Thought for the Day by Kevin Ward (St Michael’s)
Reading: Job 28
This chapter of Job is full of problems. It doesn’t quite fit in with the dialogue between Job and his friends, or Job’s complaints as they are developed in the surrounding chapters. The Hebrew text itself is uncertain and its meanings often difficult to make sense of. Overall, however, there is a clear intention: to show the wonders of the creation. Human beings have powers which other animals and birds (even the eagle) are incapable of. But even human ingenuity falls short of God’s creative powers. Mining well illustrates the ingenuity and inventiveness of human beings. Only they are able to exploit the mineral riches hidden deep in the earth. I was puzzled by the idea that ‘miners put an end to darkness’, since the verse is immediately followed by an account of how they work ‘in gloom and deep darkness’, opening shafts in the wild places, far away from human habitation. It made more sense when I learnt that the Hebrew colloquial word for miners is ‘lamp folk’ – those who are able to penetrate the darkness with the lamps which they wear around their heads. Mining is hazardous at the best of times,but in an age before Davey’s safety lamp, this must have been an even more hazardous undertaking.
In ancient times, miners extracted gold and silver, iron and copper, and precious stones. Its only with the industrial revolution that coal mining became a major industry, literally fuelling the industrial revolution. Mining itself, however, did not become the nucleus of large-scale urbanisation, unlike the textile factories, or iron and steel manufacture, around which great cities like Birmingham and Sheffield emerged. Mines remained separate – in the Welsh valleys, the Yorkshire coalfields, the Durham countryside. My maternal grandfather was a Durham miner, working in collieries such as Cornsay and Esh Winning, sadly now forlorn rural villages in a post-industrial landscape. My mum’s three brothers all followed their father down the pit. When I visited as a child it seemed like another world, remote from industrial Bradford, even though Bradford, of course, could not have developed without coal. In my childhood, Bradford’s beautiful Yorkshire stone buildings had turned completely soot black. I could hardly understand my granddad’s Geordie speech. I was shocked when we were turned out of the living room while a great iron bath was put in front of the fire so that the workers could bathe when they returned from their shift, black as soot. There was no bathroom, and the toilet was in the front yard. I did eventually pick up a little of the lingo: bait (packed lunch), bairn, filem (film), ‘stepping out’ (with your boy or girl friend), ‘he’s a canny lad’ ‘why aye, man’. My sister and I visited Esh Winning a couple of years ago. We couldn’t find the house in Coronation Terrace (named for George V’s coronation in 1911 or George VI’s in 1936?).
We asked directions from an old man. “Thats long since gone, pet. Who was your grandaddy, then?…. Oh Charlie Dixon…Yes, I knew him, I remember him.’ My granddad had been fined for picking up a few nuggets of coal, strewn around the colliery, during the depression. He was unemployed and there was no money to light a fire. I guess the whole family were ‘Labour’; solidarity was built into this community. Alas, now the red wall is crumbling.
Many years later I visited Johannesburg and Kimberley in South Africa, centres of gold and diamond extraction. Here, great cities have grown around the mines. In the centre of Kimberley is ‘de groot gat’ – the Great Hole. Even the interior of Kimberley’s cathedral looks like a mine. The tiny windows let in little natural light. Unlike Durham, in these places a strong community could not easily be created, impeded by capitalist and segregationist government policies. Wives were not allowed to live with their husbands, who were segregated in all-male compounds, with separate hotels for Sotho, Zulu, Xhosa, Tswana, and Mozambicans. They were on short-term contracts, to prevent unionisation. The evils of apartheid!
Job concludes this section by pondering on the mystery of creation. Wisdom is difficult to find – like precious metals and ‘black diamonds’ , Wisdom is concealed from the eyes of the living, from the birds, even from Death. Humans have made great discoveries, their ingenuity has produced the riches, ‘the wealth of the nations’; also injustice and discrimination and class division. Wisdom eludes us: even we humans ‘ have only heard a rumour of it with our ears’. We are bound to conclude, with Job, that ‘the fear of the Lord is wisdom, and to depart from evil is understanding.’