What is…

also known as: tar and asphalt

Bitumen in its soft state has been found since ancient times in pits near the Dead Sea. Before it becomes hardened, it is a form of petroleum—sticky, black, highly viscous liquid similar to the consistency of cold molasses. It may also become semi-solid and eventually solidifies.

Tar seeps

…the valley of Siddim was full of tar pits; and the kings of Sodom and Gomorrah fled, and they fell into them… —Genesis 14:10

Tar pits are also called natural “tar seeps.” 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.

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

Tower of Babel

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

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.

Moses’ mother

Jochebed and her ark of bulrushes for baby Moses.

But when she could hide him no longer, she got him a wicker basket and covered it over with tar and pitch. Then she put the child into it and set it among the reeds by the bank of the Nile. —Exodus 2:3 NASB

Hebrew word and its translation

Hebrew: חֵמָר —transliteration: chemar —meaning: bitumen; asphalt; tar —occurrences: 3 in Scripture

Translation in common English Bibles…

KJV: “slime” —Genesis 11:3 KJV; Gen. 14:10 KJV; Exodus 2:3 KJV
NKJV: “asphalt” —Genesis 11:3 NKJV; Gen. 14:10 NKJV; Exodus 2:3 NKJV
ESV: “bitumen” —Genesis 11:3 ESV; Gen. 14:10 ESV; Exodus 2:3 ESV
NASB: “tar” —Genesis 11:3 NASB; Gen. 14:10 NASB; Exodus 2:3 NASB
NIV: “tar” —Genesis 11:3 NIV; Gen. 14:10 NIV; Exodus 2:3 NIV

More information

Article Version: August 25, 2021