Iron Chariots: A Biblical Impossibility?

The Bible records the existence of iron chariots before the Iron Age. Is it possible?
public domain, getty images, Armstrong institute of biblical archaeology
From the November-December 2022 Let the Stones Speak Magazine Issue

The Hebrew Bible records the presence of iron chariots in the Levant in the Late Bronze Age (mid-to-late second millennium b.c.e.). Joshua 17:16 says, “… and all the Canaanites that dwell in the land of the valley have chariots of iron, both they who are in Beth-shean and its towns, and they who are in the valley of Jezreel.’”

In verse 18, Joshua assures the tribes of Ephraim and Manasseh that they can drive the Canaanites out of the Promised Land, even “though they have chariots of iron, and though they be strong.”

The book of Judges shows that the Israelites, in spite of Joshua’s encouragement, failed to overcome the Canaanites and their iron chariots. Judges 1:19 says that though “the Lord was with Judah,” they “could not drive out the inhabitants of the valley, because they had chariots of iron.” Israel’s failure to drive out the Canaanites from Bethshean during the period of the judges is illustrated by historical sources, including the Amarna tablet EA289 and the stela of Seti i.

For Bible scholars and archaeologists alike, this history raises an important question: Did iron chariots exist in the Levant in the Late Bronze Age?

Let the Stones Speak

Many scholars and scientists reject the notion. According to John F. A. Sawyer, an Old Testament scholar and linguist, “It is historically highly improbable … that the Canaanites were equipped with iron chariots before the end of the second millennium b.c.”

Dr. Naama Yahalom-Mack, a senior lecturer at Hebrew University specializing in archaeometallurgy in the Bronze and Iron ages, agrees: “Iron chariots did not exist in the Iron Age at all, certainly not in the Iron i, when these stories are set, where barely any iron was used at all.” The events recorded in Joshua took place before the Iron i period, which would make the presence of iron chariots even less likely.

Some suggest the term “iron chariots” here is figurative, that the Bible is referring to the “iron” strength of the Canaanites. “The more compelling explanation is that ‘chariots of iron’ may mean strong chariots,” Dr. Yahalom-Mack proposed. “Iron, in this case, would be a symbolic expression of strength, an image well-known in the Iron Age, rather than an accurate description of the actual chariots used by the Canaanites in the Late Bronze and Iron i.”

When you study the context, however, it is clear that the reference in Joshua and Judges is literal—that the Canaanites did indeed possess “iron chariots.” How is this possible? The general consensus among historians and archaeologists is that the Iron Age did not begin until the 12th century b.c.e.

How could iron be present in the Levant before the onset of the Iron Age? And how likely is it that it would have been used in Canaanite chariot construction?

Evidence of Chariots

One thing we do know is that chariots had long been in use by this period. Four-wheeled carts pulled by draft animals like oxen have been traced back to around 3000 b.c.e. in Mesopotamia. Two-wheeled horse-drawn chariots reached Egypt with the invasion of the Hyksos (from the region of Canaan) around 1750 b.c.e.

In one of the most famous battles of antiquity, the Egyptians and Hittites fought with thousands of chariots at the Battle of Kadesh. Pharaoh Tutankhamen of Egypt had a famous chariot overlaid with gold.

We know the Egyptians and Hittites had chariots, but what about the Canaanites? Pharaoh Thutmose iii of Egypt described a military campaign against the Canaanites in the mid-15th century b.c.e., culminating with the Battle of Megiddo. On the temple walls at Karnak, Thutmose iii recorded that the Egyptians took over 900 chariots from the Canaanites as booty.

That’s a lot of chariots. The sheer number of chariots captured shows that the Canaanites were clearly experienced in both chariot design and construction. If iron was being used in the manufacturing of chariots, then it almost certainly would have been used by Canaan’s chariot builders.

The Design of the Chariots

Historical records show that chariots underwent many changes during the Late Bronze and early Iron Age periods. Historian Ian Harvey explained that at the Battle of Kadesh, the Egyptians used quick and maneuverable chariots that carried two soldiers. The Egyptians famously used chariots as mobile firing platforms for their composite bows. The Hittites, who bred stronger horses, used larger and heavier chariots. These were used to batter enemy lines. Hittite chariots carried three soldiers: a driver, a spearman or bowman, and a shield bearer.

Geographically, the Canaanites were situated between these two powers. In Canaan, chariots were owned and operated by a class of people known as the “maryannu” (wealthy Canaanites who paid for the upkeep of their horses and chariots). Canaanite chariots were believed to be lighter than Hittite chariots, but heavier than Egyptian chariots. Canaanite chariots were used to strike columns of infantry and break their formations, which enabled light infantry to take advantage of the ensuing chaos. In his book The History of Ancient Israel, Michael Grant wrote that Canaanite chariots may have had tire rims and scale armor “fashioned of bronze, not iron.”

Only one confirmed depiction of a Canaanite chariot has been discovered. This depiction dates to the 13th century B.C.E. and was found at Megiddo.
public domain

Only one confirmed depiction of a Canaanite chariot has been discovered. This depiction dates to the 13th century b.c.e. and was found at Megiddo. On the right side of the depiction, a king rides alone upon his chariot, with prisoners of war walking before him. Although it depicts a parade, not a battle, and only shows half of the chariot, this ivory furnishes some crucial details. First, it confirms that nobility utilized chariots and that footmen followed the chariots. Second, it shows that the chariot carried both a quiver of arrows and a spear, indicating that Canaanite chariots were a hybrid of both the Egyptian and Hittite chariots.

Sourcing Iron?

We know chariots were used heavily during the Late Bronze Age (the time of Joshua). Now what about iron? Although there is archaeological evidence of iron and iron products in the Late Bronze Age, the metal was not common.

In 1925, an iron dagger was discovered in the tomb of the Egyptian pharaoh Tutankhamen, who reigned in the 14th century b.c.e. Iron beads have also been discovered in Egypt dating back to 3400–3100 b.c.e. In 2016, scientific analysis confirmed that the iron in these objects came from meteoroids. Iron-smelting technology (distilling iron from ore by heating it to extreme temperatures) did not exist on a large scale until the Iron Age. Meteoric iron, though rare, is already in its metal state—ready to use. This explains why there have been many discoveries of iron products that predate the advent of iron-smelting technology.

Meteoric iron was a scarce resource, though, which made it highly valuable. “Iron was 10 times the price of gold back then,” writes archaeometallurgist Albert Jambon. “It was like diamonds are today, a highly valuable material used only for jewels or tools for the king. My theory is that people were going mad to look for meteorites.”

Did iron exist, and was it used in manufacturing weapons and other products, before the Iron Age? The answer is yes, but very rarely.

The Use of Iron

Richard A. Gabriel called the idea of a chariot made entirely of iron “a technological nonsense.” He’s right. Such a chariot would be far too heavy, and it would have been almost impossible to source enough iron. In all likelihood, these ancient chariots would have been fashioned largely from timber, with some metal reinforcing.

In Psalm 46:10, the author mentions chariots being burned with fire, suggesting they were still primarily made from wood or leather even in the Iron Age. When the Bible refers to iron chariots, it is referring to chariots only partially made from iron.

The IVP Bible Background Commentary posits, “References to iron chariots in the conquest narrative most likely refer to the use of iron fittings to strengthen the chariot basket or iron-shod wheels. It is possible that studs or projectile points were added to make this engine of warfare heavier and more of a factor when rammed into lines of infantry.”

Historians Marian H. Feldman and Caroline Sauvage have proposed that chariots were objects of prestige among the Canaanite maryannu. Song of Solomon 3:9-10 record that Solomon even made himself a chariot as an object of esteem, which had “pillars thereof of silver” and a “top thereof of gold.” Deuteronomy 3:11 specifically records that Og, king of Bashan, had an iron bed. Old Testament scholar Alan R. Millard wrote that this bed was significant because iron was such a precious metal.

Pharaoh Tutankhamen of Egypt had a chariot overlaid with gold.
Carsten Frenzlvia wikimedia commons (cc-by-2.0)

Maybe the maryannu put iron on their chariots as a display of wealth? Thutmose iii described multiple Canaanites “abandoning their horses and their chariots of gold and silver.” Gold and silver would have served no purpose but decoration—so why not use the treasured meteoric iron as well?

It is impossible to know with certainty exactly what constituted a Canaanite chariot. Archaeology has not yet provided the evidence needed to determine the design of these iron chariots, or tell us conclusively what materials they were manufactured from. There is, however, a lot we do know. For example, we know that the Canaanites in the Late Bronze Age had an impressive chariot manufacturing industry.

Is it feasible that Canaan’s “iron chariots” might have been manufactured, at least partially, using iron? Absolutely. Is it possible that Canaan’s wealthy elite and military leaders could have adorned their chariots with expensive metals like silver, gold and iron? Certainly.

Can the biblical record, which records the Canaanite’s possession of “chariots of iron,” be categorically rejected? Absolutely not!

Let the Stones Speak