A Biblical Treasure Hunt Part 6
May 21, 2010 by admin
(c) Rock Oil in Biblical Hebrew – “SHEMEN” or “NEFT”? - The question, though, still remains as to the nature of the apparently liquid treasure – “MEGED”: petroleum or water? Does the answer perhaps lie in the use of the word “SHEMEN” in the Blessing of Asher not only in a metaphorical sense referring to riches generically, but also in the literal sense of “SHEMEN ADAMA” – “earth oil” – or “SHEMEN AVANIM” – “stone oil”, petroleum, “rock oil”?
As noted, the common Hebrew word for petroleum is today “NEFT”. However, the word “NEFT” does not appear in the books of the Hebrew scriptures. The first appearance of the word “NEFT” in Hebrew literature is in “Tosephta Shabbat” (2:3) in a discussion of what oils are permitted to be used in lighting Sabbath candles. (The Tosephta are Rabbinic works composed in the early Mishnaic period in the last centuries Before the Common Era [B.C.E. = B.C.]). – Interestingly, “NEFT” or petroleum is permitted for use in Sabbath candles, while there is a dispute as to whether “ZEFET” or tar may be used – “ZEFET” frequently deemed to be ritually unclean, a condition not attributed to “NEFT”. (It should also be noted that a possible reading of the final version of the Tosephta as appears in Mishna Shabbath 2:2 (3rd Century of the Common Era) is that, rather than being a product wholly distinct from “SHEMEN”, “NEFT” is one of the several sub-categories of “SHEMEN” that are discussed: “and the sages permit all the oils with sesame oil with nut oil etc. with resin and with petroleum.”
The fact that the word “NEFT” does not appear in the Hebrew scriptures should come as no surprise since “NEFT” was originally a Persian word which in all likelihood was introduced into the Hebrew language with the return of the Jewish exiles from Babylon during the first Persian domination of the Land of Israel in the period described in the Books of Ezra and Nehemiah. (See, II Maccabees 1:36 [E.J. Goodspeed, The Apocrypha – An American Translation, Random House, New York, 1959]: “Nehemiah’s people called this Nephtar, …; but most people call it Nephtai.” Both the Greeks and Arameans also adapted the Persian word “neft” for their word for petroleum – “naphtha”.)
What then was the Hebrew word, if any, used in the pre-Persian period for petroleum or “rock oil”? For an answer to this, we perhaps need look only as far as the Moses’ Song of Praise which appears in chapter 32 of Deuteronomy immediately preceding chapter 33 in which the Blessings of Joseph and Asher appear. There, Moses, in praising the bounty of the land of Israel, describes one of its attributes as a place where the People of Israel will “suck … oil out of the flinty rock” (“YA’NIKEIHU . . . SHEMEN MEI-HALAMISH TZUR” – (Deut. 32:13). The Hebrew word used in this passage is “SHEMEN” – the same word that appears in the Blessing of Asher. The context in which the word “SHEMEN” appears in the Song of Praise can understandably lead to the conclusion that “rock oil” or petroleum is meant and that in Biblical times, the word “SHEMEN” may have referred also to “stone oil” or “earth oil” – “SHEMEN AVANIM” or “SHEMEN ADAMA” (the terms used by Eliezer Ben-Yehuda and other modern Hebrew lexicographers and educators since at least the 19th Century) – as well as to vegetable and animals oils – just as in current English usage the word “oil” refers generically to vegetable, animal and mineral, including “rock”, oils. Indeed, the appearance throughout Israel of patches oil shales (“PITZELEI SHEMEN” in modern Hebrew) and bituminous chalk deposits interbedded with flintlike or flinty rock (chert or, in Hebrew, “HALAMISH TZUR” – the phrase used in the Song of Praise) deposits appears to support that conclusion (see footnote 7 below) – The word “SHEMEN” is also used in describing a natural excretion of stone in Job 29:6: “… and the rock poured me out rivers of oil” – “V’TZUR YATZOUK I’MADI PALGEI-SHAMEN”. Note that again in Job the word for rock is “TZUR”, the same word used in the Song of Praise, notwithstanding the existence of many other words for “rock” in Hebrew.
At this point it should be noted that the Hebrew word “SHEMEN” originates in the Akkadian (ancient Babylonian) word “ŠAMNU” or “SHAMAN” – meaning a thick, viscous liquid – and is a cognate of similar words used in ancient Semitic languages throughout the Middle East. (See, Ben-Yehuda, vol. XV, p. 7254 n.1, and Even-Shoshan at “SHMN”). Interestingly, Akkadian (and neighboring Assyrian) also had a word for petroleum, indeed two compound words, both of which were based on the word “šamnu”: specifically “šaman-iddî” and “šaman-šadî”. The first means literally “oil of asphalt” and the second “oil of the mountain”. (See, Forbes, R.J., Bitumen and Petroleum in Antiquity” [Brill, Leiden, 1936] [“Petroleum in Antiquity”], at p. 7 and Table I.) The development of both of these terms makes eminently good sense given the major asphalt and tar resources found in the region and extensively used by the ancient Sumerians, Babylonians and Assyrians, as well as the many liquid oil seeps in the mountains of Kurdistan lying in Assyria north of Babylon and, to a lesser extent, on the plains of the Euphrates to Babylon’s northwest, all of which were well known in antiquity. Assuming that Forbes is correct in his lexicographic and etymologic references – and there seems no reason to doubt them – it is clear that the root word “SHMN” or ŠMN was used by the Semitic speaking peoples of the ancient Middle East to include petroleum – the “rock oil” of the Romans and the “stone oil” or “earth oil” of the modern Hebrew lexicographers. What reason then for the Song of Praise’s reference to “oil out of flinty rock” and Job’s “rock poured … rivers of oil” not to be references to petroleum? The relevant texts were all written in approximately the same period.
7 The Land of Israel has large quantities of oil shales (“PITZLEI SHEMEN” in modern Hebrew), oil suffused rock, lying in thick surface strata in the hills of Bet Shemesh southwest of Jerusalem, mid-way between Jerusalem and the Mediterranean coast, and in the desert plateau of Mishor Rotem overlooking the Dead Sea. Several attempts over the past twenty-five years have been made to extract oil from these shales. These attempts have had very limited success, among other reasons because of the relatively poor quality (low organic content) of the rock and high costs of production. (Efforts to produce these shales have recently been renewed by Lapidoth-Heletz, L.P., an Israeli petroleum exploration company using a new Russian in situ production technology.) Some geologists are of the opinion that the Mishor Rotem shales and shales buried under the Dead Sea are the source of the oil and tar seeps in the Dead Sea area.
Interestingly, underlying these oil shales and bituminous chalk deposits which are also located throughout the Negev plateau are chert beds of the Senonian (Upper Cretaceous) age. To the north, the chert beds pass laterally into patches of highly bituminous (10-20% organic matter) chalk deposits located throughout the Land of the Shefala, the Sharon Plain, the Galilee and the Jordan Valley. Outcrops of these bituminous chalk-chert interbeddings appear at several sites in the Lower and Western Galilee and in the Jordan Valley. Surface deposits of bituminous limestones with organic content as high as 25% have been found near Hammath and Tiberias in the valleys of the Jordan River and its tributary the Yarmouk and on the high plains of Jordan above the eastern bank of the Jordan River and eastern shore of the Dead Sea. These deposits too are sometimes associated with chert beds. Forbes in Petroleum in Antiquity, at p. 25 (quoting Vitruvius, a Roman architect and engineer writing in the 1st Century BCE,) notes that it is possible that these deposits were known in antiquity.
In his Black Gold in Israel, at pp. 29-3, Lavi describes the attempts to explore the Yarmouk deposits in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries. These attempts had their origin in stories of local Bedouin of oil seeps and a burning hill covered with “NEFT” at Tel-el-Hamid. Based on this and similar petroleum sightings in the Yarmouk valley, the first attempt to drill an oil well was commenced in 1914 at Macarin in the Yarmouk Valley, about 24 km (13 mi.) east of the Sea of Galilee. According to Lavi, the well was never completed and its findings were in dispute. During World War I, German engineers exploited bituminous shales containing crude oil in the Macarin area for the Hijazi trains. H. Michelson, “Geological Survey of the Golan Heights (With Some Remarks on Exploration for Hydrocarbons” (TAHAL Hydrology Division, 1982), at p. 13 and the works cited there.
In 1982, a water well was drilled at Ein Said on the northern bank of the Yarmouk some 6 kilometers (4 miles) northeast of Hammat – 17 kilometers west of the Macarin well and 7 kilometers east of the Sea of Galilee. Unexpectedly, this well encountered several sections of rich bituminous chalks containing liquid hydrocarbons. These sections, which contained chert sills, were found at depths between 500 – 900 meters (1,600 – 3,000 ft.) Id.., at Fig. 1 and pp. 6, 12-14.
As noted above at page 20, the Hebrew word for chert, a flintlike rock, is “HALAMISH”, one of the two words in the phrase appearing in the Song of Praise’s reference to the source of the “oil” to come from “the flinty rock” – “SHEMEN MEI-HALAMISH TZUR”. The other word in the verse, “TZUR”, means rock generically and, in certain contexts, is also used specifically as a variant of the word “TZOR” which is the Hebrew word for flint. It should be noted too that, as can be seen on the Map, the Yarmouk River was the southern boundary of the territories of Menasseh east of the Jordan.
Historically, oil shales, bituminous chalks and marls, and bituminous limestones (with organic content ranging from 4% to 20% and even up to 25%) were known as rockasphalts. Outcrops and surface deposits of rockasphalts occur throughout the Middle East and Mediterranean. They are known to exist in Syria, Armenia, Iraq, Iran, Kouweit, Bahrain, Albania and Sicily, as well as in Israel and Jordan. Many of these deposits were known in classical times. Forbes, Petroleum in Antiquity, at pp. 18-30. And according to Forbes, methods to produce bitumens (semi-solid and viscous hydrocarbons) from rockasphalts were known in antiquity and classical times, with vases of asphalts produced from rockasphalt found by archaeologists in the ancient Persian city of Susa, and references to the process in the works of Aetius of Amida, the 6th Century Byzantine physician, and al-Ma’sudi, the 10th Century Arab historian. Id., at pp. 37-39