(d) Biblical Parallelism. The common Biblical literary form parallelism, may provide additional support for the conclusion that the reference to SHEMEN in the Song of Praise may well be to “rock” oil and not olive oil. The verse reads “suck honey out of the rock and oil [SHEMEN] out of the flinty rock.” Most of the medieval European exegetes of the Sephardic (Spanish) and Ashkenazic (Rhine Valley) traditions, including for example, Rashi (Rabbi Solomon bar Isaac) (11th century), Avraham Ibn Ezra (12th century) and the Rosh (Rabbi Asher ben Yehiel) (13th Century), understand the reference to “honey” and “oil” metaphorically as reference to date palms and olive trees both of which grow in abundance in the rocky Land of Israel.
This agriculturally based interpretation of the rabbinical scholars living in rich agricultural areas of Europe is understandable (Rashi owned vineyards and was a grower of grapes in the Champagne region of France); but is it appropriate? The question arises in light of the phrase introducing the reference to honey and oil: “made him suck” or in Hebrew “VA’YA’NI’KEIHU”. Literally, “YA’NI’KEIHU” means the sucking of milk out of a breast, but it also means generically to draw out or absorb. This hardly seems an apt metaphor for the growing of trees out of earth, even though it may be argued that the root systems of trees suck up ground water for sustenance, which in turn enables their fruit to grow, and ground water generally underlies even rocky surfaces. The term, however, might well be appropriate for use when referring to sucking or drawing or pumping liquids out of rock formations above or below ground, in caves or subterranean strata – from Tiamat’s breasts and womb: the “blessings of the breasts and of the womb” of Jacob’s Blessing.
Interestingly, in his translation into Arabic and his interpretation of the relevant verse in the Song of Praise, the great Sa’adia Gaon does not refer to “honey” as being the honey of sweet dates, though date palms certainly abounded in Iraq. Rather, for the sage, honey is literally the honey of bees which were known to build their hives in rock crevices and caves of the Middle East and Israel. (Rasag Commentaries, at p. 151 n. 10; see also Olam Ha’Tanach, vol. “Devarim” [Deuteronomy] 32:13, at p. 240 at “VA’YA’NI’KEIHU DEVASH MI’SELA”.) This is a phenomenon which is still well known in Israel today, where bees continue to build their hives in the burial caves of Beit Shearim on the north-east flank of Mt. Carmel (see “Ha’aretz”, June 30, 2005, at p. A-18.) Regrettably, Sa’adia Gaon does not appear to address the term “SHEMEN” as appears in the following clause of verse 13, other than by an unexplained reference to “HALAV” or “milk”, which of course is also sucked out of its natural container – the breast. (This use of “milk” and “honey” may be a reference to the preceding chapter of Deuteronomy in which the Land of Israel is described as the “land of milk and honey.” Deuteronomy 31:20. And, interestingly, in his translation of Deuteronomy 32:13, R. Sa’adia Gaon does reverse the verse’s reference to “honey” and “oil” to read “milk” and “honey”.) Thus, from Sa’adia Gaon’s reading, the parallelism seen in verse 13 of the Song of Praise can lead to the conclusion that the reference to “SHEMEN” may well be a reference to “SHEMEN ADAMA” or “SHEMEN AVANIM” – earth oil or stone oil: As “DEVASH” or honey is deposited in crevices of surface rocks in the porous matrix of a bee-hive to be sucked or otherwise drawn out of the honey-comb by man for his use, so the “SHEMEN” in the context of “earth oil” is deposited in the porous matrix of subterranean rock strata, the breasts and womb of TEHOM, from there to be sucked or pumped out by man. – This interpretation is strengthened by the presence of black chert – “HALAMISH” – interbedded with bituminous chalk and oil shale – “PITZLEI SHEMEN” – deposits throughout Israel. (See footnote 7 above.)
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Thus, it would appear that, as well as giving us a geographical marker as to where the search for the treasure should begin, the Blessing of Asher, when read together with the Song of Praise, may also provide us with an indication concerning the nature of at least one of the “precious things” located under the north-western portion of the lands of Manasseh; an indication which points to the treasure’s being petroleum – “rock oil”, “stone oil”, or “earth oil”.
8 The similarities between and tendencies to confuse “rock oil” and the more common – at least for the ancients – olive oil is not new or limited to persons attempting to interpret the Song of Praise and Blessing of Asher, but go at least back to the Greeks and Romans. In his Petroleum in Antiquity, Forbes refers to similar confusion in the armies of Alexander the Great in connection with oil seepages in Turkmenistan near the river Oxus as reported by the Roman historian Plutarch (“The greasy oily liquor ‘Became perfectly clear, when the surface was taken off, and neither in taste or smell differed from real (Olive) oil nor was it inferior to it in smoothness and brightness, though there was no olive tree in that country.’”) and to confusion about the nature of the seeps near Agrigento in Sicily reported in the 1st Century BCE by the Greek physician Dioscorides (“’Bitumen is found in its liquid state near Acragantium in Sicily. It floats on the surface of springs and is used in lamps instead of (olive) oil. Those who call it Sicilian oil are mistaken for it is an established fact that it is a kind of liquid bitumen.’”), with Pliny and Aristotle making similar observations. Forbes, Petroleum in Antiquity, at pp. 28 and 30. – In this connection, in his Early Petroleum History, at p. 85, Forbes relates that in 1690 a local chemist analyzed a clear, white and thick waxy petroleum found in a well near Viterbo, Italy “and found it very much like olive oil, as it did not have the usual sulpherous smell.”
(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
(iii) The Treasure: Water or Petroleum? or Both?
(a) “MEGED” – Water or Oil? – The traditional answer to this question has been water. The Radak (R. David Kimhi) suggested as much in the 12th Century in his commentary on Genesis 49:25
(“Radak Commentaries”, at p. 209). Rabbi Sa’adia Gaon, the leading rabbi and scholar of the 10th Century and founder of the great Academy at Sura in Iraq, appears to agree. (Kapach, Y., ed., Commentaries of Rabbeinu Sa’adia Gaon on The Torah (Mosad HaRav Kook, Jerusalem, 1963) [“Rasag Commentaries”], at p.154.) In both these cases, the reasoning appears to be grounded in the references in the Joseph Blessings to TEHOM which, as discussed above, is associated with underground water.
Nor, indeed, should this conclusion come as any surprise. The southern foothills of the Carmel range just north of Wadi Ara, located in the northern portion of the Lands of Manasseh and today known as Ramot Menasseh – the Manasseh Hills – are among the most fertile lands in Israel, blessed with a great number of natural springs. The cause lies in the fact that underlying Ramot Menasseh are two fresh water aquifers – the Mountain Aquifer carbonates of late Cretaceous age and the overlying local Ovdat Group Aquifer of the more recent Eocene age. Most of Israel benefits from only one or rarely two aquifers; so with its two aquifers, the Ramot Menasseh region in the north of the Lands of Joseph is, indeed, blessed with precious subterranean sweet waters.
However, there is a clue in the Blessings of Joseph which could support a conclusion that the “precious thing” is or is also petroleum. This clue can be found in the multiple references to the treasure lying in “eternal” and “ancient mountains” and in “everlasting” and “primordial hills”. One of the first things one looks for in exploring for petroleum is “ancient” anticlines (as the Umm el-Fahm anticline, see the Geographical Note at The Map, above) and buried structural highs. Anticlines and structural highs are geological terms for mountains and hills now typically lying deep under ground, but which had been mountains and hills on the earth’s surface in “primordial” ages tens and hundreds of millions of years ago. Interestingly, in these anticlines one frequently finds both oil and water, with the oil, being lighter than water, lying on top of the water – though sometimes the oil and water bearing strata are interspersed. But at the relevant depths the water is almost always salt water, the sweet waters of the aquifers feeding the springs of the Ramot Menasseh and other sweet water springs and wells around the world usually running in more recent geological strata which overlie the oil bearing strata and so, being closer to the earth’s surface, are more readily accessible to man.
As noted, in the dry Land of Israel, these sweet waters are indeed precious blessings; but are they the only precious liquids referred to in the Blessings of Joseph? Specifically, they may be “precious things of earth”, but not necessarily the “precious things” of the “deep [TEHOM] that couches beneath”. Rather, those deep or rather deeper blessings may be the precious things that lie on top of the salt water of Tiamat, the goddess of whose skin and bones the earth was made with the purpose of ensuring that the subterranean salt waters not escape. And these deeper precious things, lying just on top of the abysmal salt waters, may just be (rock) oil.
(b) “SHEMEN” – Olive Oil or Rock Oil? – For the next clue, we turn again to the Blessing of Asher which refers specifically to “oil”. The Hebrew word for “oil” as it appears in the Blessing is “SHEMEN”. Any speaker of modern Hebrew will tell you that “SHEMEN” means vegetable oil, particularly olive oil, but can also mean oils extracted from animal fats. He will very likely point out, however, that it does not mean “rock oil” or petroleum, for which he will say a wholly distinct word exists: “NEFT”.
Even in modern Hebrew, however, petroleum based lubricants are referred to by the word “SHEMEN” and oil shales, rocks suffused with hydrocarbons from which oil can be extracted by various treatment processes, mining and retorting and in situ heating, are known as “PITZLEI SHEMEN”. Unabridged dictionaries of modern Hebrew go even further and reveal that one of the uses of the word “SHEMEN” is in the term “SHEMEN ADAMA” or “earth oil”, which is defined as “a type of oil which is taken out of the earth and is used for burning; . . . petroleum.” See Gur, Y., Milon Ivri (1946) and Even-Shoshan, A., Ha’Milon Ha’Hadash (Kiryat Sefer, Jerusalem, 1979) (“Even-Shoshan”). In his groundbreaking lexicon of the Hebrew language, Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, uses the term “SHEMEN ADAMA” in his definition of “NEFT”: “this is SHEMEN ADAMA, a form of liquid which flows out of the ground and even spouts up, and is used for light and heat, Naphta; . . .” Ben-Yehuda, E., A Complete Dictionary of Ancient and Modern Hebrew (Yoseloff, New York – London) (“Ben-Yehuda”), vol. VIII, p. 3719. But more importantly, in his long entry for the word SHEMEN, along with reference to the term “SHEMEN ZAYIT” (“olive oil”), Ben-Yehuda refers to the terms “SHEMEN AVANIM” and “SHEMEN AVNI” – forms which mean “stone oil” or “mineral oil”). In his discussion of the term “SHEMEN AVANIM”, Ben-Yehuda states “of the first type are NEFT (naphtha), stone oil (stein öl)”. Ben Yehuda, vol. XV, p. 7258.2 So we find in Hebrew an accepted use of the word “SHEMEN” in the form of “SHEMEN ADAMA” or “earth oil” 3 and in the form of “SHEMEN AVANIM” or “stone oil” for petroleum, just as in Latin where “PETROLEUM” is “rock oil”.
But true to customary usage, the typical speaker of modern Hebrew will nonetheless, in all likelihood, persist in saying that the reference in the Asher Blessing to “oil” means quite literally “olive oil” and has nothing to do with petroleum. And he will rightly add that the lands of Asher along the Mediterranean coast of Israel, as the lands of Manasseh to the south and east of Asher, were historically blessed with olive groves and known as a major source of olive oil; whereas there have been no commonly known petroleum fields in the region.
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This persistence will be supported by the speaker’s knowledge that in Biblical times, olive oil was very valuable and had many uses – for cooking, illumination, medication and lubrication, among others. He will add that the best indication of the perceived value of olive oil is the fact that olive oil was used to anoint kings and high priests and that the word “SHEMEN” and its derivatives are used metaphorically in Hebrew to denote plenty, fullness, riches.
Following this line of thought, though, can lead us to the interesting conclusion that the reference in the Blessing of Asher to the “SHEMEN” in which Asher’s “foot” or southern territories is dipped need not necessarily be only a literal reference to “oil” whatever its source (in which kings and soldiers were wont in Biblical times to wash their feet before setting out on or on returning from a long journey – see commentary on Job 29:6 in “Olam Ha’Tanakh”, vol. “I’yov” [Job], at p. 159). Rather, such reference might also be a metaphoric reference to the precious things – “MEGED” is the word repeatedly used in Moses’ Blessing of the Tribes of Joseph – and bounty to be found couching in the deep beneath the lands of Menasseh on which the southern territories of Asher border and which are to flow to the surface out of Joseph’s well.
2 Use of “SHEMEN AVANIM” as the Hebrew term for petroleum or naphtha appears in “Raishit Limudim”, a scientific primer written in Hebrew by B.B. Linda and published in Berlin (Rossman) in 1878. The reference appears in a discussion of mineral and earth resins at p. 75, sec. 107.
3 “Earth oil” as a term for petroleum is common in petroleum producing provinces around the world. In Sumatra, Indonesia, where petroleum seeps have been known for centuries and where Royal Dutch-Shell had its first major discoveries at the end of the 19th Century, the term for petroleum is “miniac tennah” or “oil from the earth”. Forbes, R.T., Studies in Early Petroleum History (Brill, Leiden, 1953) (“Early Petroleum History”) at pp. 111 and 172-173 (quoting P.S. Boccone, Museo di Fisica [Venezia, 1697].) – In Burmah, a tributary of the Irawaddy River along which oil seeps have also been known for centuries, is known as Yenangyoung or Earth-Oil Creek. Forbes, Early Petroleum History, at p. 169 (quoting M.A. Symex, An Account of an Embassy to the Kingdom as Ava, sent by the Governor-General of India in the year 1795). It was near Earth Oil Creek that Burmah Oil, forerunner of British Petroleum, got its start at the end of the 19th Century.