What is a Sword?

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Posted on April 4th, 2013 | Filed under Learning, Philosophy
Tagged with , , ,

In my last post, I showed how Christian supporters and critics of gun control read the Bible with a common assumption: that wherever it speaks about 'swords,' it teaches us about weapons in general, and therefore about guns.  Swords are equivalent to guns.  This arises from a commendable desire to make the Bible applicable in today's world, but it amounts to arbitrarily ignoring the Bible's jots and tittles.  Moreover, because it is arbitrary, this way of reading tends to bring arguments to an impasse: both sides quote the Scriptures with the same assumption but get opposite results.

We need other ways to get from the Bible to our own context.  I want to suggest that we begin (1) by asking carefully and attentively, 'what is a sword?' We ask this not in isolation from the Scriptures, but by meditating on the way swords are revealed in the Bible.  This kind of meditation should also (2) train us in wisdom, which the Bible frequently promises to its readers.  Equipped with particular insights about swords and formed in wisdom, we can (3) turn to read our own context, asking questions like 'what is a gun?'  Our own context will always be both like and unlike the world of the Bible.  Guns are both like and unlike swords.

Source: Wikipedia Commons

What is a sword?  The Bible speaks about swords hundreds of times.  Here I simply offer three brief meditations.

1. As an instrument of violence, the sword is intimate and personal.  In Exodus 32:27, the Levites rally to Moses while the other Israelites are frolicking around the golden calf.  Moses tells them in the name of the Lord:

‘Each man strap a sword to his side. Go back and forth through the camp from one end to the other, each killing his brother and friend and neighbor.’

The instruction is chilling -- 3000 brothers, friends, and neighbors fall by the sword that day.  In this way, the Scriptures call attention to the fact that, to kill a person by the sword, one must stand beside them, very likely looking them in the eye and recognizing them.  One is not at liberty to kill from a distance, but must 'go back and forth through the camp.'  The sword makes violence close and personal.

Guns may be used in this way, but they introduce the possibility of killing anonymously from a distance.

2. The sword cannot be used for violence without training and expertise.  This is one of the issues in the well-known story of David and Goliath.  After David volunteers to take on the giant,

Saul dressed David in his own tunic. He put a coat of armor on him and a bronze helmet on his head. David fastened on his sword over the tunic and tried walking around, because he was not used to them. “I cannot go in these,” he said to Saul, “because I am not used to them.” So he took them off. (I Sam. 17:38-39).

David the shepherd is not used to the implements of the expert warrior, including the sword.  Presumably because they are heavy and difficult to wield, without training they actually disadvantage David -- "I cannot go in these."  A child smaller than David could not even lift a sword, let alone use it to kill.

Guns may be used for violence by anyone, even children at play.  Certainly the shooter benefits from training, both in terms of safety and skill.  But a gun may be used for violence even without expertise.

3. The Bible is particularly fascinated by the sword as a symbol of the close connection between violence and productive labor.  We use blades to kill, but also to work the field, and the same tool can easily be converted from one purpose to the other.  This becomes for Isaiah a symbol of the possibility of peace:

They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. (Isaiah 2:4)

And for Joel, of a total call to war:

Beat your plowshares into swords and your pruning hooks into spears. (Joel 3:10)

One does not even need to beat plowshares into swords to use them for violence -- this was one of the lessons of the story from 1 Samuel 13 I discussed in my last post.  Although the Israelites would be better off with swords, it is not hopeless to go up against the Philistines with farming implements (one thinks of the Scottish rebels in Braveheart).  The difference between a sword and a plowshare is significant but relative.

Guns are far more specialized instruments of violence than guns are.  One cannot 'beat' a gun into anything useful -- guns are for killing.  And they are so effective at this that it would be pretty pointless to attack a gun-wielding army with farming tools.

All these insights are lost when we simply equate swords with guns.  Yet these are surely lessons taught by the Bible.  To speak Biblically into our own gun culture requires reading guns in light of their similarities and differences with Biblical instruments of violence.

We will not be able to apply what the Bible is teaching us without giving up our lust for clear principles and cultivating instead those too-often forgotten Biblical virtues of wisdom and discernment.

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8 Responses to “What is a Sword?”

  1. Steve Haney says:

    Mark, I have read both of your posts on Gun’s and the Bible and while I find your posts interesting it occurs to me that as Christians we are told to submit to the rulers and authorities in the Land (Rom. 13:1-5). Now as part of that I believe that we, as Christian Americans (not to be confused with those put their identity as Americans before their Identity in Christ), should vote. After all, that is what the authorities of our land have asked us to do. As you have pointed out very well, the references to swords in the Bible should not be taken to mean Guns as well because of the many differences. In fact, the weapon in the Bible that most resembles a Gun would be the sling (not many uses for a sling besides killing, specialized, used to kill from a distance). However, even the sling cannot be equated to a gun because a sling cannot kill by accident and you cannot kill with a sling from as great a distance as you can with a Gun.

    All this being said I do not believe that we can find any evidence in the Bible to support Gun Control or Gun Rights. This is an American Rights question not a Christian Rights question. Don’t get me wrong I believe that we should go to the Bible for all of our questions but as you have pointed out we can make the scriptures say what we want them to say just by claiming we are taking a literal or figurative view on the Bible. But I honestly believe that what we have before us in the issue with Gun Control vs. Gun Rights is an issue that should not effect our Christianity. Whether I am permitted to have fire arms in my house or not does not and should not change the way I live as a Christian.

    Steve

    • Mark Randall James says:

      Steve — I like your observations about slings: that’s exactly the kind of thinking I’m hoping to encourage. But I hope you don’t take my posts to mean that ‘the scriptures can say what we want them to say.’ My claim here is only that we usually distort the scriptures if we try to abstract universal principles from them. One alternative is to see Scripture as training us in wisdom — wisdom that plays out in our homes, our churches, and our politics. (So the distinction between ‘Christian’ and ‘American’ Rights cannot be sustained, I think.)

      Thanks for reading!

  2. Jani says:

    I agree that wisdom and discernment are necessary to make biblically sound judgments about our modern culture. Matters of ethics can’t be addressed by resorting to a concordance. I would also say that gun rights issues are not purely a matter for Americans to address apart from Christ. We don’t exclude Christ or claim that gun rights are outside the realm of Christ’s sphere of influence. I think the following verse is relevant: First of all, then, I urge that entreaties and prayers, petitions and thanksgivings, be made on behalf of all men, for kings and all who are in authority, so that we may lead a tranquil and quiet life in all godliness and dignity. (1 Timothy 2:1, 2 NASB). Here a value for the life of a society is expressed. How does availability of guns fit with such a value?

    • Mark Randall James says:

      I hope you don’t take me as proposing ethical reasoning ‘apart from Christ.’ The question is the form that Christological reason takes. If Christ is the ‘Word’ and ‘Wisdom’ of God, then our wise reading of Scripture and discerning of our context is part of our relation to Christ.

      • Jani says:

        This may not be a good way to make replies on blogs, but I was reflecting on what you AND Steve had said. The sphere of Christ comment was a thought on what Steve had said. I’ll work on my blog etiquette :)

  3. Rebecca Levi says:

    So, here’s the question I have after reading this: how to tell when one has slid from drawing an analogy (something I’d consider a useful learning technique that, when it works properly, is aware of its limits) to making the sorts of universalizing judgments and false equivalencies I think you are correct in warning us against?
    So, for example, I learn from your post that there may be some specific ways I might be able to draw a limited but fruitful analogy between a gun and a sword; from Steve’s reply I learn that there are other ways I can draw a similarly limited analogy between a gun and a sling. On the other hand, I learn that it’s problematic when I make “sword” a metonym (in the common sense of that term, rather than how Handelman uses it) for “all weapons.”
    BUT–there seem to be a limited set of circumstances where, say, “the Israelite’s swords” might in fact be a workable analogy for “the USian’s weapons.” Is it your claim that the discernment I ought to learn from my discipline of reading Scripture in a way that is attentive to particularity will give me the tools to recognize when I am making a limited-yet-fruitful analogy, versus when I am making an inappropriate universalization?

    Also, a propos of nothing, I kind of love your phrase, “lust for clear principles”. You have a real talent for making intellectual errors sound salacious.

    • Rebecca Levi says:

      Aargh. That should be “the Israelites’ swords.”

    • Mark Randall James says:

      Who says intellectual errors can’t be sexy? :)

      I would distinguish between two issues.

      1. Some arguments slide from analogy to false equivalencies. How to recognize this? For one thing, an analogy always recognizes both similarities and differences of the A and B being compared, and it is responsible for dealing with both. For another, as you say, an analogy will compare particular text to particular context, and thus likely be limited in its range of application.

      2. Other arguments disagree over which analogy is best to draw, or what the significance of the various similarities and differences are (the sort of disagreement e.g. between two judges who disagree about which precedent is relevant for deciding a case). I have used the words ‘wisdom’ and ‘discernment’ to suggest that this kind of decision-making will not be fully determined by rules. But there is presumably a lot more to say here — perhaps matter for a future post!

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Mark Randall James is a PhD student in religious studies at the University of Virginia. His work focuses on Jewish and Christian interpretation of Scripture and the distinctive rationalities of scriptural religious traditions.


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