References to Iron in the Pentateuch-Part II

Professor  of Archeology and History  of Antiquity, S.D.A.  Theological Seminary

Iron in Mesopotamia

The valley of the Euphrates and Tigris rivers shows the same picture as Egypt in regard to early iron finds. Tell Chagar Bazar has provided the earliest fragment of an iron object, dated by the excavator, M. E. L. Mallowan, between 3000 and 2700 B.C. The grave from which it came was undisturbed and the iron proved by examination to be terrestial. 1 Prof. Henri Frankfort discovered in the ancient Sumerian site Tell Asmar an undisturbed hoard of copper tools which he dated before 2700 B.C. Among them was one bronze handle containing scanty remains of iron, prob ably the remnants of the missing blade. An analysis showed it to be free of nickel.2 From that time originates also an iron fragment of a knife blade found by Parrot at Mari.3 Although the number of Mesopotamian iron products originating from the third millennium B.C. is limited to three, the equal geographical dispersion of the sites of discovery over Lower, Central, and Upper Mesopotamia reveals that iron had been in use throughout the country and not only in one locality.

The first literary evidence of iron in Mesopotamia comes from the time of Hammurabi (1728-1686 B.C.). A cuneiform tablet informs us that shekel of iron was worth 1/6 shekel of silver, a rate of 8:1,4 which compares unfavorably with bronze, the ratio of bronze to silver being 120:1.5 From a slightly later period originates a dagger with a bronze handle and an iron blade found in the Hurrian city of Nuzi.6

The following evidence comes from Tushratta, the king of the northern Mesopotamian kingdom of Mitanni, who wrote his letters to Amenhotep III and IV of Egypt in the early fifteenth century B.C. He mentions in his notes the shipment to Egypt of daggers with steel and iron blades, of rings and other objects of which the Akkadian word is not clear enough for translation.7 Shalmaneser I (1280-1261 B.C.) had tablets of stone, silver, gold, iron, bronze, and lead made for a foundation deposit of one of his temples,8 and Tukulti-Ninurta I (1260- 1232 B.C.) added pieces of iron to the various objects that he considered fitting for a foundation deposit.9 Tiglath-Pileser I (1115-1093 B.C.) boasts of having killed four wild bulls with his weapons, to which an iron spear belonged.10 From that time on iron is mentioned frequently and iron objects turn up in increasing numbers in the excavations of Mesopotamia.

Iron in Anatolia

No evidence for the existence of iron before the thirteenth century has been found in Anatolia so far. An interesting letter found in the ancient Hittite capital Bogazkoy and dating from the thirteenth century B.C. is a reply to a request for a shipment of iron:

"Concerning the pure iron, for which you wrote to me: There is no pure iron in my locked store house in Kitzwatna. It is an unfavorable season to make iron, but I have written to make pure iron. It is not ready yet, but as soon as it is ready I shall send it to you. I am sending now only one dagger blade." 11

The names of the sending king and of the addressee are unfortunately lost on the tablet and have been the object of numerous scholarly theories. It is clear, however, that either Egypt or Mesopotamia or both countries looked to the Hittites for iron, and many scholars have held that the Hittites had a monopoly of iron that was not broken until the destruction of the Hittite empire, about 1200 B.C.12

The only ancient iron objects of Anatolia from the second millennium B.C. are an iron ax from Bogazkoy13 and some iron wire from Alisar Huyiik, both from the thirteenth century B.C.14

Iron in Syria-Palestine

In contrast to Egypt and Mesopotamia no iron of the third millennium B.C. has been found in Syria or Palestine so far. The earliest evidence for the existence of iron in these lands comes from the Phoenician port city of Byblos. In one of the undisturbed tombs of the local kings of the nineteenth century B.C., P. Montet found an amulet of iron overlaid on one side with gold leaf. 15

The inventory list of the temple at Qatna (el-Mishrtfeh) written on clay tablets in form script during the fifteenth century B.C. mentions six cult objects of iron.16 From this or the following century originates the beautiful ax found at the ancient city of Ugarit (Ras Shamrah). The head is of copper overlaid with gold, and the blade is of iron of a composition almost reaching the quality of steel, as the analysis showed.17 In the neighboring Minet el-Beida were found beads and rings of iron from the same period.18 The ax of Ugarit is especially important. Its steel blade, not easy to produce, shows the existence of a metallurgical knowledge that can only have been obtained after a long period of experimentation.

The Palestinian sites have brought to light various objects of iron that can with a reason able certainty be placed in the second half of the second millennium B.C. However, most of these excavations were carried out when the science of digging had not been perfected, or under circumstances which make an exact dating of the objects found difficult. For this reason they will not be used to defend our position, but will be listed only in a footnote for the sake of completeness, and to show that Palestine was not barren of iron objects during the second millennium B.c.19


The enumeration of the discoveries of iron objects originating from the third and second millenniums B.C. leads to some definite conclusions. It has to be admitted that the number of discoveries is small, and that iron objects can hardly have been plentiful during that time, even if we take into account the fact that more iron objects have perished without leaving traces of their existence behind, than copper or bronze implements, which do not dissolve as iron does.

The unbiased reader will, however, agree if we state that the discoveries have proved that iron was in use in Egypt from the predynastic period on, a time which cannot even be fixed in years of our chronology. The earliest iron products found in Mesopotamia have likewise been dated to the third millennium B.C. by the excavators. Only a few of the objects are made of meteoric iron, which shows that the smelting of iron ore must have been discovered very early in the ancient Near East. This lends weight to the Biblical statement that iron working was known before the Flood (Gen. 4:22).

The more numerous iron finds from Egypt and other countries originating from the middle of the second millennium B.C. are evidence enough that iron was in limited use for all kinds of tools and objects when Moses mentioned iron in the books of Numbers and Deuteronomy. Inasmuch as the statements made in these books do not imply that iron was very plentiful, no valid reason exists to deny to these books, on the basis of their mentioning iron, a date of origin in the fifteenth century B.C. or earlier.

The same holds true for the books of Joshua and Judges. It must not be considered that the iron chariots of the Canaanites (Joshua 17:16, 18; Judges 4:3, 13) were made entirely of iron, but that some of the important parts were covered or overlaid with iron plate. This is illustrated by Thutmose III (about 1480 B.C.), who mentions "great chariots of gold and silver" among the spoil of the defeated enemies of Megiddo and Kadesh.20 In another record listing the same spoil of war, the king is more ex act in his expression, telling us that these chariots were "wrought with gold,21 which shows that they were not made entirely of gold, but had probably been overlaid with gold leaf.

Another illustration for the correctness of this interpretation is the "ivory house" that King Ahab had built in Samaria (1 Kings 22:39). It had long been supposed that the text does not mean a building constructed entirely of ivory, but one whose walls were lavishly adorned with ivory plaques. That this assumption was right has been proved by the recent excavation at Samaria, bringing to light numerous examples of the carved ivory plaques that must have adorned Ahab's "ivory house" in his time.22

These examples give us a right to interpret the "iron chariots" of the Canaanites in the time of the Judges as war vehicles that had some iron fittings attached to them, noteworthy to record in a time when iron was still more expensive than copper or bronze. But their mention is no proof that the events described in the books of Joshua and Judges could not have taken place in the middle of the second millennium B.C. If the critics want to prove their point, they should advance stronger proofs than the references to iron.

1 M. E. L. Mallowan, "The Excavations at Tell Chasar Bazar," Iraq, III (1936), pp. 26, 27.

2 Henri Frankfort, Iraq Excavations of the Oriented Institute 1932-33 (Chicago, 1934), pp. 59-62, Fig. 53.

3.  A. Parrot in a review of Mallowan's article mentioned in footnote 16, in Archiv fur Orientforschung, 12 (1937-39), p. 151.

4 J. Kohler and F. Peiser, Hammurabi's Gesetz (Leipzig, 1904), p. 1221.

5 W. Schwenzner, "Zum altbabylonischen Wirtschaftsleben," Mitteilungen der vorderasiatisch-aesyptischen Gesellschaft, 19 (1914), p. 31.

6 Richard F. Starr, Nu& (Cambridge, Mass., 1937), II, PI.

7 Samuel A. B. Mercer, The Tell El-Amarna Tablets (Toronto, 1939), vol. 1, no. 22, col. 1, lines 32, 38, col. 2, lines 1, 3, 16, col. 3, lines 7, 10; no. 25, col. 2, lines 22, 28.

8 D. D. Luckenbill, Ancient Records of Assyria and Babflonia (Chicago, 1926), I, sec. 120.

9 W. Andrae, "Aus den Berichten aus Assur," Mitteilungen der Deutschen Orient-Gesellschajt, 54 (1914), pp 36 37

10 Luckenbill, op. cit., I, sec. 247.

11 Ernst F. Weidner, "Aus den hettitischen Urkunden von Boghazkoi, Mitteilungen der Deutschen Orient-Gesellschaft

12 Albright The Archaeology of Palestine (Pelican Book 1949), p. 110.

13 Kurt Bittel, "Vorlaufiger Bericht iiber die Ausgrabung in Bogazkoy 1935," Mitteilungen der Deutschen Orient-Gesellschaft, 74 (1936), p. 23, Fig. 18e.

14 H. H. von der Osten, The Alishar Huyuk. Seasons of 1930-32 (Chicago, 1937), Part II, p. 273.

15 P. Montet, Byblos et l'fsyPte (par's. 1928), p. 169, no. 624, pl.95

16 C. Virollea" (1930), "Les tablettes de Mishrife-Qatna, "Syvia, pp. 334, 337, 339.

17 Claude F.-A. Schaeffer, Ugaritica I (Paris, 1939), pp. 107-125, Figs. 100-103, PI. 22.

18 Schaeffer, "Les fouilles de Minet-el-Beida et de Ras Shamra," Syria, 10 (1929), p. 292.

19 From Gezer: An iron ring and two ax blades (c. 1500 B.C.), some hoes, pins, and nails of the 13th-12th centuries B.C. R. A. A. Macalister, Excavations of Gezer (London 1912), II, pp. 30, 31, 88, 269, 270, Figs. 224, 225, 278, 417- IIL PI. 63, No. 61. From Megiddo: A bone tool with an iron handle (1500-1200 B.C.). G. Schumacher, Tell el-Mutesellim (Leipzig, 1908) I, p. 74, Fie. 98.
From Tell Jemmeh: Iron weapons (13th century B.C.) and furnaces for iron smelting (12th century B.C.). Flinders Petrie, Gerar (London. 1928), pp. 14-16. PI. 25, 26:4 27-8 28:6-11, 29:24, 25, 27, 30:14. From Tell el-HesI: Iron tools and weapons (1350-1150 B.C.). F. J. Bliss, A Mound of Many Cities (London, 1898) tro 105, 134, Figs. 205-216. From Tell el-Far'ah: Iron ornaments, a bridle, and dagger blades (c. 1350-1150 B.C.). Petrie, Seth Pelet I (London 1930), Pis. 21:90, 32:152, 38:235, 239.

20 On the Barkal Stele, of which the latest translation is made by J. A. Wilson in Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament, edited by J. B. Pritchard (Princeton)

21 In the Annals of Karnak, ibid., p. 237.

22 J. W. Crowfoot and Grace M. Crowfoot, Early Ivories From Samaria (London, 1938).

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Professor  of Archeology and History  of Antiquity, S.D.A.  Theological Seminary

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