The importance of light and lamps mentioned in the Torah cannot be over emphasised. At the very beginning of Torah we are told: “And God said: ‘Let there be light.’ And there was light. And God saw the light, that it was good” (Genesis 1:3). Judaism has always considered light as a symbol of holiness, goodness, knowledge, wisdom, grace and hope. Proverbs 20:27 informs us: “The candle of God is the soul of man.” By contrast, darkness has been associated with evil, sin, and despair. 1 Samuel 2:9 “He will keep the feet of his pious ones, and the wicked shall be silent in darkness.”
Each Passover Seder we spill 10 drops of wine whilst we enumerate the 10 plagues that befell the Egyptians. The 9th plague, 3 days of total darkness appears trivial by comparison to the other plagues, but was it? I must confess until contemplating this sermon I had wondered why this 9th plague was in the same league as the other plagues. How could 3 days of darkness be compared to the death and pestilence visited on the Egyptians by the other plagues? The 3 days of darkness inflicted on the Egyptians involved horrific physical and psychological damage.
The Torah’s exact words are “lo-ra’u ish et-achiv velo-kamu ish mitachtav”: literally, ‘no one could see anyone else and no one could raise himself up from his low place’. The darkness for the Egyptians was not merely an absence of light; it had a substance that remains for an extended period of time. In his commentary, Nachmanides suggests that the darkness was composed of such a thick fog like substance that it extinguished all of the lamps; there was no light at all. No way to see up or down; no means of telling day from night. No opportunity to see oneself in relation to others. Not knowing when or if this total isolation in darkness would end.
Pillars of Smoke and Fire
It’s hard to imagine, given the way we communicate today using the internet and our mobile phones, that less sophisticated telegraphic methods existed during the time of the Exodus. A New Scientist article titled “Flash that Shield” describes the following: “References to telegraphic systems can be found in almost every period from which written records survive,” note authors Gerard J. Holzmann and Björn Pehrson. They list pigeons as the first long-distance message carriers in Egypt about 2900 BCE. Human messengers were carrying messages across kingdoms by relay from the time of Sesostris I, who ruled Egypt from 1971 to 1928 BCE. As time passed and empires grew, messenger services became common, and bandits became a threat to riders. The Babylonian kings stationed guards at regular points along the roads, and by about 650 BCE the guard stations were equipped with fire beacons they could ignite as alarms to alert adjacent stations.
Francis Dvornik in his book “The Origins of Intelligence Services” (1) describes these lighted beacons as being separated by the Assyrian measure of one bêru. The bêru was an Assyrian distance unit, corresponding to a two hour journey and roughly corresponds to 6.7 miles (10.7 km) so we can imagine all along the Kings highway from Egypt to Damascus in Syria these flaming beacons at intervals of approximately 6.7 miles.
We read in Exodus 13:21-22 “By day the Lord went ahead of them in a pillar of cloud to guide them on their way and by night in a pillar of fire to give them light, so that they could travel by day or night.” Could these pillars of smoke and fire have been fire beacons mounted high on poles above the Israelite command centre the Tabernacle? When looking at the crossing of the Sea of Reeds by the Israelites from a military perspective, it is clear that this was a tactical manoeuvre known and practiced by military commanders throughout history: a night crossing of a water obstacle.
“The Military History of Ancient Israel” by Richard A Gabriel (2) suggests that the Israelites had been living in Goshen for a long time and would have been very familiar with the area, including the marshy tract of land where the fertile land of the Nile meets the desert. For years during the Nile flood season, the Israelites would have pastured their cattle in this region of the Sinai desert.
Using the flaming beacon against the night sky would prevent the Egyptians seeing beyond the beacon where the Israelites were assembled, as any bright object at night affects the cones and rods of the eye making the eye physically incapable of seeing anything beyond the light. It can take up to 30 minutes for the eye to readjust. Richard Gabriel proposes it was during this period when the Egyptians where blinded by the light of the flaming beacon that the Israelites made their escape across the Sea of Reeds to the open desert on the other side.
In Zechariah 4:2-3 we find that the Menorah described by Zechariah differs significantly to the Menorah described in Exodus 25:31-40. Zechariah describes a lamp stand with a bowl on top and does not mention the seven branches as detailed in the Exodus description. I decided to explore what lamps were used by the ancient Egyptians and to my surprise I found there was very little archeological evidence of lamps used during the dynastic period! According to The Lamps Of Ancient Egypt By F. W. Robins (3) It would appear that the lamps used by these ancient Egyptians were everyday utensils such as clay bowls, hollowed stones, anything that could be filled with oil to form a floating wick lamp. Robins further suggest’s as historical fact: “Apart from the almost certain existence of floating wick lamps in dynastic Egypt (the Jewish seven-branched candlestick was really a group of floating wick lamps which might easily have owed something to Egyptian influence).”
Robert Houston Smith’s Journal: “The Household Lamps of Palestine in Old Testament Times” (4) describes a 7 wick lamp (plate A). This particular lamp, was discovered at the ancient city of Ugarit in Northern Syria and likely dates from the Late Bronze Age.
The lamp would have its reservoir filled with oil then mounted on a tall pedestal. The wicks would have been immersed in the oil and laid to protrude out of each of the seven spouts. Houston suggests that these lamps would have been used at shrines or sanctuaries.
Domestic Lamps used by the ancients Israelites
It was essential that each households lamp contained sufficient oil to enable it to burn all night. Since the householders didn’t have the luxury of matches they had to keep a fire or a pilot light burning continually. Apparently a woman would be considered a poor housekeeper if she allowed the pilot light to go out and needed to reignite her lamp from a neighbours fire. The famous ode to a good wife found in Proverbs 31:18 “Her lamp does not go out at night” reinforces this responsibility. Ensuring that a pilot light remained alight was not a task for a lazy person for although the lamp would remain alight for several hours its wick would eventually burn down and need adjustment, this meant the wife would need to arise two or three time during the night to attend her lamp. It makes you wonder how they managed to sleep
The most common wick material were made out of twisted fibres from the flax plant however the wicks used in the 2nd Temple Menorah were made from soiled garments of the Priests. When the priests gowns became soiled from sacrificial activities they were not thrown away instead they were cut up to make wicks for the Temple menorah.
Oils used in domestic lamps and the Menorah
Domestic lamps used by the Egyptians and Israelite while living in Goshen was sourced locally. Typical oil bearing sources were from flax, walnuts almonds and other nuts, sunflower and sesame seeds, wheat and castor oil plants. The most common of these was castor oil but, because when alight it gives off a very strong smell, in Pharaoh’s palace and in the temples a finer lamp oil made from sesame seeds was used. It was known the Egyptians used olive oil for cosmetics and embalming purposes but these would have been imported as olive trees could not be grown in ancient Egypt.
A description of a floating wick lamp
To make a floating wick lamp all you need is a container with some vegetable oil and a length of cord or a piece of rolled kitchen paper fed through a pierced bottle top and protruding approximately 1/4 inch (6 mm). Then lower the wick and bottle top to float on top of the oil. Once the oil has soaked up to the length of wick protruding above the bottle top its ready for lighting.
I found this information on a Google website advertising lamps and lamp oil from the Red Hill General Store in Hillsville Virginia USA: The cleanest burning fuel is olive oil, the fuel that Aaron was directed to use for temple light in the book of Exodus. (you are unlikely to find comments like this mentioned in a British advertisement) Olive oil is more than 99% pure fuel. If the wick is properly trimmed and there is no draft, it should not smoke. Olive oil is a clean renewable fuel that does not produce smoke or odour. The concept of burning olive oil in the home rather than a petroleum based kerosene is quite appealing, it is less toxic and much safer.
Those who are sensitive to fumes in kerosene or paraffin can light a pleasant flame with olive oil. It is good for our environment. Each year this renewable fuel oil supply is replenished by trees which produce oxygen as they grow. No complex methods are needed to manufacture or refine the oil. Oil is simply pressed from the olives, two-thirds of which is oil, and strained. Used as a fuel, olive oil is not expensive. In general it is cheaper to burn than most candles. If you spill your lit olive oil lamp on the floor it will not continue burning. Burning olive oil is the cleanest fuel and it is no more complicated to figure out how to use than the profitable petroleum fuels introduced in the 1850s. For every gallon of oil burned 1/4 – 3/8 inch of wick is consumed. Oil lamps/lanterns burn about a 1/2 ounce of oil per hour. (One imperial gallon of oil would last approximately 320 hrs.) This generalisation will significantly vary depending upon the size of your wick, type of oil, height of wick, among other variables. The point is this: a small amount of olive oil will go a long way.
(1) Francis Dvornik “The Origins of Intelligence Services”
(2) Richard A Gabriel “The Military History of Ancient Israel”
(3) F. W. Robins “The Lamps Of Ancient Egypt”
(4) Robert Houston Smith’s Journal: “The Household Lamps of Palestine in Old Testament Times”