It is by no means certain that the Hebrews were acquainted with mineral coal, although it is found in Syria. Their common fuel was dried dung of animals and wood charcoal. Two different words are found in Hebrew to denote coal, both occurring in Proverbs 26:21 , "As coal [Heb. peham; i.e., "black coal"] is to burning coal [Heb. gehalim]." The latter of these words is used in Job 41:21 ; Proverbs 6:28 ; Isaiah 44:19 . The words "live coal" in Isaiah 6:6 are more correctly "glowing stone." In Lamentations 4:8 the expression "blacker than a coal" is literally rendered in the margin of the Revised Version "darker than blackness." "Coals of fire" ( 2 Samuel 22:9 2 Samuel 22:13 ; Psalms 18:8 Psalms 18:12 Psalms 18:13 , etc.) is an expression used metaphorically for lightnings proceeding from God. A false tongue is compared to "coals of juniper" ( Psalms 120:4 ; James 3:6 ). "Heaping coals of fire on the head" symbolizes overcoming evil with good. The words of Paul ( Romans 12:20 ) are equivalent to saying, "By charity and kindness thou shalt soften down his enmity as surely as heaping coals on the fire fuses the metal in the crucible."
The first and most frequent use of the word rendered coal is a live ember, burning fuel. ( Proverbs 26:21 ) In ( 2 Samuel 22:9 2 Samuel 22:13 ) "coals of fire" are put metaphorically for the lightnings proceeding from God. ( Psalms 18:8 Psalms 18:12 Psalms 18:13 ; 140:10 ) In ( Proverbs 26:21 ) fuel not yet lighted is clearly signified. The fuel meant in the above passage is probably charcoal, and not coal in our sense of the word.
kol (pecham, "charcoal"; compare Arabic fachm, "charcoal"; gacheleth, "burning coal" or "hot ember"; compare Arabic jacham, "to kindle"; shechor, "a black coal" (Lamentations 4:8); compare Arabic shachchar, "soot" or "dark-colored sandstone"; retseph (1 Kings 19:6), and ritspah (= Rizpah) (Isaiah 6:6), margin "a hot stone"; compare resheph, "a flame" (Song of Solomon 8:6; Habakkuk 3:5); anthrax, "a live coal" (Romans 12:20) (= gacheleth in Proverbs 25:22); anthrakia, "a live coal" (John 18:18; 21:9)):
There is no reference to mineral coal in the Bible. Coal, or more properly lignite, of inferior quality, is found in thin beds (not exceeding 3 ft.) in the sandstone formation (see GEOLOGY OF PALESTINE, under Nubian Sandstone), but there is no evidence of its use in ancient times. Charcoal is manufactured in a primitive fashion which does not permit the conservation of any by-products. A flat, circular place (Arabic beidar, same name as for a threshing-floor) 10 or 15 ft. in diameter is prepared in or conveniently near to the forest. On this the wood, to be converted into charcoal, is carefully stacked in a dome-shaped structure, leaving an open space in the middle for fine kindlings. All except the center is first covered with leaves, and then with earth. The kindlings in the center are then fired and afterward covered in the same manner as the rest. While it is burning or smoldering it is carefully watched, and earth is immediately placed upon any holes that may be formed in the covering by the burning of the wood below. In several days, more or less, according to the size of the pile, the wood is converted into charcoal and the heap is opened. The charcoal floor is also called in Arabic mashcharah, from shachchar, "soot"; compare Hebrew shechor. The characteristic odor of the mashcharah clings for months to the spot.
In Psalms 120:4, there is mention of "coals of juniper," the Revised Version, margin "broom," rothem. This is doubtless the Arabic retem, Retama roetam, Forsk., a kind of broom which is abundant in Judea and Moab. Charcoal from oak wood, especially Quercus coccifera, L., Arabic sindyan, is much preferred to other kinds, and fetches a higher price.
In most of the passages where English versions have "coal," the reference is not necessarily to charcoal, but may be to coals of burning wood. Pecham in Proverbs 26:21, however, seems to stand for charcoal: - "As coals are to hot embers, and wood to fire, So is a contentious man to inflame strife." + The same may be true of pecham in Isaiah 44:12 and Isaiah 54:16; also of shechor in Lamentations 4:8.
Alfred Ely Day
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