Lebanese Cedar—The Prized Tree of Ancient Woodworking

From Solomon’s Temple to the Jesus Boat, the Biblical world was built of cedar

This article was originally published in May 2013. It has been updated.—Ed.


 

The famous Lebanese cedar tree was widely used in the construction of ancient temples, palaces and seagoing vessels, including Solomon’s Temple and the so-called “Jesus Boat.” But what exactly made its timbers so important for ancient woodworking?

In the Biblical world, Lebanese cedar (Cedrus libani) trees were highly sought after as an excellent source of timber for ancient woodworking. The wood’s high quality, pleasant scent and resistance to both rot and insects made it a popular building material for temples, palaces and seagoing vessels, from Solomon’s famed Temple to the so-called “Jesus Boat” of the first century C.E. Today, Lebanese cedar trees grow mostly in Lebanon and southern Turkey, with a few found in Cyprus and Syria. As the Bible makes clear, the valuable wood had to be imported into ancient Israel.

The Phoenician king Hiram of Tyre sent Lebanese cedar, carpenters and masons to Jerusalem to build a palace for King David (2 Samuel 5:11). Likewise, Hiram provided cedars and artisans to King Solomon for the construction of his own palace as well as the Temple in Jerusalem (2 Chronicles 2:3,7; 1 Kings 5:20). The Bible also informs us that Lebanese cedar timbers were commonly transported by sea. The Book of Ezra reports that timbers were hauled to the Phoenician coast and then sailed to Jaffa for transport to Jerusalem (Ezra 3:7).
 


 
Read about how fruit plays an important role in the Biblical narrative in Bible History Daily.
 

 

Though not used by Jesus himself, the so-called “Jesus Boat,” dating to the first century C.E., is very similar to the boats Jesus and his disciples would have used to cross and fish the Sea of Galilee. Analysis showed that at least some of the boat’s reused timbers were made from Lebanese cedar.

Lebanese cedar wood was also popular for ancient woodworking and ship construction because it is easily worked and shaped, it seasons with minimal shrinkage or distortion and it resists decay in salt water better than most types of wood. In the ancient shipwreck off the Uluburun promontory of Turkey, nearly all of the boards of the hull were made of Lebanese cedar. This famous late-14th-century B.C.E. wreck contained a cargo of precious metals, jewelry, ivory, ebony and other valuable materials, suggesting that it was probably a royal shipment.

One of Israel’s best-known shipwrecks also bears evidence of ancient woodworking with cedar timbers. The so-called “Jesus Boat,” dated to the first century and recovered from the Sea of Galilee, was built mostly of reused timbers, some of which were made from Lebanese cedar. While the “Jesus Boat” cannot be linked to the life of Jesus, scholars believe it was the type of boat that was used by Jesus and his disciples in their many travels upon the Sea of Galilee.

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To learn more about the many ways Lebanese cedar trees were used in ancient woodworking, read Nili Liphschitz, Cedars of Lebanon: Exploring the Roots,” in the May/June 2013 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review.

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When Al-Aqsa Mosque was reconstructed in the 1930s and 1940s, massive Cedar of Lebanon and cypress beams were reused or removed. Some are much older than the mosque itself. Were they once part of Herod’s Temple Mount architecture? Learn more in Bible History Daily.

BAS Library Members: read the full article Wooden Beams from Herod’s Temple Mount: Do They Still Exist? by Peretz Reuven as it appears in the May/June 2013 issue of BAR.

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  1. Kurt says

    What was the custom of gleaning, and who benefited from it?
    ▪ The Mosaic Law prohibited farmers from stripping their land of all of its produce. Instead, those who harvested grain were not to reap the edges of the fields completely. Those who gathered grapes were not to pick up those that were scattered or go back again to harvest those that were immature the first time. And those who beat the boughs of the olive trees were to leave the fruit that did not fall. (Leviticus 19:9, 10; Deuteronomy 24:19-21) The poor, the orphans, the widows, and the alien residents could then glean—or pick up—the leftovers of the harvest.
    This law regarding gleaning benefited all Israelite society. In the landowner, it encouraged generosity, unselfishness, and reliance on God’s blessings. In those who gleaned, it promoted industriousness, for gleaning was hard work. (Ruth 2:2-17) Gleaning ensured that the poor would not go hungry or become a burden on the community. It also spared them the indignity of having to beg or having to rely on handouts.
    Why did Solomon import timber all the way from Lebanon for the construction of the temple in Jerusalem?
    ▪ The account at 1 Kings 5:1-10 describes an agreement made between Solomon and Hiram, king of Tyre. According to that agreement, rafts of cedar and juniper logs were to be brought to Israel by sea from Lebanon and used in the construction of the temple.
    Cedar was an important trade item in the ancient Middle East. In Egypt and Mesopotamia, this timber was regularly used for the beams and paneling of temples and palaces. Royal archives, literary texts, and inscriptions attest to the continual importation of cedar to various southern Mesopotamian city-states, sometimes as booty or tribute. In Egypt it was used in the construction of royal barges, coffins, and other funerary items.
    The cedars of Lebanon were particularly renowned for the durability, beauty, and sweet fragrance of their wood, not to mention their resistance to attack by insects. Thus, Solomon was using the best of materials for the temple. Today, all that remains of the forests of cedars that once covered the Lebanese mountains are a few small, isolated groves.
    http://wol.jw.org/en/wol/d/r1/lp-e/2011085?q=Lebanese+Cedar&p=par
    http://wol.jw.org/en/wol/s/r1/lp-e?q=cedar+trees&p=par
    http://wol.jw.org/en/wol/d/r1/lp-e/1200000908#h=0:0-5:205

  2. Daniel says

    In the Torah Cedar wood is also used in purity ritual alongside hyssop (ezov / za’atar), like in the burning of the Red Heifer to produce the purifying ashes.
    A similar combination (cedar and sage burnt in purification ritual) is found in Navajo tradition, interestingly enough.

  3. Eliel says

    Thank you for posting this. I like working with wood and found this article interesting.

  4. Paul says

    That’s very interesting, Daniel. The Navaho connection reminded me of the first episode of the third season of the X-Files, entitled “The Blessing Way.’ Agent Mulder is in New Mexico with Albert, a Navaho codetalker, when he’s nearly killed and revived in a ceremonial sweat lodge ritual, as Albert narrates; “This healing ritual called ‘the blessing way’, had been passed down by our ancient ancestor. Its songs and prayers must be followed just as they had been for centuries, or the holy people will not be summoned.” Mulder then has a vision of his deceased father speaking to him.
    Numbers 19, involving the Red Heifer for the purpose purifying people and objects that come in contact with a dead body, served as an antecdote against cults of the dead, as ancestor worship was common and still is. Cults of the dead involve propitiation of the dead through sacrifice and other forms of ritual activity, as well as by magic (this sentence was plagiarized). Isaiah 8:19 says, “Now, should people say to you, ‘Inquire of the ghosts and familiar spirits that chirp and moan; for a people may inquire of its Elohim (divine beings) – and of the dead on behalf of the living – to the Torah and the testimony!’”
    What if both views are correct and it’s just a matter of how your brain is wired? That tthere was a time when humans were linked with their ancestors, as Albert narrates; “People have come to trust memory over history. Memory, like fire, is radient and immutable. While history serves only those who seek to control it.”

  5. Paul says

    The current issue of BAR (p.53), states that the early “written evidence of the export of cedar into Egypt appears in the records of Pharaoh Snefru (c.2600 B.C.E.). There he acknowledges the arrival of 40 ships filled with cedar wood. He boasts of using it in a ship 1,700 feet (510 m) long, as well as for the doors of a palace.”
    Snefru, whose name means “to make beautiful”, was the founder of the 4th dynasty known for its pyramids. These elaborate monuments to the cult of the dead king required an enormous amount of labor. The Oxford History of Ancient Egypt (p.102) states; “The Egyptian economy was not based on slave labour. Even if one allows for much of the work to have been carried out at the time when the annual innundation made it possible to work in the fields, a large force required for pyramid building had to be diverted from agricultural tasks and food production.”
    The Palermo Stone records Snefru’s response to the labor shortage; “Hacking up the land of the Negro. Bringing of 7,000 living prisoners, and 200,000 large and small cattle.”
    “These campaigns destroyed local settlements and depopulated Lower Nubia (between the 1st and 2nd Nile cataracts), apparently resulting in the disappearance of the local culture known as the A Group” (Oxford History, p.107).

  6. Paul says

    On page 52 of the current issue of BAR there is a carved relief panel that was excavated from the palace of Assyrian king Sargon II at Khorsabad, depicting ships transporting timber in what appears to be the Mediteranean Sea, judging by the aquatic life in the water. But instead of the coastal city of Tyre, Sargon claims the cedar columns used as posts to support doors in his palace in Dur-Shurrukkin (City of Sargon) were actually from Mount Amanus, in northern Syria. There was a tradition among Neo-Assyrian kings to decorate their palaces with scenes depicting the rich vegetation and fauna of northern Syria, known as the land of Hatti. “The interest in the north Syria natural landscape culminated in the second half of the empire with the construction in the Assyrian heartland of royal gardens that were, according to Sargon II’s text, ‘modeled after Mount Amanus’ in north Syria ‘in which all the aromatic herbs of Hatti and fruit trees of the mountains were planted’” (see “Representations of North Syrian Landscapes in Neo-Assyrian Art” webpage).
    It is tempting to see in this artificial landscape a semblance to Genesis 2:8; “The Lord God planted a garden in Eden, in the east..,” In Hebrew the word for “east” is similar to the word “ancient.” In ancient Mesopotamian art there are depictions of a “stylised” or “sacred” tree of which we have no definition as to their meaning, similar to the “tree of life in the MIDDLE of the garden, and the tree of the knowledge of good and bad” (Genesis 2:9). The Alexandrian philosopher Philo interprets this verse in different ways, one of which states; “But whatever is in the MIDDLE is in a manner the primary cause and beginning of things, like the leader of a chorus”, (Philo: Questions and Answers on Genesis, 1:10).
    Ironically, it is through these despotic kings and their palaces that we learn to fill in the blanks, as in the example of the royal palace of Asshurnasirpal II at Kalhu (Calah, in Genesis 10:11). The stone reliefs depict the king’s obsession with killing lions, as it is written; “Hence the saying, ‘Like Nimrod, a mighty hunter before the Lord’” (Genesis 10;9).
    Asshurnasirpal’s wall art also include superstitous representations of winged beings holding a pine cone in the right hand and a wicker basket in the left, perhaps performing a purification ritual. With a note of caution I would add; “Interest in the stylized tree has been provoked, and interpretations of it often influenced, by the ‘tree of life’ (and the ‘tree of the knowledge of good and evil’) in the Garden of Eden, in Genesis 2-3. There is no reason, however, to connect the two traditions” (“Gods, Demons and Symbols of Ancient Mesopotamia”, by Jeremy Black and Anthony Green, p. 171).

Continuing the Discussion

  1. Lebanese Cedar—The Prized Tree of Ancient Woodworking | The Ginger Jar linked to this post on May 20, 2013

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