Summary: Mudbrick was a common construction material in the ancient world. Familiarity with its use can help us better understand the message of the Bible.
“You shall no longer give the people straw to make bricks, as in the past; let them go and gather straw for themselves.” – Exodus 5:7 (ESV)
Mudbrick Construction in the Hebrew Bible and Ancient World1
One of the almost iconic memories of Israel’s enslavement in Egypt was their work to make mudbrick.2 The task became a focal point of punishment when Moses boldly demanded that Pharaoh release the Israelites to go “hold a feast [to Yahweh] in the wilderness” (Exo. 5:1). In retaliation, Pharaoh3 believed that the Israelites apparently had too much time on their hands, so he intensified their work load by depriving them of the straw necessary to make bricks. They were thus required to find sufficient stubble/straw on their own with no reduction in the expected quota of bricks (cf. Exo. 5:4-9).
As an archaeologist, people often ask me about mudbrick as a construction material. It was widely used in the ancient (and recent) world ranging easily from Mesopotamia to Egypt (and beyond).4 Our modern term adobe is a linguistic corruption of an Egyptian word that means “brick” (Lesko 2:244; Lacovara 198). The word morphed from Egyptian into Arabic into Spanish (Littman, Lorenzon, and Silverstein 60; Onions 13); however, most Americans tend to associate the word adobe with the southwest U.S.
While at first glance, many tend to denigrate mudbrick construction, in reality it offers a number of positive features. In a region that is generally devoid of easy access to wood or stone, mud serves as an ideal construction material. Interestingly, the narrative about the tower of Babel states: “And they said to one another, ‘Come, let us make bricks, and burn them thoroughly.’ And they had brick for stone, and bitumen5 for mortar” (Gen. 11:3). The Mesopotamian alluvial region was generally devoid of trees and stone, and hence soil was the most readily available resource from which to build.6
The pervasive use of mudbrick was by no means limited to commoners’ houses. Major monumental structures were built using mudbricks. Examples of bricks with the inscriptions of Mesopotamian kings such as Sargon (ca. 720 B.C.; photo above), Nebuchadnezzar (ca. 600 B.C.), as well as Ramses II in Egypt have been preserved (photos below). In stark contrast to southern Mesopotamia, however, Egypt used stone much more extensively.
But even where trees and stone are handy, mud still offers several benefits. One can easily tailor mudbricks to the needed size and thus yield a uniform size facilitating construction (David 285). They are relatively inexpensive and quick to produce and require no-or-minimal specialization (David 286). An additional major benefit is their thermal quality; the porosity left by the straw/stubble provides a degree of insulation for warmth in the winter and coolness in the summer (Homsher 3).
Mud Mixed With Straw
While there are variations in the soil composition, bricks vary with combinations of clay, silt, sand, organic material, and carbonates (Rosen 75). The organic material is necessary for an effective temper (Homsher 19-20) and usually consists of straw and/or chaff and sometimes dung (David 285). Part of the value of the temper is to reduce the shrinkage of the brick as it dries, but it also yields a more durable product. An examination of the close-up of a brick from Tel Beth-Shemesh shows the imprints of decayed remnants of straw in the clay matrix (see photo below).7
Straw, of course, was the focal point in Pharaoh’s punishment of Israel when Moses demanded permission to go serve the LORD (Exo. 5:4-9). The Hebrew word teben means “crushed stalks, straw, chaff” (Koehler and Baumgartner 2:1685). The Egyptians had typically provided the straw to the brickmakers. This would have been fairly easily accessible when the Egyptians threshed and winnowed their grain crops. The delivery of the straw from threshing and winnowing would be an easy venue by which to dispose of the straw from the threshing floors.
In the Exodus story, though, when the straw was no longer provided to them it became necessary to locate other sources. The text indicates that they resorted to “stubble” (Exo. 5:12; ESV) instead. The Hebrew word is qaš, implying a different composition. Durham (65) defines it as “trashy stubble blown about by the wind.” Alternatively, they could have retrieved animal dung to serve as a component to make brick—it would have been relatively easy to access.8 (See news of the ancient graveyard of slaves discovered in Egypt.
Mudbrick Production Techniques
The process of making mudbrick is well illustrated in a wall painting from the tomb of Rekhmire9 who was an Egyptian vizier under Thutmose III (ca. 1504-1450 B.C.) and Amenhotep II (ca. 1450-1425 B.C.; see photo at top of article). The accompanying photograph of an Egyptian model from the 12th dynasty (ca. 1991-1786 B.C.) depicts making mudbrick also demonstrating part of the process.
To the left in the wall painting at the top of the article is a shallow pit in which the workers mix, often by treading, the clay/mud and straw. A workman delivers this mixture to the brickmaker who uses a wooden mold to produce uniformly shaped bricks. William Petrie’s excavation at Lahun (aka: Kahun) in Egypt found a wooden brick mold dating from ca. 1900 B.C.11 The ancient mold forms typically had a single handle extending from one side to facilitate removal (see photo above). The mudbrick from Beth-Shemesh (below) retains small vertical ridges on the sides of the brick which were made when the wooden mold was removed. The book of Nahum (3:14) alludes to this construction procedure when Nahum sarcastically advises the Ninevites to fortify their defenses and “tread the mortar; take hold of the brick mold.” Isaiah (41:25) similarly notes the trampling work to mix the “mortar” which he parallels with the potter treading clay.
The Bible indicates that the Israelites were expected to meet a regular quota of bricks, whether straw was provided for them or not (cf. Exo. 5:8, 13, 19). Some of the bricks from Tel Beth-Shemesh preserved occasional mason marks apparently to reflect a quota expectation (see photo below). The impression in the photo was produced when the brickmaker ran three fingers along the surface of the brick, probably to add to the worker’s expected quota. (See the discovery of a new pyramid made of bricks.)
Kitchen (1976) discusses aspects of brick production from the ancient world working with various ancient Egyptian documents, but the data are ambiguous leaving unclear the daily quota expectation. Nims (27), however, provides an ethnographic observation from Egypt in the 1940s A.D. when a village near the Valley of the Kings was under construction. He records that a brickmaker and the helper who transported the mud mixture could produce two thousand to three thousand bricks in the span of seven to eight hours.
It is probably to this burden of brick production that the psalmist likely alludes in Psalm 81:6. There, God recalled that “I relieved your shoulder of the burden; your hands were freed from the basket.” The allusion probably is a synecdoche to describe the transfer of mud to the brickmakers and the finished product to the mode of transportation. The Rekhmire drawing at the top shows workers using baskets to transport material to the brickmakers.
Maintaining Mudbrick Walls
Obviously, water is an arch enemy of mudbricks. It will dissolve the bricks as well as weaken them, especially near the base of the walls. Several strategies can help minimize the adverse effects of water. Typically, the construction techniques in the Ancient Near East involved building a stone foundation of 2-3 courses of stone upon which mudbricks were then placed to the desired height. The stone foundation would minimize the capillary action of water and salts seeping into the lower courses of bricks (Rosen 11). It would also help reduce the erosive effect of water splashing from the roof back onto the bricks or from water running in the street12 (Homsher 2).
Another maintenance issue was regularly to plaster and re-plaster the walls. This helped retard the effects of moisture and erosion, as well as the intrusion of plants, insects, and animals (Homsher 3).
Biblical Lessons From Mudbricks
Ezekiel 13:10-15 (as well as Ezek. 22:28) refers to “whitewash” on the walls, but the way the prophet speaks it is clear that this is something more than merely cosmetic. The etymology of the word rendered “whitewash” is problematic (Marböck 743-44), but the point in Ezekiel remains clear. Greenberg (238) points out that “‘they’ who daubed the wall were the prophets: the people built the dry wall—a figure of their unfounded optimism, while the prophets daubed it with worthless stuff—their self-inspired predictions of well-being.” Block (406) further elaborates: “In the first place, the walls are poorly constructed,… But instead of correcting the defects in workmanship of the brickmakers and bricklayers, as soon as the walls are up, other workmen come along and cover all the evidences of poor quality with plaster.”
Elsewhere in Ezekiel (12:1-7), the LORD instructs Ezekiel to dig through the wall (apparently of the town) at dusk and to carry his “exile’s baggage” (Ezek. 12:3) away from the town. This was to serve as a visual representation of the impending doom on God’s people, particularly in Jerusalem (cf. 12:8-16)—that they would go into exile. The book of Ezekiel indicates, however, that Ezekiel lived in Mesopotamia by the Chebar canal near Babylon (1:1-3).13 Like most towns of Mesopotamia, it was probably protected with a mudbrick wall (the likelihood that it was of the magnitude of Babylon’s,14 however, is very slim). Since the wall would have been of unbaked mudbrick, to dig through it to represent the exile would be relatively easy.
In the New Testament, Jesus includes mudbrick construction in his “Sermon on the Mount.” When he advocates that one should seek first the kingdom of God (Matt. 6:33), he began the section by advising that one not “lay up … treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal.” Instead one should lay up treasure in heaven where none of these things can occur (6:19-20). The word “break in” is diorussō, which Danker (251) defines as “to break through a wall or barrier. In our lit. of a thief who digs through the (sun-dried brick) wall of a house and gains entrance, break through, break in” [sic]. The action would take advantage of the intrinsic weakness of the wall, similar to the instruction given to Ezekiel (although for very different reasons).
Mudbrick was a ubiquitous construction material in the ancient world. The materials for making brick were easily accessible and its construction required essentially no specialization. It is thus not surprising that mudbrick in some fashion would become part of the storyline of the Bible and even part of the teaching mechanism for the people. Familiarity with the use of mudbrick and some of its characteristics of construction and its use can help refine our understanding and appreciation of the message of the Bible. It can also aid our efforts to Keep Thinking.
1 My sincerest thanks to Mark Lanier, Charles Mickey, and the Lanier Theological Library in Houston, TX for permission to research aspects of this article in the library.
2 The Exodus narrative indicates that part of Israel’s forced labor was also “in all kinds of work in the field” (Exo. 1:14). This would likely include forced labor to dig and maintain parts of the extensive canal systems that channeled water into the fields as well as extracting the water from the canals by means of the shaduf—a counter-balanced lever system that would lift the water from the canals into the smaller channels in the fields.
3 The Pharaoh’s identity remains elusive. The term pharaoh is a generic term to refer to the king of Egypt, it was not his formal name, somewhat akin to our use of president to refer to the chief executive office of the United States. The debate that swirls around the Pharaoh’s identity revolves in large part to the debate to determine exactly when the exodus event occurred. The two major dates are the mid-15th century B.C. and the early/mid-13th century B.C.
4 Reich (5) notes that mudbrick construction has typified houses in Canaan/Palestine from the Neolithic until modern times.
5 In the fifth century B.C., Herodotus (Histories 1.179) described the construction of the walls of Babylon of fired mudbrick and “hot bitumen for cement.”
6 The Genesis narrative’s point of explanation is interesting. It implies that the original readers for whom the narrative was intended (probably the Israelites as they emerged from bondage in Egypt) were somewhat unfamiliar with major monumental architecture built of mudbrick. When the Israelites were in Egypt, much (but not all) of the monumental architecture was of stone. Peck (201) notes that a number of the stone temples in Egypt were part stone and part mudbrick which was plastered and painted to blend with the stone structures. “In the Precinct of Mut at Karnak the remains of two major pylons exist only in mudbrick, attesting to this practice” (Peck 201). Mudbrick, however, was routinely used for residential construction (Lacovara 198).
7 This brick fragment dates from ca. 1350 B.C. when the structure was destroyed in an intense fire. The bricks of the building reflect two sizes—large ones were 50 x 35 x 10 cm (19.7 x 13.8 x 3.9 in.) while the smaller ones were 40 x 20 x 10 cm (15.7 x 7.9 x 3.9 in.; Ashkenazi). These are larger than the example from Lahun/Kahun that Petrie discovered (28.8 x 14.6 x 8.4 cm = 11.3 x 5.7 x 3.3 in.).
8 To use dung as the temper in the bricks, however, would likely pose another problem. Dried animal dung patties were often used as fuel sources, even for cooking! Ezekiel did not object when the LORD changed his directive to cook his food using human dung as the fuel source to permit him to use cow’s dung instead (Ezek. 4:9-16).
9 Rekhmire’s tomb (TT100) is in the “Valley of the Nobles” on the west bank of the Nile across from Thebes (modern Luxor).
10 This miniature brick mold was part of a foundation deposit from Hatshepsut’s temple (ca. 1479-1458 BC (courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum; item 22.3.252). The above model of brick making from the 12th dynasty also depicts the single handle on the model. In addition, the person with the “hoe” stands with no feet—his feet are buried in the mud mixture.
11 The artifact is in the Manchester Museum collection (accession number 51)
12 While some ancient towns had drainage pipes, most relied on the street as the place to deposit garbage and to drain water. The lower courses of the walls could easily be exposed to moisture. Several references in the Bible note the mire and/or water in the streets (cf. 2 Sam 22:43; Psa. 18:42; Pro. 5:16; Isa. 5:25; 10:6; Mic. 7:10).
13 Ezekiel’s bifurcated presence near Babylon and in Jerusalem raises an interesting interpretive conundrum. Ezekiel describes himself as being by the Chebar near Babylon (1:1-3), but sometimes he is “lifted up” and taken away by the “lock of his head” to Jerusalem, yet he is “in visions of God” (Ezek. 8:3; cf. also 11:1 and then back to Chaldea, 11:24). Elsewhere he is “lifted up” and taken away to the people at Chebar (Ezek. 3:12-15). Are these revelations the result of a teleportation or “merely” (by no means to trivialize) visions?
14 Oates (148) describes the composite walls of Babylon. They consisted of a ring of unfired mudbrick seven meters in width, outside of which was a gap of twelve meters, which in turn was circumscribed by another seven-meter-plus baked mudbrick wall faced with an additional three meters of baked mudbrick. The twelve-meter gap was filled with rubble. This span was topped with a passageway which could accommodate a four-horse chariot (Herodotus, Histories 1.179).
Ashkenazi, Hai. Report on the mudbricks from Tel Beth-Shemesh. Presented at the Annual Meetings of the American Schools of Oriental Research. Chicago, November 2012.
Block, Daniel I. The Book of Ezekiel, Chapters 1-24. New International Commentary on the Old Testament. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1997.
Danker, Frederick William (ed.). A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature. 3d ed. Chicago: University of Chicago, 2000.
David, Rosalie. Handbook to Life in Ancient Egypt. New York: Facts on File, 1998.
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Greenberg, Moshe. Ezekiel, 1-20. Anchor Bible 22. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1983.
Homsher, Robert S. “Mud Bricks and the Process of Construction in the Middle Bronze Age Southern Levant.” Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research 368 (2012): 1-27.
Jansen, Hans Günter. “Troy: Legend and Reality.” Pp. 1121-34 in Civilizations of the Ancient Near East, vol. 2. Ed. J. M. Sasson. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1995.
Kitchen, Kenneth. “From the Brickfields of Egypt.” Tyndale Bulletin 27 (1976): 137-47.
Koehler, Ludwig and Walter Baumgartner. The Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament (Study Edition). Leiden: Brill, 2001.
Lacovara, Peter. “Bricks and Brick Architecture.” Pp. 198-200 in The Oxford Encyclopedia of Ancient Egypt, vol. 1. Ed. D. B. Redford. Oxford: Oxford University, 2001.
Lesko, Leonard H., ed. A Dictionary of Late Egyptian, vol. 2. 2nd ed. Providence, RI: B. C. Scribe Publications, 2004.
Littman, Robert, Marta Lorenzon, and Jay Silverstein. “With and Without Straw: How Israelite Slaves Made Bricks.” Biblical Archaeology Review 40.2 (2014): 60-63, 71.
Marböck, J. “tāpēl.” Pp. 740-44 in Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament, vol. 15. Eds. G. J. Botterweck, H. Ringgren, H.-J. Fabry. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2006.
Nims, Charles F. “Bricks Without Straw?” Biblical Archaeologist 13.2 (1950): 22-28.
Oates, Joan. Babylon. Rev. ed. London: Thames and Hudson, 1986.
Onions, C. T., ed. Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology. Oxford: Clarendon, 1996.
Peck, William H. “cult [sic] temples, construction techniques.” Pp. 199-201 in Encyclopedia of the Archaeology of Ancient Egypt. Ed. K. A. Bard. New York: Routledge, 1999.
Reich, Ronny. “Building Materials and Architectural Elements in Ancient Israel.” Pp. 1-16 in The Architecture of Ancient Israel. Eds. A. Kempinski and R. Reich. Jerusalem: Israel Exploration Society, 1992.
Rosen, Arlene Miller. Cities of Clay: The Geoarchaeology of Tells. Chicago: University of Chicago, 1986.
TOP PHOTO: A scene of brick making from the 18th Dynasty tomb of Rekhmire.9 (courtesy of Ferrell Jenkins)