I enjoy the History Channel program ‘Forged in Fire’. Someday I may try my hand at knife making or Black Smithery in general. I have never done much in that line. My sons have done more and it pleases me that I was able to pass along my Great Grandfather’s anvil to them for use in their projects. That said, most of my sermons involve some kind of side study – either a related Bible study, a historical study, or a technical study. (For one sermon not too long ago I studied the history of toilets and septic systems in the ancient world.) I seldom use everything from such a study in the actual sermon. Sometimes I use none of it explicitly. It may be enough for my background knowledge to be expanded. Most times I will include at least a few details of such a study. Only very occasionally does the study become the sermon. Anyway, for a recent sermon the side study was Biblical, historical and technical! I used some of it in the sermon. The main point was to better understand the text in question. I will share a bit of this now in the hope that the issue itself may interest some and that some may see how to expand their own Bible studies.
In II Kings 6, the prophet Elisha causes an iron ax head to float. A member of his community – the Sons of the Prophets – had borrowed the axe head. In the process of the job being done, the iron ax head flew off the handle and disappeared beneath the waters of the Jordan provoking the particular son of the prophets to lament – ‘Alas, it was borrowed.’
Like most things in the ministry of Elisha, the incident generally strikes us as strange. I believe there is a much larger spiritual lesson contained in the incident but in this blog I will only be speaking to a technical question. So the ax head fell in the river. Why was that such a big deal? The incident doesn’t really make much sense – or convey the larger spiritual lesson – until we understand why the lost ax head should be such a big deal.
Most of you probably already know that the eras between ‘pre-history’ and ‘modern history’ are divided into three general periods: the stone age, the bronze age and the iron age. These divisions were established because the progress from stone tools to bronze tools to iron tools had major impacts on civilization. It should also be understood that the divisions are not chronologically neat. The changes did not happen everywhere at once – not even near at once. Still, it can be technically said that the chunk of history covered by the Old Testament falls partly into all three – stone, bronze and iron ages.
There are seven ‘metals of antiquity’: gold, silver, lead, tin, copper, iron and mercury. The only one of these metals of antiquity not mentioned specifically in the Bible is mercury. In the progress of antiquity, records outside the Bible agree that two peoples known to the Bible – the Hittites and the Philistines – were pioneers in the transition from the bronze age to the iron age. The switch required advances in smelting and forging technology.
The non-ferrous metals known to antiquity all have relatively low melting temperatures. I say relatively because (excluding mercury) they all melt somewhere between 800 and 1100 degrees F. But iron melts above 1500 degrees F. Picking up those extra degrees was a big hurdle. The earliest iron working was done on metal harvested from meteorites – the smelting having been accomplished by the heat provided in the passage through the atmosphere. But the Hittites and Philistines discovered how to smelt raw ore gathered from the earth rather than fallen from the heavens. The main necessity was charcoal. (It is interesting here that the earlier Hebrew word for ‘Smith’ was ‘nappar’ – the user of bellows - but the later Hebrew word for ‘Smith’ was pehami – the user of charcoal) Not only did charcoal make a hotter fire, at temperatures well below the normal melting temperature of iron, the heat from charcoal alloyed carbon into the iron. You don’t want much carbon or the iron becomes so hard as to be brittle. But a little carbon hardens the iron AND lowers the temperature at which it can be forged. Iron could now be smelted and forged and temperatures only a little higher than the non-ferrous metals.
The proprietors of this new technology suddenly enjoyed tremendous economic and military advantage. Bronze weapons don’t fare well in contact with steel weapons and the new iron/steel tools took and held better edges and lasted longer. The first iron agers carefully guarded their secrets to maintain these advantages. But, of course, secrets get out. It just took a while.
The ’early iron age’ – that time in which the secret technology was slowly spreading – is reckoned to have run from 1200 – 600 AD. During this time the needed techniques were learned by the Egyptians and spread as far away as China. The Americas were late comers to the iron age. When the Europeans began arriving 2000 years later, the Native Americans were still stone or bronze age peoples.
If you study the early chapters of I Kings you will discover that the Philistines stringently and violently kept their secrets of iron-mongery from the Israelites in the generation of Saul. This was part of the way they maintained their control of Israel. Elisha (early II Kings comes a little later – about 800 BC – closer to the end of the early iron age than the beginning. The point is that there would be a few iron axe heads around for Elisha and his Israelite contemporaries – and these tools would be vastly superior to stone or bronze versions - but they would be PRICEY! As nearly as I can find out, a member of Elisha’s prophecy school would have to spend an entire month’s wages to buy such a thing. And in this instance the son of the prophets in question did not buy the iron ax head. He borrowed it. He borrowed a thing worth about 9% of all the money he could expect to earn in a year and lost it in the river. ALAS, IT WAS BORROWED! I am on the hook! This being the heart of tax season, I can tell you it would be like me being on the hook for about $6000. Alas! Maybe even alak!
Apart from making this incident from II Kings more comprehensible (and helping prepare us for the larger spiritual lesson) the study lends credence to the historicity of the Bible as a whole. You might try moving forward a few more centuries and considering how texts like Isaiah 44:12 fit into the historical progression. Of course, we might also back up to Genesis 4:22 and read that Tubal-Cain was a worker of various metals including iron. Wait – what! It’s too early! I will tell you that I think much knowledge was lost in the flood of Noah. Anyway – if this inspires you to expand your Bible Study techniques, have fun!
I have never been good at doing nothing. But I have always been good at being still. There’s a difference. At least there has been for me. I was in many ways an odd child (I was often told so at the time and people who speak with the retrospect of the decades since still agree on this issue). I was about normally gregarious and my siblings and I played much together and I had friends. But I frequently sought time alone. For what reason, you may ask. Well, when I was 9 or so, my family still resided in the heart of a tiny town called Eminence, Indiana. There was a utility building behind the house and behind the utility building was a small weed patch – a space boxed in between the shed, the garden plot, the neighboring farmer’s fence-line and a gravel driveway. The rest of the property got tilled or mowed respectively but this little corner was generally left to its own devices. In short order it was grown up in horseweed, iron weed, Jopie and the other taller weeds that choke out the grass, clover, sorrel, etc. and rule supreme until the more briary growths get started. Off and on, I had use for the dry woody stems of the horseweed in the fall and the tough pliant stems of the ironweed in the mid to late summer – but that’s another story. I also haunted the weed patch because it was a prime location for catching grasshoppers, katydids and crickets for fishing bait. In the pursuit of bait I discovered that Praying Mantises also haunted the weed patch. They were bigger and creepier than the grasshoppers and I generally left them alone. One day I saw a Praying Mantis holding and eating a struggling grasshopper. The fascinating, if somewhat grisly scene captured my curiosity. Among other questions – I knew how I caught grasshoppers – how did the Mantises catch them? This one obviously had! Helpful internet videos not having made their advent in the early 1960’s, on a subsequent visit to the weed patch I say down with my back to the rear wall of the utility shed and got still. After a while a big green mantis made its presence known by hopping/climbing from the stem of one weed to another. I hadn’t seen it until it moved. If I hadn’t caught it assuming its new location I might not have been able to see it then. I had always kind of stumbled on them by accident before. The long slender green mantis hugged the long slender green weed stem and held still. I maintained my station against the shed wall and held still. I don’t know exactly how long it took. A while. Now and then a grasshopper would hop from place to place in the weed patch. Finally, one hopped onto a stem within reach of the mantis. The mantis maintained its grip on its perch with four legs though those legs extended and reached out with the big barbed ‘praying’ legs to snatch the grasshopper off the neighboring weed. Dinner was served. Oddly, no attempt of mine to describe the fascinating scene to my siblings (three of whom are female) could move them to spend any appreciable time crouching against a shed in a weed patch. The very notion brought on dismissive eye rolls. For myself, I discovered that there were almost limitless creek banks, logs in the woods, perches in trees and so forth that served as places to be still and see neat stuff. I found that if you hold still enough long enough, chipmunks will climb on your legs. If you are able to hold still in the dark hours sans the comfort of a campfire, possums and skunks will come right up and sniff at you. When it’s a skunk you get real good at continuing to hold still until the skunk satisfies its curiosity and moves on. I have watched a fox pad by, climb a large anthill and survey the surroundings before moving on. He never knew I was there because I am good at holding still. I also now knew right where to set a trap to acquire a fox fur! This kind of holding still is not the same as doing nothing because it gathers knowledge and reveals wonders. Activity is good too. But my life would be poorer without the hours of solitude and stillness from my childhood on. Those hours also prepared me to understand Psalm 46:10 and learn how to profit from the Psalmist’s advice ‘Be still and know that I am God’ – advice I highly recommend.
This Friday, February 11, 4-7 pm will be the annual East Canton Rotary Chili Cook Off – for which this blog is, in part, a shameless plug! Come on out – for $7 you can enjoy all the chili, fixin’s and dessert you can eat, see who the judges think is the best mild and spicy chili and add your voice to the People’s Choice selection (Vote for Terry!). There will even be carry out options available. It’s always a fun event and still a value – Cheaper than McDonalds! But – a word or two about chili apart from the cook off.
Chili is a funny thing. It isn’t thought of as a soup or stew though it plainly could be. On it’s second or third day of leftover status most chili could be thought of as a casserole though it isn’t that either. Chili is often served over pasta or has pasta cooked into it but it isn’t a pasta dish. Chili is uniquely its own thing and we recognize it in almost any context, far beyond the traditional bowl. We put chili on hot dogs and wouldn’t be fooled by a wiener topped with sloppy joe. We love us a chili–cheeseburger and wouldn’t be fooled by a hamburger topped with BBQ.
And yet – what is chili? It can have meat and no beans or beans and no meat and we would still recognize it. Among hardcore chili enthusiasts one of the great debates is whether or not to add cumin. The non-cumin camp generally thinks you might as well add strawberry ice-cream. I can only say for myself that I like chili both ways – light on the cumin strikes me as better than heavy – but cumin or not I still recognize it as chili.
The old cattle drive trail chili was composed of equal parts beef, beef tallow (those longhorns were pretty lean and needed the extra tallow) and whatever herbs could be found on the trail – which means it might have sage, wild onions, and who knows what else. The ‘Chili Queens’ of the markets in San Antonio of days now long gone, each had their secret ingredient(s) that made their version different from and – each would insist – better than all the others.
One might say that cayenne is the essential ingredient that transforms a pot of beans, ground beef and tomato juice into chili. Or – one might not! Or one might argue that pork sausage is the right meat for chili – or venison. I have had bear/blueberry chili. It was good. And it was definitely chili. White bean and chicken chili also apparently counts. On different years at the cook off I have seen a chili that featured mushrooms win the people’s choice award. Some like their chili thin and some add mazteca just to make it thicker – or crackers – or macaroni -or cheese – don’t start the old argument of cheese verses sour cream!
The categories at the cook off are only mild and spicy and spice level is always a key thought about chili which ranges from absolutely bland to burn out your nose hairs hot. But, truth to tell, some chili’s are sweet or savory or tangy or smoky. Some are heavier on black pepper than cayenne. I add Jalapenos and habaneros to the base of cayenne but the variety of peppers from which to choose is staggering. I have had chili with hot dogs and maple syrup added. I have had chili with corn or potatoes or rice. Chili can be onion heavy, onion light, onion absent, cooked with onion or topped with raw onion.
My daughter was never fond of chili in her years at home but at college told me she had discovered she liked chili. What she had discovered was Cincinnati Chili which has cinnamon and chocolate added. I’m going to be honest – not a particular fan. But it is chili.
Some chili is very tomato-forward. But I can tell the difference between that and tomato soup. Some chili has chunks of meat rather than ground. But the difference in meat preparation does not make it hard to tell chili from beef stew. I saute’ the meat for my chili in lime juice. I have seen the same thing done with cherry juice. But it remains inalterably – chili.
At the end of the day the best we can say in terms of defining chili is that we know it when we see it – or perhaps taste it.
I sometimes feel the same way about Christianity. While I cannot be fooled by substitutes or alternatives, I can recognize the worship of Christ in almost endless variations. Praise God.
At a recent Sunday Evening Bible study session, we discussed Romans 13 – that passage where Paul tells us that everyone ought to be in subjection to the government as there is no authority but that ordained by God and this divinely ordained governmental authority is His minister to us for good. Thus, Paul declares, we should pay our taxes in full and recognize the authority of government in other areas of our daily life. There are moments when this rubs all of us wrong. Let me summarize here what many considered to be helpful points at that Bible study.
Pastor and Author Terry Bailey, Senior Minister of Indian Run Christian Church