An archaeological team was scouring the gorges and caves in the Judean wilderness when its members came upon a cave high above a precipitous cliff. Would they find something valuable, perhaps ancient artifacts or manuscripts like the Dead Sea Scrolls? To their surprise, they discovered a veritable treasure trove, subsequently named the Nahal Mishmar hoard.
HIDDEN in a crevice and wrapped in a reed mat, that collection, found in March 1961, consisted of over 400 objects, most of which were made of copper. Among them was an assortment of crowns, scepters, tools, maces, and other weapons. The find is of interest to Bible readers in light of the reference at Genesis 4:22 to Tubal-cain as a “forger of every sort of tool of copper and iron.”
Many questions remain concerning the origin and background of the treasure hoard. Its discovery, nonetheless, indicates that copper mining, smelting, and casting have been known in Bible lands since very early times.
COPPER SITES IN THE PROMISED LAND
When the Israelites were poised to enter the Promised Land, Moses told them: “Out of the mountains of [the land] you will mine copper.” (Deuteronomy 8:7-9) Archaeologists have discovered in Israel and Jordan a number of ancient mining and smelting sites, such as Feinan, Timna, and Khirbat en-Nahas. What do those sites reveal?
The landscape in Feinan and in Timna is dotted with shallow pits, where miners extracted copper over a period of at least 2,000 years. Even today, a visitor can find green-speckled fragments of copper-bearing stones scattered about. The ancient miners laboriously chiseled the rock surface with stone tools to extract copper from visible veins. When those sources were exhausted, they dug deeper with metal tools, enlarging caves and carving out deep shafts and tunnels. In the Bible book of Job, we find a description of such mining operations. (Job 28:2-11) This was hard physical labor; in fact, from the third century to the fifth century C.E., Roman authorities sentenced hardened criminals and other prisoners to work in the Feinan copper mines.
Immense heaps of slag are found at Khirbat en-Nahas (meaning “Ruins of Copper”), suggesting that industrial-scale copper smelting was done there. Scholars believe that ores were brought there from nearby mines, such as Feinan and Timna. To separate the copper from the ore, blowpipes and foot bellows were used to raise the temperature of the charcoal fires to about 2,200 degrees Fahrenheit (1,200°C) for eight to ten hours. It usually took 11 pounds (5 kg) of ore to produce about 2 pounds (1 kg) of copper ingots, which could then be cast into various objects.
COPPER USE IN ANCIENT ISRAEL
At Mount Sinai, Jehovah God specifically directed that this locally mined lustrous metal be used in the construction of the tabernacle, and later the temple in Jerusalem was built following the same pattern. (Exodus, chapter 27) The Israelites may have had some knowledge of metalworking before they went to Egypt, or perhaps they acquired it while there. By the time of the Exodus, they were capable of fashioning a molten calf. They were also able to make the many copper items required for tabernacle service
Later in their wilderness trek, perhaps around Punon (likely modern-day Feinan), an area rich in copper, the people complained about the manna and the water supply. As punishment, Jehovah sent poisonous snakes, and many people died. After the Israelites repented, Moses interceded, and Jehovah instructed him to make a copper likeness of a serpent and raise it high on a stake. The record states: “It did occur that if a serpent had bitten a man and he gazed at the copper serpent, he then kept alive.”
KING SOLOMON’S COPPER
King Solomon used a vast quantity of copper in furnishing the temple in Jerusalem. Much of it was obtained by his father, David, from his Syrian conquests. (1 Chronicles 18:6-8) The copper “molten sea,” the huge basin used by the priests for washing, had a capacity of 17,500 gallons (66,000 L) and may have weighed up to 30 tons. (1 Kings 7:23-26, 44-46) Then there were the two colossal copper pillars that stood at the entrance of the temple. They were 26 feet (8 m) tall and were topped with capitals some 7.3 feet (2.2 m) in height. The pillars were hollow, with 3-inch-thick (7.5 cm) walls, and were 5.6 feet (1.7 m) in diameter. (1 Kings 7:15, 16; 2 Chronicles 4:17) It is staggering to think of the amount of copper used in making just these items.
Copper was also widely used in everyday life by people in Bible times. For example, we read of weapons, fetters, musical instruments, and doors made of copper. (1 Samuel 17:5, 6; 2 Kings 25:7; 1 Chronicles 15:19; Psalm 107:16) Jesus spoke of “copper” money for the purses, and the apostle Paul mentioned “Alexander the coppersmith.”
Many questions remain for archaeologists and historians to work out regarding the sources of the copper riches in Bible times, as well as the mystery of the Nahal Mishmar hoard. Nevertheless, the fact remains, as confirmed by Biblical records, that the land the Israelites inherited was indeed “a good land, . . . out of the mountains of which [they would] mine copper.”