Tag Archive: Fire



I always have had a discreet paranoia there might be a mistranslation somewhere in the Bible I unaware of which would directly affect the core of faith. Though I haven’t analyzed the whole Bible comprehensively, I have yet to find any examples profound enough to accomplish this which encourages a greater faith in those central creeds. The greatest issue I encounter with translation and word study come not from the necessary elements, but arise most often from attempts made to identify specific materials, objects, places, or animals. This is the case with Psalm 18:34, which has been rendered to refer to steel, bronze, or copper, depending on translation or commentary.

Psalm 18:34, “He teacheth my hands to war, so that a bow of steel is broken in mine arms.”

KJV

The translation of “steel” perks up the ears of the excited critic and gives them a foundation on which to argue against the Bible’s claim as a historically reliable document. Yet, study will show steel has long been eliminated as a possible translation of the Hebrew nechushah and is more properly translated “copper” or “bronze.” Reputable sources like Brown-Driver-Briggs are among those who exclude steel as a possibility completely.

Psalm 18:34, “He trains my hands for battle; my arms can bend a bow of bronze [or ‘copper’; Hb. nechushah].”

I go a step further than some and suggest it leans more toward “copper.” Lest we think this too can be an anachronism, it is well within, or even post the Bronze Age date when composite bows were first said to appear, being approximately 1900 BC. We can use other verses to make this case, for as steel is an alloy of iron and carbon, a verse in Job makes it, at very least, unlikely nechushah would be used for steel or bronze as the verse implies it comes straight from rock.

Job 28:2, “Iron [Hb. peladah] is taken from the earth, and copper [Hb. nechushah] is smelted from stone [Hb. eben also ‘ore’].”

The book of Job is an interesting one because there is no clear agreement when it was written. In some regards it seems to be very ancient, and in others relatively recent. There are three main schools of thought:

1: Job was written after the flood but before Moses, between 2350 BC and 1750 BC .

2: Job was written after Joseph but before Moses, between 1650 BC and 1500 BC.

3: Job was lived during Moses’ lifetime, between 1400 BC and 1300 BC.

If consensus means anything, most scholars agree with the first citing contents of the book which point to a very early period, like lifespan. However, if we accept this, Job can present some possible problems regarding the utilization of iron which would date it, at first glance, around the late second, or third possibility, but before we get discouraged, as the Encyclopedia Britannica points out, the origins of smelted iron ore are obscured by history. Yet, through this obscurity some evidence does exist, of such a process existing as early as 2500 BC.

“The earliest history of smelted iron is obscure, with the first scanty evidence of man-made iron dating from about 2500 bce in the Middle East. A thousand years later the abundance of ores led to the displacement of copper and bronze by iron in the Hittite empire.”

Encyclopedia Britannica, “Hand Tool,” https://www.britannica.com/technology/hand-tool/Iron-and-steel-tools

Both iron and copper are natural elements which need smelted, but aren’t alloys in themselves, while steel is. Bronze too is an alloy made of copper and tin. As it comes to iron, a variety of minerals can be added to further develop the steel alloy. Steel is created by adding carbon to iron, or in the case of stainless steel, chromite to iron. Given steel is created from iron, how much does it fits for Job 28:2 to read something like, “Iron is taken from the earth, and steel [an iron alloy] is smelted from stone”? Even if eben is translated “ore,” we need to suppose the verse says, “Iron is taken from the earth, and steel is smelted from the iron ore.” Though we may make it work by adding a couple words, and making a linguistic alloy in a sense, the copper translation more smoothly adheres to the mineral being smelted out of the stone itself, referring to its organic purity, while steel does not. Steel can reasonably be ruled out, both on the translational end and the historical.

The book of the minor prophet Nahum, in his prophesy regarding the destruction of Nineveh, is sometimes also said to refer to steel.

Nahum 2:3, “The shield of his mighty ones has become red, the mighty men are clothed in scarlet, the chariots will flame like iron [Hb. peladah] torches [or ‘flash with steel’] in the day of preparation, and the cypresses are made to quiver [or ‘the spears are brandished’].”

Nineveh sacked by the Medes, 612 BC, Mary Evans Picture Library

The word in Nahum 2:3 sometimes rendered “steel” is not nechushah but peladah, which some render as “iron,” but the Hebrew word for iron is barzel. Why Nahum would switch up the word, the only occurrence of peladah, to mean iron instead of using the usual brazel is not explained (though some say it refers to a specific part of a chariot). If we split up the word into two parts, say a suffix and a prefix, while assuming such a thing can be done with Hebrew (I cannot say for certain it can), pela means “extraordinary,” and dah (a plural of this, or “these” as “together,” or “one another” respectively), we arrive at a conjoined term meaning something like an “awesome” or “extraordinary multitude.” Since the word prior (Hb. esh) is rendered literally “flame” or “flaming,” and is figuratively read to refer to “anger”, especially God’s anger, it is interesting to theorize or imagine the verse as saying, “The chariots shall be an angry and awesome multitude in the day of his preparation, and the fir trees shall be terribly shaken.” “Fir trees” too is a questionable rendering of Nahum 2:3 and is often regarded as referring to wooden spears of cypress or juniper. Yet, if my speculative food for thought has validity, the shaking of the cypress, or fir trees, makes poetic sense given the amount of thundering chariots, and, with such a translation, the following verse also fits within the overall context.

Nahum 2:4, “The chariots run madly in the streets; they shall rush to and fro in the plazas. Their appearance is like torches; they dart about like the [lightning].”

The last word translated “lightning” I have kept identical to the LITV (literal) translation only excepting the plurality of lightnings. “Their appearance is like torches” likely means “ like flame” as the Leviathan is said to breath torches in the book of Job (v. 41:19).

Job 41:19, “Out of [the Leviathan’s] mouth go burning torches; sparks fly out.”

Clearly, the Bible is using a simile saying it is like torches, or rather, like flame. Thus, one need examine the attributes of fire and flame to understand the Bible’s meaning. Fire is destructive, prone to raging out of control (The KJV translates Nahum 2:4, “The chariots shall rage in the streets”), and is ultimately terrifying. While some people fight fires, others flee when it moves from a simple spark, to a lone flame, and then to an inferno. Assuming the proper fuel, fire will eventually reach this zenith, and if not extinguished, will destroy everything in its path.

I always caution using anachronistic arguments, both as an apologetic tool and a criticism because we are always learning the ancients were more advanced then we prior thought possible. Some archaeologists believe steel could have been being made, albeit on a small level, as early as 1800 BC and, if so, would set origins of steel production at just after the book of Genesis concluded. Could it be argued there is nothing wrong with the “steel” translation then? One could try to use this explanation I suppose, but I don’t consider it a tenable explanation. I am sure steel produced on a mass scale in this era would be vigorously disputed, for depending who you ask the dates and origins of steel are extremely and surprisingly varied. A quick Google search revealed differing conclusions, from the early 1800 BC date to the 3rd, 13th, or even 16th century! The wild disparity likely arises from different views on the extent of metallurgy in its sustainability as a profitable industry and the uses of the resulting product. For example, a mere speck of steel being created might not warrant the term “origin” in the mind of some students or professions of history, while others it may reflect accuracy. For many it may be more appropriate to place the origin when items began being made which employed its use. As far as I am concerned, all I know is the 16th century seems a little late to place the origins of steel.

This doesn’t answer everything. I certainly can’t vouch for the durability or practicality in using a bronze, brass, or copper composite bow, or even if the Psalm is meant to be literal or figurative (even today one said to be able to “bend steel” signifies someone’s great strength rather than their real ability to do it). In spite of all wandering speculation, I think we can safely reach the conclusion the mistranslated biblical references to steel likely refer to copper, though I cannot discount its loose application to a copper alloy or bronze, which may yield greater strength. Yet, for our intents and purposes, and the verses we have discussed, the copper translation makes the most sense.

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