by SUSAN V. MESCHEL
The Hebrew word nehoshet used in the biblical text may designate the element copper as well as two of its alloys, bronze and brass. In this article we will study the biblical text and attempt to learn if one can make reasonable, scientific conclusions as to which translation is most correct in the context.
BACKGROUND AND EXAMPLES
Copper is frequently mentioned in the biblical text, usually the third element after gold and silver. Israel is described as a place where copper can be mined (Deut.8:9).1 Some of the mines were functioning in King Solomon’s time period (I Kgs. 7:46). Job 28:2 talks about miners, Iron is taken from out of the earth, and copper smelted from the rock.
Copper was inexpensive and abundant in the time period of the Judean kings. King Solomon used so much in the construction of the Temple that its amount could not be estimated (II Chron. 4:18, I Kgs. 7:47). Copper and its alloys were used to construct chains, pillars, the famous “Bronze Sea” and other sacred vessels (Ex. 26:11; I Sam.17:5,6,38). The most common alloys are bronze, which is made of copper and tin, and brass which is composed of copper and zinc. Bronze is easier to work with, more pliable, and the melting temperature is somewhat lower than that of pure copper. Although ancient Israelites were familiar with some metallurgical techniques, the larger pieces in the Temple may have been made under Phoenician supervision.2 Artifacts have been found which can shed light on the composition of some of the well-known nehoshet objects mentioned in the biblical text.
THE GREAT BRONZE SEA
In the Tabernacle, the laver was made of nehoshet, generally translated as bronze. The bronze was donated in the form of mirrors by the Israelite women: and he made a laver of bronze and its base of bronze, from the mirrors of the ministering women who were at the door of the tent of the meeting (Ex.38:8). Its function was to allow the Priests to wash their hands and feet before entering the area of the Tabernacle (Ex. 30:17-21, 40:30-32). It had a base or foot, as mentioned in Exodus 30:28.
In the First Temple, there was a much larger water basin, referred to as the yam ha-nehoshet variously translated as the bronze sea or tank. It was cast from molten metal for King Solomon (I Kgs. 7:23-26; I Chron.18:8; II Chron. 4:2-5). And from Tibhat and from Chun, cities of Hadadezer, David took very much bronze; with it Solomon made the bronze tank and the pillars and the vessels of bronze (I Chron.18:8).
Copper was mentioned to have been brought by the order of King David from Tibhat and Chun, cities in Hadadezer (probably Syria). According to the text the bronze sea was supported by 12 oxen (I Kgs. 7:23-26). It stood upon twelve oxen, three facing north, three facing west, three facing south and three facing east; the sea was set upon them and all their hinder parts were inward (II Chron. 4:4).
Archaeologists infer that the bronze sea may have been pear shaped, as a cauldron, contracting at the rim and widening below. Below the bronze sea ornamental buds were placed as decoration all the way around. These were cast items in two rows. The brim was shaped like a lily blossom (I Kgs. 7:26), so the pear shaped assumption may be plausible. It stood on 12 oxen, three facing in each direction. The back parts of the oxen were pointed inward.3
The vessel was damaged in the time period of King Ahaz (735-715 BCE) and broken up by the Chaldeans (II Kgs. 16:17; 25:13) and they carried away the bronze to Babylon. And the pillars of bronze that were in the house of the Lord and the stands and the bronze sea that were in the house of the lord the Chaldeans broke into pieces and carried the bronze to Babylon (II Kgs. 25:13).
It is noteworthy that the Delphi Museum in Greece displays a pear-shaped bronze cauldron on a tripod, which was dated to be from the 7th century BCE. As an archaeological artifact it is very similar to the laver described in Exodus. Perhaps these ritual water containers were used by many cultures in the ancient Middle East. This would support the translation of nehoshet here as bronze rather than copper.
Most translations use bronze which is the most plausible regarding the level of ancient technology. However, in some translations the bronze sea was also called brazen or brass sea. For example, in the King James Bible: also the pillars of brass that were in the House of the Lord and the bases, and the brasen sea that was in the house of the Lord, the Chaldeans brake, and carried all the brass of them to Babylon (Jer. 52:17). The references to brass in this verse were switched to “bronze” in the King James 2000 translation.
The Nehushtan is a mysterious art artifact made of nehoshet in the shape of a snake which was created by Moses. It is an intriguing artifact and we hear very little about it in the biblical text. Nehoshet in Numbers 21:9, where the making of the snake object is described, is variously translated as brass (King James Bible, JPS 1917), bronze (New International Version, King James 2000) or copper (New JPS).
From the text we understand that Moses created the snake at God’s command. It seemed to have medicinal or magical properties. We have no clear identification whether it was copper or bronze, and if it was cast or not. Probably it was a cast artifact similar to some other artifacts in the period. Rothenberg found a small cast bronze snake on an excavation in Timna in a structure which resembles the description of the Tabernacle.4 The area was associated with Midianite settlements, which was Moses’s wife Zipporah’s home. Another bronze serpent was found at Gezer by Macalister.5 We may infer that such bronze snakes may have been popular in the Midianite culture as a protection against snake bites. We may also note that some similar snake gods in the Sumerian culture existed, respected as god of life. This was comparable to the Greek symbol of Aesculapius, God of healing (pharmacy, medicine).6 The finding of this artifact provides some support that such an object was probably a cast bronze piece.
In later times the Nehushtan seems to have been used as an object of worship. In II Kings 18:4, King Hezekiah removed altars and asherahs, items usually found at elevated places suitable for pagan sacrifices. The Nehushtan is mentioned in that context. The translations there follow Numbers 21:9, either brass, bronze or copper.
Most translations here translate nehoshet as bronze or copper, which is in keeping with archeological findings of snake objects in the area.
OTHER NEHOSHET OBJECTS
Archaeologists found polished bronze mirrors and armor as well as bronze ornaments in city gates and bowls.7 The two ornamented pillars Jachin and Boaz, which stood at the entrance of the Temple were cast bronze. These were cast by Haram-abi, the son of a Tyrian smith. I Kings 7:15 describes it as cast from nehoshet. Again, King James and JPS 1917 translate this as brass, while later translations prefer bronze (King James 2000, New JPS).
Cooking utensils were usually earthenware (Lev. 6:21), while metal pots were rare. However, Ezekiel 24:11 specifically mentions a pot made of nehoshet. In these cases, again either copper, brass or bronze are used in the translations.
Nehoshet is also mentioned in I Chronicles 15:19 as used for making cymbals for use in the Temple. Such artifacts were found in numerous sites, Hazor, Beth-Shemesh, Megiddo, Achziv and others. These were traditionally played by the Levites in the Temple (Ezra 3:10, II Sam.6:5, Zech.14:20). Most of the cymbals which were found in these sites are made of bronze with an iron clapper. However, in the Tabernacle they are described as made of gold (Ex. 28:33,34, 39:25,26).8 Again, King James and JPS 1917 translate this as brass, while later translations prefer bronze (King James 2000, New JPS), which is again more in accordance with archeological discoveries of similar items
AMBIGUITIES ASSOCIATED WITH THE DESIGNATION OF THE ALLOYS
Why did the older translations translate nehoshet as brass, while newer translations switched to bronze? Brass is an alloy of copper and zinc. Zinc as an element was not known until the 19th century, thus its use in the Bible is very questionable. While it is possible that brass could have been made by smelting a zinc ore with copper and charcoal, it is not very likely given the level of sophistication required in this process.
The confusion in the designation may arise from the fact that from the time of the King James translation of the Bible many copper alloys were called brass regardless of their composition. The physical properties of the relevant alloys are summarized in Table 1.9
Physical characteristics of the elements copper, tin, zinc and the alloys bronze, brass and electrum
|Element/Alloy||Melting point °C||Density: gr/cm3||“Hardness” Moh scale*|
* The Moh scale designates the degree of hardness for minerals
Zinc can be found in nature as the sulfide (ZnS) and the carbonate (ZnCO3). These ores are found usually in the same vicinity as copper and lead ores. However, it is rare to find more than traces of zinc in ancient artifacts for physical reasons. Zinc has a considerably higher vapor pressure than copper, tin, lead, silver or gold. And as such most of it would be lost during the smelting process of copper. If ZnS ore is used it must be heat treated in air to convert it to its oxide and in that process again the zinc would vaporize and be lost for further metallurgical processing. Even if some of the zinc survived the heat treatment, it would be lost during smelting, for zinc boils at 905° C, which is below the melting point of copper (1083° C). The characteristic greenish yellow color of brass appears only with zinc content of at least 20%.
Table 2 shows characteristic compositions of some ancient artifacts and illustrates that the zinc content does not reach that percentage.10
Compositions of some ancient artifacts (weight percent)
The use of brass was first documented in the 13th century CE. There was a medieval method of smelting ZnCO3 ores with charcoal in a closed vessel with an arm leading to a container with water. In this equipment Zn could be prepared in a reducing condition and the vapor condensed. However, there is no evidence in the biblical text that such a technique was utilized.11
On the other hand, bronze contains copper and tin. Both were mined in the area of the Middle East and the melting point was low enough for the smelting techniques of the period. Table 2 shows the composition of some selected artifacts. The color of the bronze was significantly altered by the percentage of the tin.12
Another complication which adds to the ambiguity of the translation is the similarity of the Germanic words used for the metals. Zink refers to zinc in modern terminology and Zinn is tin. These words have been easy to confuse for translators unfamiliar with scientific terms.13
The facts point to the conclusion that most of the objects mentioned in the biblical text were made of bronze. This conforms to archeological finds and the level of technology in Biblical times. Brass is highly questionable as a translation of nehoshet and the artifacts made from it.
There is another translation ambiguity relating to bronze. Ezekiel 1:4 begins a description of a vision of the chariot of God by describing a huge cloud and flashing fire, surrounded by a radiance; and in the center of it, in the center of the fire, a gleam as of hashmal. The translation of the Hebrew word hahsmal has always been difficult. The Septuagint has electrum, this is used in JPS 1917. In the King James Bible it is amber, the translation used in the New JPS. The International Standard Version gives bronze.
In Ezekiel 1:27 hashmal is described as what looked like fire. Amber is a fossilized pine resin, known and highly valued in ancient Egypt, Lebanon and Jordan. Electrum is a silver-gold alloy known in the ancient Near East including Judea, and was used for fine artifacts and musical instruments. Electrum has a relatively low melting point which makes it possible to fashion objects using the ancient level of technology. Working with electrum does not present the chemical problems of manufacturing as brass, discussed above. It was associated with the sun, and glittering and shining properties, making it the most probable of the translations offered. Note that in Greek and Latin the same word was used both for amber and electrum due to its pale yellow color,14 so the varying translations of hashmal as amber or electrum are actually referring to the same Greek word. Considering the characteristics of the materials, the intent was most likely to have been electrum, a shiny metallic substance more suitable to be associated with fire than amber. In this case bronze is the least likely translation.
The author wishes to thank Prof. Steven Rosen for recommendation of relevant journal articles. This paper is dedicated to the most influential teachers in my life: Ms. Amalia Fuchs and Mr. Richard Rieger in the Anna Frank Gymnasium in Budapest, Hungary.
- J.R. Partington, Origins and Development of Applied Chemistry (London: Longmans, Green and Co., 1935), pp. 479-496.
- H. Krapp, R. Mann, “Thermodynamic Considerations to the Earliest Appearance of Metals”, Radex Rundschau 1 (1992) pp. 58-70; H. Krapp, “Metals in the Biblical Text”, Radex Rundschau 3-4 (1993), pp. 421-436; B. Rothenberg, “Copper Smelting Furnaces in the Arabah, Israel: The Archaeological Evidence”, pp. 123-135 and M. Bamberger, “The Working Conditions of the Ancient Copper Smelting Process”, pp. 151-157 in P.T. Craddock and M.J Hughes, eds., Furnaces and Smelting Technology in Antiquity (London: The British Museum, 1996); Th. Rehren, “Crucibles as Reaction Vessels in Ancient Metallurgy”, pp. 207-215 in P. Craddock and J. Lang eds., Mining and Metal Production Through the Ages (London; British Museum Press, 2003); J. A. Charles, Determinative Mineralogy and the Origins of Metallurgy (London: British Museum, 2007); A. Hauptmann, I. Wagner, “Prehistoric Copper Production at Timna: Thermo-luminescence (TL) Dating and Evidence from the East”, pp. 67-75 in S. La Niece, D. Hook, P. Craddock eds., Metals and Mines: Studies in Archaeometallurgy (London: Archetype Publications, 2007).
- S. Paul, W.G. Dever, eds., Biblical Archaeology (Jerusalem: Keter, 1973).
- Rothenberg, op. cit.; Jacob Milgrom, The JPS Torah Commentary – Numbers (Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society, 1990), p. 175.
- Paul, op. cit.
- Troy Kynard, The Esoteric Codex: Mesopotamian Deities (Lulu, 2015), p. 24.
- Paul, op. cit.
- Paul, op. cit., Partington, op. cit.
- Jui-Lien Fang, G. McDonnell, “The Color of Copper Alloys”, Historical Metallurgy, 45(1) (2011) pp. 52-61; B. Kaufman, “Metallurgy and Ecological Change in the Ancient Near East”, Backdirt (2011), pp. 86-92; S. Shalev, “Metals and Society: Production and Distribution of Metal Weapons in the Levant during the Middle Bronze Age II”, pp. 69-80, in S.A. Rosen, V. Roux, eds., Techniques and People (Paris: De Boccard, 2009); P.T. Craddock, “The Composition of the Copper Alloys used by the Greek, Etruscan and Roman Civilizations 3: The Origins and Early Use of Brass”, Journal of Archaeological Science, 5:1 (1978) 1-16.
- Craddock, op. cit., Kaufman, op. cit.
- Hauptman, op. cit., Craddock (1978), op. cit.; P.T. Craddock, K. Eckstein, “Production of Brass in Antiquity by Direct Reduction, pp. 216-230 in P. Craddock and J. Lang, eds., Mining and Metal Production Through the Ages, (London: British Museum Press, 2003);
- C.P. Thornton, C.B. Ehlers, “Early Brass in the Ancient Near East”, Institute for Archaeometallurgical Studies, 23 (2003) pp. 3-8.
- Krapp, op. cit.; Craddock (2003), op. cit.; Craddock (1996); op. cit., Fang, op. cit.
- Maria Amalia D’Aronco, “A Problematic Plant Name: Elehtre. A Reconsideration”, p. 200 in Anne Arsdall and Timothy Graham, eds., Herbs and Healers from the Ancient Mediterranean through the Medieval West (London: Routledge, 2016).
Susan Meschel attended the Technical University in Budapest, Hungary, and continued to study chemistry at the University of Chicago (M.S., PhD). She taught at the University of Chicago and Roosevelt University and was involved in research in high temperature thermodynamics. She is currently Adjunct Professor at the Illinois Institute of Technology in the Materials Science Department.