Better Bibles Blog has moved. Read our last post, below, and then
click here if you are not redirected to our new location within 60 seconds.
Please Bookmark our new location and update blogrolls.

Thursday, February 23, 2006

How does iron sharpen iron?

The wording of Proverbs 27:17 has been familiar to me all my life, starting with the version we used for many years from my childhood:
Iron sharpeneth iron; so a man sharpeneth the countenance of his friend. (KJV)
The many other English versions I have consulted all refer to iron sharpening iron, including the most idiomatic versions, such as:
Just as iron sharpens iron, friends sharpen the minds of each other. (CEV)
I have often referred to mutual learning among colleagues as "iron sharpening iron." But I must confess that I have never known what it means for iron to sharpen iron. It must have been some kind of action done by the Hebrew people and others who lived after the Iron Age, where one piece of iron metal was used to sharpen another piece. But if I were to take two pieces of iron, I wouldn't know what to do with them so that they sharpen each other.

Might one of the pieces have a rough edge, like that of a file, which can grind away at the other piece so that it gets an edge which can be used for chopping wood, or perhaps even get such a honed edge that it can cut meat and other food?

Or does the ironworker use both pieces to chip away at each other until each piece has some sharp edges?

Inquiring minds want to know how iron sharpened iron at the time that this Hebrew proverb was recorded. Do some of you who have studied the culture of the Ancient Near East know? If I knew how iron sharpens iron, it would help me better understand the entire proverb, and I wouldn't just be reciting it, but it would all make sense, which, I believe, is supposed to be the case for most of the Bible. The Bible was written to make sense, and I'd like that sense to come through in the versions that I read.


At Thu Feb 23, 10:37:00 AM, Blogger Tim said...

I've not studied it, so I hope someone has better more authoritative answers...

But, the Romans used hammers for sharpening the edges of tools and weapons... (See Christensen, Arne Emil (2005) "The Roman Iron Age Tools from Vimose, Denmark." Acta Archaeologica 76 (2), 59-86.

At Thu Feb 23, 10:57:00 AM, Blogger Mike Sangrey said...


I've always taken it to be reciprocal. If one used iron to sharpen iron, they wearing away (and hopefully sharpening) would be in both directions. If you wanted it to go only in one direction, then you would use something else other than iron in order to sharpen iron.

At Thu Feb 23, 11:26:00 AM, Blogger Talmida said...

Isn't it the same as using (a) steel to sharpen (steel) knives?

Or a stone (iron ore?) to sharpen a blade? The Hebrew word can refer to the iron-ore as well as the metal and implements made from the metal.

At Thu Feb 23, 08:57:00 PM, Blogger Brian said...

talmida has it, I imagine they sharpened knives with steel just like that do today


At Thu Feb 23, 11:18:00 PM, Blogger Wayne Leman said...

talmida has it, I imagine they sharpened knives with steel just like that do today

I, also, suspect Talmida is right. Thanks, Talmida and Brian.

BTW, all of the Bible versions I consulted use only the word "iron" but one of the most recent ones has "steel" with this for the entire verse:

You use steel to sharpen steel, and one friend sharpens another.

That makes sense to me. I might want to tweak the wording a bit to something like this:

Just as we use steel to sharpen steel, one friend sharpens another.

To me, that makes the connection between the two clauses clearer.

Which version uses "steel"? Hmm, check it out. It's interesting to discover which one :-)

At Thu Feb 23, 11:48:00 PM, Blogger Ted Gossard said...

An "iron sharpening iron" question to you Wayne: In translating Scripture is it always necessary to bring an ancient practice over to a present day practice, if one still gets the essential meaning of what's said?

Also I wonder about how we can know for sure just how the original writings came across to their first hearers/readers? And there are differences in books, not reflected necessarily that well in our translations, differences in style, grammar, etc. Isaiah lofty, Amos not, etc. And Scot McKnight, as I remembered it, said that translators and people don't agree on how that works out!

I appreciate your stance for the CEV and NLT and the like (on my Friday posting on my blog, I quote from the NLT). But one reason alone will probably keep me in the TNIV, at least for now (I know NLT did revise and will surely keep doing so).

I believe there are gay Christians who see homosexual sex as sin and therefore abstain. But they are still oriented that way. I know this is a big topic itself. And I know some leave their orientation behind but others do not. Considering that, and more importantly the seemingly active sense of the word in 1 Cor 6, I see the TNIV as more accurate and better. Other reasons as well, but for me that's a big one.

I have other questions about NLT's rendering in comparison with TNIV's. But some other time.


At Fri Feb 24, 06:46:00 AM, Blogger DavidR said...

From P.J. King and L.E. Stager, Life in Biblical Israel (W/JKP, 2001):

[After pointing out that casting pure iron was impossible until as recently as the 19thC AD! ...]

"Iron is valued for its hardness and strength. Wrought iron (shaped by hammering) is softer than bronze, but it holds an edge and a point." (p. 168)

They go on to quote ben Sira 38:28 (in that lovely passage about the crafts and trades, and the wonder of being a scholar):

... the smith sit[s] by the anvil, intent upon his handiwork in iron; the breath of the fire melts his flesh, and he wastes away in the heat of the furnace; he inclines his ear to the sound of the hammer, and his eyes are on the pattern of the object. He sets his heart on finishing his handiwork, and he is careful to complete its decoration.

(Note too that the LXX indulges in a bit of lovely word-play in Prov 27:17, another sign of that translator's facility and freedom.)

As for "steel" vs. "iron" -- it seems likely that the former is being referred to here (in Proverbs; cf. again King & Stager, p. 169), although biblical Hebrew barzel does not make the distinction.

If you have access to older copies of Biblical Archaeology Review, James Muhly's article "How Iron Technology Changed the Ancient World" (BAR 8/6 [1982] 40-54) seems to have been a main source for King & Stager.

Hope that helps! ;)

At Fri Feb 24, 07:50:00 AM, Blogger Ted Gossard said...

hey I know my comment was out of place here, and for that I apologize. did see it as related when i wrote it.

At Fri Feb 24, 12:36:00 PM, Blogger Jeremy Pierce said...

Waltke says it's referring to a sharpening iron used to sharpen the sort of worked iron (not raw ore) that could be fashioned into a blade. He also says the parallel with the term for face is an implied pun of sorts, because the face of a blade was it's front edge.


Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

<< Home