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also known as: asphalt

This word appears as a translation 3 times of the Hebrew word “chemar” in the ESV (English Standard Version), the Revised King James Version and New Revised Standard Version of the Bible (Genesis 11:3, 14:10; Exodus 2:3). The word “bitumen” does not appear in the NASB, KJV, NKJV, or NIV.

The original Hebrew word used in the Bible in these 3 verses is chemar (Hebrew: חֵמָר). Other versions translate this word as “slime” or “tar” (Genesis 11:3; 14:10; Exodus 2:3)

Bitumen in its soft state has been found since ancient times in pits near the Dead Sea.

The ancients used it for various purposes, including the coating of the outside of vessels and in building.

In Gen. 11:3-4, post-Flood construction crews in Babel erected buildings using brick and bitumen (aka asphalt or pitch).

The Babylonian soil is still celebrated for these architectural materials. There is here a fine clay, mingled with sand, forming the very best material for brick, while stones are not to be found at a convenient distance. Asphalt is found boiling up from the soil in the neighborhood of Babylon and of the Dead Sea, which is hence called the “lacus Asphaltites.”

The asphalt springs of…Hit [ Hīt is in Iraq (هيت). / ancient name: Is ] on the Euphrates are celebrated by many writers.

“Burn them thoroughly.” Sun-dried bricks are very much used in the East for building purposes. These, however, were to be burned, and thereby rendered more durable.

“Brick for stone.” This indicates a writer belonging to a country and an age in which stone buildings were familiar, and therefore not to Babylonia. Brickmaking was well known to Moses in Egypt; but this country also abounds in quarries and splendid erections of stone, and the Sinaitic peninsula is a mass of granitic hills. The Shemites mostly inhabited countries abounding in stone.

“Asphalt for mortar.” Asphalt is a mineral pitch. The word rendered mortar means at first clay, and then any kind of cement. —Albert Barnes, Notes on the Bible

Babylon was indeed built with bitumen and brick, as archaeology and various ancient authors testify, including Berosus, Etesius, Dion, Curtius, and many others.

In Isaiah 34:9, an allusion is made to pitch’s flammable character. In ancient times, a piece of cloth was often dipped in pitch or oil and wrapped around a stick to make a torch lamp.

Author: Paul S. Taylor.
Article Version: November 28, 2018