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I was talking with a colleague about the bronze snake of Numbers 21, because a student had referred to it as the "copper snake" on a test. (Bronze of course is an alloy of copper and tin.)

I seemed to remember that the Hebrew word doesn't differ, and sure enough, נְחשֶׁת can refer to either.

So we got to wondering how the translators differentiated it. I thought maybe the Septuagint would have used a different word. But I see that their common translation, χάλκεος, is also ambiguous.

Meanwhile, it turns out that the KJV mostly translates these words as "brass", i.e. copper & zinc!

Do we have a way of differentiating these? Do we guess based on chronology / archaeology? Or is it a shot in the dark?

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    The ancients had no way to truly distinguish between copper and bronze (the many alloys of copper). They used what came from the ground, lightly smelted. Copper was never used in its pure form because it could not be refined to high purity. By contrast, brass is a very modern alloy of copper and zinc
    – Dottard
    Dec 8, 2022 at 19:36
  • In researching an answer I discovered that there was indeed an ancient form of brass, although it was not the same as the modern variety. Nov 4, 2023 at 23:18
  • and etymologically, the word "brass" in older forms of English was used for what we call "bronze" (see my answer below). Nov 5, 2023 at 3:52

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The Hebrew word נְחשֶׁת {nekh-o'-sheth} is usually translated as 'bronze.' Bibles that say "brass" tend to be older translations. Copper is another possibility but this translation is rare. Strong's 5178 indicates that the word can have a connotation of lust or harlotry. "Brazen" also carries such a meaning. This part would be a good question for the English Language & Usage Stack Exchange.

In terms of archaeology, the time in question was the Bronze Age, and all three (bronze, brass, copper) are in evidence. Ancient forms of what was called brass were not the same as modern brass but were highly valued for their gold-like appearance. This may explain why the KJV uses the term, especially in the context of a passage involving "fiery serpents." This "brass" seems to be close to or the same as what we call "bronze."

Conclusion: Copper would be the least likely choice. Brass of the ancient variety [which may be what we call bronze] is also possible. Bronze is the most likely candidate.


Addendum: thanks to the people at English.SE, I see that the Online Etymology Dictionary says that the Old English word "brass" refers to what we call "bronze." Mystery solved!

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  • Great! And I see from that article that what it calls "aurichalcum" is pretty unlikely to have been mentioned in the OT (since the finds we have are only as early as first-century AD in Bohemia). But are you able to dig up or elaborate more on why "copper" should be ruled out? Or I guess on reflection it might just make sense to say that if the question is the ten percentage, it's probably less a hermeneutics question and more an archaeology of metallurgy question... Nov 5, 2023 at 4:29

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