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.
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.
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. Follow his Twitter feed @interpretweeter for running classical Jewish and Christian commentary on Scripture. Mark was selected as one of three Outstanding Contributing Scholars to speak at State of Formation's workshop held at the 2014 American Academy of Religion.