Wednesday, January 7, 2009

The Two Edged Sword

For the word of God is quick, and powerful, and sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing even to the dividing asunder of soul and spirit, and of the joints and marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart. Hebrews 4:12

I really enjoy studying the language and culture of the Bible, especially the Old Testament. The main reason why is because our modern scriptures are written using the same ancient Middle Eastern imagery and idioms. When we understand those perspectives, it throws great light upon the Book of Mormon, the Doctrine & Covenants, and the Pearl of Great Price.

If the verse above from Hebrews sounds familiar, it’s probably because the Lord, through Joseph Smith, gave the same message to Ezra Thayre and Northrop Sweet in D&C 33:1:

Behold, I say unto you, my servants Ezra and Northrop, open ye your ears and hearken to the voice of the Lord your God, whose word is quick and powerful, sharper than a two-edged sword, to the dividing asunder of the joints and marrow, soul and spirit; and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart.

This “sharp sword” imagery is also found in Revelations 19:5. and D&C 6:2, 11:2, 12:2, 14:2, 76:107, and 88:106.

In our culture, “sharp” has connotations of “smart’ as in “That guy is really sharp” and of “harsh and cutting” as in “Her sharp words wounded him.”

Neither of these ideas are especially useful when trying to understand these verses. A commentator from the Middle East helps us to put these words into their proper context:

In ancient days, swords were made in many styles. Each nation fashioned its own swords; some were short, others long, some two-edged and others single-edged. The Aramaic term for "edge" is poma, "mouth." A “two edged sword” literally means, "a sword with two mouths." This type of sword is still found in Arabia .

A sword is symbolical of speech, sharpness and decision. We often say, "His tongue is like a sword," which means that his words are well chosen, or that he is a good speaker. Sharpness is a symbol of prompt decision. The two-edged sword symbolizes justice. The two-edged blade cuts forward and backward, just as justice, when thoroughly executed, cuts both ways. [Such a sword can be used to both defend and to destroy.] A single-edged sword, when used in war, may be caught by the adversary and taken away from its holder, just as justice can be perverted and purchased. But not warrior would dare to seize a two-edged sword with bare hands. Divine justice cannot be perverted, prevented or purchased.

(Lamsa, George M. 1945. New Testament Commentary. Philadelphia: A.J. Holman Company., p. 599)

There are a few other helpful insights that come when we define words and phrases from a biblical perspective. For example:

Open your ears and hearken” would be paraphrased in the imperative sense as “Pay close attention! Listen intently!”

whose word is quick and powerful “Quick” as used here doesn’t have anything to do with speed. It means that God’s word is “alive” or “living.” We see this same idea in the phrase “the quick and the dead” or when we speak of the “quickening” of an infant in its mother’s womb.

“of joints and marrow” is a way of saying “everything.” We would say “short and tall,” “young and old,” or “from A-Z.” There is also a covenantal aspect of this phrase that will be mentioned in another post.

of soul and spirit” is a Biblical way of expressing “the totality and depth of one’s being” (NavPress Bible study, Hebrews, NavPress, Colorado Springs, CO: 1989, pg 62) as well as a possible allusion to God’s power over life and death.

“the thought and intents of the heart” This expresses exactly what the Biblical writers believed. They assigned all thinking functions to the heart. Emotions and feeling functions were assigned to the kidneys (reins) and bowels (as in: “My bowels are filled with compassion”). The concept of the mind/brain as important or useful was foreign to them.


  1. I like the "connection" between the Hebrew word (also individual letter) Peh (Strongs number 06310) and its English definition, mouth (which with its two lips is as a two edged sword). Peh is derived from the Hebrew word translitered in English as Pa'ah (Strong's number 06284), which has as its most common English definition, "to cleave in pieces, break into pieces, shatter." As part of the sifting process the word of God will cleave the wicked into pieces and shatter them.

  2. Thanks heavenlybanner! The more you think about scriptures, the better they get. I appreciate your sharing these insights.