Hebrew: barzel, from a root meaning to pierce: iron or iron blades.
Probable Identification: Barzel denotes iron, except for Deuteronomy 3:11 and 8:9, where "basalt" is more probable because iron is anachronistic. Arabs still use the same word for iron and basalt.
Israel obtained iron metallurgy only after King Saul of Gibeah broke the Philistine monopoly by throwing off the Philistine yoke. The earlier reference to King Og's iron bed in Bashan (Deuteronomy 3:11) more plausibly describes a basalt sarcophagus. It would also be more realistic to render Deuteronomy 8:9 as "... a land where the rocks are basalt and you can dig copper out of the hills."
This understanding makes the mineral resources of the Promised Land appear less alluring, albeit more consistent with reality.
Basalt is a black, very fine-grained to microcrystalline volcanic rock which occurs extensively in the geologically-recent volcanic rocks of the Golan Heights district and southern Syria. The pocked and contorted surfaces of fresh basalt flows often superficially resemble the lumps of spongy iron bloom produced by primitive smelters. Reddish weathering stains help to reinforce that impression.
Although basalt may have been the equivalent of fool's gold to the Hebrews of the Late Bronze Age, it found perfectly good uses in ancient times for building stone and millstones. The hardness and porous structure of basalt from the surface of an unweathered lava flow gives it many sharp cutting edges that make it suitable for millstones. The millstone that killed Abimelech (Judges 9:53) was in all probability basalt from the Golan Heights. The Mesopotamian inhabitants of Makshan-shapir, a city of the early second millennium BC, 80 km south of Baghdad, went so far as to make synthetic basalt for their millstones.
Nelson Glueck discovered well-cut bowls and vessels of basalt at Tell Abu Matar, a settlement of the fourth millennium BC in suburban Beersheba. Archeologist Amihai Mazar reports that these highly-prized vessels came by way of trade from the Golan Heights district.
A first century AD synagogue at Capernaum that was built of local black basalt may have been the scene of Jesusí preaching (Matthew 8:5-13; Luke 7:1-10).
Umm al Jimal, the Black Oasis in northeastern Jordan, contains the extensive ruins of a city constructed entirely from black basalt during Roman, Byzantine, and Umayyad times.
Glueck, Nelson, 1959. Rivers in the Desert. New York: Farrar, Straus & Cudahy, Inc., 46.
Lucas & Harris, op. cit.; 61-62, 407.
Mazar, Amihai, 1990. Archeology of the Land of the Bible. New York, Doubleday.
Stone, Elizabeth C., D.H. Lindsley, V. Pigott, G. Harbottle, & M.T. Ford, 1998. From Shifting Silt to Solid Stone: the Manufacture of Synthetic Basalt in Ancient Mesopotamia. Science: 280; 2091-2093.
Copyright 2004, 2005, 2006 by Richard S. Barnett, Virtual Curator of