Artifacts of Material History, Controversies

Possible Chinese Silk in Bronze Age or Iron Age Jericho: the “Babylonish” Garment from Shin’ar in Joshua 7 ?

Court Ladies Preparing New Silk, early 12th century (Image Public domain)

By Patrick Hunt – 

One of the more intriguing passages of the Hebrew Bible, Joshua 7: 10-23 & ff. describes the sin of Achan and his “accursed” secret purloined material spoliation after the taking of Jericho by the Israelites, a narrative with controversial historicity. Regardless of when it can be securely dated from the Late Bronze Age in the minority view, or considerably afterward in the majority view from around the 8th c. BCE or later, [1] it is something specific about the prioritized list of things Achan stole from conquered Jericho in Joshua 7:20-21 that is much more interesting:

20 “And Achan answered Joshua, ‘It is true; I am the one who sinned against the Lord God of Israel. This is what I did: 21 when I saw among the spoil a beautiful mantle from Shinar and two hundred shekels of silver and a bar of gold weighing fifty shekels, then I coveted them and took them. They now lie hidden in the ground inside my tent, with the silver underneath.’ ” 

James Tissot, The Judgment of Achan, ca. 1900 (Image public domain)

Achan’s purloined precious materials from Jericho certainly make sense with 200 shekel weights of silver and a bar of gold weighing 50 shekels. But the exact textile has flummoxed commentary for millennia even if its oral history may be early: one of the questions asked here is whether a luxury garment from Shin’ar – usually associated with the Euphrates Plain of Babylon – is merely a Near Eastern textile even if from the rich urban Babylonian production centers of Kassite or related cultures, depending on the time frame, or whether it might be something far more exotic and from a vastly greater distance – possibly Asian from China and possibly silk?  Of course, the later the date for both the event and the text, the likelier it is that the textile here could be silk. This discussion is of course highly speculative rather than even remotely determinable, but the philological details of the text and the archaeological material realities of the time must be examined to legitimately pose this possibility.


First, the Hebrew text of v. 21 uses the phrase: ḇaššālāl (בַשָּׁלָ֡ל) ’addereṯ  (אַדֶּ֣רֶת) šin’ār (שִׁנְעָר֩) ’aḥaṯ (אַחַ֨ת) ṭōwḇāh (טוֹבָ֜ה) :“among the spoils a beautiful garment of Shinar”. For “garment” the Hebrew ’addereṯ (אַדֶּ֣רֶת) is fairly generic, often translated as a “mantle”, and the modifying adjectival description of the garment as ṭōwḇāh “beautiful” is also important to understand its apparent high aesthetic qualities. If the diachronic use of “beautiful (ṭōwḇāh) garment” (’addereṯ) is limited or if it is not used elsewhere in the Hebrew texts – a Hebrew hapax legomena “one-off” – then this garment description would be fairly unique to Israel and its appeal to Achan would be very important and valuable even if he did not know its true provenance, although the description in the text is ascribed to him, suggesting whoever wrote this was a sophisticated Israelite.

For the locative šin’ār (שִׁנְעָר) as a known historic toponym, the Southern Mesopotamian geographical plain of Babylon is the usual toponym referent and used elsewhere about 8 times in the Hebrew biblical texts.[2] Only intriguing but not really useful here is the possible locative sînîm (סִינִים) used only as an apparent hapax legomena in Isaiah 49:12 and sometimes identified as China [3], although this is not linguistically sensible  – with the latter sînîm  using a samekh and not a shin as in the former šin·’ār with its interior glottal stop and terminal resh – even if the root of the word šin’ār could be ambiguous and reference another possibility of China as the Land of Sin (סִין). Even if the two words were in any way unlikely cognates via some of the homophones (a sibilant s + n nasal continuative), it would likely only be coincidental although it could compound the probability of the garment or mantle being silk. But even if the textual toponym is in fact in Mesopotamia, and even if the provenance of the garment is indeed Babylon or a similar Euphrates locus, and not an ultimate point further eastward, it does not rule out the material being possibly silk since the region of Babylon was on the luxury trade route – including of the Silk Roads – for millennia,[4] and a person in the Levant would not necessarily know any point further eastward along trade routes. Although many royal or luxurious robes are seen in Mesopotamian relief sculpture and specific words for them do appear in Assyrian and Babylonian texts as well as earlier Akkadian (Semitic) and Sumerian (non-Semitic), no obvious diachronic cognates or similar words compare in similar constructions. A word for “silk” mesi (מֶשִׁי) seems unknown in Classical Hebrew until Exilic literature (Ezekiel 16:10, 13) so no other earlier linguistic comparanda are applicable.

Archaeology and materiality

One of the problems of the context of Jericho is that it is so difficult if not downright impossible to find a corresponding archaeological record for Late Bronze Age to Early Iron Age occupation at Tell es-Sultan from the Kenyon excavations in the mid-20th c. on the upper tell (see note 9 below). I have often wondered if Late Bronze to Early Iron Age occupation evidence might instead be found under the current Palestinian town, which is also difficult to ascertain given political circumstances. Furthermore, nothing specific can be said about distinctive luxury Mesopotamian textiles in the Late Bronze Age or Early Iron Age that might be carefully identified here in terms of textile source as traveling westward to the Jordan Valley and Jericho. Because the text does not specify the source of the material and the type of textile, it will not be verifiable. Certainly fine linen from flax in Egypt (בּוּץ, bûṣ in Hebrew, possibly also cotton, or כַּרְפַּס karpas) and animal fibers or wools (quite a few possible words in Hebrew including צֶמֶר tsemer and עֲמַר amar or mixed textile as  שַׁעַטְנֵז shaatnez) from various herd or other sources were sufficiently common. But even further west than Jericho, silk from China is known in Late New Kingdom Egyptian tombs at least from the 21st Dynasty (ca. 1065-945 BCE) including at Deir el-Medina, attesting its status in the Mediterranean world of the Late Bronze Age. [5] Of course, silk has been around for millennia and occurs early in Chinese archaeology, appearing at least 8000 years BP in Neolithic Chinese tombs in Jiahu and in Shanxi of the Yangshao Culture around 4000 BCE onward through the millennia. [6]. Silk fragments have also appeared in the Indus Harappan culture of India in the Early Bronze Age and even earlier west of China. [7] For diachronic material comparison – although inorganic and therefore more easily preserved – another luxury trade material is the precious stone lapis lazuli, which clearly also moves across Asia from Badakhshan (Afghanistan) and can be traced for 8000 years as well into pre-Harappa contexts of India and is very well-attested in Sumerian Ur as well as Middle Kingdom Egypt and subsequent Egypt, often traded via frequent Mesopotamian luxury routes such as the Tigris-Euphrates watershed. [8] 

On the other hand, this garment need not be a Chinese silk directly imported to what would be the longstanding region of Babylon and ultimately thence to Jericho since because silk already travels to Bronze Age Egypt, silk must have already been present in Babylon and Mesopotamia along the way via connecting luxury trade routes from Asia. Furthermore, even if Tell es-Sultan as Jericho was not viable in the Late Bronze Age, the basic location of Jericho itself was directly on the main north-south trade route from the Euphrates to Egypt as well as an east-west connecting point of the Via Maris with the Kings Highway and high value goods were already moving toward Egypt along with the other luxury and spice trade components. [9]

In conclusion, even though we will most likely never know for certain what material this specific textile is as referenced in Joshua 7:21, the possibilities are beguiling that we may be seeing one of the earliest exotic trade textiles,  and luxury silk is certainly a probability that cannot be discounted, one that could immediately so appeal to someone like Achan that he would risk everything to possess these rich spolia as the narrative sufficiently details.


[1] Conservative chronologies for the Levant Conquest events are usually suggested for circa late 15th c. BCE, more reliable dates given late documentary editing range from 9th-8th c. BCE to 5th-4th c. BCE, cf. R. S. Hess, “West Semitic Texts and the Book of Joshua”, Bulletin for Biblical Research 7 (1997) 63-76; J. Strange, “The Book of Joshua – Origin and Dating”, Scandinavian Journal of the Old Testament 16.1(2002) 44-51; R. Albertz,  “The Canonical Alignment of the Book of Joshua” in Judah and the Judeans in the Fourth Century B.C.E., Penn State University Press, 2007, 287-92 & ff. Much of the content of Joshua chs. 2-11 seem to reflect the reforms of Josiah ca. 7th c. BCE. Representing the conservative, minority view, early date at least for the events of Joshua is Jerome F. D. Creach, Joshua, Louisville: John Knox Press, 6. Although not related and only from the 9th c. BCE, recent paleomagnetic dating of certain military event contexts – not at all including Jericho at Tell es Sultan – is certainly suggesting earlier dates for some later accounts, however, needing calibration of course, are beginning to be posited as closer to the earlier chronological placement suggestions. See Y. Vaknin, Ron Shaar, O. Lipschits and Erez Ben-Yosef, “Reconstructing biblical military campaigns using geomagnetic field data” in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 119.44 (October 24, 2022) 1-7. This scientific study should not be assumed to in any way aid in the chronology of the putative “Joshua Conquest” or the text.   

[2]  K. van der Thorn, P. W. van der Horst. “Nimrod before and after the Bible”. The Harvard Theological Review. 83.1 (1990) 1–29, esp. 2 & ff.

[3]  earlier biblical translation and the 1915 ISBE sometimes identified Sinim (sînîm) with China based on latinized Sinae of the Qin Dynasty but note  modern scholarship may not agree: F. H. H. King. “Sealing the Mouth of Outrage Notes on the Meaning and Intent of Hart’s: These from the Land of Sinim”. Modern Asia Studies 40.3 (2006) 725-36.

[4]  M. A. Peters, “The ancient Silk Road and the birth of merchant capitalism”, Journal of Educational Philosophy and Theory 53.10 (November 2019) 955-61.

[5]   G. Lubec, J. Holaubek, C. Feldl, C. Lubec and E. Strouhal, “Use of Silk in Ancient Egypt” Nature 362 (1993) 25.   

[6]  Yuxuan Gong, Li Li, Decai Gong, Hai Yin and Juzhong Zhang, “Biomolecular Evidence of Silk from 8500 Years Ago” PLoS One 11(12) (2016)

[7]  I. L. Good, J. M. Kenoyer and R. Meadow. “New Evidence for Early Silk in the Indus Civilization”  Archaeometry 51.3 (2008) 457-66; “La Soie, 4000 ans de luxe et de volupté”, Historia n°648, 2000.

[8]  Georgina Hermann, The Source, Distribution, History and Use of Lapis Lazuli in Western Asia from the Earliest Times to the End of the Seleucid Era Ph.D. Dissertation, Oxford, 1966; ___________, “Lapis Lazuli: Early Phases of its Trade” Iraq 30.1 (Spring, 1968) 21-57; Patrick Hunt, “Lapis Lazuli: From Gods’ Eyes to Empyrean Skies…8000 Years,” recorded lecture for Collecting and Display Seminar Series, Institute of Historical Research, School of Advanced Study, University of London, March 7, 2022. 

[9]    Amnon Ben-Tor. “The Trade Relations of Palestine in the Early Bronze Age.” Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient  29.1 (1986) 1-27. For other problems with Jericho, note Kathleen Kenyon’s work, e.g. K. M. Kenyon. 1957. “Excavations at Jericho, 1957”. Palestine Exploration Quarterly 89.2 (1957) 101-107; K. M. Kenyon. Jericho. Archaeology and Old Testament Study, ed. D. Winton Thomas. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1967. Also note Emmanuel Anati, “Prehistoric Trade and the Puzzle of Jericho” Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research 167 (1962) 25-31.