Metallurgy, the Forgotten Dimension of Ancient Yahwism

The Israelite religion appears to be an attempt to extend to an entire nation (and, subsequently, to the whole world) values originally belonging to a small congregation of Canaanite metalworkers and threatened by the rise of a new epoch in which metallurgy lost its prestige and even sustained a demotion. From a theological perspective, the birth of Israel represents the democratization of esoteric traditions founded on a close relationship with the divine reality that was experienced around the furnace.

By Nissim Amzallag
Department of Bible, Archaeology and Ancient Near Eastern Studies
Ben Gurion University, Beer Sheba, Israel
August 2018

The book of Genesis advises us that the worship of YHWH is as old as the first flickerings of history—first evinced upon the birth of Enosh, son of Seth and grandson of Adam: “It was then that people began to call upon the name of YHWH” (Gen 4:26). Consequently, Abraham was not the first worshipper of YHWH, the first discoverer of the supreme divine being. At best, the patriarchs promoted an original form of worship of YHWH that their contemporaries either forgot or denatured. What is the nature of this primeval Yahwism? To what extent does it differ from Israelite Yahwism, the theology advanced in the Bible?

Primeval and Israelite Yahwisms

Worship of YHWH is mentioned even before the beginning of the Seth genealogy, Cain and Abel being the first mortals who offered sacrifices to this deity (Gen 4:3–4). Several verses later, despite the assassination of Abel, we read that Cain and all his descendants (the Qenites) are protected by YHWH (Gen 4:15) and are marked by a sign attesting to an everlasting covenantal relationship. This exceptionalism is confirmed in Jeremiah 35, which reveals that the Rekhabites, a branch of the Qenites that lived among the Israelites (1 Chr 2: 55), are not only forever blessed by YHWH but also “stand close to the deity”: “Therefore, thus says YHWH Sebaot, the God of Israel: Jonadab the son of Rechab shall never lack a man to stand before me” (Jer 35:19). Just as Cain abandoned all agricultural activity for perpetual wandering (Gen 4:14–16), the Rekhabites pursued an ancestral tradition of that nature, prohibiting agricultural activity and sedentarism (Jer 35: 6–10)—both prescriptions being interpreted as a sign of their faith in YHWH (Jer 35:18–19). This testimony also shows that the Yahwistic traditions attributed to the Qenites are distinct from the divine commandments given to the Israelites, which include sedentarization in the Promised Land and the practice of agriculture, both with YHWH’s blessing (e.g., Deut 6:10–11; 11:13–15). That the Rekhabites were reputed in ancient Israel to be zealous worshippers of YHWH is also revealed when King Jehu invites Jehonadab, son of Rekhab, to come and see the expression of his deep devotion to YHWH (2 Kgs 10:16). These observations indicate that the story of the flood, by which one would expect Cain’s lineage and traditions to have perished, did not transform the survivors (the Qenites) into accursed “living fossils” doomed to destruction, at least in Israelite eyes.

Consequently, it seems that two Yahwistic traditions coexist in the Bible. In the first tradition, the primeval one, YHWH reveals himself to the Qenites, a feature suggested by his spontaneous involvement in the birth of their forefather Cain (Gen 4:1). The second tradition begins with the birth of Enosh, the son of Seth. It is characterized by worship / invocation of YHWH (Gen 4:26) in a manner that recalls a “classical” form of devotional cult in the ancient Near East. The Israelites’ religion seems to be a mixture of both. At one of its ends, it comprises solidly codified worship through the daily practice of sacrifices in the Tabernacle and the temple, a good fit for the tradition of incantation of God initiated at the beginning of the Seth genealogy. At its other extreme, the spontaneous revelation of YHWH at Sinai, a “divine initiative,” recalls the primeval mode of relation with the deity, manifested in YHWH’s spontaneous intervention at the birth of Cain.

The Cain and Seth genealogies being entirely distinct, we might expect these two modes of Yahwism to emerge independently of each other. However, the similarity of names between the first generations in the Cain and Seth lineages (Cain vs Cainan; Enoch vs. Enoch; ‘Irad vs. Jared; Mehuyael vs. Mehalalel; Methusael vs. Methuselah; Lamech vs. Lamech) suggests that the latter tradition (Gen 5:6–32) depends on the former (Gen 4:16–22). Such a dependency recurs in the Israelite religion. In the story of the genesis of Israelite Yahwism, the setting of this “covenantal birth,” Mount Sinai, is located in the area identified with the origin of YHWH, that is, of his primeval cult (Deut 33:2; Judg 5:4; Ps 68:8; Has 3:3). Even more, we read in Exodus 3:1–5 that Moses first discovered YHWH during his sojourn with Jethro the Qenite, his father-in-law. Given that Jethro is introduced to us as a priest who lives in the vicinity of the “mountain of God” (also known as Horeb) (Ex 3:1), we may conclude that he was associated with the primeval cult of YHWH. These evidences, as well as other indications, have led scholars to assume the existence of a Qenite antecedent to Israelite Yahwism.[1]

Qenite Yahwism did not lose its prominence after the Sinai covenant. For example, several laws introduced in the Pentateuch as being of divine origin, such as the Sotah prescription in Num 5:11–31, were apparently Qenite practices that the Israelite legislation imported without any modification despite their incongruity with the Israelite way of life.[2] The dependency of Israelite Yahwism on its primeval antecedent is even attested explicitly in the story of Elijah in 1 Kgs 19: 3–13. In his quest for YHWH, this famous man-god among the Israelites does not move to Jerusalem, the holy city of Israelite Yahwism. Rather, he takes a long journey that delivers him to Horeb, the holy mountain of primeval Yahwism, where he discovers the genuine identity and nature of YHWH. The prestigious stature of primeval Yahwism in Israel is also identifiable in late biblical writings such as the book of Job. This opus, which attempts to refute false opinions about YHWH and his mode of action, is not set in Israel and does not involve Israelite protagonists. Rather, all the savants who debate YHWH’s true nature and modus operandi originate in or near the land of Edom, the region identified as the cradle of primeval Yahwism (Judg 5:4; Deut 33:2–3). Beyond confirming the existence of a primeval Yahwism distinct from the Israelite faith, these examples suggest that the Bible contains elements that allow us to identify the nature of primeval Yahwism and, in turn, characterize the singularities of the Israelite theology.

The metallurgical background of primeval Yahwism

The Qenites have been identified as a congregation of south Levantine metalworkers. This conclusion is deduced from the name of their ancestor, Cain, which in antiquity denoted the act of metal production in a furnace and metalworking at large.[3] It is confirmed by the mention of metalworkers in the Cain genealogy (Gen 4:22) and beyond (1 Chr 2:55) and by similarity of their way of life, and especially their marginality, with that of metalworkers in antiquity and in traditional societies in Africa.[4]

Metalworkers being specialized artisans, metallurgy represents their main if not their only source of wealth. For this reason, metallurgy is expected to be an essential component of the worship and even the character of the deity identified with them. Consequently, we expect to find a strong metallurgical background to primeval Yahwism and to discover its traces in the Bible. This point is now examined.

1. Geographical origin: The mention of YHWH as coming from the south (Hab 3:3) and, more specifically, from the mountains of Seir (Judg 5:4; Deut 33:2), Paran (Deut 33:2; Hab 3:3), and Sinai (Deut 3:3; Judg 5:5) links the origin of his worship with areas where copper was produced between the fourth and the first millennia BCE. Zechariah confirms the metallurgical nature of the regions of YHWH’s origin by describing YHWH as dwelling in “mountains of copper” (Zech 6:1–5). It is also reflected by the mention of the country given by YHWH to the Israelites as “a land whose stones are iron, and out of whose hills you may dig copper” (Deut 8:9). Considering the absence of iron and copper ores in the territory of the tribes of Israel, this description reflects, primarily, a theological attempt to transform the Promised Land into a giant metallurgical area in order to authorize YHWH's presence among the Israelites. YHWH’s essential relation with mining and metallurgy is confirmed in Isaiah 45:1, where the deity intends to disclose his identity to Cyrus by revealing to him the site of mineral treasures.

2. Celestial furnace: Ezekiel's opening vision (Ezekiel 1) describes the existence, in the firmament, of a celestial throne amid an intense bright fire (v. 4) with burning coals (vv. 13–14). The metallurgical nature of this celestial fire is suggested by the radiant material positioned among the coals and defined by the prophet as ḥašmal (v. 4). This term is sometimes construed as amber but can hardly be understood as such here because this resin does not radiate any light once brought to high temperature. The other designation of ḥašmal, as a yellow metallic alloy, is more appropriate. And if this ḥašmal is positioned amid glowing coals, we may deduce that it denotes the radiance that emanates from molten metal.[5] Combined with the vision of an intense blast of wind produced by the wings of the surrounding “animals” (Ezek 1:13, 24), this account transforms the celestial universe into a giant furnace. This conclusion is not so surprising because the sun was approached in ancient Near East as a giant disc of molten metal that radiates light and heat. The celestial furnace in Ezekiel 1 is probably a representation of the divine reality that lies at the source of this solar activity.

3. Volcanic theophany: The Bible views volcanism as an unavoidable consequence of the divine presence on the earth. The psalmist expresses this clearly when uttering: “Bow your heavens, YHWH, and come down! Touch the mountains so that they smoke!” (Ps 144:5).[6] Overwhelming volcanic activity is also expected on “the day of YHWH” expected to come, not only to punish and destroy sinners but also to reveal YHWH before the eyes of the nations (e.g., Ps 97:5–6; Isa 44:4–5). It is not surprising, therefore, that the theophany of YHWH at Sinai is envisioned as a volcanic event both of its renderings, in Ex 19: 16–19 and in Deut 4:11–12.[7] This volcanic dimension has puzzled generations of scholars because Sinai has shown no volcanic activity for millions of years. For this reason, volcanism is generally interpreted as being introduced for literary purposes only, in order to set this unique event within an impressive decor. Alternately, scholars have suggested displacing the Sinai volcanic event to one of the volcanic fields of the Arabian Peninsula. But a simpler solution exists: in antiquity, metallurgy was the only activity that could cause stone to melt. For this reason, volcanism was approached as a specific marker of the presence and/or activity of the god who patronized the metallurgical act. The homonymy between Vulcan, the Roman god of metallurgy, and volcano attests to this, as does Hephaestus’ residence in Mount Etna as Greek mythology attests. Exactly as in the representation of the Promised Land as a gigantic mining area, the volcanic theophany at Sinai reflects a theological purpose: a way to ensure and demonstrate that it is YHWH himself, and not any of his emissaries, who have concluded a covenant with the Israelites.[8]

4. Kabod-YHWH: Kabod-YHWH, a term generally translated as the glory of YHWH, is intimately associated with intense light, heat, and radiance. Devoid of all shape, it is assimilated as an all-consuming heavy fiery liquid. The account of kabod-YHWH being visible at the top of Mount Sinai, which is identified as a volcano (Ex 24:16–17), invites us to conflate it with molten lava and, by extension, with molten slag and metal generated in a furnace.[9]

5. Furnace re-melting: In the Bible, qnʾ (קנא) is mentioned as an essential attribute of YHWH (Ex 34:14), one that is even equated with his entire holiness (Jos 24:19). The denotation of this word as jealousy, in a human context, implies that jealousy is one of YHWH’s most critical qualities. In the divine context, however, qnʾ expresses a mode of action that induces not only total destruction by fire but also the subsequent emergence of an improved reality. This duality, together with the metallurgical connotations of the root qnʾ, including that of rust, suggests that this term associates YHWH with the process of recycling metal by furnace re-melting, a process in which the raw metal is entirely rejuvenated without any loss of matter.[10] This mode of rejuvenation, attained through the fiery destruction of shape as is typically associated with copper metallurgy, reveals how metallurgy conditions not only YHWY’s essential properties but also his modus operandi.

These observations, once brought together, reveal the existence of a metallurgical background in the Israelite theology. This background not only conditions the founding event of this theology but also illuminates the divine modus operandi, influenced several elements of Israelite legislation and worship, and even shaped eschatological developments. Since the Israelites were not known as a nation of metalworkers, this background could only have been inherited from primeval Yahwism and integrated into a new theological environment appropriate to the Israelites’ way of life and social organization.

The metallurgical heritage

In many ancient mythologies, the divine patron of metallurgists is portrayed as a servile artisan rather than a supreme deity. This makes it difficult, today, to hypothesize a metallurgical background to the Israelite Yahwism and its traditions. We need to bear in mind, however, that most of our knowledge and representations of the patron gods of metallurgy in antiquity originates in traditions dating from the Iron Age. At that time, the replacement of copper with iron as a utilitarian metal was accompanied by the first indications of loss of prestige of metallurgy. In the Bible, however, iron is absent from YHWY’s holy sphere (the tabernacle and the temple), in which gold, copper and silver are abundant. This suggests that the metallurgical traditions of ancient Yahwism are rooted in the Bronze Age, before the rise of iron metallurgy. At this time, smelting—the production of copper from ore—was generally treated as a mysterious process in which new material (metal) was created from sandstone. The furnace was also the site of another wonder: the recycling the metal of old copper artifacts in its entirety, with no loss of matter. These two properties upgraded the patron god of metallurgy into a master of demiurgic powers and the source of permanent rejuvenation of the whole universe, the two attributes elevating him to the rank of a supreme deity.

Metallurgy was not simply a divine activity but also a craft. Thus, by discovering and mastering metallurgy, humankind suddenly became associated with the holiest of activities, those by which the universe exists and is sustained. The mastering of metallurgy propelled humankind to a new status in the created universe and to a new type of relationship with holiness, deeply different from the authoritarian and unilateral power exerted by the deities upon humankind and its human outcome, fatalism. The practice of copper metallurgy yielded a new conception of the divine and, especially, a new relationship with the supreme power.

Consequently, the singular nature of the man-god relationship encountered in the Bible may not be an invention of the Israelites. Rather, the Israelite religion appears to be an attempt to extend to an entire nation (and, subsequently, to the whole world) values originally belonging to a small congregation of Canaanite metalworkers and threatened by the rise of a new epoch in which metallurgy lost its prestige and even sustained a demotion. From a theological perspective, the birth of Israel represents the democratization of esoteric traditions founded on a close relationship with the divine reality that was experienced around the furnace. The abolition of the cult of the intermediate deities, the most blatant singularity of the Israelite religion, should therefore be seen as an extension of the circumvention of secondary deities’ power pursuant to human participation in an activity, metalworking, that belongs to the supreme deity.

The metallurgists and their traditions did not disappear from the Levant with the rise of Israel. Instead, Israelite Yahwism coexisted, at least during the monarchic period, with a primeval Yahwism of explicit metallurgical acquaintance. This reality was the concern not only of metalworkers who were dispersed among the Israelites but also of the nation of Edom, for which copper production represented the main source of wealth during the first half of the first millennium BCE. This may explain the relative silence, in the Bible, that surrounds the nature of primeval Yahwism, its coexistence with Israelite Yahwism, and its metallurgical background. The account in Genesis of the transfer of Isaac's blessing from Esau (Edom) to Jacob (Israel) may be regarded as an attempt in Israelite theology to legitimize the Israelites’ status as YHWH’s new people at the expense of the metalworkers and their traditions. And the demonization of Edom, cresting after the fall of Jerusalem, probably marks the ultimate attempt to defend the legitimacy of Israel’s transition to the status of the nation of YHWH.

References cited

Amzallag, N. 2014. Some Implication of the Volcanic Theophany of YHWH on his Primeval Identity. Antiguo Oriente 12: 11-38.

Amzallag, N. 2015b. Furnace Re-melting as Expression of YHWH's Holiness: Evidence from the Meaning of qanna (קנא) in Divine Context. Journal of Biblical Literature 134: 233-252.

Amzallag, N. 2015a. The Material Nature of the Divine Radiance and its Theological Implications. Scandinavian Journal for the Old Testament 29: 80-96.

Amzallag, N. and Yona, S. 2017a. The Kenite origin of the Sotah prescription (Num 5: 11-31). Journal for the Study of the Old Testament 41: 383-412.

Amzallag, N. and Yona S. 2017b. Differentiation of the qayin family of roots in biblical Hebrew. Semitica 59: 297-332.

Amzallag, N. 2018. Why is the Cain genealogy (Gen 4:17-24) integrated into the Book of Genesis? Ancient Near East Studies 55: 23-50.

Blenkinsopp, J. 2008. The Midianite-Kenite hypothesis revisited and the Origin of Judah. Journal for the Studies of the Old Testament 33: 131-153.

Day, J. 2009. Cain and the Kenites. In Homeland and Exile – Biblical and Ancient Near Eastern Studies in Honour of Bustenay Oded (eds. G. Galil; M. Geller and A. Millard; Leiden: Brill, 2009), pp. 335-346.

Driver, G.R. 1951. Ezekiel’s Inaugural Vision, Vetus Testamentum 1: 60–62.

Dunn, J.E. 2014. A God of Volcanoes: Did Yahwism Take Root in Volcanic Ashes? Journal for the Studies of the Old Testament 38: 387-424.

Koenig, J. 1966. Aux origines des théophanies iahvistes. Revue d'histoire des religions 169: 1–36.

McNutt, P.M. The Forging of Israel. Iron Technology, Symbolism and Tradition in Ancient Society. Sheffield: Almond Press, 1990.

Mondriaan M.E. 2011. Who were the Kenites? Old Testament Essays 24: 414-430.

Sawyer, J. F.A. 1986. Cain and Hephaestus – Possible Relics of Metalworking traditions in Genesis 4. Abr-Nahrain 24: 155-166.


[1] See Blenkinsopp, 2008, for an overview of this hypothesis.

[2] Amzallag and Yona, 2017a.

[3] Day 2009; Amzallag and Yona, 2017b.

[4] Sawyer 1986; McNutt 1990; Mondriaan 2011; Amzallag, 2018.

[5] Driver 1951.

[6] See also Ps 46:7; Isa 63:19.

[7] Koenig 1966; Dunn 2014.

[8] Amzallag 2014.

[9] Amzallag, 2015a.

[10] Amzallag 2015b.

Comments (1)

Best article ever! Since deforestation was a by-product of Qenite activity, perhaps they were responsible for the microclimate change that occurred about 7,000 years ago.

#1 - Susan Burns - 08/20/2018 - 02:00

Article Comments

Submitted by Richard Given on Mon, 01/02/2023 - 20:17


I recall being taught that Mt. Sinai was full of smoke from the metallurgy taking place there. It was also a place where chemists operated. The minerals and furnaces operating there in ancient times are the reasons the mountain is associated with smoke and fire. It was not because of volcanic activity, and I also doubt it was mistaken for volcanoes in Arabia or another location. Even when Moses left Egypt the mountain was a place of “smoke and fire”.

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