Strul Moisa, Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, Beer-Sheva - Israel


Modern historians, for the Near and Middle East, divide the roughly 3,000 year-period beginning approximately 3200 B.C. into two major segments: the Bronze Age and the Iron Age. The Bronze Age extends from about 3200 B.C. to 1200 B.C. Thereafter it is the Iron Age. These periods are parallel and contemporary to the events presented in the Old Testament. Although the Bible is a religious text, it is also one of the first authentic written sources of information in this domain. The copper (bronze) snake, the golden calf, Ithe Menorah (or the seven-branched candelabra) of the Tabernacle, etc. belonging to the period previous reaching the Promised Land (or the Land of Israel: God then changed Jacob's name to Israel signifying that he had been successful in human and divine hardships), as well as the copper (bronze) sea, etc. after the conquest of the Promised Land, are only some of the examples that can help a researcher interested in the early metallurgy, imagine the stage of development of the ancient metallurgy and pyrotechnique had reached during that period. Starting with the presentation and discussion of some biblical passages, this paper presents a micro-review on metals and some technologic elements of metals, extractive metallurgy, as well as the influence of some biblical religious laws on metallurgy. It is underlined the obvious impact of knowing - or better said not-knowing - the technology of obtaining and working with metals on some historical events contemporary to the presentations in the Bible.

1. Introduction

Is the BIBLE just a collection of religious texts? The answer is definitely NO. The Bible represents an important source of written information regarding among many, metals and early metallurgy. Moreover, the period referred to in the Old Testament is the period of the first steps of the early metallurgy in the area we deal with: The Bronze Age (3200 - 1200 BC) and The Iron Age (beginning in 1200 BC).

A person interested in early metallurgy can get a pretty clear image of the level of metallurgy and pyrotechnique during that period after reading the Bible.

This article refers especially to the Old Testament period, taking into account that the events which are presented in the Old Testament take place during the period of the early metallurgy. This period consists of two ages which completely changed the society of that time: the Bronze Age and the Iron Age.

The Bible mentions six metals: copper, tin, bronze, iron, gold and silver. Statistically speaking the number of the biblical references in the Old Testament goes as follows: 381 for gold, 340 for silver, 388 for iron, 142 for copper, 12 for lead and 4 for tin. Technologically speaking there are 7 biblical references for the notion of melting and 45 references for the notion of casting.

The following references are cited from the English Standard Version ESV, [1]. To understand the idea and the sense of the verses presented, they were related to a historic micro-content of the event to which the verse refers.

Note: the Hebrew original version of the Old Testament has only the term copper; there is no reference to the term bronze. Some translations of the Bible into English [ASV - American Standard Version, ISV - International Standard Version, MKJV - Modern King James Vision, etc.] do not respect the Hebrew original and use bronze for copper. The substitution could be understood taking into account that the biblical narrative is developing during the Bronze Age.

2. Relevant biblical passages

2.1 The first biblical Metals Worker

In Genesis 4:22 there is the first biblical reference regarding the notion of "metalworker", respectively a craftsman of metal tools: Lamech and Zillah had a son named Tubal Cain who made tools out of bronze and iron...To put the biblical legend in a historic context it is stated that Tubalcain (around 3000 BC) was the 9th generation after Adam and Eve, two generations before Noah (the Ark of Noah).

The verse has also the first reference of copper and iron quoted in the Bible.

2.2 Extractive Metallurgy

In the well-known biblical description from Deuteronomy 8:9, Moses tells the Israelites what God told him about the riches in the Promised Land including elements of extractive metallurgy: ...a land whose stones are iron, and out of whose hills you can dig copper. The Biblical writer described well enough the "extractive metallurgy" conditions of the two metals. The idea reappears in Job 28:2-4: Iron is taken out of the earth, and copper is smelted from the ore. Man puts an end to darkness and searches out to the farthest limit the ore in gloom and deep darkness. He opens shafts in a valley away from where anyone lives; they are forgotten by travelers; they hang in the air, far away from mankind; they swing to and fro.

These ancient mines were worked - probably, only by slaves - under terribly harsh conditions.

The iron deposits were limited but they existed in Ajlun area (Gilead north-east), the west bank of the Jordan River (Edom, Madian and Lebanon). Copper was found in Etion-Gerber (Eilat od today). Copper was systematically dug out during King Solomon's reign and the archeologists discovered many furnaces from that period.

2.3 Examples from the Bible regarding the casting technology

2.3.1 Examples for the historical context regarding the 40 years of wandering in the desert

The historical context of reference corresponds to the period previous the arrival to the Promise Land which happened around 1250 BC. Taking into account the context we could ask a logical question: did the Israelites know the art of casting at that time? The answer is positive: the Israelites had assimilated that technology. The cause of this de facto is that the Israelites, as slaves in Egypt, performed all the hard work including building pyramids and temples, casting etc. acquiring the technology.

Three examples will be given: the copper (bronze) snake, the golden calf, the menorah. The golden calf

The verses which mention casting are to befound again in Exodus 32:2-4: So Aaron said to them, "Take off the rings of gold that are in the ears of your wives, your sons, and your daughters, and bring them to me." So all the people took off the rings of gold that were in their ears and brought them to Aaron. And he received the gold from their hand and fashioned it with a graving tool and made a golden calf. And they said, "These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!"

What can be understood from the text? The rings of gold in the ears of his people represented the raw material. The total number of Jews at exodus from Egypt is thought to be around 600.000 people. So in Exodus 12:37 it is written: And the people of Israel journeyed from Rameses to Succoth, about six hundred thousand men on foot, besides women and children. The number reappears when the double census was done in the desert, Numbers 1:46: all those listed were 603.550 and Numbers 26:51: This was the list of the people of Israel, 601.703. Thinking that out of the 600.000 people, 100.000 were men, 100.000 were women and 400.000 were children out of which 250.000 were girls it can be considered that 350.000 people wore golden rings. If each person donated 5 grams of gold, we get a total of 1.75 tons of gold that were used to make the calf. On the basis that the density of gold is 19.3 g/cm³, it results that if a cubic ingot of gold was used, it would have the dimensions of about 450 x 450 x 450 mm. Still it is impossible to appreciate the right size of the idol only from the sentence everybody took off their earrings.

Reading the story in the Bible leads to the conclusion that the golden calf was made in a day, Exodus 32:5: When Aaron saw this, he built an altar before it. And Aaron made proclamation and said, "Tomorrow shall be a feast to the LORD."

Taking into consideration only 3 technological parameters - 1065 °C, the melting point of gold, one day, time of carrying out as well as about 1750 kg, the amount which had to be casted - it is pretty clear that the making of the idol was not an easy job. As long as they were in the desert it is possible that a sand mould was used for casting, as for the finishing of the idol's (calf) face it was probably made manually.

Question: were the rings of gold in the ears of his people made of pure gold or a gold alloy? The answer could be: the rings were definitely made of a gold alloy; therefore the golden calf was a gold alloy. A lab investigation was impossible as long as Moses destroyed the idol, Exodus 32:20: He took the calf that they had made and burned it with fire and ground it to powder and scattered it on the water and made the people of Israel drink it.

Is the appreciation of the idol's size, made by the decorator in Nuremberg Chronicle, fig.1, exagerated? It is difficult to give a right answer. Yet, spiritually speaking, this "masterpiece" is known as the sin of the calf of gold!

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Fig.1 Dance around the Golden Calf, [2].

One of the most fascinating printed books from the fifteenth century is Hartman Schedel's 'Liber Cronicarum. Or, as it is widely known to an English-speaking audience today, The Nuremberg Chronicle. The Chronicle was published in two editions in the same year, first a Latin edition, published on July 12th 1493, and then a German edition, published on December 23rd 1493. The Nuremberg Chronicle proved to be a very popular volume. The bronze serpent

Moses is one of the main characters in the Old Testament. Among other things he cured the Israelites from the poisonous snakes' bite during the crossing of the desert (there were many poisonous snakes in the desert and they had a lot of victims). The verses in Numbers 21:8-9 describe how he did it: And the LORD said to Moses, "Make a fiery serpent and set it on a pole, and everyone who is bitten, when he sees it, shall live." So Moses made a bronze serpent and set it on a pole. And if a serpent bit anyone, he would look at the bronze serpent and live.

The biblical imperative definetely forbids making idols, so later it was destroyed. This is why it was imposible to establish the technology used to make the snake. It is possible that the snake was the result of melting and casting the copper, which was then bent to obtain the wanted shape.

Probably, the French artist Paul Gustave Dore (1832-1883) thought the same when he painted The Brazen Snake, fig.2, for the book Dore Bible Illustration: the snake Dore painted could be made using the technology mentioned earlier.

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Fig. 2 The Brazen Snake, [3]

It is known that the Egyptians extracted copper from the mines in the West peninsula of Sinai, mainly at Serabit el-Khadim. These mines were active between 2000 - 1200 BC. According to the events described in the Bible, ancient copper was found in Tell Abu Matar near Beer Sheba. Copper was also extracted in large quantities at Timna, in the Arava Valley north of Eilat. An extensive exploit and rafinery of copper was made in this area even before 2000 BC. This fact was confirmed by the archeo-metallurgic program of systematic diggings conducted by the archeolog Beno Rothemberg. The archeologic discoveries also confirmed the biblical legend about King Solomon's mines. The Menorah of the Tabernacle

In Jewish history, the Tabernacle (portable sanctuary) constructed by Moses as a place of worship for the Hebrew tribes during the period of wandering, that preceded their arrival in the Promised Land. The concluding instructions for the Tabernacle's construction are stated at the end of the Book of Exodus. Bezalel is the builder and the chief architect of the Tabernacle, Exodus 31:1-6: The LORD said to Moses: See, I have called by name Bezalel the son of Uri, son of Hur, of the tribe of Judah, and I have filled him with the Spirit of God, with ability and intelligence, with knowledge and all craftsmanship, to devise artistic designs, to work in gold, silver, and bronze, in cutting stones for setting, and in carving wood, to work in every craft.

King Solomon, son of David, was designated by the Lord to build in Jerusalem the First Temple, known as Solomon's Temple. During Solomon's reign, all the elements of the tabernacle were incorporated into the newly built permanent Temple, as a sign that God had given his people rest from their wandering.

This Temple, destroyed in 587 BC during the capture of Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar, was rebuilt on the return from exile in Babylon, which lasted 50 years. The Second Temple, restored by Herod the Great (died 4 BC), was burned and destroyed during the capture and destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans on the orders of Titus in 70.

In Tabernacle 3 pieces of sacred furniture: (*) the Menorah, (**) the table for twelve loaves of showbread and (***) the golden altar for incense-burning.

The Menorah - a seven branched olive oil candelabrum, also called the golden lampstand or candlestick - it is said to symbolize the burning bush as seen by Moses on Mount Sinai. The Exodus 25:31-40 lists the design instructions for the construction of the menorah used in the temple, according to the indications God gave to Moses: You shall make a lampstand of pure gold. The lampstand shall be made of hammered work: its base, its stem, its cups, its calyxes, and its flowers shall be of one piece with it. And there shall be six branches going out of its sides, three branches of the lampstand out of one side of it and three branches of the lampstand out of the other side of it; three cups made like almond blossoms, each with calyx and flower, on one branch, and three cups made like almond blossoms, each with calyx and flower, on the other branch--so for the six branches going out of the lampstand. And on the lampstand itself there shall be four cups made like almond blossoms, with their calyxes and flowers, and a calyx of one piece with it under each pair of the six branches going out from the lampstand. Their calyxes and their branches shall be of one piece with it, the whole of it a single piece of hammered work of pure gold. You shall make seven lamps for it. And the lamps shall be set up so as to give light on the space in front of it. Its tongs and their trays shall be of pure gold. It shall be made, with all these utensils, out of a talent of pure gold. And see that you make them after the pattern for them, which is being shown you on the mountain. Too, the description of this work is found in Exodus 37:17-24.

Like for the laver, there were no specific instructions about the size of the menorah (measurements are not given in the Bible), but the fact that it was fashioned out of one piece of pure gold would have limited its size. The lampstand had a central branch from which three branches extended from each side, forming a total of seven branches. Seven lamps holding olive oil and wicks stood on top of the branches. Each branch looked like that of an almond tree, containing buds, blossoms and flowers.

Reproductions of the Menorah are absent from this period. The only aspect that can give some information about the sizes appears in the previous text Exodus 37:39: It shall be made, with all these utensils, out of a talent of pure gold. The gold talent is reported as weighing roughly the same as a person, and so perhaps 50 kg, [4]. On the basis that the density of gold is 19.3 g/cm³, it follows that if it had been used a cubic ingot, it would have had sides of about 260 x 260 x 260 mm.

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Fig. 3 Depiction of the Menorah on the Arch of Titus (Roman soldiers carrying the Menorah from the Temple of Jerusalem).

The image of the Menorah, fig. 3, is known from the Arch of Triumph built in Rome in memory of the war in 70 BC when TITUS won. He was the General of the Army in Judea and he fought against the Judean rebels. Because of the time difficulties the golden chandelier was not preserved until today. The treasures brought away as trophies to Rome made no mention of the Ark of the Covenant, but of the Menorah and of the Table of the bread of oblation, represented on the Arch of Triumph of Titus, which can still be seen in Rome. These treasures, preserved in the Capitoline Temple of Jupiter, then in the palace of the Caesars, were pillaged by Alaric I in 410 AC, during the capture of Rome by the Visigoths.

2.3.2 Examples for the historic context regarding the period that followed the entrance and the colonization of the Promise Land

The public works King Solomon (970-931 BC) achieved - the Temple in Jerusalem that began in 966 BC and lasted for 7 years and the royal palace whose construction lasted for 13 years - had important social and economic consequences. Among other things, these constructions also contributed to the development of the metallurgic industry in the valley of Jordan, 1 Kings 7:45-51: Now the pots, the shovels, and the basins, all these vessels in the house of the LORD, which Hiram made for King Solomon, were of burnished bronze. In the plain of the Jordan the king cast them, in the clay ground between Succoth and Zarethan. And Solomon left all the vessels unweighed, because there were so many of them; the weight of the bronze was not ascertained. So Solomon made all the vessels that were in the house of the LORD: the golden altar, the golden table for the bread of the Presence, the lampstands of pure gold, five on the south side and five on the north, before the inner sanctuary; the flowers, the lamps, and the tongs, of gold; the cups, snuffers, basins, dishes for incense, and fire pans, of pure gold; and the sockets of gold, for the doors of the innermost part of the house, the Most Holy Place, and for the doors of the nave of the temple. Thus all the work that King Solomon did on the house of the LORD was finished. And Solomon brought in the things that David his father had dedicated, the silver, the gold, and the vessels, and stored them in the treasuries of the house of the LORD.

The biblic passage so clearly presentented previously, 1 Kings 7:45-46, describes how Hiram - a talented craftsman in copper - did all the necessary copper works for the Temple. A lot of objects were casted in sand moulds.

A single example will be presented next: the Sea of cast Copper, fig. 4.

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Fig. 4 The Sea of cast Copper The Sea of cast Copper

In 1 Kings 7:23-26 appears the description of the process: Then he 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 its brim were 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 two thousand baths. Josephus Flavius writing in his work The Antiquities of the Jews, [5], says "Solomon also cast a brazen sea, the figure of which was a hemisphere".

The bowl and the 12 figures that support it were made of copper. The copper basin had a geometrical revolution form, which allowed using the method known as the strickle moulding. Each of the 12 figures was casted separately in sand moulds. After the figures were put three at a time on a common base, the bowl was put on the figures.

From the technical interpretation of the given dimensions, fig. 5 - diameter = 576 cm; circumference = 1728 cm; height = 288 cm; wall width = 9.6 cm - results that the weight of the recipient was about 43 tones and had a capacity of about 50.000 liters; the conversion of the biblical measures were done according to [6]. Together with the gate runner, the quantity of the casted material was about 50 tones.

Fig. 5 The dimensions of the cast Sea

Verifying the width of the wall using known elements of the material resistance it results that the 9.6 cm width was absolutely enough to resist the hydro-static loading coming from the stored quatity of water.

The metallurgic technolog, who wants to reconstruct the technological process, should find answers to a number of questions, such as: the source of metal mineral (copper, tin) and fuel (wood, coal), as well as the necessary quantitaties, the number of furnaces simultaniously used in order to insure a continuous casting, the method used to blow the air into the furnaces in order to increase the burning (bellows, eolian agent), casting speed, the logistic needed to organize the construction site, etc. Certainly it was not easy at that time, but solutions were found. The whole thing can be considered an important technic-metallurgical realization.

Another question is how the final product was carried from the construction site to the final place. The question must be asked, because the Sucot - Tartan area, where the bowl was made, was almost 40 km far from Jerusalem, the place where the bowl should have been put.. The Sucot - Tartan area is situated in the Jordan Valley at about 25 km from the place where the river Jordan flows into the Dead Sea. Three more geografical elements very important: the Dead Sea in 400 m below the sea level, the Sucot - Tartan area is at about 350 m below the sea level and Jerusalem is at about 820 m above de sea level. In conclusion, the bowl needed to be transported between two points which were nearly 40 km far from each other and their level difference was nearly 1160 m.

An additional element worth mentioning: from the text 1 Kings 7:23 "... ten cubits from brim to brim, ... thirty cubits measured its circumference" results that the value of the number pi is 3, that is the raport between the circle circumference (30 cubits) and the diameter (10 cubits). The "birth certificate" of number p dates from the period of culture of the Old Testament, although its name was not defined yet. The value p = 3 that appears in the Bible is not accepted now a days, but it is not far from reality. Since the copper bowl was made (around 950 BC) and till Arhimede (287-212 BC) demonstrated that p has a value between 22/7 > p > 223/7, that is 3.142857143 > p > 3.14084507, [7], another 700 years passed.

Unfortunately, none of the pieces placed in the famous Temple - including the copper bowl - were preserved. This is, in fact, a burden for the modern researcher.

3. The strategic importance of knowing the metals' technology

The climbing up - respectively, the climbing down - the history of some ancient empires, contemporary to the events presented in the Bible, can be related, among other things, to the knowing (respectively unknowing) of the technology of obtaining and processing the metals.

There are two relevant verses in 1 Samuel 13:19: The Philistines would not allow any Israelites to learn how to make iron tools. "If we allowed that," they said, "those worthless Israelites would make swords and spears." and in 1 Samuel 13:22: So, whenever the Israelite soldiers had to go into battle, none of them had a sword or a spear except Saul and his son Jonathan. These verses refer to the beginning of King Saul's reigning, the first king of Israel, 1030 - 1010 BC. The Philistines were reigning over a part of the territory and over the technology of metals processing. The military aristocracy had fighting chariots and bronze and iron weapons. The Philistines were aware that loosing the monopole over metals processing, would mean loosing the domination over the Israelites territory. That it was true, it was proved by the fact that the Israelite tribes enslaved by the Philistines could fight and obtain their independence only under the command of King David (1010-970 BC).

In this context, the image of the Philistine giant Goliath is representative, 1 Samuel 17:5-7: He (Goliath) had a bronze helmet on his head and wore a coat of scale armor of bronze weighing 5,000 shekels; on his legs he wore bronze greaves, and a bronze javelin was slung on his back. His spear shaft was like a weaver's rod, and its iron point weighed 600 shekels. His shield bearer went ahead of him.

Statistically, the Old Testament mentions eighty-three bronze weapons as against only four references to iron weapons.

Another biblical passage relevant to the importance and increase of metallurgy in the Judean kingdom can be found in 2 Kings 24:14: He also led away as prisoners the Jerusalem officials, the military leaders, and the skilled workers--ten thousand in all. Only the very poorest people were left in Judah and 2 Kings 24:16: He also led away seven thousand soldiers, one thousand skilled workers, and anyone who would be useful in battle. In order to avoid any disturbance after the conquer of the Judean kingdom in 586 BC, the Babylonian King Nabuccodonosor decided to deport all the wood and metal craftsmen to Babylon.

4. The influence of some biblical religious constrains with metallurgical consequences

The Decalogue is also known as The Ten Commandments, or The Tables of Law. The Ten Commandments appear in the book Exodus, chapter 20. The second commandment in the Decalogue, given to the Israelites tribes through Moses, Exodus 20:3-4 says: Do not worship any god except me. Do not make idols that look like anything in the sky or on earth or in the ocean under the earth.

The total prohibition of making idols appears several times in the Old Testament: Exodul 34:17, Leviticul 19:4, Deuteronomul 27:15, etc., etc., etc.

Because of this prohibition regarding the creation of idols, there were practically no attempts of using technological ways of processing the metals as well as other materials like wood, stone or ceramics. As a result, throughout the whole period described in the Bible there are no objects that can be considered metallurgical art. This is not true i we speak about the Canaans, Mesopotamiens, Egyptians, Greeks, Romans etc.

There are two exceptions which were mentioned earlier.

* A concludent example appears in 2 Kings 18:3-4, where Hezekiah (716-686 BC), king of Judea, destroys the copper snake: Hezekiah obeyed the LORD, just as his ancestor David had done. He destroyed the local shrines, then tore down the images of foreign gods and cut down the sacred pole for worshiping the goddess Asherah. He also smashed the bronze snake Moses had made. The people had named it Nehushtan and had been offering sacrifices to it.

The copper snake, made by Moses almost 550 years before, represented - at that moment, around 1250 BC - the symbol of defense-salvation. It was never meant to be a religious object. But because later it did become one king Hezekiah ordered its destruction.

* The same thing happened to the Gold Calf: Moses destroyed the idol. The verse in Exodus 32:20 was quoted above.

The copper bowl can be considered the only exception (the one that reinforces the rule).

5. Conclusions

*The Bible is not only a collection of religious writings: The Bible is an important source of written information

* Number p has "its birth certificate" since the culture and civilization on the Bible, even if it was not practically named. The value of the number p = 3, as it appears in the Bible, is worth mentioning although this is not the value accepted nowadays.

* The wall width of the copper bowl was absolutely enough to resist the hydro-static power of the amount of water inside the bowl.

* The carrying out of this operation - around 50 tones of cast material - under poor conditions represented a high-level technique-metallurgic process for that period. The qualifier worth mentioning should be also applied to the transportation of the bowl from the place where it was casted to its final place.

* Because of the religious restraints, the historical period presented in the Bible does not mention the realization of important metallurgical crafts. Of course there are some exceptions.


1., English Standard Version ESV
2., XXXIr
5. F. Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, Book VIII, Chapter 3.5, in
7. G. M. Hollenbach, The Value of Pi and the Circumference of the 'Molten Sea' in 3 Kingdoms 7,10, Biblica 79 (1998) 409-412

* Paper of the 4th International Conference ArtCast 2008: Casting, from Rigor of Technique to Art, May 2008
   University Dunarea de Jos of Galati - Faculty of Metallurgy and Materials Science, Galati, Romania

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