The Iron Age
The Iron Age; the Classical Age, the 3rd Ancient Church; the Israelitish or Jewish Church, the youth or adolescence of mankind; a 'Natural' Age, when God was conceived as a Leader.
Approximately -1500 BC to AD 1.
The Iron Age? The Golden and Silver Ages had glamour; the Bronze Age was acceptable, but Iron? We have had the Iron Curtain, the Iron Lady, we use such terms 'as hard as nails' referring to this metal. If its character has any appeal, it is only to the inflexible, those who hold that one has to be 'cruel to be kind'.
Posterity did not think much of the Iron Age either. In his Works and Days the Greek writer Hesiod cries out despairingly ' 1 wish I were not of this age, that I had died before, or had not yet been born.' The Roman author Ovid says of it in his Metamorphoses that ' all crime broke loose; modesty, truth, and loyalty fled. .... War came...men lived on plunder.' For Astrologers it is the Age of Aries, god of war; for Zoroaster the age of the 'Creation of Evil'. In the Hindu Dvapara Yuga or Age, discontent, lying and quarrels abound. A Babylonian poem The Just Sufferer blames evil on the gods. For Swedenborg Iron corresponds to natural truth, or to truth without good, and in his rare mentions of the Iron Age has nothing good to report.
Nevertheless, this was the much celebrated time of Classical Greece and Rome, the Egyptian 'New Kingdom', when the great Wessex hillforts and round barrows took form; also when the Old Testament and the works attributed to Confucius and the Buddha were written down. All was not for the worse by any means.
Sources of Information
In the previous articles in this series we have just had to compare the information in the Writings with the historical record, but in considering the Swedenborgian approach to the Iron Age we also have to take into account the Old Testament, as an authoritative historical document. But although the O.T. is the most detailed and informative source available on Jewish History, from a strictly factual point of view it is not perfect. It has been 'mythologised'. As its stories were passed from mouth to mouth and from scribe to scribe the 'lily was gilded' as we say. This was just as well, for the dry everyday facts of Jewish History would never have made a suitable basis for a 'correspondential' or symbolic revelation. Dry Jewish History needed a bit of editing in order to become the vehicle for Divine Revelation; a bit more human interest.
If therefore, in what follows, I appear to ignore or contradict the Bible, please remember that I am writing about history, rather more than theology or revelation.
The Iron Age and the Jewish Church
The Golden and Silver Ages equate nicely with the Most Ancient and First Ancient Churches, but one is less sure comparing the Bronze Age with the Second Ancient Church. In the Iron Age the relationship with the Jewish Church is yet more tenuous. I think Swedenborg felt so too and avoided any direct comparison between the two entities. Whether this was for theological reasons or because 18th century historical knowledge was inadequate, I must leave you to judge. In fact Swedenborg's Classical education gave him a far wider knowledge of Greece and Rome than most of us have today, and they were part of this Age, yet he does not seem to associate them with it.
In a memorable relation in Conjugial Love, No 78 Swedenborg visits some spirits from the Iron Age. They do come from Asia and have had access to the Ancient Word, but there is no suggestion that they are Jews.
Specific and Universal Churches
We have come to a time when Swedenborg's condition that 'the Church is where the Lord is acknowledged and the Word is.' (New Jerusalem 242) becomes particularly meaningful. The Jews were the most typical example of what we Swedenborgians call a 'Specific Church', a term drawn from Swedenborg's statement that 'the Church of the Lord is everywhere in the whole world, although specifically it is where the Lord is acknowledged and where the Word is. (New Jerusalem para. 244) The Jewish Church was always small, but it fulfilled these conditions. It came to posses a 'word', a revelation that would be the most influential written work the world has known. The Ancient Word of the Silver and Bronze Ages was still around in the Iron Age, but few understood its symbolic meanings; so the Lord was preparing a new revelation; the Word, as we know it. It was in a new language, Hebrew, which would be an ideal and secure vehicle for Divine Truth.
Unlike the people of the Golden and Silver Ages, and we of the New Age, the Jews were disinclined to accept symbolic forms of revelation. They were only interested in dry material facts, or what they believed were dry material facts - fortunately lack of scientific knowledge allowed them to accept miracles as facts. Their Word told them not only that David and Abraham were their ancestors, but that their ancestry went back through Noah to Adam and thus their Creator. This seemed a satisfactory reason to accept Jehovah.
One feels inclined to laugh at the Jews for being blindly materialistic - natural people as Swedenborg would say - but even today some people never read anything but the newspaper, because they only want facts (or purported facts). We are all like this at times and perhaps more so in adolescence. Young people can be suspicious and sceptical; it is no good offering them myths and symbols. So the Lord prepared a factual revelation and a religion grounded in historical fact for the Jews, but hiding the symbolism within. It served them well over the centuries and it has served similar minded Christians, particularly fundamentalists, well too. Something concrete they feel they can hang on to.
The origins of the Jewish Church
According to Swedenborg, the story of the Jewish Church begins with Jacob. It is interesting that he chooses Jacob rather than his nominal grandfather Abraham. Historians are worried about the relationship between these two patriarchs, as the Biblical text suggests that they lived in different periods and cultures. The Abraham legends suggest a Syrian background and mention donkeys, while the Jacob story seems to come from Trans-Jordan and he uses camels. Big changes seem to have taken place in two generations (not unusual today perhaps, but innovation was much much slower in the past). So Swedenborg's odd suggestion that the new Jewish Church started with Jacob, bang in the middle of one of his favourite Celestial, Spiritual, Natural trines, is excused by history.
History also agrees that Iron Age culture is first found about the time of Jacob. It would not agree, however, that the Israelites entered the Iron Age at this time. It is usually assumed that the Iron Age in Canaan begins at the time of the Israelites invasion, about 1200 BC, well after Jacob. However, the recent studies of David Rohl, Peter James and others have extended the Jewish Bronze Age until the reign of Solomon, which Rohl places about 925 BC, thus leaving Jacob well inside the Bronze Age.
The Bronze Age and the Jews.
The suggestion that the Israelites were still happily in the Bronze Age tends to be born out by the substance of the Bible 'histories', which have some similarities with Homer's Bronze Age epics. The siege of Jericho has similarities with that of Troy, the Samson stories are comparable with those of Hercules, and David and Goliath's confrontation has an Homeric ring too.
Indeed one can go further and suggest that the Children of Israel's epic went through a complete re- enactment of history after the Exodus from Egypt. In the wilderness they became Palaeolithic hunter/gatherers living on manna and quails. As they approached Canaan, however, they seem to be Neolithic pastoralists; Reuben and Gad noting that the pastures east of Jordan would be good for their flocks. Passing through the Bronze Age in Joshua and Judges, they were soon to pick up Iron age technology from the Philistines.
All this is uncertain and controversial at the present time, but the precise dates matter little for our purposes. The era of the Jewish Church that interests us is the time when the Old Testament was fully received and written down - the time when the function of the Church Specific was most important. This was quite definitely in the Iron Age, as late as the exile to Babylon about 586 BC, when, separated from their land, the Jews religion became of especial value to them. Then the books of the Old Testament began to be systematically edited. This was when the Jews began to forge their especial identity and they became the epitome of an Iron Age people. 'A stiff-necked people' the Lord called them. Hard, obstinate and intensely conscious of their national identity. Yet like we patriotic British they had become real mongrels, culturally and probably racially, as fate dragged them around the Middle East.
As their saga develops it brings in ideas from Sumeria via Abram, Syria, Egypt via Moses, Canaan again, early Greek ideas via Philistia and Phoenicia, then more ideas from Assyria and Babylon and finally Daniel absorbs Persian ideas when it is conquered by Persia. It is a wonderful hotchpotch of ideas salvaged from lands where the knowledge of the Ancient Word had been, from which the Lord was able to recreate a new more enduring form of revelation.
A Unique Church
As Swedenborg says it was a 'Natural' church. As I noted above the new revelation needed to be based on apparent fact. The Jews needed to be convinced that God had spoken to Abraham and Moses and had made 'covenants' with them. The Jews may have been lacking in love and wisdom but they valued a contract. Obedience was a virtue, they bound copies of the commandments in little boxes (phylacteries) on their heads and hands, even if they did have difficulty in obeying them, needing constant reminding by prophets.
They represent our adolescent stage; our youth when we draw up covenants or contracts with society by passing exams and obtaining qualifications. When we particularly face the problems of obedience and expressing ourselves. Armies value young men for their obedience and sense of duty, yet our prisons are full of the rebellious and disobedient. Obedience has short term strength, but long term weakness, unless it can be backed up by wisdom. This is why our Lord only used a Natural Church for a short time with one nation.
But by carrying out all the instructions of the 'Law of Moses' to the letter; the requirements of the religious calendar, the scrupulous instructions about sacrifices, dress, eating and drinking, the Jews unknowingly preserved the correspondential message of the Word, whether their hearts were in it or not.
Iron Age Culture
But why the Iron Age? The discovery of iron was the crucial factor in the development of a new way of living. Iron ore is the most common metallic ore, although it needs very high temperatures to melt it. Once the necessary iron technology had grown out of pottery and bronze technology, man found himself with a metal as useful as bronze, which was cheap to produce. Metalwork was a special skill, however, and 'smiths' became a very special trade, looked upon almost as magicians. Smiths worshipped, and were protected by, special gods, such as Vulcan and Thor, and the West African god Ogun.
Cheap iron could now be used for all the purposes that expensive bronze had served. On the good side more fanners could have ploughshares and sickles; so food production rose and more labour became free for other tasks. With more food available world population grew from 40,000,000 to nearly 200,000,000. In the home knives, cooking vessels, pins and needles assisted women. But on the bad side, as the ancient historians noted, it was used for swords and spears, for helmets and armour and so encouraged aggression. The Bronze Age had been rather like the situation with nuclear weapons today, where atom bombs are the perquisite of the more civilised, who hesitate to use them. Similarly the civilised kings of the Bronze Age were prudent in their use of warfare. But once knowledge of ironworking spread, any minor chieftain could, and did, arm their tribes with cheap weapons and raid the nearest richer kingdom carrying off cattle, goods and women. The Bronze Age cities did resist, but their civilisations were complex and their 'infrastructures' were easily disorganised by the brutal simplicity of the hit and run attacks of marauding tribes.
A dark age in history ensued between 1200 and 800 BC. Armed with iron, the Celts spread across Europe, the Dorians replaced the Myceneans in Greece; the Hyskos took over Lower Egypt and the Aryans conquered northern India. Dozens of other intruders caused chaos elsewhere, small tribes such as the Israelites and Phoenicians took the opportunity to set up minor kingdoms, becoming an empire in the latter case.
Stability was gradually reinstated, however. In 1350 BC Rameses II established the 'New Kingdom' in Egypt, which came to rival the Bronze Age 'Old Kingdom'. The Phoenicians built a trading empire stretching to Carthage. The invading 'Greeks' built on the foundations of Mycene, and borrowed the Phoenicians alphabet and trading know-how, to launch the culture we still call 'Classical'. The Assyrians took over Mesopotamia, the Iranians Persia, the Aryans India, and the Shang Dynasty China. Lesser events could be noted in Africa and Europe. The new stability was not based on Love or Wisdom as in earlier Ages, but on 'Discipline'. The Greek 'Hoplites' were the first professional soldiers, rather than warrior heroes. They had defensive armour, as well as weapons and fought in close ranks. Eventually they enabled Alexander to conquer the World as they knew it. Other nations adopted their methods and eventually the Romans perfected them and subdued the Mediterranean World.
These well organised armies resulted in yet bigger wars, but also peace, trade and culture within the boundaries of those empires. Men such as Cyrus of Persia and Alexander of Macedonia were ambitious to spread their empires, but also diffused civilisation and culture. Cyrus spread Zoroastrian ideas and treated subject nations tolerantly, repatriating the Jews who were captive in Babylon. Alexander, who had been educated by Aristotle (whose wide knowledge covered all manner of subjects) suddenly opened up the whole middle east to Greek influence. This too affected the Jews and the New Testament was then written in Greek.
But what about the religion of the other nations of the Iron Age World? They certainly seem to have lost the conception of a single loving God and polytheism was rife. Yet even within their complicated Pantheons or families of Gods there is hidden truth, as C Th Odhner shows in his Mythology of the Greeks and Romans. Not only do they echo the pattern of the patriarchs in Genesis, the four generations of gods confirm again the four Ages. This Pantheon is also found in other Aryan religions and surprisingly in Iron Age West Africa. Swedenborg says that the polytheism of these times derived from the practice of recognising the many attributes of the Lord in giving him a different title for each attribute. In time, however, each attribute or name began to be worshipped separately and resulted in their being thought of as separate beings.
Swedenborg mentions the Iron Age a number of times, but never accords it any spiritual status. Iron he says corresponded to mere 'Natural' truth; truth which ignored good and hence lacked the essential marriage of love and wisdom The Jews were still linked to heaven because their sacrifices and worship 'corresponded' to true spiritual worship, although their hearts were preoccupied with material matters. Other nations had lost this link, but they still had 'natural truth', which though of little value by itself if unrelated to love and good, still had potential value when those qualities could be wedded to it.
Just as the Jews preserved the Word of God, so other nations preserved other presentations of truth that may well have come from the Ancient Word. In Persia Zoroaster reiterated the message of early Aryan teachings. In India the Buddha re-interpreted some of the classical Hindu legends and in China Confucius set out his systemisation of ancient Chinese religion. In less religious mode the Greeks preserved in Dramas, Philosophies and other forms, the wisdom of the 'Homeric' Bronze Age. As a 'Christian westerner' I believe that the Jewish version is the purest and nearest to the true 'Word of God', but perhaps it is only so for 'westerners', maybe other peoples have different perceptions and needs.
So the opinions I have quoted denouncing the Iron Age have to be set against others who also see it as a time of enlightenment. Historians highlight the 6th century BC when Isaiah, Zoroaster, Buddha and Confucius were alive and active as perhaps the most significant in the spiritual history of mankind. But perhaps these men did not originate so much as revive their ideas, and more important, did so at a time when both writing, and more disciplined verbal recording, were becoming important. In the next Age we will see how their teachings helped change the course of history.