Lebanese Cedar—The Prized Tree of Ancient Woodworking

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

This Bible History Daily feature was originally published in May 2013.—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).

Our free eBook Ten Top Biblical Archaeology Discoveries brings together the exciting worlds of archaeology and the Bible! Learn the fascinating insights gained from artifacts and ruins, like the Pool of Siloam in Jerusalem, where the Gospel of John says Jesus miraculously restored the sight of the blind man, and the Tel Dan inscription—the first historical evidence of King David outside the Bible.

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

 
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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  • M says

    We have one big Lebanese cedar tree in our yard. Beautiful

  • Jeanne says

    Read The Harbinger by Jonathan Cahn. You will understand more about the Cedar tree

  • Anglea says

    For the reference with how the temple was made out of cedar it has 1 Kings 5:20,but there isn’t a verse 20 in chapter 5 of 1 Kings, it it goes to 18 verses than chapter 6. Just thought you might want to know that.

  • 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).

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