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Hebrew Thoughts

''The book and the sword''

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"The book and the sword descended into the world bound together. A voice from heaven explained the meaning of this strange act of Creation: only the book can conquer the sword. Another heavenly voice had announced earlier that the world itself hadbeen created when God uttered the word for peace, shalom. Speech was, thus, the Divine instrument which preceded Creation. The unique capacity of men and women to speak, to record and to remember is what makes them human and god-like.

The rabbis taught, two thousand years ago, that Creation itself is unfinished. God left something of the primal chaos and charged mankind with the task of making order and bringing justice to finish Creation itself. The blueprint for the task was prepared before Creation. It was a book, the Torah, which God rolled out before Him, and He made the world according to its prescriptions. Later, he gave this book to Moses and his people at Mount Sinai. The Torah is the deepest link between God and His Creation. It is His immediate presence in the world.

The Jews were commanded to study these words and to teach them diligently to their descendants . . ."
(Prof. Arthur Hertzberg in his foreword to Gates of Light (Sha‘are Orah),
Rabbi Joseph Gikatilla, Harper Collins, 1994)

In October 2001 scientific researchers claimed to have found a gene for speech and language. Children can be taught to do many things but that which comes most naturally, although not entirely unaided, is speech. Perhaps this is one of the genetic markers that we have of being made in God's image and is part of the 3% that distinguishes us from chimpanzees.

One of man's first tasks was to use his speech in creative collaboration with God for naming the animals.

Prior to Babel (Genesis 11) mankind had but one language. Whilst we cannot be sure it was Hebrew exactly as we know it now, nevertheless, there is enough trace proof in all the world's languages of the original affinities between them. But more on that later.

In the wake of the 11 September 2001 terrorist attack on New York a lot of media space was devoted to comparing the merits and criticising the extremes of the three monotheistic faiths. In a letter, dated 3 October 2001 to The Times Dr Edward de Bono, the famous thinker and educator, labels the commentators' views on Islam misleading. He says,

"[I]t may surprise many to learn that Islam puts more emphasis on 'thinking' than any other religion. Consider the following sayings of the Prophet Muhammad in the Hadith (the direct sayings of Muhammad).

'The ink of a scholar is more holy than the blood of a martyr'
'One hour spent thinking about the works of the Creator is worth more than seventy years of praying'
'One learned man gives more trouble to the Devil than a thousand worshippers'

In addition there are 150 verses in the Koran specifically concerned with the importance of thinking. In contrast, the Bible has very little to say about thinking beyond role-model behaviour."

De Bono's comments cannot go uncontested. Judaism, if any, is THE religion of study. Unlike Koranic education in many Muslim countries where learning of the Koran is by rote and often doesn't encourage understanding of either the text or the language, Jewish education actively encourages questioning and comprehension. The famed method of the rabbis in education was to extract knowledge by asking questions rather than giving answers. Jesus and contemporary rabbis used the same method which is at least as old as Greek Socratic learning methods. If one compares like with like then the Bible carries as many commendations to study, knowledge and wisdom, as the Koran. When it comes to the Hadith of the Prophet, the comparative text would be the Jewish Talmud. Whilst preparing a paper on "Study - the highest form of Worship [in Judaism]" (Pardes Journal 3.3, Dec 1999) I found nearly 4000 references in talmudic literature to study and considered my research to be both exhaustive and exhausting when I stopped after looking at just 2200 of them.

The verb 'to teach' שנן (Strong's #8150) in Deuteronomy 6:7 is actually 'to whet' or 'sharpen', to rub something in, making it sharp, by repetition (cf. the similar root verb שנה, Strong's #8138 'to repeat'). It is the first of 9 uses of this word in Scripture:

Deuteronomy 32:41 "If I whet my glittering sword"
Psalm 64:3 "Who whet their tongue like a sword"
Psalm 140:3 "They have sharpened their tongues like a serpent; adders' poison is under their lips"
Proverbs 25:18 "A man that bears false witness against his neighbour is a maul, and a sword, and a sharp arrow." (cf. Psalm 45:5; 120:4; Isaiah 5:28)
Psalm 73:21 "Thus my heart was grieved, and I was pricked in my reins."

The affinity between sharpened arrows or swords and sharpened words is noticeable. In Deuteronomy 6:7 the use is positive rather than negative and although the English idiom, "to rub something in" in the sense of constantly drawing attention to a sore point, is a negative phrase, it suffices to show the meaning of reminder by way of sharpened repetition.

New Testament usage compares the Word of God to a sword in Hebrews 4:12 and the incarnate Word of God, Christ, to a double-edged sword in Revelation.

Study leading to the right use of The Word is like whetting, sharpening and preparing a sword for battle. The modern battlefields we face now are as much in the printed words of the media and imam's sermons as the hills of Afghanistan, the deserts of Iraq, or the terrorist targets in Israel or the West. As a Christian community we need to return to the vigour and rigour of Jewish study as worship and daily application (halakah) in order to be always ready and prepared with an answer to those that ask, or a defence against those that verbally attack. The Book, rightly divided and wisely wielded is our sharpened sword.


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Lectionary Calendar
Sunday, June 25th, 2017
the Week of Proper 7 / Ordinary 12
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KJ Went has taught biblical Hebrew, hermeneutics and Jewish background to early Christianity. Their "Biblical Hebrew made easy" course can be found at

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'Hebrew Thoughts'

'adhâmâh - אדמה (Strong's #127)

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