A request re: Tubal-cain, the Iron Age and transparent aluminum

A request re: Tubal-cain, the Iron Age and transparent aluminum July 3, 2012

So the other day I tripped over Tubal-cain and wound up wishing I’d paid more attention in my biblical studies classes and/or done more of the reading for my history classes.

Let me explain where this is going, then ask for your help in pointing me toward where I might learn more to sort this out.

The story of Tubal-cain is a bit obscure. It’s a one-liner tucked in amongst the “begats” of Genesis 4. The biblical begats — long genealogical lists — don’t make for compelling reading, and this section is even less compelling than most such lists, since it traces the children and grandchildren of Cain. It’s difficult to get too caught up in the details of these people since we know that they’re all about to drown in the flood a couple of pages later.

Like everything else in the book of Genesis — particularly in these first 11 chapters — this passage intends to tell us how and why everything got started. These chapters are overflowing with origin stories — just-so-stories of how the snake lost its legs, how the rose got its thorns, or of where rainbows or giants came from. Hidden here amongst the begats of Cain are three more mini origin stories, succinct little tales of the origins of nomadic herders, musicians and metalworkers.*

Those three things, we’re told, were innovations introduced by the firm of Lamech & Sons, a family that seems to have been the Bell Labs of prehistory:

Lamech took two wives; the name of one was Adah, and the name of the other Zillah. Adah bore Jabal; he was the ancestor of those who live in tents and have livestock. His brother’s name was Jubal; he was the ancestor of all those who play the lyre and pipe. Zillah bore Tubal-cain, who made all kinds of bronze and iron tools. The sister of Tubal-cain was Naamah.

What tripped me up here was Tubal-cain and the assertion there in Genesis 4:22 that he was the inventor of “all kinds of bronze and iron tools.”

One of the gaps between seminary grads and so-called “traditionalists” involves the question of who wrote the books of the Pentateuch and, more importantly, when they were written. The traditional folklore holds that Moses wrote the books of Moses — you know, just like Father Brown wrote the Father Brown mysteries. That’s not what most biblical scholars think. Those scholars — boo! hiss! liberal intellectuals! — believe these books were written much, much later.

And that brings us to what I don’t know here. The story of Tubal-cain certainly seems like it ought to be a part of this conversation about when the book of Genesis was written.

Here is a one-verse origin story about the invention of iron tools. It makes sense, then, to assume that this story was written some time after such tools were invented, which is to say this story could not have been written before the Iron Age.

We generally do not bother telling origin stories for things that haven’t yet originated. We couldn’t even if we wanted to. So attributing the story of Tubal-cain to an early Bronze Age author seems doubly anachronistic. In that framework, Genesis 4:22 might as well read, “Zillah bore Tubal-cain, who made iPhones and transparent aluminum.”

So here is my request. As Ta-Nehisi Coates often says to his readers, “Talk to me like I’m stupid.” I’m hoping some of you can point me in a good direction for clarifying two things:

1. Does anyone know of a good discussion of the authorship of Genesis that addresses this story of Tubal-cain? Or, more broadly, of a helpful book or article exploring metallurgy in the Bible and what it can suggest to us about the dating of these books? (I’m thinking also of things like Sisera’s iron chariots in the book of Judges.)

2. The “Iron Age” seems like an extremely flexible span of history, covering a very long period and a very different period for different cultures. Any attempt to pin down the historical context of the Moses story will locate it squarely in the Bronze Age, but the pertinent question here would be whether such a Moses figure could have known of “all kinds of iron tools.” For example, Ramesses II battled the Hittites, and they seem to have been precocious early adapters of iron tools. So if we posit an Egyptian prince circa 1200 BCE or circa 1446 BCE, would it make sense for such a man to speak of “all kinds of iron tools”?

– – – – – – – – – – – –

* This trio of mini-origin stories is pretty clearly out of place. They don’t work here where the authors/editors of Genesis have put them. The inventions of the sons of Lamech were all features of life for those reading and hearing the stories of the book of Genesis — which is to say they all remained features of life after the flood. The logic of the narrative of Genesis 1-11 does not allow us to accept Jabal as “the ancestor of those who live in tents and have livestock,” because that narrative does not allow Jabal to have any descendants at all. Oops.

My guess is that these references to Jabal and Jubal and Tubal-cain aren’t so much miniature stories here as they are allusions to other stories that the original authors/editors expected their audience to be familiar with and only needed to name-check here. I think it’s similar to if I wrote something like: “The Galveston seawall was the most ambitious public works project in southern Texas since Pecos Bill lassoed that tornado.” I’m not telling the story of Pecos Bill there, merely referring to it with the expectation that readers will know the full story. But again, that’s just my guess.

Oh, and if you don’t know the story of the Galveston seawall, then go read it now. It’s more audacious and astounding than any tall-tale involving Pecos Bill and it really happened.

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  • EllieMurasaki

    the hypothesis that YWH actually should be identified with a particular
    “child God” that shows up in several other Mesopotamian myths

    I think that’s The Book of J. Forget author name.

  • Sness99

    Actually, I think Naamah was the founder of prostitution.

  • Turcano

     Except he didn’t invent “transparent aluminum;” if anyone gets the credit for that, it’s Auguste Verneuil.

  • QXZ

    I seem to recall someone posting a link to that once, either here or at typepad before the move. This looks like it might be it, though I’m not 100% positive. http://www.georgeleonard.com/articles/is-yahweh-a-boy.htm

  • BaseDeltaZero

    We generally do not bother telling origin stories for things that haven’t yet originated. We couldn’t even if we wanted to.

    Yeah we do.  The cited story of tansparent aluminum, for instance (yes, sapphires are aluminum and transparent, but that’s not what was actually meant – also, I believe we have (colorless, manmade, malleable) transparent aluminum now, but didn’t when the movie came out).  Or heck, how about the story of Zephram Cochrane from the same series.

  • mcc

    QXZ: OMG, that was totally the exact page I was thinking of! Thanks :D

  • Sgt. Pepper’s Bleeding Heart

    Not sure I can help you either Fred. My favourite biblical scholar  doesn’t think that Moses wrote Genesis, but for that matter he thinks that Moses probably wasn’t an actual particular guy either (boo hiss liberal intellectual indeed!)

    He’ss in the camp that puts “The Yahwist” source in the late 6th century BCE–well into the Iron Age in the ancient Near East.

    Are you asking how people who hold that Moses wrote Genesis explain this reference? Cos otherwise I’m not sure what the problem is.

  • Sgt. Pepper’s Bleeding Heart

    The idea that every part of the bible, including the mosaic books and each individual gospel, consists of composite texts stitched together from various sources is (1) taken as the fundamental starting point of all “actual” bible scholarship (2) vaguely obvious from just reading the thing and (3) never talked about in mainstream Christianity that I’ve ever seen (you can talk about how Luke and Mark were different authors, but you can’t talk about Luke himself being a composite or the thing where Luke was actually copying sections from Mark).

    Far from “can’t talk about”, these ideas were part of the standard studies of religion curriculum at my Catholic school–which used a curriculum developed for all mainstream Catholic schools across the state. And not at all presented as controversial.

  • Sgt. Pepper’s Bleeding Heart

    All this talk of the bronze age made me think of this: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EZ15vUjgqvw

  • arcseconds

    Proto-Sinaitic, from which all alphabetic scripts descend(*), is a direct descendent of Egyptian heiroglyphs, was used to write a semitic language, and has been attested to in the Sinai peninsula, and apparently was present in Upper Egypt.

    It is of course tempting to connect this with the biblical exodus story.  As far as I know, though, this is all there is – but at the very least it’s evidence of some non-Egypptian, semitic-speaking people present in Egypt.

    By the way, the Hittites’ language was an indo-european language, so the same family as Greek, Parsi, Sanskrit, and English.

    I find this to be a little weird.

    (*) except for designed alphabets (including Hangul), but these have always been designed with knowledge of previous alphabets, so while the letter forms might not descend from proto-sinaitic, the concept still does (AFAIK).

  • Raj1point618

    Also see Judges 1:19:
    And the LORD was with Judah, and he took possession of the hill country, but he could not drive out the inhabitants of the plain because they had chariots of iron.

    So…Judah was unable to defeat the plains people because they had iron chariots while all he had was THE LORD? Aaaall-righty, then!

  • Raj1point618

    A water canopy could work; a giant swallow (African or European?) could grip it by the husk.

  • Raj1point618

    Another fun bit of history regarding iron:

    When the HMS Dolphin arrived at Tahiti in 1767, the sailors soon learned that the Tahitians prized iron so much that it was possible for a sailor to pay for the, er, company (nudge-nudge, wink, wink) of an island girl with a piece of iron. Consequently, so many nails were pried from the ship that there was a danger that the ship wouldn’t be seaworthy.

  • mcc

    Sgt Pepper: Heh, right, sorry. I’m from the south so it’s easy to forget Catholicism is a thing that exists sometimes and how different it is from what I’m used to.

  • PJ Evans

     How dare you allow the real world to intrude on fantasy! [g]

    Hadn’t heard about Verneuil and aluminum – but I know the cap on the Washington Monument is a little pyramid of aluminum, because it was more valuable than gold at the time.

  • A metal-working prostitute? Who has her clients bring her materials from around the world, so as to further her research? The kings, they would have her make nothing but swords and armor, forged from that blue iron whose formula she refuses to speak. (Some say this is because its alchemy requires the bones of men, burned and made dust and fed to the metal. Others say she knows the kings will be rid of her the second the formula passes her lips.)

    Her lab is worked by other women from the temple, every soul sworn to secrecy. Chariots from suitors arrive at its door laden with obscure stones, metals, foul-smelling sticky black sands. The lab’s contents are a mystery, though of course, there are stories. They say she became obsessed with persian pottery clay for a time, and eventually pulled from it a false silver, cloud-white and impossibly light. They say she bred wood and metal and made something new. Stone columns that could span an ocean. Lamp oil to light a thousand lamps with a drop. Lightning trapped in water jugs. Stones that float on air. A potion, the tiniest drop of which will turn even a woman into a prophet. Lamps which illuminate themselves. Fires that burn themselves. A potion of love. The elixer of life.

  • This is all I know of Tubal-Cain (Rudyard Kipling):

    Jubal sang of the Wrath of God
    And the curse of thistle and thorn —
    But Tubal got him a pointed rod,
    And scrabbled the earth for corn.
    Old — old as that early mould,
    Young as the sprouting grain —
    Yearly green is the strife between
    Jubal and Tubal Cain!

    Jubal sang of the new-found sea,
    And the love that its waves divide —
    But Tubal hollowed a fallen tree
    And passed to the further side.
    Black-black as the hurricane-wrack,
    Salt as the under-main-
    Bitter and cold is the hate they hold —
    Jubal and Tubal Cain!

    Jubal sang of the golden years
    When wars and wounds shall cease —
    But Tubal fashioned the hand-flung spears
    And showed his neighbours peace.
    New — new as Nine-point-Two,
    Older than Lamech’s slain —
    Roaring and loud is the feud avowed
    Twix’ Jubal and Tubal Cain!

    Jubal sang of the cliffs that bar
    And the peaks that none may crown —
    But Tubal clambered by jut and scar
    And there he builded a town.
    High-high as the snowsheds lie,
    Low as the culverts drain —
    Wherever they be they can never agree —
    Jubal and Tubal Cain!

  • Raj1point618

    A metal-working prostitute?

    The Metal Prostitutes used to be all about the music before they sold out to The Man.

  •  I don’t exactly see how a (historically probable) Philistine origin
    story of them coming from Caphtor (Jer 47:4) would influence Israelite
    stories (rather historically improbable) of them coming from Egypt.
    James Hoffmeier (“in Sinai”) makes a good case that there are Egyptian
    parallels with several features of Israelite cult as portrayed in Exodus
    (e.g., the Ark of the Covenant, the Tabernacle).

    It’s mostly based on the notion that Bible stories were written down a long, long time after they were first told and were pretty far removed from whatever the precipitating events were.  There were simply a bunch of different people groups hanging around in the area now known as Israel and they had influences from Egypt, Mesopotamia, and Anatolia pressing in on the various sides.  Then there were the Hyksos and “Sea People” as outside influences on the area.

    Modern historians place the Philistines as a people who came from elsewhere in the Aegean.  The settlement of the Philistines in the Levant took place at roughly the same time as the coming of the Sea People.  Since the Israelites and Philistines went on to hate each other, I regard it as being possible that the Israelites, Philistines, and Sea People had some sort of common origin or at least some form of major interplay.

    Those events, for the record, also took place soon after the hypothesized Dorian Invasion, which was a major changeover from Ancient to Classical Greece and the end of the Mycenaean era.  So the idea of a displaced proto-Greek culture moving south and west across the Mediterranean and displacing or disrupting cultures in Egypt and Canaan is not hard to believe.  Still, it’s a big, “Who knows?”  Historians can speculate, but we’ll never know.

    And the idea of Israelites having a large number of Egyptian traditions worked in to their own is not hard to explain.  It would be much, much harder to explain why they wouldn’t.  Egypt reached as far north as Megiddo (A/K/A Armageddon in Greek, by the by) by the Middle Kingdom.  The Hittites and Egyptians fought the Battle of Kadesh in 1274.  Kadesh is somewhere in the neighborhood of modern-day Beirut.

    The Egyptians were also THE ANE culture, influencing everything around them in the same way the United States sends its cultural tentacles all around the world today.  Everyone in the ANE would have heard about Egypt and pretty much everyone would have been influenced by them in one way or another, especially a culture that was actually within Egypt’s borders.  It’s inevitable and it means there’s absolutely no need for the Israelites to have come out of Egypt at any time.  Egypt came to them.

    Which, really, could be yet another alternate explanation.  The Sea People showed up and disrupted the 20th Dynasty.  The proto-Israelite people in Canaan were suddenly free of the Pharaoh’s yoke.  But the Sea People then settled next door and everything went straight to hell yet again.

  • Ursula L

    Bill Moyer’s Genesis (book and PBS series) has a section on this passage. He finds it interesting that it’s the descendants of Cain who are credited with inventing, basically, civilization. 

    A lot of the early stories in Genesis tend to idealize the lifestyle of nomadic herders, while disparaging the settled life of farmers and town dwellers.  Cain is a farmer, and evil, while Able is a herder, and favored by God.  Abraham is a nomadic herder, and virtuous, while Lot decides to settle in the town, where he is corrupted.  When the Israelites flee Egypt, they adopt a nomadic life, wandering in the wilderness.  And they enjoy special blessings while they’re nomadic, such as the availability of manna as a food source, something they can gather every day with little effort.  

    So having Cain and his descendants responsible for inventing “civilization”, with its settled lifestyle, agriculture, various specialized trades versus self-sufficiency, towns and cities, makes complete sense.  Cain and his descendants are responsible for the decadence and corruption of modern life.  

    By the time the stories were actually written down, the Israelite community had adopted a settled lifestyle, with agriculture and towns and kings and temples and all the other trappings of “civilization.”  But the stories are about an earlier, more innocent and virtuous time, without the corruptions of modern life.  

    It isn’t that different from the way that conservatives, today, have an idealized understanding of life in the 1950s as being somehow more pure.  They imagine everyone living in heterosexual marriage, a strict hierarchy where the father is the provider and leader of the family, the mother stays at home and limits her activities to housework, child-rearing and occasionally volunteering for a charitable effort, and kids are always obedient and respectful.  

    The idealized view ignores many real problems, such as the difficulties faced by single mothers, (either widowed or having children without being married), the stress that fathers and husbands faced being expected to always provide and always have the right answers, the frustration and boredom often associated with living as a stay-at-home wife and mother, the pressures on children to conform to certain standards, etc.  

    Similarly, the stories in the Bible overlook the real difficulties associated with a nomadic life as a herder.  They don’t tell us about a flock being wiped out by illness.  They don’t tell us about conflict between different nomadic groups over the best pasture lands.  They don’t tell us about drought and the struggle to find water for the herd, and how lands near good sources of water could be over-grazed to the point of being barren when drought forced herders to stay close to known water sources.  

  • EnopoletusHarding

    There is no evidence that the Israelites and the Philistines had a common origin (Israelite pottery is primarily derived from Canaanite traditions), although they definitely interacted (often as enemies). You are correct that Egypt did end up heavily influencing Canaan and Phoenicia, but this was largely a result of trade relations, not political rule (although the two were often related, but not so much in the Iron Age, when Egypt was rather weak politically). I agree with your last two paragraphs.

    Also, Kadesh is some 70 miles from Beirut.

  • Kerry

    Harold Bloom wrote “The Book of J”. It’s tremendously worth reading as a piece of theology and feminist lit criticism, and I don’t usually get on with Harold Bloom. 

  • …..

    You are on a wonderful path discovering Cain… A hidden treasure.

    Mechy Cain