Advances in archaeology continue to support the veracity of events described in the Bible. In this case, discovery of ancient mining techniques and of trade routes match details explained in the book of Job.
Many scholars consider the book of Job to be the oldest written book in the Bible, perhaps predating Genesis. They estimate that Job was written between 1900 and 1700 BC, hundreds of years before Moses wrote the Pentateuch (the first five books of the Bible). Given that the book of Job may be nearly 4,000 years old, verifying its age can be challenging. One way to address this concern is by examining references to lapis lazuli, a gemstone, in Job chapter 28.
Lapis Lazuli Formation
Lapis lazuli, also known as “blue rock,” forms when rocks containing the lazurite mineral are heated to a molten state and mixed with other minerals. This rare process occurs deep within the earth and is followed by tectonic uplift, which creates mountains with veins of lapis lazuli. The ore must then be processed to separate it from the surrounding materials. The resulting pure lapis can be polished into gemstones for jewelry or ground into a powder to create ultramarine, a highly valued blue pigment.
Interestingly, the Hebrew word used in Job 28 (and elsewhere in the Old Testament) is sapîr, which literally means “the perfect.” Most older Bible versions translate sapîr as “sapphire,” also a blue-colored gemstone. However, gemologists now know that sapphire entered ancient civilizational use about 700 BC.1 Therefore, sapîr is now translated as “lapis lazuli,” a gemstone known since several thousand years BC and probably the one referred to in Job.
Royal Use of Lapis Lazuli
Lapis lazuli held great significance in ancient cultures due to its unique blue pigment. Its rarity made it a luxury item affordable only by royalty. The term “royal blue” was coined during Sumerian times to describe lapis lazuli’s exclusivity.
Archaeologists have discovered many examples of royalty using lapis. In the Sumerian city of Ur, where Abraham was born, archaeologists unearthed 68 female bodies adorned with ornate necklaces featuring lapis and gold. Lapis bull figurines were found buried next to a king in the royal tomb of Ur, and the queen was buried with even more lapis items than the king. The funeral mask of King Tut, the child Pharaoh of Egypt, also features lapis lazuli. Michelangelo’s fresco in the Sistine Chapel in Rome depicts angels flying against a blue background, with the blue color derived from ultramarine created from powdered lapis lazuli.
Discovery of Mining Operations
The world’s best lapis mines are in present-day Afghanistan, where the highest quality lapis lazuli is still being mined. Lapis mines can also be found in Russia, Chile, Argentina, and even in Colorado. The Sumerians extracted their lapis lazuli from the mines in Afghanistan, the only known source at the time.
The discovery of abundant Lapis Lazuli in Sumeria indicates the existence of ancient trade routes used for its transportation. These trade routes extended from Mesopotamia through Afghanistan to the Indus Valley, the site of another ancient civilization.
Mining lapis lazuli was (and still is) a difficult task. The ancient mines were located in Badakshan, Afghanistan, where mountains as high as 17,000 feet are separated by treacherous ravines. Miners would spend the night at a base camp above the tree line and ascend another 1,100 feet in the morning, navigating terrain full of loose aggregate from previous mining operations. In the evening, they would carry lapis-containing ore back to the base camp. The precious stones would then travel along the narrow trade routes, barely three feet wide, nestled in mountainsides with steep drops into abysses.
Today, small trucks traverse similar pathways along rocky roads, barely wide enough for one vehicle. The truck route from the nearest city takes about 15–20 hours for a one-way trip, making it one of the most dangerous roads on Earth. In ancient times, miners would have traveled for several days to cover a similar distance.
Archaeologists have uncovered evidence of ancient manufacturing operations along the lapis trade route.2 Two locations contain lapis manufacturing villages, where raw ores were refined by middlemen. Using simple stone tools, the middlemen would extract pure lapis from the ore and shape it into beads, powder, or other forms. These processed gemstones were then traded with both the Indus Valley and Sumerian civilizations.
The mining technique used to extract lapis lazuli from the mountains was primitive but remained in use until the twentieth century. The process involved starting a large fire next to the rock and then splashing cold water on its surface. The heat caused the rocks to expand, while rapid cooling caused them to contract and crack. Miners would then use simple stone tools to chip away at the loosened rocks and extract the ore. This process was repeated, which allowed the miners to tunnel into the mountains following the lapis lazuli veins.
Details Match the Book of Job
Job 28:4–6 perfectly describes this mining process:
4Far from human dwellings they cut a shaft, in places untouched by human feet; far from other people they dangle and sway. 5The earth, from which food comes, is transformed below as by fire; 6lapis lazuli comes from its rocks, and its dust contains nuggets of gold.
Verse 4 depicts the remote path to the mine, while verse 5 explains the use of fire to extract the rock. Verse 6 mentions that lapis rocks contain nuggets of gold. Although actual gold nuggets may have been part of ancient deposits, most likely the author was referring to pyrite, a mineral mixed with lapis. Pyrite, also known as “fool’s gold,” looks like gold. Its sparkling color contrasts with the deep blue of lapis lazuli. The specks of pyrite scattered within the deep blue lapis resemble stars in the night sky or sunshine scattering off the deep blue sea. With such symbolism contained in one gemstone, it is no wonder lapis lazuli was highly valued by the ancients!
The next two verses in the passage (Job 28:7–8) suggest the general location of the mines, emphasizing their isolation from predators:
7No bird of prey knows that hidden path, no falcon’s eye has seen it. 8Proud beasts do not set foot on it, and no lion prowls there.
Only a high mountain region well above the tree line would match this description. Additionally, the writer provides a detail unknown to archaeologists—the path was “hidden.” Apparently, the path from the trade route to the mines was known only by a select few people. Finally, verses 9 and 10 complete the description of the miners’ work:
9People assault the flinty rock with their hands and lay bare the roots of the mountains. 10They tunnel through the rock; their eyes see all its treasures. (Job 28:4–10)
Such a strong match between archaeological finds and the words in Job is uncanny. But there is more to this passage than merely an accurate description of ancient lapis mining operations—compelling as that is. The writer’s use of the present tense suggests that the mining operations and associated trading network were happening concurrently with the writing of Job. This conclusion is significant because the Mesopotamia-Indus trade route deteriorated, becoming unusable around 1500 BC3, marking the latest possible date for the writing of Job. This observation independently confirms what scholars have determined through other means: that the book of Job is, indeed, the oldest book in the Bible.
- Antique Jewelry University, “Sapphire,” accessed June 21, 2023, https://www.langantiques.com/university/sapphire/.
- Maurizio Tosi and Marcello Piperno, “Lithic Technology behind the Ancient Lapis Lazuli Trade,” Expedition 16, no. 1 (1973), 15.
- Danielle Alexander, “A Biography of Lapis Lazuli: A Journey through the Bronze Age,” ClassicalWisdom.com, April 15, 2022.