Iron

IRON (ĭ'rŏn, Heb. yir’ôn). A fortified city in the territory of Naphtali (Josh.19.38). It is probably the present village of Yarun, ten miles (seventeen km.) west of Lake Huleh.


IRON (Heb. בַּרְזֶל, H1366; Gr. σίδηρος, G4970), a metallic element much used in the manufacture of tools and other articles of everyday use. Pure iron, which is difficult to make, is almost white and has a density of 7.9. It softens at red heat, may be readily welded at white heat above which it becomes brittle. It melts at c. 1540oC. Native iron is rare as crustal material, being found as steel-gray to iron-black, strongly magnetic masses in some basaltic lava flows. However, evidence indicates that the core of the earth is made up of a nickel-iron alloy with a density of about 12 and native iron makes up the bulk of meteorites which are rare, but the only known representatives of extra-terrestial material. Most meteorites consist of a nickel-iron alloy (average composition: iron 91%, nickel 8.5%, cobalt 0.5%) thought to be indicative of the composition of the earth’s core. On an etched surface these iron-meteorites show intergrowth of lamellae of a nickel-poor alloy in a nickel-rich base.

The presence of nickel in iron beads used for jewelry in pre-dynastic Egypt (before c. 3400 b.c.) suggests that at least part of man’s early use of iron was of extra-terrestrial material. This iron, with nickel, is subject to little or no rusting and survives through time while most articles of iron, or steel, made from local terrestrial iron ores, rust away in a relatively short time. However, iron rust containing no nickel and associated with Egyp. copper implements of c. 2700-2500 b.c. is indicative of man’s use, from at least this early date, of iron obtained from local ores by primitive metallurgical processes. The earliest OT reference to iron is in Genesis 4:22 and besides references to the metal, as such, the term iron is used in both OT and NT as a symbol of hardness and strength (e.g. Deut 28:23; Rev 2:27).

Iron is one of the most abundant metals in the earth’s crust, making up just more than 5% of crustal material. Although iron-bearing minerals are very numerous, only four of them are important ores of the metal: magnetite (ferroso-ferric oxide), haematite (ferric oxide), limonite (hydrated ferric oxide) and siderite (ferrous carbonate). These ores readily yield the metal by smelting with carbon. A certain amount of free or combined carbon occurs in this metal and its proportion and condition regulate the properties and give rise to the three main varieties: wrought iron, steel and cast iron.

Magnetite (from Magnesia in Asia Minor where the mineral was known to the ancients), an iron-gray strongly magnetic mineral, occurs as a primary constituent of most igneous rocks, including those of the Aqaba Granite Complex which crops out on either side of the Red Sea. It occurs as magmatic segregations or at the contact of igneous masses and their host rocks, particularly limestone, as in parts of the ancient Near E, including Armenia. The other iron ores occur as sedimentary beds or accumulations. Haematite (from Gr. haima, “blood”) is steel-gray to black in color when massive, but in finely powdered or earthy varieties, it is cherry-red and as red ocher has been used from earliest times as a pigment. This mineral was worked in ancient times, particularly during the reigns of David and Solomon, between the Dead Sea and Feinan and further S in Wadi Sabra, five m. SSE of Petra. Limonite (from Gr. leimon, “a meadow”) shows various shades of brown with the earthy variety being yellow ocher. Much of it is derived from other iron minerals by alteration, although some limonite beds are true precipitates. Siderite (or chalybite, from Gr. chalybos, “steel,” named from the Chalybes, an ancient tribe of Asiatic iron-workers; siderite, from Gr. sideros, “iron”), the carbonate, varies in color from buff-brown to brownish-black or brownishred. Some deposits result from direct precipitation, either in lakes, or in the sea.

The legendary home of iron is NE Asia Minor where, together with the central plateau of Anatolia, there are rich iron deposits, including magnetite, with a present-day estimated reserve of fifteen million tons of ore with 65% iron in the region of Divrige, E central Turkey. Remains of early iron manufacture are found in this region and also at sites in Syria and Iraq dating from no later than 2700 b.c. As early as 7000-6000 b.c. has been suggested for the initial discovery of iron in Egypt. Oxidized iron beads dated about 4,000 b.c. were found at El Gerzeh and an iron tool dating from the 4th dynasty (c. 3100 b.c.) was found inside the great pyramid of Khufu at Gizeth. It has been argued that there must have been skilled steel workers in ancient Egypt to have built the pyramids and other great constructions of the time as well as to carve statues and hieroglyphics from hard rocks (cf. Job 19:24), including granite. However, the earliest iron objects in Egypt, and elsewhere, were mainly weapons and ornaments. The common manufacture of tools did not come until the beginning of the Iron Age proper (c. 1200 b.c.).

While it is possible that the first iron tools were made (forged) from meteoritic iron, it seems likely that native iron was first found in the ashes of a large fire adjacent to rocks containing haematite or limonite or smelted accidentally from red or yellow ocher pigments in furnaces used for pottery. With the association of red and yellow ocher with fire and iron, the next steps would have been to build fires against exposures of these colored rocks which were subjected to the prevailing winds, and then to fan, with bellows, fires in pits or primitive furnaces. These methods still survive today in the Catalan forge in which the iron ore is reduced to iron, the glowing ball of iron pulled out of the furnace (cf. Deut 4:20; 1 Kings 8:51; Jer 11:4), and while still white hot hammered vigorously, both to expel as much slag as possible and to weld the hot particles of metal into a coherent mass. The product was wrought iron, with the metal being worked hot enough to be shaped, but not melted. Accidentally steel, containing more carbon, was sometimes produced. With progressive incorporation of various improvements both in methods of producing the air blast and in furnace design, this method, used by ancient man, produced all the iron up to the 14th cent. Only from the early 14th cent. on, has liquid pig iron and the resultant cast iron been produced (metals and metallurgy, q.v.).

The history of the OT is very much influenced both by the distribution of iron deposits and by the ability to master the metallurgical processes related to the metal. The Israelites in Egypt would have been familiar with the smelting of iron (Deut 4:20) and its many uses. Accordingly the indication of an abundance of iron in the Promised Land (Deut 8:9) would have been very significant. However the secret of toughening the metal by repeated hammering when hot, and subsequent quenching with water, was guarded by the Hittites, to the N in Asia Minor, from c. 1400-1200 b.c. but with trade in the metal carried on by the Phoenicians. Part of the reason for the success of Canaanite opposition to Israelite occupation, in the later part of the 13th cent. b.c., was the inferior state of Heb. technology, esp. as far as horse-drawn war chariots (Josh 17:18) and other iron weapons were concerned.

With the decline and fall of the Hitt. empire after 1200 b.c., it was the turn of the Philistines to control both the manufacture and export of iron. These people, who had arrived in the Canaanite coastlands during the transition from the Bronze to the Iron Age, had prob. obtained the secrets of the metallurgical processes as part of the booty of their defeat of the Hittites in Asia Minor. This technological monopoly was guarded by the Philistines who lived on the plains, with the hill-dwelling Israelites too poor to be able to trade for iron. About this time iron was as valuable as gold and silver, with iron weapons and implements being highly prized commodities for the following cent.

Both the possession of up-to-date weapons, and experience of military campaigns assisted the Philistines to defeat the Israelites time after time (e.g. 1 Sam 4:1, 2, 10). To meet this situation, which threatened the work of two hundred years of colonization, the loosely federated tribes of Israel united as a monarchy, with Saul as king. The Philistines attempted to stop the making of new weapons by prohibiting the trade of smiths (1 Sam 13:19, 20), but the Israelites successfully waged guerilla war in the hill country using knowledge of the local terrain to more than offset deficiencies in weapons (e.g. 1 Sam 14:1-16). Nevertheless, pitched battle on the plains, against an enemy with a vastly superior technology proved to be disastrous (1 Sam 31).

David managed to keep the Israelites together and with the decline of Egypt, after the death of Rameses XI in 1085 b.c., was able to advance southwards into Edom (2 Sam 8:14) to gain control of his own iron (haematite) deposits as well as copper deposits, S of the Dead Sea. These deposits were among the largest in the ancient Near E and the taking and utilization of them was a turning point in the history of Israel, for with natural resources a more advanced technology could be developed (cf. 1 Chron 22:3). These factors were bases for conquest (e.g. 1 Chron 18:10), for industry (2 Sam 12:31) and for subsequent prosperity under Solomon (1 Kings 4-10). See Metals and Metallurgy.

Bibliography

J. R. Partington, A Textbook of Inorganic Chemistry, 6th ed. (1950), 913-926; E. M. Blaiklock (ed.), The Zondervan Pictorial Bible Atlas (1969), 65, 88, 402-406; H. H. Read, Rutley’s Elements of Mineralogy, 26th ed. (1970), 513-523; W. A. Phair, “Iron and steel industry,” EBr 12 (1970), 602-628.

International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (1915)

It is generally believed that the art of separating iron from its ores and making it into useful forms was not known much earlier than 1000 BC, and that the making of brass (bronze) antedates it by many centuries, in spite of the frequent Biblical references where brass and iron occur together. This conjecture is based upon the fact that no specimen of worked iron has been found whose antiquity can be vouched for. The want of such instruments, however, can be attributed to the ease with which iron corrodes. Evidence that iron was used is found, for example, in the hieroglyphics of the tomb of Rameses III, where the blades of some of the weapons are painted blue while others are painted red, a distinction believed to be due to the fact that some were made of iron or steel and some of brass. No satisfactory proof has yet been presented that the marvelous sculpturing on the hard Egyptian granite was done with tempered bronze. It seems more likely that steel tools were used. After the discovery of iron, it was evidently a long time in replacing bronze. This was probably due to the difficulties in smelting it. An old mountaineer once described to the writer the process of iron smelting as it was carried on in Mt. Lebanon in past centuries. As a boy he had watched his father, who was a smelter, operate one of the last furnaces to be fired. For each firing, many cords of wood, especially green oak branches, were used, and several days of strenuous pumping at the eight bellows was necessary to supply the air blast. As a result a small lump of wrought iron was removed from the bottom of the furnace after cooling. The iron thus won was carried to Damascus where it was made into steel by workers who kept their methods secret. This process, which has not been worked now for years, was undoubtedly the same as was used by the ancients. It is not at all unlikely that the Lebanon iron, transformed into steel, was what was referred to as "northern iron" in Jer 15:12 (the King James Version). In many districts the piles of slag from the ancient furnaces are still evident.

Aside from the limited supply of iron ore in Mt. Lebanon (compare De 8:9), probably no iron was found in Syria and Palestine. It was brought from Tarshish (Eze 27:12) and Vedan and Jayan (Eze 27:19), and probably Egypt (De 4:20).


See Metals.


James A. Patch


One of the fenced cities in the territory of Naphtali, named with Migdal-el and En-hazor (Jos 19:38). It is represented by the modern Yarun, a village with the ruins of a synagogue, at one time used as a monastery, fully 6 miles West of Qedes.

See also

  • Minerals