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Bible Encyclopedias

Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological and Ecclesiastical Literature


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(עֹפֶרֶת, ophe'reth, from its dusty color, in pause עֹפָרֶת, Exodus 15:10; Numbers 31:22; Job 19:24; Jeremiah 6:29; Ezekiel 22:18; Ezekiel 22:20; Ezekiel 27:12; Zechariah 5:7-8; Sept. μόλιβδος ), a well-known metal, generally found in veins of rocks, though seldom in a metallic state, and most commonly in combination with sulphur. Although the metal itself was well known to the ancients and to the Hebrews, yet the early uses of lead in the East seem to have been comparatively few, nor are they now numerous. One may travel far in Western Asia without discovering a trace of this metal in any of the numerous useful applications which it is made to serve in European countries. We are not aware that any native lead has been yet found within the limits of Palestine. But ancient lead mines, in some of which the ore has been exhausted by working, have been discovered by Mr. Burton in the mountains between the Red Sea and the Nile; and lead is also said to exist at a place called Sheff, near Mount Sinai (Kitto, Phys. Hist. Pal. p. 73). The ancient Egyptians employed lead for a variety of purposes, but chiefly as an alloy with more precious metals. On the breasts of mummies that have been unrolled there is frequently found in soft lead, thin and quite flexible, the figure of a hawk, with extended wings, emblematical of Re, or Phra, the sun. Specimens of lead have also been discovered among the Assyrian ruins (Layard's Nin. and Bab. p. 357); and a bronze lion is found attached to its stone base by means of this metal (Bonomi, Nineveh, p. 325).

The first scriptural notice of this metal occurs in the triumphal song in which Moses celebrates the overthrow of Pharaoh, whose host is there said to have "sunk like lead" in the waters of the Red Sea (Exodus 15:10). That it was common in Palestine is shown by the expression in Sirach 47:18, where it is said, in apostrophizing Solomon, "Thou didst multiply silver as lead;" the writer having in view the hyperbolical description of Solomon's wealth in 1 Kings 10:27 : "The king made the silver to be in Jerusalem as stones." It was among the spoils of the Midianites which the children of Israel brought with them to the plains of Moab, after their return from the slaughter of the tribe (Numbers 31:22). The ships of Tarshish supplied the market of Tyre with lead, as with other metals (Ezekiel 27:12). Its heaviness, to which allusion is made in Exodus 15:10, and Sirach 22:14, caused it to be used for weights, which were either in the form of a round flat cake (Zechariah 5:7), or a rough unfashioned lump or "stone" (Zechariah 5:8); stones having in ancient times served the purpose of weights (comp. Proverbs 16:11). This fact may perhaps explain the substitution of "lead" for "stones" in the passage of Ecclesiasticus above quoted; the commonest use of the cheapest metal being present to the mind of the writer. If Gesenius is correct in rendering אֲנָךְ, and, by "lead," in Amos 7:7-8, we have another instance of the purposes to which this metal was applied in forming the ball or bob of the plumb-line. See PLUMB-LINE. Its use for weighting fishing-lines was known in the time of Homer (Il. 24:80). In Acts 27:28, a plummet (βολίς, in the form βολίζω, to heave the lead) for taking soundings at sea is mentioned, and this was, of course, of lead.

But, in addition to these more obvious uses of this metal, the Hebrews were acquainted with another method of employing it, which indicates some advance in the arts at an early period. Job (Job 19:24) utters a wish that his words, "with a pen of iron and lead, were graven in the rock forever." The allusion is supposed to be to the practice of carving inscriptions upon stone, and pouring molten lead into the cavities of the letters, to render them legible, and at the same time preserve them from the action of the air. Frequent references to the use of leaden tablets for inscriptions are found in ancient writers. Pausanias (9:31) saw Hesiod's Works and Days graven on lead, but almost illegible with age. Public proclamations, according to Pliny (13:21),were written on lead, and the name of Germanicus was carved on leaden tablets (Tacitus, Anni. 2:69). Eutychius (Ann. Alex. p. 390) relates that the history of the Seven Sleepers was engraved on lead by the cadi. The translator of Rosenmü ller (in Bib. Cath. 27:64) thinks, however, that the poetical force of the scriptural passage has been overlooked by interpreters. "Job seems not to have drawn his image from anything he had actually seen executed: he only wishes to express in the strongest possible language the durability due to his words; and accordingly he says, May the pen be iron, and the ink of lead, with which they are written on an everlasting rock,' i.e. Let them not be written with ordinary perishable materials." The above usual explanation seems to be suggested by that of the Septuagint, "that they were sculptured by an iron pen and lead, or hewn into rocks." (See PEN).

Oxide of lead is employed largely in modern pottery for the formation of glazes, and its presence has been discovered in analyzing the articles of earthen-ware found in Egypt and Nineveh, proving that the ancients were acquainted with its use for the same purpose. The A. V. of Sirach 38:30 assumes that the usage was known to the Hebrews, though the original is not explicit upon the point. Speaking of the potter's art in finishing off his work, "he applieth himself to lead it over," is the rendering of what in the Greek is simply "he giveth his heart to complete the smearing," the material employed for the purpose not being indicated. (See POTTERY).

In modern metallurgy lead is employed for the purpose of purifying silver from other mineral products, instead of the more expensive quicksilver. The alloy is mixed with lead, exposed to fusion upon an earthen vessel, and submitted to a blast of air. By this means the dross is consumed. This process is called the cupelling operation, with which the description in Ezekiel 22:18-22, in the opinion of Mr. Napier (Met. of Bible, p. 20-24), accurately coincides. "The vessel containing the alloy is surrounded by the fire, or placed in the midst of it, and the blowing is not applied to the fire, but to the fused metals. . . . When this is done, nothing but the perfect metals, gold and silver, can resist the scorifying influence." In support of his conclusion he quotes Jeremiah 6:28-30, adding, "This description is perfect. If we take silver having the impurities in it described in the text, namely, iron, copper, and tin, and mix it with lead, and place it in the fire upon a cupell, it soon melts; the lead will oxidize and form a thick coarse crust upon the surface, and thus consume away, but effecting no purifying influence. The alloy remains, if anything, worse than before...The silver is not refined, because the bellows were burned' there existed nothing to blow upon it. Lead is the purifier, but only so in connection with a blast blowing upon the precious metals." An allusion to this use of lead is to be found in Theoghis (Gnom. 1127 sq., ed.Welcker), and it is mentioned by Pliny (33:31) as indispensable to the purification of silver from alloy. Comp. also Malachi 3:2-3. (See METAL).

By modern artificers lead is used with tin in the composition of solder for fastening metals together. That the ancient Hebrews were acquainted with the use of solder is evident from the description given by the prophet Isaiah of the processes which accompanied the formation of an image for idolatrous worship. The method by which two pieces of metal were joined together was identical with that employed in modern times; the substances to be united being first clamped before being soldered. No hint is given as to the composition of the solder, but in all probability lead was one of the materials employed, its usage for such a purpose being of great antiquity. The ancient Egyptians used it for fastening stones together in the rough parts of a building. Mr. Napier (Metallurgy of the Bible, p. 130) conjectures that "the solder used in early times for lead, and termed lead, was the same as is now used a mixture of lead and tin." See SOLDER.

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Bibliography Information
McClintock, John. Strong, James. Entry for 'Lead'. Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological and Ecclesiastical Literature. Harper & Brothers. New York. 1870.

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