in it's entirety was modeled after a mamoth, six-sided water lily of some sort! (Figure 4).
Figure 4 - A more likely, biblically accurate appearance for the Molten Sea.
Viewed in this way, we have an understanding that is completely harmonious with natural language, biblical accuracy, and modern mathematics, as well as gaining new insight into the beauty of this detail of the Temple of God. p> Thank God for the marvelous consistency, accuracy, and utter reliability of His Word! Once again, the shallow absurdity of critics of scripture is exposed for the mindless drivel that it is. "Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?" I Corinthians 1:20. "Let God be true, and every man a liar." Romans 3:4.
(1) Encyclopedia of Bible Difficulties by Gleason L. Archer
(c) 1982 The Zondervan Corporation
Grand Rapids, MI
-This encyclopedia offers an unsatisfying "statistical" explanation. However, it unwittingly comes close to the truth by remarking that "if the rod used to mark out a length of five cubits ... for the radius were used to measure the inside circumference of the same bowl-shaped vessel here described, then it would take exactly six of those five-cubit measures to complete the circumference."
(2) Wilson's Old Testament Word Studies
by William Wilson
MacDonald Publishing Co., McLean, VA 22102
"the brim of the molten sea was wrought with flowers of lilies"
(3) ref: word #2356
Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament
(c) 1980 by The Moody Bible Institute
Moody Press, Chicago
R. Laird Harris, Editor
Gleason L. Archer, Associate Editor
Bruce K. Waltke, Associate Editor
"Related to 'sshshn', which means "big flower" or "water lily" in Egyptian. Some derive it from Akkadian 'shushshu' "six-sided," referring to the six leaves of this lily."..."and the large cast metal sea had its rim decorated like a lily blossom (1 Kgs 7:26)."