Tuesday, November 14, 2023

Sparks through the stubble

But the souls of the just are in the hand of God,
and no torment shall touch them.
They seemed, in the view of the foolish, to be dead;
and their passing away was thought an affliction
and their going forth from us, utter destruction.
But they are in peace.
For if before men, indeed, they be punished,
yet is their hope full of immortality;
Chastised a little, they shall be greatly blessed,
because God tried them
and found them worthy of himself.
As gold in the furnace, he proved them,
and as sacrificial offerings he took them to himself.
In the time of their visitation they shall shine,
and shall dart about as sparks through stubble
   -from the Book of Wisdom Chapter 3

 There are a couple of vivid metaphors in this passage.

The bit about "...gold in the furnace..." refers to an ancient method of both purifying and assaying gold. A droplet of molten metal is quickly covered with oxides unless it is pure gold. So if you have a crucible (often a very open, conical one made of clay) and you melt the metal object it will form a droplet of metal, much like mercury forms when you break and old-fashioned thermometer.

If the droplet of metal stays shiny then it is pure gold...proven in the furnace or tested in the fire. If it dulls then it was alloyed with cheaper metals.

This is also a method of purifying gold. Sprinkling flux over the oxide covered droplet will dissolve the oxides and re-expose the molten metal to fresh oxygen. Repeating this process iteratively removes the impurities until pure gold remains.

Sparks through the stubble...

The sequence about sparks-through-the-stubble* is one of the few instances in the Bible where a reader might see support for "ghosts".

In the time before moldboard plows which bury crop residue and before chemical pesticides, fire was one of the very few options for controlling weeds reseeding.

And while most modern agricultural scientists and most ecologists have a very poor opinion of "burning", there are a few who have a different perspective.

Char is one of the few forms of organic carbon that is not rapidly consumed by soil organisms as an energy source. That is, if you want to increase the carbon content of your soil LONG TERM, char is the only way to go...especially in areas with warm, moist soils.

The dissenting opinion also points out that natural soils of high fertility contain char, that it is a natural product from natural processes. 

A fascinating paper on the development of some of the most fertile soils on earth. There's some evidence here suggesting the crucial role of fire and woody plants in the development of primo prairie soil. Think shifting mosaics of aspen parkland, scrub, and grassland...."In their study on nine A horizons from Saskatchewan Chernozems, Ponomarenko and Anderson (2001) found that the UV-oxidation resistant fractions (which they classify as char) account for between 25 and 65% of total C.   Source

Nearly every person who lived outside of Rome or Babylon or Memphis during Biblical times probably had first-hand experience watching the stubble of harvested grain fields being burned. The image of sparks being blown by the wind ahead of the flames would be a very vivid and memorable metaphor.

The analogy of removing the trash that would interfere with the plow and the destruction of the weed-seeds would not be lost on the thinking person. Nor would the analogy of the sparks jumping ahead of the fire to kindle new blazes be lost, either.

I wonder if Dickens was "informed" by this passage when he wrote A Christmas Carol where Scrooge was visited by the Ghosts from Christmas Past?

*In some translations it reads "...sparks through the reeds..."


  1. Nice citation Joe. A comforting thought for a hard time. Thanks.---ken

  2. Down here in south Texas, the burning of the sugar cane fields produces small worm like ashes that are carried many miles from the fields they were produced from. I have heard the term 'Landscape Fires' used for such burns but have no idea where term originated.

  3. ERJ, I grew up in a time and place where the fields were burned in Autumn to prepare. I well remember the smoke rising and the smell of smoke reaching us 30 miles away.

    Interesting thought on the idea of fire as creating char (a renewable) instead of destruction. There is a certain plain hopefulness in that.

  4. Make DC fertile again

  5. I remember the wheat stubble being burned off in the Tulelake basin in the late 60's. Whether it be field or forest, all the minerals/nutrients are trapped in the dead litter until it slowly decomposes. Burning is obviously much faster. IIRC, nitrogen and sulfur tend to burn off in gas form.


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