And the Heat Goes On

This blog is devoted to the memory of Diane Harris Cline, z”l, an inspiring GWU professor and archeologist of the ancient Near Eastern world.

This summer is a blast furnace of heat domes and unbearable temperatures. Intense heat has transformative properties. Similarly, Torah says that Egypt was a blast furnace, both a factual and metaphorical description. Both interpretations have equal importance for us as we navigate our modern blast furnace.

Archeologists found the first depiction of a blast furnace on the wall of an Egyptian tomb dating to about 1500 BCE. The earliest iron implements were discovered in an Egyptian pyramid joint between two stones. Wrought iron metal improved the world when hammered into tools but led to destruction when made into spears, arrow tips, and daggers.

Around this time, the Hebrews were slaves in Egypt, possibly equipped with iron tools and weapons. After the Exodus from Egypt, Moses told the people, “God took you and brought you out of Egypt that iron blast furnace, to be God’s very own people.” Exodus 4:20.

Smelting iron was an essential process in the history of human civilization. Warring nations attacked each other with iron tools, and many nations collapsed. Aggressive sea people attacked Egypt. However, Egypt did not collapse, although Egyptian power ebbed in this period of unrest.

Archeologists and theologians debate the date of the Exodus. Yet, all agree that the Hebrew journey from Egypt to Canaan corresponds to the end of the bronze age and the beginning of the iron age. The Exodus was likely made possible by great changes in ancient civilization, like iron smelting. Yet, a more catastrophic transformation was unfolding.

The blast furnace of Egypt might also refer to extreme climate change in that era.  The extreme weather changes of the early iron age contributed to the collapse of civilizations. In his best-selling book, 1177 BC The Year Civilization Collapsed, author Eric Cline described a period of climate disasters on the heels of technological developments. Sound familiar? Ancient climate change caused widespread famine, contributing to migrations, war, upheaval, and societal collapse. Similarly, the climate change of modern times may portend the collapse of our civilization.

Technological advancements result in unforeseen consequences. The story of the Hebrews explains the concept. Once, we were slaves. Later we were free people refined to become a nation of priests, and our faithlessness smelted into conviction. Our lot was cast with God. And yet our nation-state was created with swords and plowshares made from refined metals.

The purpose of a blast furnace is to refine ore into metal and not cause war and suffering. Similarly, today’s technological advancements are changing the world in ways both good and bad. Modern technological advancements are a blast furnace spewing greenhouse gasses and toxic waste that imperils our civilization. Nothing short of the destruction of our earth is at stake.

There is hope.  After the collapse of 1177 BC the Jewish nation emerged in a Promised Land.  What will emerge from the unfolding disaster of our times? Let’s take the Jewish approach. From the modern technological blast furnace, we can “refine” ourselves. We can be activists for our earth and defenders of the planet. Let’s be warriors for our children’s future, to combat the blast furnaces of our times.

Rabbi Evan Krame