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Wednesday, January 23, 2008

How does iron sharpen iron?

All 13 of the English Bible versions I have open in my Bible study program speak of iron sharpening iron in Proverbs 27:17. These versions include formally equivalent ones such as the NASB, essentially literal ones such as the ESV, and more idiomatic (dynamically equivalent) versions such as the NLT, TEV, and CEV.

English speakers commonly use the phrase "iron sharpens iron" to refer to the good affect one person can have on another.

But have you ever stopped to wonder what kind of iron is referred to in Prov. 27:17? It can't be iron ore, since there is nothing about the ore which is sharp. At least one of the kinds of iron referred to in this verse must be able to be sharpened. And some kind of iron must be able to sharpen it.

To me, none of the English versions I have consulted adequately express the action of iron on iron that is referred to in the Hebrew Bible. Note what the UBS Handbook on Proverbs says about the phrase "iron sharpens iron":
This line expresses the common human experience that a knife or other iron tool can be sharpened by using a file or some other iron tool.
Now that makes sense to me. How might a translation of the Hebrew of Prov. 27:17 be worded so that it more accurately and clearly communicates what the author of this verse was referring to? Or am I the only one who doesn't picture an iron sharpening tool sharpening some other iron tool when I hear the words "as iron sharpens iron"?

I'm looking forward to being sharpened by you, as we interact with each other in our comments.


At Thu Jan 24, 06:48:00 AM, Blogger Fr. Bill said...

Iron does not sharpen iron, in the sense you're speaking about; and this is the point of the proverb. In the sharpening of iron with iron, both change -- the sharpener and the sharpenee, if you will.

This effect occurs between friends according to the proverb, and that point is highlighted if we consider relationships in which the respective natures do not have the same "hardness," as, for example, between a raw recruit and a Marine Corps drill instructor. That encounter is far more analogous to granite sharpening iron.

This proverb -- like most proverbs which make their points in the "vocabulary" of the concrete features of the creation around us -- does not profit at all from interpretive "translation" which only overlays the interpreter's notions about the meaning. Far better to let the reader take up the concrete picture and ponder its message.

At Thu Jan 24, 10:28:00 AM, Blogger Tim said...

I regularly (though not as regularly as I should ;) use a "steel" - a slender rough steel rod with a handle - to sharpen my steel carving and kitchen knives. So how about "steel sharpens steel" as a dynamic equivalent translation. Anachronistic for the ancient text, but within the experience of many hearers, more if we include watching TV chefs!


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