Iron Technology in the Patriarchal Era

Misinformed scholarship about Hittite metallurgy contrasted with the technological advancements of ancient man as demonstrated in the early Old Testament

by Philip Huber on September 7, 2021
Featured in Answers in Depth
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The Bible has been under relentless attack by the secularists for a few hundred years now. Modern scholars frequently attack historical sections of Scripture concerning creation, the fall, the flood, and Babel, but this war has battles in other areas as well. For instance, this larger war bleeds over into the secular notion of the Three Age System of “Stone Age,” Bronze Age,” and “Iron Age.” How, you might ask?

Most antiquarians—people who study ancient times and artifacts—tell us that the Hittites1 developed iron metallurgy around 1500 BC. However, Moses in the Pentateuch tells us otherwise. For instance, he tells us that iron-working actually predates the flood since Tubal-Cain forged iron (Genesis 4:22).

Apart from the Book of Genesis, written in the 15th century BC, Moses mentions iron in Leviticus, Deuteronomy, and Numbers. Thus, combined with the Book of Job, we can see that the cultures along the King’s Highway, from the Gulf of Aqaba to Syria, would have been familiar with smelting and processing iron.

The archaeological record has also produced numerous iron artifacts that show the ancients knew how to forge iron implements long before 1500 BC. This article will cover iron-smelting and other iron-based technologies related to the people groups mentioned in the Pentateuch and Job.

Allusions to Iron in Genesis

Moses first tells us that it was a descendant of Cain named Tubal-Cain who instructed other craftsmen how to forge instruments of bronze and iron before the flood. To what degree Noah and his sons were familiar with this technology, the Bible doesn’t specify, but Noah likely used iron tools in fashioning the ark.

Moses first tells us that it was a descendant of Cain named Tubal-Cain who instructed other craftsmen how to forge instruments of bronze and iron before the flood.

If so, it clearly would have been helpful for Noah and his sons to have possessed some level of iron-working skill, which they would have brought with them to the post-flood world. Moreover, the archaeological record appears to grant weight to this hypothesis, as iron artifacts enter the record quite early, even if their presence is sporadic.

Early Post-Flood Iron Technology

One of the earliest iron artifacts comes from Samarra in northern Iraq, which archaeologists date conventionally to the fifth millennium BC—what they consider to be the Chalcolithic, Eneolithic, or Copper Age. Another early artifact comes from a bead unearthed from the El Gerzeh cemetery in Lower Egypt, which archaeologists date to the late fourth millennium BC.2

These items are admittedly trinkets, weighing only a few grams or shekels, and most archaeologists accept that smiths probably crafted them from meteoric iron because of their high nickel content. However, some natural iron deposits in Anatolia have relatively high levels of nickel as well.

We see solid evidence for terrestrially mined and smelted iron dating soon after Babel with early cultures around Mesopotamia, such as iron daggers and hilts. One example made of smelted iron ore comes from Chagar Bazar, Syria, and dates to the Early Dynasty IIIb period of Mesopotamia, prior to the rise of the Akkadian Empire. Sir Max Edgar Lucien Mallowan noted that the necessary ores were available in the region of Ararat to the north. Another example comes from Tell Asmar (Eshnunna), Iraq, in the Akkadian Palace, dating to the late third millennium BC.3

Despite this, you will still see many promoting the erroneous notion that the Hittites were the first civilization to smelt iron from its ores around 1500–1400 BC. Unfortunately, Much of academia continues to impose this view, which you are still likely to encounter in college textbooks.

Such a view severely underestimates the capacity of ancient man or those that evolutionists might view as possessing a lesser intelligence. Yet even in recent history, the isolated Sentinelese tribe proved capable of working scrap iron to fashion iron-tipped arrows and spears from the remains of the 1981 Primrose shipwreck.4

Further ancient examples of iron implements from the Early Dynastic Period include the ceremonial dagger discovered at Sumerian Kish by the Field Museum-Oxford University Joint Expedition.5 Yet another post-Babel example, which secular archaeologists date to 2400–2100 BC, comes from Alaca Hoyuk, Turkey, and is now in the Archaeological Museum at Ankara.6

We should not be at all surprised, then, to find the Canaanites in possession of “chariots of iron” by the time the Israelites settled in the Promised Land under Joshua (Joshua 17:16; Judges 1:19).

Iron in the Contemporary Texts

Early post-Babel Mesopotamian records even provide us with the terminology for iron, such as the Sumerogram KU.AN and the early Old Assyrian term amutum and assium, which may also be Old Assyrian.7

The term assium appears in the records of Kultepe, which note that it was worth eight times the value of gold. Such a high value may indicate that this was meteoric iron.8

While the terminology of this period remains highly disputed, by the second millennium BC, we have more certain terms, such as the Sumerogram AN.BAR, Hattic hapalki, and Akkadian parzillu.9

The Sumerograms also indicate a distinction between different types of iron, possibly between smelted iron and meteoric iron. The records refer to AN.BAR and AN.BAR.GE, the latter often translated as “metal of heaven.”10

However, others argue that AN.BAR.GE stands for either black magnetite or hematite.11 Notably, the Metropolitan Museum of Art houses numerous cylinder seals made of hematite, dating to the early second millennium BC, so this may well be the case. Hematite is an iron oxide and the predominant iron ore, with an iron content of over 70 percent.12

Birzoth, Descendant of Asher, and Barzel

The Hebrew word for iron is barzel, related to Akkadian parzzillu, which the New American Standard Bible translates as “iron,” “ax,” “ax head,” “chains,” or “irons.” Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance notes that this noun might come from the root of the proper name Birzoth, who was a grandchild of Asher through Beriah according to 1 Chronicles 7:31.13

Genesis 46:17 records that Asher brought Beriah and the rest of his children with him to Egypt around 1876 BC. It would appear, then, that the name Birzoth derives from an earlier root related to iron, probably adopted through Akkadian. The name is apparently feminine and from an unused root word that might mean “to pierce,” possibly suggesting piercing beauty.14

Interestingly, that is not the only association the Bible makes with the tribe of Asher and iron. While Moses pronounced blessings on the tribes of Israel in Deuteronomy, he said of Asher, “Your bars will be iron and bronze, and as your days, so will your strength be” (Deuteronomy 33:25).

While Moses pronounced blessings on the tribes of Israel in Deuteronomy, he said of Asher, “Your bars will be iron and bronze, and as your days, so will your strength be” (Deuteronomy 33:25).

The Book of Job

The Book of Job mentions iron in five separate verses. For instance, Job, speaking of the lengths to which men will go to seek out what they deem valuable, mentions extracting iron from the dust (Job 28:2). He goes on to describe how man searches for ore in the deepest darkness and opens shafts in remote valleys, far away from human settlement. They also hang from lines, swinging back and forth (28:3-4). Job lived in the land of Uz, somewhere east of the Jordan, possibly between Bashan and Edom—a region including the karstic iron ore mines of Warda in the north and iron-rich laterite soils nearby to the south in the Arabah and Negev.

Earlier in the book, Job wished that his grievances were engraved on stone with an iron stylus and lead (Job 19:24). In the next chapter, Zophar the Naamathite mentioned the wicked fleeing from an iron weapon only to be struck down by a bow of bronze (Job 20:24).

Toward the end, as the LORD spoke to Job, the LORD likened the limbs of Behemoth to bars of iron (Job 40:18) and noted that Leviathan counted the strength of iron as straw (Job 41:27).

Combining information from the Book of Job and the Pentateuch, we can see a close connection with iron-working and peoples east of the Jordan in Bashan and Edom and with the Midianites of northern Arabia.

Moses dwelled in Midian for a time after he killed an Egyptian (Exodus 2:15; Acts 7:23), and his father-in-law Jethro was a priest of Midian and a Kenite (Exodus 3:1; Judges 1:16).

Easton’s Bible Dictionary describes the Kenites as wandering smiths and part of an early metallurgical guild.15 Given Moses’ frequent mention of iron, it’s almost certain that the Kenites knew how to smelt iron.

Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy

Outside of Genesis, the next mention of iron comes from Leviticus as the LORD warned the Israelites through Moses about the consequences for disobeying his commandments.

In Leviticus 26:19, the LORD stated that he would make their heavens like iron and their earth like bronze, making it hard for them to grow crops. He made essentially the same warning again in Deuteronomy 28:23, only this time the heavens would be bronze, and the earth would be iron.

Even such a figurative use of “iron” here implies a higher degree of familiarity with iron than academia often leads us to believe the Israelites would have had since the metaphor would have been lost on the people otherwise.

He also warned that their enemies would place a yoke of iron on their necks—a yoke they obviously could not easily break (Deuteronomy 28:48).

Iron Implements in Numbers and Deuteronomy

The Wars of Moses in Numbers and Deuteronomy provide the most significant mentions of iron in the Pentateuch. In Deuteronomy 3:11, Moses mentioned the “iron bed” of the Amorite king Og of Bashan, which may have been a sarcophagus.

The Book of Numbers mentions that iron was part of the spoils from Midian after the war provoked by Israel’s seduction into the cult of Baal of Peor (Numbers 31:22).

The Book of Numbers mentions that iron was part of the spoils from Midian after the war provoked by Israel’s seduction into the cult of Baal of Peor (Numbers 31:22).The Mosaic laws in Numbers 35:16 and Deuteronomy 19:5 both deal with deaths resulting from iron objects. If it was intentional, the sentence was death. However, if someone swung an ax so that the ax head came off by mistake and killed someone nearby, the offender could flee to one of the cities of refuge.

The Mosaic Law also contained a strict warning against using an iron tool on the stones of an altar built to God (Deuteronomy 27:5). This warning would imply that using iron tools for masonry was relatively well known at that point. Similarly, the verse concerning an ax head suggests the widespread use of iron tools.

Iron daggers and other goods appear in the inventories of Late Bronze Age palaces around the same time as the Israelites entered Canaan. Some examples have survived, including a ceremonial ax head from Ugarit and the iron daggers of Tutankhamen, generally believed to be of meteoric iron.16

The Iron Furnace

As the Israelites prepared to enter the Promised Land, Moses informed them that it was “a land whose stones are iron, and out of whose hills you can dig copper” (Deuteronomy 8:9).

Moses also figuratively referred to the LORD’s rescuing Israel from the suffering experienced in Egypt as taking them “out of the iron furnace” (Deuteronomy 4:20). The NIV translation reads “iron-smelting furnace,” which is the ultimate meaning of the Hebrew kur or kuwr.17 Strong’s Concordance notes that it comes from a root word meaning “to dig,” and the verb karah means “to dig,” often in the context of wells.18

Archaeologists refer to some of the earliest iron-smelting furnaces we know of as “bowl furnaces,” where the smelters dug a pit into the ground that they lined with a clay chimney or covered with a simple clay dome formed over a mound of ore and charcoal. One side would have a hole for bellows to force air into the furnace and increase temperatures.19

While they could not reach temperatures high enough to melt iron like a modern blast furnace, they could produce a workable lump of iron called a bloom. They could then remove the slag from the bloom using a hammer, producing wrought iron.

Such simple furnaces would have been ideal for the nomadic Kenites, and they would not leave much of a trace in the archaeological record.

Still, due to the influence of secular worldviews, academics are reluctant to believe pre-Iron Age peoples had furnaces capable of smelting iron. They are either unaware of or conveniently forget about the Early Dynasty IIIb period daggers fashioned from smelted iron ore.

Apart from that, we do not have direct archaeological evidence for an iron-smelting bloomer furnace until the late 10th century BC at Tell Hammeh, Jordan. There are sites with earlier claims, but the challenge lies in finding slag with a high enough iron content to prove beyond a doubt that the smelters used the furnace specifically for iron.20

However, Assyrian records of the ninth and eighth centuries BC indicate that they received 28,000 tons of worked iron as tribute during that period. Radomir Pleiner of the Archaeological Institute in Prague noted that the processing would have resulted in 85,000 tons of slag, if not double that. Yet, archaeologists have located neither the bloomer furnaces nor the slag.21

Carburizing and Quenching

While many archaeologists recognize that the original concept of the Iron Age is largely outdated, they still maintain that the processes of carburization and quenching, which turn iron into steel, remained unknown until after 1200 BC.22

Carburizing is the process of hardening iron into steel by adding carbon, such as heating the iron with charcoal. Quenching is the process of rapidly cooling the metal by dipping it in liquid, which also hardens the surface. However, it is very difficult to tell if a blacksmith intentionally carburized an iron object and even harder to tell if he quenched it.23 Yet even if it wasn’t intentional, the bloomer process could introduce sufficient carbon for hardening without additional treatment.

Some of the earliest examples of “intentional” carburized steel come from Cyprus, dated to the 11–12th centuries BC.24 One of the earliest samples that may indicate quenching is a Middle Bronze Age piece of steel from Pella, Jordan, analyzed by the University of Pennsylvania.25 The dating remains controversial, though, and while there are also objects from Nimrud that smiths appear to have quenched, the firmest early example is a fourth-century-BC chisel from Al Mina, Turkey.26

Because of its corrosiveness, iron is highly underrepresented in the archaeological record, especially prior to the first millennium BC. As Don Landis and others have noted, the Near East would have experienced greater moisture levels than it does now, and the Bible describes Israel as forested. This would also accelerate the corrosion of iron.27

The Coming of the Iron Age?

The degree to which terms like the “Bronze Age” or “Iron Age” have any legitimacy may be related more to economics, trade, and politics than to technological ability. The shift from an economy focused on bronze to one driven by iron seems to correlate conveniently with the collapse of various palatial centers and the associated trade networks run by the elite.28

The degree to which terms like the “Bronze Age” or “Iron Age” have any legitimacy may be related more to economics, trade, and politics than to technological ability.

Bronze required the acquisition of the comparatively scarce commodity of tin, the exchange of which the Great Kings of antiquity could largely control, while iron is one of the most abundant elements on earth. This made iron comparatively less expensive, though it was more labor-intensive. Also, as the population continued to increase, so did the demand for copper and iron.29

The Book of Judges tells us of the struggles of the Israelites at this time against the Philistines in the west, the Amalekites to the south, and the Ammonites to the east, who could have cut them off from key iron deposits, particularly in the Arabah.

By the time of Samuel, we learn that the Philistines managed to gain a monopoly over blacksmithing to prevent the Israelites from making swords (1 Samuel 13:19–20). We also learn that at least some of the Kenites in the south were dwelling among the Amalekites during Saul’s reign (15:6). However, Israel would recapture these regions, and when King David took up an offering for the construction of the Temple by his son, Solomon, he collected 100,000 talents of iron (1 Chronicles 29:7).

Conclusions

The first direct evidence for smelting iron ore dates long before 1500 BC, despite the prevalence of misinformation to the contrary. Moses wrote of iron usage in the 15th century BC in the Pentateuch, indicating iron technology was far more developed by that time than academia is willing to admit. In their desire to see mankind as ever-evolving and ever-progressing, the literati continue to underestimate ancient man’s mental and technological capacity.

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Footnotes

  1. The Hittites are descendants of Heth, the son of Canaan, and they are listed in the Table of Nations in Genesis 10 as a family that came out of Babel with a new language. However, the date given for iron discovery and use by the secular world was much later than this. It was designated when a later Hittite empire was powerful in Asia Minor and in the Middle East around 1500 BC.
  2. Randomir Pleiner, Iron in Archaeology: Early European Blacksmiths, (Prague: Institute of Archaeology AVČR, 2006), 6.
  3. Sir Max E. L. Mallowan, “The Early Dynastic Period in Mesopotamia,” in The Cambridge Ancient History, edited by I. E. S. Edwards, C. J. Gadd, and N. G. L. Hammond, 3rd ed., (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1971), 1: 305, doi:10.1017/CHOL9780521077910.007; Encyclopedia Britannica, s.v. “Metalwork.”
  4. Argun Konuk, “The Shipwreck Started Iron Age On North Sentinel Island,” FellowPrimo (April 16, 2020), https://fellowprimo.com/north-sentinental-island/, accessed September 2, 2021.
  5. “The Kish Collection,” The Field Museum (2007), http://archive.fieldmuseum.org/kish/popUps/KP2.html (accessed June 16, 2021).
  6. Herbert Maryon et al., “Early Near Eastern Steel Swords.” American Journal of Archaeology 65, no. 2 (1961): 173–84, accessed June 12, 2021.
  7. Radomir Pleiner, Iron in Archaeology, (Prague: Academie Vedceski republicky, 2000), 4–5; Miguel Valério and Ilya Yakubovich, “Semitic Word for Iron as Anatolian Loan Word,” Studies in Linguistics and Semiotics: A Collection of Articles for the Anniversary for Vyacheslav V. Ivanov, ed. T.M. Nikolaev, (Moscow: Languages of Slavonic Culture, 2010), 113, accessed June 12, 2021.
  8. Antonio Sagona and Paul Zimansky, Ancient Turkey, (Abingdon, OX: Routledge, 2009), 231.
  9. Pleiner, Iron in Archaeology, 4–5; Valério and Yakubovich, “Semitic Word for Iron as Anatolian Loan Word,” 113.
  10. Pleiner, Iron in Archaeology, 5.
  11. Valério and Yakubovich, “Semitic Word for Iron as Anatolian Loan Word,” 111–112.
  12. Encyclopedia Britannica, s.v. “Hematite.”
  13. Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible, s.v. “1270. barzel.”
  14. Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible, s.v. “1269. Birzoth.”
  15. Easton's Bible Dictionary, s.v. “Kenites.”
  16. Jean-Claude Margueron, “Ugarit: Gateway to the Mediterranean,” Beyond Babylon: Art, Trade, and Diplomacy in the Second Millennium B.C., (New York, NY: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2008), 243.
  17. Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible, s.v. “3564. kuwr.”
  18. Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible, s.v. “3738. karah.”
  19. Paul Rondelez, “The Irish Bowl Furnace: Origin, History and Demise,” Journal of Irish Archaeology 26, pre-print (2018): 101–116, accessed June 12, 2021.
  20. Harald A. Veldhuijzen and Thilo Rehren, Slags and the City: Early Iron Production at Tell Hammeh, Jordan and Tel Beth-Shemesh, Israel, (London: British Museum, 2007).
  21. Pleiner, Iron in Archaeology, 12.
  22. Sagona and Zimansky, Ancient Turkey, 292.
  23. Peter R. S. Moorey, Ancient Mesopotamian Materials and Industries: The Archaeological Evidence, (Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 1999), 284, accessed June 12, 2021.
  24. Nathaniel L. Erb-Satullo, “The Innovation and Adoption of Iron in the Ancient Near East,” Journal of Archaeological Research 27 (2019, under “Adoption and Spread”): 557–607, accessed June 16, 2021.
  25. Robert H. Smith et al., “Bronze Age Steel From Pella, Jordan,” Current Anthropology 25, no. 2 (April 1984): 234, accessed June 12, 2021.
  26. Moorey, Ancient Mesopotamian Materials and Industries, 284–285.
  27. Don Landis, The Genius of Ancient Man: Evolution’s Nightmare, (Green Forest, AZ: Master Books, 2012), 97.
  28. Erb-Satullo, “The Innovation and Adoption of Iron in the Ancient Near East.”
  29. Erb-Satullo, “The Innovation and Adoption of Iron in the Ancient Near East.”

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