The ancient Egyptian word appears in the modern Egyptian Arabic toob. In Syria the sun-baked bricks are commonly called libn or lebin, from the same Semitic root as the Hebrew word.
Bricks are mentioned only a few times in the Bible. The story of how the Children of Israel, while in bondage in Egypt, had their task of brick-making made more irksome by being required to collect their own straw is one of the most familiar of Bible narratives (Exodus 1:14; 5:7,10-19).
Modern excavations at Pithom in Egypt (Exodus 1:11) show that most of the bricks of which that store-city was built were made of mud and straw baked in the sun. These ruins are chosen as an example from among the many ancient brick structures because they probably represent the work of the very Hebrew slaves who complained so bitterly of their royal taskmaster. In some of the upper courses rushes had been substituted for straw, and still other bricks had no fibrous material. These variations could be explained by a scarcity of straw at that time, since, when there was a shortage in the crops, all the straw (Arabic, tibn) was needed for feeding the animals. It may be that when the order came for the workmen to provide their own straw they found it impossible to gather sufficient and still furnish the required number of bricks (Exodus 5:8). However, the quality of clay of which some of the bricks were made was such that no straw was needed.
Brickmaking in early Egyptian history was a government monopoly. The fact that the government pressed into service her Asiatic captives, among whom were the Children of Israel, made it impossible for independent makers to compete. The early bricks usually bore the government, stamp or the stamp of some temple authorized to use the captives for brick manufacture. The methods employed by the ancient Egyptians differ in no respect from the modern procedure in that country. The Nile mud is thoroughly slipped or mixed and then rendered more cohesive by the addition of chopped straw or stubble. The pasty mass is next worked into a mould made in the shape of a box without a bottom. If the sides of the mould have been dusted with dry earth it will easily slip off and the brick is allowed to dry in the sun until it becomes so hard that the blow of a hammer is often necessary to break it.
When the children of Israel emigrated to their new country they found the same methods of brickmaking employed by the inhabitants, methods which are still in vogue throughout the greater part of Palestine and Syria. In the interior of the country, especially where the building stone is scarce or of poor quality, the houses are made of sun-baked brick (libn). Frequently the west and south walls, which are exposed most to the winter storms, are made of hewn stone and the rest of the structure of bricks. When the brick-laying is finished the house is plastered inside and outside with the same material of which the bricks are made and finally whitewashed or painted with grey- or yellow-colored earth. The outer coating of plaster must be renewed from year to year. In some of the villages of northern Syria the brick houses are dome-shaped, looking much like beehives. In the defiant assertion of Isaiah 9:10 the superiority of hewn stone over bricks implied a greater difference in cost and stability than exists between a frame house and a stone house in western lands today.
In the buildings of ancient Babylonia burnt bricks were used. These have been found by modern excavators, which confirms the description of Genesis 11:3. Burnt bricks were rarely used in Egypt before the Roman period and in Palestine their use for building purposes was unknown. Specimens of partially burnt, glazed bricks have been found in Babylonia and recently in one of the Hittite mounds of northern Syria. These were probably used for decorative purposes only. If burnt bricks had been generally used in Palestine, races of them would have been found with the pottery which is so abundant in the ruins (see
The fact that unburnt bricks were so commonly used explains how the sites of such cities as ancient Jericho could have become lost for so many centuries. When the houses and walls fell they formed a heap of earth not distinguishable from the surrounding soil. The wood rotted and the iron rusted away, leaving for the excavator a few bronze and stone implements and the fragments of pottery which are so precious as a means of identification. The "tels" or mounds of Palestine and Syria often represent the ruins of several such cities one above the other.
H. A. Harper, The Bible and Modern Discoveries; Wilkinson, Manners and Customs of the Ancient Egyptians; Erman, Life in Ancient Egypt; Hilprecht, Recent Research in Bible Lands.
James A. Patch