As Israel spread through the Promised Land, she faced Canaanite kings whose armies had “iron chariots” (rekeb barzel) (Joshua 17:16, 18; Judges 1:19, 4:3, 13). As recently as 1983, one commentator has told us, “It is historically highly improbable… that the Canaanaites were equipped with iron chariots before the end of the second millennium B.C.1

But the archaeological evidence is clearly to the contrary. The biblical text does not require us to suppose that the Canaanite chariots were wholly iron, but only that they were strengthened with it, as several commentators have realized2 But as the evidence in the accompanying article shows, iron was sufficiently available in the Late Bronze Age to make iron-plated chariots plausible.

These iron chariots were an especially menacing threat to the Israelites. That iron was well known for its strength earlier than the Iron Age itself (1200–586 B.C.) comes from several ancient texts. In a blessing on the pharaoh Ramesses II (c.1279–1213 B.C.), the god Ptah is made to say to him, “I fashioned your body of electrum, your bones of bronze, your limbs of iron.”3 This same pharaoh described himself in his address to his troops before the Battle of Qadesh (c. 1274 B.C.) in these words: “Do you not realize that I am your wall of iron?”4

A similar expression is found in the Gebel Barkal Stele of Tuthmosis III (c.1479–1425 B.C.): “He is a king who is … an effective fortress for his army and a rampart of iron.”5

Hittite scribes had a stock phrase with which they concluded royal land donations, “the words of the Tabarna, the Great King, are of iron, not to be refuted, not to be broken.” The oldest examples come from the reign of Hattusilis I, about 1650 B.C., and show how early the qualities of iron were sufficiently familiar to be used in such a metaphor.6

All these figures of speech rest upon the strength or hardness of the metal and its ability to resist attack, especially, we may imagine, by arrows and spears. The testimony of these references must be given due weight, although studies of iron’s early history have given little attention to it.

Several biblical references to iron as metaphors have been characterized as necessarily late, but the literary references I have just cited indicate otherwise. In Deuteronomy 28, Moses tells the people of Israel of the curses that will befall them if they are not faithful to the word of the Lord and his commandments. One of the curses threatens that “The Lord will strike you… with scorching heat and drought… the skies above you shall be copper and the earth under you iron” (Deuteronomy 28:22–23; similarly Leviticus 26:19). Frequently it is claimed that this cannot have come from the time of Moses. But the evidence I have just cited indicates that this expression may reflect a much more ancient expression than is often supposed.

Similarly with the repeated comparison of the Egyptian oppression of Israel with an “iron furnace,” (kur habbarzel) (Deuteronomy 4:20; 1 Kings 8:51; Jeremiah 11:4), this expression may stem from the actual experience of those who toiled under the pharaoh’s lash.

Returning to the Canaanite chariots of iron which were so menacing to the early Israelites, It is noteworthy that after the Book of Judges, the Hebrew writers never again describe chariots of “iron.” Either the metal was later a normal component of a chariot and so did not deserve mention, or “iron chariots” were in fashion only for a short period, perhaps as an experimental weapon. In any event, the evidence indicates that there is no reason to conclude that the Canaanite chariots of iron are an anachronism inserted by a later editor.