THE GOLD OF THAT LAND: Biblical Minerals & Rocks  


37.     iron


    1. barzel, from a root meaning to pierce: iron or iron blades. "Zillah also had a son, Tubal-Cain, who forged all kinds of tools out of bronze and iron." Genesis 4: 22. Barzel occurs seventy times in the Old Testament.

    2. parzel, the Chaldean or Aramaic form of barzel. Parzel occurs 18 times in the book of Daniel.

Greek: sidereos, sideros.

Probable Identification: Iron, except for Deuteronomy 3:11 and 8:9, where it is anachronistic and improbable for practical reasons (See "BASALT").


    Meteoritic iron consists of metallic iron, element 26, with 4 to 14 percent nickel, element 26 in the periodic table. Siderites or iron meteorites have a black, dimpled fusion crust. A polished and etched interior surface resembles stainless steel except for its intricate pattern of intersecting lines, Widmanstätten lines, which express an interlocking crystalline structure produced by slow crystallization in the interior of a large planetoid. Meteoritic iron usually contains 7 or 8% nickel, and occasionally as much as 26%, as well as traces of gallium and germanium, small silicate inclusions, and even carbon which shock metamorphism has changed into microscopic diamonds.

    Native terrestrial iron, according to Cornelius S. Hurlbut, occurs very rarely in a few localities where iron-rich lavas have overwhelmed forests and their carbon has reduced iron from its silicates. Iron forms interlocking isometric crystals and has a hardness of 4.5 on the Mohs scale.

Historical Background:

    Meteorite fragments were the earliest source of iron known to ancient peoples, and the Hittite and Egyptian terms for iron mean "black metal from heaven." Egyptian metalworkers in Predynastic times used stray finds of meteoritic iron, or bi, to make ornaments. Meteoritic iron fragments have been collected near ancient meteorite craters in the Arabian desert,[i] and the Kaaba at Mecca reportedly houses a large specimen. The Bible contains no hint that its writers knew of meteoritic iron.

    The mastery of smelting terrestrial iron from its ores, however, apparently originated with the Hittites of central Anatolia. They may have discovered iron as a by-product of smelting iron-bearing copper ores such as chalcopyrite or by using hematite as a flux in copper smelting. In any case, their technology for smelting and forging iron took a millennium to perfect and became widespread only at the close of the second millennium BC. Contrary to the impression given by 1 Samuel 13:19, the archeological record shows that before then the Philistines owned no more iron objects than Israel.

    Ian McNeil calls iron the metal of the people because it was cheaper and made better tools and weapons than bronze, its predecessor. He might have added that the mastery of iron working technology for war and agriculture was more critical to Israel's emergence as a kingdom and occasional prosperity than mere possession of iron ores.

    The only sizable iron ore deposit in the Holy Land is at Mugharet el-Wardeh near Ajlun, 20 miles (32 km) north of Amman, in Jordan. Mined as early as the 8th century BC and again in the 11th or 12th centuries AD, it consists of a lenticular mass of hematite and limonite 200 m wide, 300 m long, and up to 9.8 m thick. Bender attributes the ore to alteration and replacement of Cretaceous limestone by hot solutions of volcanic origin. Excavations at nearby Tell Hammeh have uncovered the remains of five furnaces for iron smelting that date to the 8th century BC. Minor iron ore deposits occur at Wadi es-Sabrah, south of Petra, and in the Galilee and the Negev.

The earliest known steel tool, a pick found at Har Adir in Upper Galilee, dates from the eleventh century BC. Israeli archeologists discovered the earliest known iron smelter and forge in the eastern Mediterranean at Beit Shemesh (Biblical Beth Shemesh, Joshua 15:10, 1 Samuel 6, etc.), about 25 km (15 miles) west of Jerusalem.

    Iron-manganese ore deposits occur in west-central Sinai at Umm Bogma. Intermittent surges of faulting with emplacement of igneous dikes and sills during the Miocene epoch sent out waves of hot brines that deposited pyrolusite and manganite as lenses and seams in dolomite and dolomitic limestone at the base of the Umm Bogma Formation. Pyrolusite is a sooty manganese oxide, and the Umm Bogma deposits are enriched in iron and uranium. The last throes of Miocene mineralization became richer in iron and copper, forming the turquoise and malachite deposits in the upper part of the Netafim Formation at Serabit el-Khadem, about 10 km (6 miles) east of Umm Bogma, and Maghara, about 20 km (12 miles) away.

    Although the tomb of Tutankhamun contained a dagger with an iron blade and crude miniature iron tools, iron smelting and forging did not become established in Egypt until the beginning of the sixth century BC, probably because of the shortage of fuel. Iron by this time became generally more affordable than bronze, possibly because of a shortage of tin, which it began to displace for use in weapons and tools.

    The most abundant and usable forms of iron ore in ancient times were hematite (Fe2O3) and magnetite (Fe3O4). Limonite [FeO(OH).nH2O] and siderite [FeCO3) also provided usable iron ores, but never iron sulfides. Although pyrite and other iron sulfides are common enough, sulfur lowers the strength and durability of iron.

    Iron remains the most important single metal of industrialized civilization and accounts for about 95% of all metals used. It is used in steel, cast iron, wrought iron, and numerous iron alloys. The principal iron ores are magnetite, hematite, limonite, siderite, and taconite. The ancient Greeks knew of the magnetic properties of magnetite (lodestone) from Magnesia, but it remained for the Chinese to discover that a magnetized needle points north.

    Manmade iron, in contrast to meteoritic iron, is an alloy of iron and carbon. Molten iron in furnaces dissolves carbon from charcoal or coke, and the carbon atoms increase its hardness and strength by fitting into spaces between iron atoms in the crystalline structure of iron. Wrought iron contains about 0.5% carbon, steel has up to 1.5%, and cast iron has 1.5 to 5% carbon. Each form of manufactured iron is a actually a different material with different working properties. Wrought iron is relatively soft and malleable. Steel is harder in proportion to the added carbon, although it requires heat treatment and tempering to make it hard, elastic, and superior to bronze. Cast iron is hard and brittle.

    The Egyptians made beads, mace heads, and other ornaments of black, opaque hematite from predynastic times onward, and they used hematite and other iron oxides as pigments for paint and cosmetics. Hematite makes red ochre, a brick-red pigment, and limonite makes yellow ochre. Goethite [FeO(OH)] provides earthy brown pigments.

Biblical Background:

    The scarcity of iron and most other mineral wealth in the Holy Land, contrary to the alluring words of Deuteronomy 8:9, reminded the Israelites to acknowledge their dependence on God.    

Despite the strategic role of ironworking in the birth of Israel's united monarchy, the Old Testament preserves evidence of a tradition of antipathy to its use for sacred purposes such as the construction of altars (Deuteronomy 27:5) and Solomon's Temple (1 Kings 6:7). Perhaps the tradition arose because of a later association of iron with the yoke of slavery (Deuteronomy 24:48), the fetters of punishment for rebellion against the Lord (Psalm 107:10), or the secret component of enemy war machines (Joshua 17:16-18). Alternatively, iron may have been inappropriate because the secret arts of smelting and forging iron were shrouded in mystery and an aura of magic.

Psalm 2:9 and Revelation 2:27; 12:5; and 19:15 picture an iron rod or scepter as a symbol of absolute and inflexible authority. The iron pillar in Jeremiah 1:18 is a picture of indomitable strength. Leviticus 26:19 and Deuteronomy 28:23 compare the grip of a long drought to an iron earth under a blazing bronze sky. The iron-studded threshing sledges of Amos 1:3 remind us of the horrors of war. The unbreakable teeth of iron and claws of bronze in Daniel 7:19 stand for the unbending cruelty of the fourth pagan kingdom. Proverbs 27:17 compares the use of a hammer in forging a keen blade to the way that friendship sharpens minds and character.

    The chariots of iron in Joshua 17:16 that gave Canaanite armies such an aura of invincibility were, in all probability, simply the first to have wheels with iron rims. Shrinking an iron rim onto a wooden wheel creates a much more durable and flexible structure than earlier copper or rawhide tires, whereas the weight of a solid iron chariot would have made it unmaneuverable. Chariots later became a biblical symbol of royalty and military brutality. The Bible pictures the clouds as divine chariots (e.g., Psalm 104:3) and chariots of fire as vehicles of the heavenly hosts (2 Kings 6:17). A broken wheel (Ecclesiastes 12:6) joins other broken objects at watering places as symbols of senile decrepitude and the fragility of life.


Ball, John H., 1916. The Geography and Geology of West-Central Sinai. Cairo: Government Press; 186-204.

Bender, op. cit., 157-158.

Darling, op. cit.; 54.

Gale, W.K.V., 1990. Ferrous metals. In McNeil, Ian, ed., 1990, An Encyclopaedia of the History of Technology. London: Routledge; 146-149.

Hurlbut, 1952, op. cit.; 179.

_____, 1970, op. cit.; 193.

Los Alamos National Laboratories.

Lucas & Harris, op. cit.; 235-243.

McNeil, Ian, ed., 1990, An Encyclopaedia of the History of Technology. London: Routledge; 12.

McNutt, Paula, 1990. The forging of Israel: Iron technology, symbolism, and tradition in ancient society. Sheffield: Almond Press.

Moorey, P.R.S., 1994. Ancient Mesopotamian Materials and Industries: The Archeological Evidence. Oxford: Clarendon Press; 279-283.

Muhly, op. cit.; 1501-1521.

Jolyon, Ralph, 1993-2004.

Said, op. cit.; 270-271.

Street, Arthur C., & William O. Alexander, 1962. Metals in the service of man; 4th ed. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books.

Van der Merwe, Nicholas J, 1980. The advent of iron in Africa. In Wertime, Theodore A. & James A. Muhly, 1980. The coming of the age of iron. New Haven: Yale University Press; 463-506.



[i] Wabar, 21o30'N, 50o 28'E.


       HOME            Introduction & Contents          List & Key        Appendices & References      News Items
 Copyright 2004, 2005, 2006 by Richard S. Barnett, Virtual Curator of Biblical Geology.
All rights reserved. This site is authored by Richard S. Barnett.
All contents belong to Richard S. Barnett. Reproduction of this site, in whole or in part, is prohibited without written permission.

For problems or questions regarding this Web site contact [].
Last updated: 05/13/06.