Egyptologists discover literal “golden tongues” – with a particular biblical connection?
In January of this year, the Egyptian Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities announced a remarkable find at a site just outside Alexandria: two 2,000-year-old mummies that, in their jaws, contained tongues of gold. The particular discovery made headlines around the world.
Discovery, along with a handful of others previously discovered tongues of gold, relates to a time when Egypt was ruled by the Roman Empire.
Later this year, SSpanish archaeologists from the University of Barcelona, working in El Bahnasa, a town on the Nile in central Egypt, have made another remarkable parallel discovery: three burials (a man, a woman and a child), belonging to the 26th and last indigenous dynasty of Egypt (seventh to sixth centuries bce), each containing a golden tongue. The tomb of the woman and the three-year-old child had been searched in antiquity – obviously the languages had not been taken into account – but the tomb of the man was in perfect condition, intact, an extremely rare and precious find.
In its announcement of the find, the Egyptian Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities said the gold leaf tongues were likely intended to help the dead speak with the gods in the afterlife. Commenting on the find, Dr Lorelei Corcoran of the University of Memphis said: “In an Egyptian funeral context, its reference is lot 158 of the Book of the Dead. [a text which first began to be composed c. 1550 b.c.e.], which ensures that the deceased has the ability to breathe and speak, as well as to eat and drink, in the afterlife. This can be confused with the Greek funeral practice of placing a coin on or in the mouth of the deceased as payment for the ferryman, Caron, who transported the deceased across the Styx to the Underworld.
With these findings in mind, let’s consider a particular Bible verse.
Several passages in the Hebrew Bible make figurative comparisons between language and precious metals or jewelry (i.e., Proverbs 10:20; 20:15; 25:11; Psalm 119: 72). But a particularly notable mention is found in Joshua 7.
The book of Joshua recounts the arrival of the Israelite slaves from Egypt to the Promised Land and the conquest of Canaan. Chapter 7 describes the Israelites’ first major setback: their defeat at Ai. Achan stole some items for himself from the last defeated city, Jericho, thus laying a curse on the Israelites.
In verses 20-21, Achan confesses his deeds: “’Verily, I have sinned against the Lord, the God of Israel, and have done so and so. When I saw among the spoils a beautiful coat of Shinar [coat], and two hundred shekels of silver, and one gold corner weighing fifty shekels, then I coveted them, and took them; and, behold, they are hidden in the earth in the midst of my tent, and the silver under it. ‘ The term “coin” is not a literal translation; the Hebrew word is lachone, or “language”. Achan then refers to a golden tongue.
This Hebrew word for “tongue” is used 117 times in the Bible. In 111 cases, it refers either to literal language or to speech. Three times it is used to denote an entrance to the sea and once to denote a flame of fire. The other two mentions are found in Joshua 7, referring to the stolen gold coin (verses 21, 24). Nowhere else is gold referred to in this way.
Some translators and commentators naturally take the reference as a figurative word for a coin or a gold bar. Others, like the Commentary by Jamieson, Fausset and Brown, take the reference to mean “literally, an ingot or bar in the shape of a tongue”. Gill’s Exhibition of the Entire Bible Calls it a “tongue-shaped gold plate”.
Recent discoveries outside Egypt shed light on what appears to be a remarkable parallel. The Israelites at that time were a egyptianized populace; many of the Torah laws that seem so peculiar today are actually a direct response to pagan Egyptian customs. Perhaps in light of this Egyptian familiarity and practices, this golden object was referred to by Achan as a “tongue”. Or, perhaps in its most literal sense, it could have been just that: a funeral tongue? With a weight of 50 shekels, this would have been a more substantial coin than the newly discovered tongues of gold. Yet (depending on the interpretation of the weights during that time period) that would have been an estimated total of 25 ounces, perhaps less. In comparison, the current standard of “gold brick” weighs 437 ounces, or 27.3 pounds. So, at less than a seventeenth the size, Achan’s “tongue” was certainly not a large ingot of gold.
Canaan at this time (as the Letters of Amarna show) was under Egyptian influence and enslavement. And it is also worth noting that this “tongue” was found with an expensive enveloping “cloak” or cloak, as well as a silver treasure. Maybe they all belonged to the same setting – maybe Achan could have searched someone’s literal grave in Jericho – the “tongue” and mantle going together as part of the burial.
For now, we can only speculate. But the parallels are fascinating – and it certainly wouldn’t be the first time that archeology not only confirms Biblical historicity, but also illustrates Biblical interpretation.