|Molten Gold Flowing into a Mold|
Today’s post serves two purposes. First, we’ve included it among our study of Christmas because Gold is one of the traditional gifts brought to Jesus by the Wise Men. Secondly, Gold is the logical stepping off point for a series of posts dealing with, for lack of a better word, metallurgy.
Metals were used to create the tools and implements of every culture and civilization. Archeologists even have their famous Three Ages: The Stone age, The Bronze Age, and The Iron Age. But there’s more to metals in the ancient world than just bronze and iron, lots more. There is also copper, tin, brass and, the King of Metals, gold, which seemed like the best place to begin.
Gold is arguably the first metal discovered by man since in its natural state it typically appears as nuggets or grains. In earliest times, a primitive man probably stooped to get a drink of water, noticed something shiny among the sand and pebbles at the bottom of the creek, and picked it up. Unlike most other metals that exist in combination with other elements and must be mined, processed, and purified, gold usually comes in its pure state and ready for use, making it ideal for pre-industrial societies.
The chemical symbol for gold is Au (from Latin for gold, aurum which originally meant, appropriately enough, shining dawn.) Gold is dense, soft and shiny. It is one of only two colored metal elements, the other being copper. Gold is extremely malleable and ductile. In ancient times gold was shaped by pounding. A single ounce can be beaten into a 300 square foot piece of gold leaf.
Gold has been valued by all civilizations since the beginning of recorded history. It is the first, and most frequently mentioned metal in the Bible, appearing as early as Genesis 2:11. The Hebrews had six different terms for gold ranging from the metal itself to its varied uses. Because gold has always been rare, and maintains its luster without tarnishing, it became a material associated with highest integrity and purity.
Gold was, and is, considered the only metal suitable for contact with the Divine. When Moses constructed the Tabernacle in the desert, he naturally had gold beaten into plates for use as lining and overlays as well as threads in the priestly garments. (Exodus 25, 30, 37 and 39) Likewise, the Ark of the Covenant utilized gold in the same manner. Today, you’ll find that most chalices, plates and other communion vessels are still made of, or at least lined with, gold.
Roughly five hundred years after the Israelite’s sojourn in the desert, when Solomon built the First Temple in Jerusalem, or the house of the Lord as the Bible calls it, he relied extensively upon gold for its décor. His father, David, had set aside gold and other objects for the project. (1Kings 6:1-7:51) After he finished building the Lord’s house Solomon constructed one for himself (1Kings 9:1) that was equally lavish.
He had an ivory throne and overlaid it with gold. We’re also told that, “All King Solomon's drinking vessels were of gold, and all the vessels of the House of the Forest of Lebanon were of pure gold; none were of silver, it was not considered as anything in the days of Solomon.”
Through the centuries the nation of Israel was under constant threat from various neighboring kingdoms. The fact that they had used so much gold in the construction of the Temple had to be a contributing factor. Faced with the choice of vanquishing a nation of dirt poor farmers, or plundering a city literally dripping with gold, most despots would go for the gold. It was, of course, the Babylonians under King Nebuchadnezzar who eventually destroyed the Temple and plundered its valuables. (2Kings 25:13-17)
Approximately fifty years later Cyrus the Great of Persia allowed the people to return home. Solomon’s Temple, which lay in ruins, was rebuilt. They raised funds by collecting gold from the leaders and the people. Nehemiah 7:70-73 mentions a total of 41,000 drams of gold being donated. The term dram is identified by Strong as H1871, and translates dram as drachma.
|Golden Sarcophagus of Tutankhamen|
The research I’ve done indicates drachmas were typically minted in silver and gold drachmas were rarely struck. Archeologists have found what is known as an Attic Drachma dating to the approximate time when Nehemiah governed Israel. However, these coins are also silver. It leads to the conclusion that the Biblical text was referring the value of the donations measured as gold rather than the actual coins they received. For example, someone who has forty quarters could legitimately say they had ten dollars.
From Nehemiah we make another leap forward about 500 years to Herod the Great. Herod was not a Jew, but an Idumean. Idumea was conquered during the Maccabean period and over time the people eventually converted to Judaism. The residents of Judea and Galilee who considered themselves to be the only real Jews in the region, viewed Idumeans somewhat like the way they viewed Samaritans.
In attempt to curry favor with his Jewish subjects, Herod rebuilt and expanded the existing Temple. The result was the Second Temple which existed at the time of Christ…the one the Romans destroyed in 70 AD. Again Herod used impressive amounts of gold in its construction. Built of white marble, covered with heavy plates of gold in front and rising high above its cloistered courts, the temple, compared by Josephus to a snow-covered mountain, was a conspicuous and dazzling object from every side. From the Mount of Olives Jesus and his disciples could have looked across the valley seeing the glory of the Beautiful Gate and the golden entrance to the Holy Place.
Jesus, of course, prophesied the Temple’s destruction saying, “…not one stone shall be left standing atop another.” After Titus’ army conquered Jerusalem, the Romans set the Temple afire. Its gold overlays and trimmings melted and seeped into seams between the huge blocks that formed the Temple’s exterior walls. This meant the Romans were forced to dismantle the structure in order to retrieve the gold.
|Golden Jewelry Recovered in Ruins of Pompeii|
In the year 313 Constantine issued the Edict of Milan making Christianity a legal religion in the Roman Empire. Now, instead of hiding and conducting their liturgies in secret, believers could worship openly. As Christianity grew to become the dominant religion of the Empire, the faithful responded by constructing churches and basilicas. One of these, the Hagia Sophia, was built by the Emperor Justinian in the royal city of Constantinople. It was a patriarchal seat and, after the division of the Church into Eastern and Western branches, it became the center of Orthodox Christianity. The Hagia Sophia is the embodiment of Byzantine architecture and had the distinction of being the largest cathedral in the world for 1,000 years. As the photo shows, its designers followed ancient traditions and made extensive use of gold in its galleries, naves and ceiling. Ikons are also a longstanding form of religious expression in the Eastern Church. They all incorporate the nimbus, or halo, behind and around the holy figures. In the original and most authentic form, these halos are created by applying gold leaf to the board on which the painting is done.
|Interior of the Hagai Sophia|
In addition to resisting tarnish and corrosion, gold also resists individual acids. It is insoluble in nitric acid, which dissolves silver and other base metals. This has long been used to confirm the presence of gold in items, and is the origin of the term acid test. Like all metals, gold is recyclable and, because of its high value, even small pieces of jewelry are often sold to reclaim the gold they contain.
It’s fun to imagine a piece of the precious metal being formed into…say an Egyptian ankh. A century later it is captured when Rome overthrows Antony and Cleopatra and is taken back to Rome where it becomes a lady’s necklace. Centuries after that, barbarians besiege Rome and are bought off with gold collected from the residents of the city. A warrior receives the necklace as his share of the plunder and carries it back to Europe where he sells it. The necklace is melted to become a brooch for a princess. Hundreds of years later, the royal house falls and the crown jewels are seized by the Cossacks. In Russia the brooch goes into the furnace along with other miscellaneous pieces and is formed into an ingot that sits in a national treasury until it is transferred to Karl Gustavovich Fabergé to be made into an Imperial Easter Egg. During the Nazi invasion the egg is stolen and hidden in a secret vault in Switzerland until it returns to its place of origin when bought by a Middle Eastern oil billionaire.
Want to have some fun with the kids? On your next car trip instead of counting out of state license plates or Mail Pouch signs on a barn, why not devise your own golden tale?
Next time, we’ll solve the riddle of why Christmas comes on December 25th. I guarantee it is not what you’ve been told.
Until then, we wish you Peace and Blessings