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Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological and Ecclesiastical Literature
is the constant rendering in the A.V. of the Heb. חֵמָר, chenmir, the hommar of the Arabs, translated ἄσφαλτος by the Sept., and bitumen in the Vulg. That our translators understood by this word the substance now known as bitumen is evident from the following passages in Holland's Pliny (ed. 1634): "The very clammy slime Bitumen, which at certaine times of the yere floteth and swimmeth upon the lake of Sodom, called Asphaltites in Jury" (7, 15; vol. 1, p. 163). "The Bitumen whereof I speake is in some places in manner of a muddy slime; in others, very earth or mineral" (35, 15; vol. 2, p. 557).
The three instances in which it is mentioned in the Old Test. are abundantly illustrated by travelers and historians, ancient and modern. It is first spoken of as used for cement by the builders in the plain of Shinar, or Babylonia (Genesis 11:3). The bitumen pits in the vale of Siddim are mentioned in the ancient fragment of Canaanitish history (14:10); and the ark of papyrus in which Moses was placed was made impervious to water by a coating of bitumen and pitch (Exodus 2:3).
Herodotus (1, 179) tells us of the bitumen found at Is, a town of Babylonia, eight days' journey from Babylon. The captive Eretrians (Herod. 6, 119) were sent by Darius to collect asphaltum, salt, and oil at Ardericca, a place two hundred and ten stadia from Susa, in the district of Cissia. The town of Is was situated on a river or small stream of the same name which flowed into the Euphrates and carried down withit the lumps of bitumen which were used in the building of Babylon. It is probably the bitumen springs of Is which are described in Strabo (16, 743). Eratosthenes, whom he quotes, says that the liquid bitumen, which is called naphtha, is found in Susiana, and the dry in Babylonia. Of the latter there is a spring near the Euphrates, and when the river is flooded by the melting of the snow the spring also is filled and overflows into the river. The masses of bitumen thus produced are fit for buildings which are made of baked brick. Dioddrus Siculus. (2, 12) speaks of the abundance of bitumen in Babylonia. It proceeds from a spring, and is gathered by the people of the country, not only for building, but, when dry, for fuel instead of wood. Ammianus Marcellinus (23, 6, 23) tells us that Babylon was built with bitumen by Semiramis (comp. Pliny, 35, 51; Berosus, quoted by Josephus, Ant. 10, 11, 1; Contra Apion. 1, 19; Arrian, Excp. A. 7, 17, 1, etc.).
The town of Is, mentioned by Herodotus, is, without doubt, the modern Hit, on the west, or right, bank of the Euphrates, and four days' journey northwest, or rather west northwest, of Bagdad (Sir R. Ker Porter, Trav. 2, 361, ed. 1822). The principal bitumen pit at Hit, says Mr. Rich (Memoir on the Ruins of Babylon, p. 63, ed. 1815), has two sources, and is divided by a wall in the center, on one side of which the bitumen bubbles up, and on the other the oil of naphtha. Sir R. K. Porter (2, 315) observed "that bitumen was chiefly confined, by the Chaldmean builders, to the foundations and lower parts of their edifices, for the purpose of preventing the ill effects of water." "With regard to the use of bitumen," he adds, "I saw no vestige of it whatever on any remnant of building on the higher ascents, and therefore drier regions." This view is indirectly confirmed by Mr. Rich, who says that the tenacity of bitumen bears no proportion to that of mortar. The use of bitumen appears to have been confined to the Babylonians, for at Nineveh, Mr. Layard observes (Nin. and Bab. 2, 278), "Bitumen and reeds were not employed to cement the layers of bricks as at Babylon; although both materials are to be found in abundance in the immediate vicinity of the city." At Nimrud bitumen was found under a pavement (ibid. 1, 29), and" the sculpture rested simply upon the platform of sun-dried bricks without any other substructure, a mere layer of bitumen about an inch thick having been placed under the plinth" (ibid. p. 208). In his description of the firing of the bitumen pits at Nimrfd by his Arabs, Mr. Layard falls into the language of our translators. "Tongues of flame and jets of gas, driven from the burning pit, shot through the murky canopy. As the fire brightened, a thousand fantastic forms of light played amid the smoke. To break the cindered crust and to bring fresh slime to the surface, the Arabs threw large stones into the spring. In an hour the bitumen was exhausted for. the time, the dense smoke gradually died away, and the pale light of the moon again shone over the black slime pits" (ibid. p. 202). (See BABYLON).
The bitumen of the Dead Sea is described by Strabo, Josephus, and Pliny. Strabo (16, 763) gives an account of the volcanic action by which the bottom of the sea was disturbed and the bitumen thrown to the surface. It was at first liquefied by the heat, and then changed into a thick, viscous substance by the cold water of the sea, on the surface of which it floated in lumps (βῶλοι ). These lumps are described by Josephus (War, 4, 8, 4) as of the size and shape of a headless ox (comp. Pliny, 7, 13). The semi-liquid kind of bitumen is that which Pliny says is found in the Dead Sea, the earthy in Syria about Sidon. Liquid bitumen, such as the Zacynthian, the Babylonian, and the Apolloniatic, he adds, is known by the Greeks by the name of pis-asphaltum (comp. Exodus 2:3, Sept.). He tells us, moreover, that it was used for cement. and that bronze vessels and statues and the heads of nails were covered with it (Pliny, 35:51). The bitumen pits by the Dead Sea are described by the monk Brocardus (Descr. Terr. Sanct. c. 7, in Ugolino, 6, 1044). The Arabs of the neighborhood have perpetuated the story of its formation as given by Strabo. "They say that it forms on the rocks in the depths of the sea, and by earthquakes or other submarine concussions is broken off in large masses and rises to the surface" (Thomson, Land and Book, 1, 336). They told Burckhardt a similar tale. "The asphaltum, hommar, which is collected by the Arabs of the western shore is said to come from a mountain which blocks up the passage along the eastern Ghor, and which is situated at about two hours south of Wady Mojeb. The Arabs pretend that it oozes up from fissures in the cliff, and collects in large pieces on the rock below, where the mass gradually increases and hardens until it is rent asunder by the heat of the sun with a loud explosion, and, falling:into the sea, is carried by the waves in considerable quantities to the opposite shores" (Trav. in Syria, p. 394). Dr. Thomson tells us that the Arabs still call these pits by the name biaret hummar, which strikingly resembles the Heb. beeroth chemar of Genesis 14:10 (ut sup.). (See SALT SEA).
Strabo says that in Babylonia boats were made of wicker work and then covered with bitumen to keep out the water (16, 743). In the same way the ark of rushes or papyrus in which Moses was placed was plastered over with a mixture of bitumen and pitch or tar. Dr. Thomson remarks (p. 224): "This is doubly interesting, as it reveals the process by which they prepared the bitumen. The mineral, as found in this country, melts readily enough by itself; but then, when cold, it is as brittle as glass. It must be mixed witl tar while melting, and in that way forms a hard, glossy wax perfectly impervious to water." We know from Strabo (16, 764) that the Egyptians used the bitumen of the Dead Sea in the process of embalming, and Pliny (6, 35) mentions a spring of the same mineral at Corambis in Ethiopia. (See BITUMEN).
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McClintock, John. Strong, James. Entry for 'Slime'. Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological and Ecclesiastical Literature. https://www.studylight.org/encyclopedias/eng/tce/s/slime.html. Harper & Brothers. New York. 1870.