MANNERS AND CUSTOMS OF THE BIBLE “THE MINERALS AND GEMS OF PALESTINE”

BRICKS

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     Baked clay bricks were the Israelites’ second favorite building material. The Bible first mentions brick in the construction of the Tower of Babel. There the builders said to one another, “Go to, let us make brick, and burn them thoroughly” (Gen. 11:3). So we think the builders baked their bricks in kilns, as the ancient Babylonians did. Archaeologists have found Babylonian bricks that were quite large, sometimes 30cm. (about one foot) square, and flat. This shape could support the weight of large builders better than today’s

rectangular bricks. Researchers think some of the early Israelite bricks may have followed this Babylonian pattern. Clay was plentiful in Palestine, and the Hebrews used it for various jobs besides brickmaking; for example, they fashioned it into pottery and lamps. But the Hebrews molded clay bricks by the thousands, usually baking them in the sun. These bricks did not last as long as hewn stone. To make clay bricks more durable, kings and wealthy householders hardened them in charcoal-fired kilns (cf. Nah 3:14). The Book of Exodus tells us how the Egyptians forced their Hebrew slaves to make bricks for the pharaoh (Exod. 5:6-7). No doubt the Hebrews taught this skill to their descendants, who entered the Promised Land.

MORTAR AND PLASTER

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     The Hebrews often used “pitch” as mortar for their stone work. Pitch was asphalt, which the Hebrews dug from tar pits around the Dead Sea. The Bible also calls soft asphalt “slime” (Gen 14:10). “Pitch” or “slime” exposed to the air for several days hardened to form a tight, resilient bond between the stones of Hebrew buildings. The Israelites also used pitch to seal their boats and fuel their torches (cf. Gen 6:14; Exod. 2:3). The Egyptians used it to coat the linen wrappings of embalmed corpses, in order to keep out moisture.

     The Israelites burned limestone, shells and other materials to make lime for brick mortar. Isaiah said the wicked would be “as the burnings of lime” (Isa. 33:12), and Amos tells us that the Moabites “burned the bones of the king of Edom into lime” (Amos 2:1). So we are sure the ancients understood how to make lime. They mixed lime with clay and other materials to make a simple form of mortar.  When they mixed these ingredients poorly, their “untempered mortar” crumbled very quickly (cf. Ezek. 13:10-11).

     Sand was not as plentiful for the ancients as we might suppose. Most of Palestine was covered with coarse gravel and dust; sand was found only along riverbanks and the seacoast–but the Philistines controlled most of the coast. Yet the Israelites dredged sand from the Kishon River near Accho and other sites to make mortar, glass, and other products.

METALS

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     The Bible names only six metals as known to the Israelites; gold, silver, iron, lead, tin, and copper (also called “steel”). Although archaeologists have uncovered a wide variety of metal objects in Palestine, we have little evidence of mining operations there. Palestinians probable found metal ore along riverbeds and exposed areas of rock, or dug shallow trenches where metal-bearing minerals lay near the surface. The Israelites traded precious metals for farm products and other goods.

GOLD

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     Gold was the heaviest metal known to the Israelites, and the easiest to shape into intricate artistic designs. The Egyptians had large quantities of gold. Classical historian Walafrid Strabo (A.D. 808-849) noted that the Nabateans, who inhabited Moab and Edom, mined gold along the Sinai peninsula. The Bible says the Israelites bought gold from Ophir and Parvaim (which may have been in India- 1 Chron. 29:4; 2 Chron. 3:6), as well as from Sheba and Raamah, which were probably on the southern coast of Arabia (Ezek.  27:22).

     Despite being scarce, gold was widely used in building Solomon’s temple (1 Kings 7:48-50), in decorating the homes of the kings (1 Kings 10:17-22), and in making jewelry. Gold displayed its owner’s prestige or royal power (Dan. 5:29; James 2:2).

     Gold ore usually has impurities of other metals, which lend their characteristic color (e.g., copper impurities make yellow gold). Metal workers in biblical times did not know how to remove these impurities, so they tested gold by rubbing it across a black stone called a touchstone and observing the color of its mark. Zechariah suggests this when he describes how God will test His people (Zech. 13:9).

SILVER

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     The Israelites imported silver from several countries, but most of it came from “Tarshish” -possibly the town of Tarssus in southern Spain (1 Kings 10:22; 2 Chron. 9:21). Amazing as it seems, the Bible says King Solomon imported so much silver for the temple project that he “made silver to be in Jerusalem as stones” (1 Kings 10:27), and he refused to make any of his drinking cups of silver because “it was nothing accounted of’ (1 Kings 10:21)!

     Because silver does not combine easily with others metals, it is easy to recognize in its natural state. Even the patriarchs prized it as a valuable commodity, and Genesis says that “Abram was a very rich in cattle, in silver, and in gold” (Gen. 13:2).  The Israelites used silver to decorate the tabernacle and the temple (Exod. 26:19; 1 Chron. 28: 14-17), to make  trumpets (Num. 10:2), and to make idols in their decadent days (Isa 40:19).

     Merchants carried silver pieces as a common medium of trade; as a matter of fact, the Old Testament often uses the Hebrew word for silver (keseph) to mean “money.” Even in Abraham’s day, the value of property was determined in silver (Gen. 23:15-16). However, Israel did not make silver coins until after the Exile; early traders simply used standard bits of silver.

IRON

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     The was the most plentiful of the heavy metals the Hebrews learned to use. Genesis 4:22 says that Tubal-cain was the “instructor of every artificer in brass and iron,” so iron was being used even before the age of the patriarchs. The Hebrew word for iron was barzel.

     Scripture emphasizes the abundance of iron ore in Palestine, where the “stones are iron” (Deut.  8:9). Jeremiah suggests that the “northern iron” -perhaps from the mountains of Lebanon-was stronger than the iron from other regions of the Near East (Jer. 15:12).

     We know the Israelites had iron tools when they entered Canaan, for God instructed them not to use iron instruments to build the altar of the tabernacle (Deut 27:5). They  made iron axe heads (2 Kings 6:5-6), spear tips (1 Sam 17:7), harrows (2 Sam. 12:31), and other tools and weapons. Iron technology gave the Israelites’ enemies an advantage in war. The Israelites complained to Joshua that “all the Canaanites that dwell in the land of the valley have chariots of iron”(Josh. 17:16) The Israelites rapidly maters skills with iron but did not learn how to make steel. When the KJV mentions “steel,” it means bronze, an alloy of copper and tin (e.g., Psa. 18:34).

LEAD

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     This heavy white metal was familiar to the people of the Old Testament days. They used it to purify silver in crude furnaces (Jer. 6:29) and to strengthen alloys of others metals (Ezek. 22:20). When Job wished that his works “were graven with an iron pen and lead in the rock forever” (Job 19:24), he referred to practice of pouring molten lead into inscriptions in rock, to make them more easily readable. The Egyptians believed this metal had mystical powers, so they sometimes buried an embalmed corpse with a plate of lead on its chest.

TIN

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     Archaeologists have discovered many objects made of bronze scattered across the Near Eastern world. However, only small amounts of tin ore, used to make this alloy, were available in the Near East. The best supplies of tin ore were in Britain, Spain, and India. Ezekiel 27:12 tells us the Israelites got their tin from Tarshish; Tarshish may in turn have gotten its tin from Britain. The Hebrews used tin in Moses’ time (Num. 31:22). They called it bedhit. The prophets knew of the process of smelting tin with other metals to make strong alloys (Ezek. 22:20).

COPPER

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    Ezra tells us that this versatile metal was “precious as gold” when the Israelites returned from the Exile (Ezra 8:27). Copper was used to make brass and bronze and was known in the biblical world as early as the time of Tubal-cain (Gen. 4:22).

     The Hebrew word for copper was nechosheth. The King James Version sometimes translates this word as “brass” when copper is clearly meant, as when God promised to lead His people into Canaan, “out of whose hills thou mayest dig brass” (Deut. 8:9).

     Although the Israelites had a good supply of copper ore, they did not master the skills of refining it and shaping it. Thus, Solomon had to depend on Phoenician craftsmen to make copper furnishings for the temple (1 Kings 7:14).

GEMS AND PRECIOUS STONES

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     The Israelites valued precious stones much as we do today. The Bible often links precious stones with the architecture of the temple (2 Chron 3:6; 9:10), and John saw the heavenly Jerusalem “garnished” with them (Rev. 21:19). Jewelers of Bible times used vague terms to describe their stones, and this causes some confusion. They might call any hard stone an “adamant,” and any clear stone “crystal.” They might switch the names of stones with similar colors. Or they might use names we no longer understand. So when we study the gems of the Bible, we must admit some mystery still shrouds the subjects. For example, Exodus 28:15-22 describes the breastplate worn by the high priest, which had four rows of precious stones. Each stone bore the name of one of the tribes of Israel, “like the engravings of a signet”  (v. 21). Because the Israelites did not know how to engrave the hardest gems, it is doubtful whether the breastplate really held a diamond, sapphire, emerald, and topaz. We feel it is more likely these terms refer to softer stones, such as chalcedony, lapis lazuli, garnet, and chrysolite. The Bible mentions over twenty gems and precious stones, which we will discuss in alphabetical order;

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