The Word "Sword" in the Old Testament

I have been doing research in preparation to write an article about the sword in the Old Testament. To my amazement (but should I be amazed?), I have discovered that there is little agreement among scholars and English translations on how many times the word “sword” appears in the Old Testament.

The Hebrew word for sword is חֶרֶב, but even the lexicons cannot agree with the number of occurrences of the word “sword” in the Hebrew Bible. Here is what I found:

Brown, Driver, and Briggs (BDB): 411 times
Koehler-Baumgartner (KB): 410 times
Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament, following KB: 410 times
Theological Workbook of the Old Testament: 407 times
Lisowski’s Konkordanz: 403 times (unless I missed the count)

In order to see how the English versions handle the word “sword,” I used BibleWorks 7 and searched all the English translations listed there. The results below include the word “sword” in the singular plus the word “swords” in the plural.

Some versions, like the NIV, translates the Hebrew expression “men who drew the sword” as “swordsmen” while the NJB and the NRSV translate the same Hebrew expression as “men bearing arms.” Such a variation in the translation of the Hebrew word is not included in the totals. Other English versions translate the singular word “sword” as plural “swords.” Thus, the total number for each translation will include both the singular and the plural. With this in mind, here are the results:

The American Standard Bible: 428 (singular) + 23 (plural)
The Bible in Basic English: 425 + 38
The Darby Bible: 419 + 25
The Douay-Rheims Bible: 460 + 34
The English Standard Version: 419 + 29
The Geneva Bible: 420 + 26
The Holman Christian Standard Bible: 365 + 33
The Jewish Publication Society: 394 + 17
The King James Version: 429 + 24
The New American Bible: 438 + 31
The New American Standard Bible: 423 + 26
The New English Translation: 294 + 38
The New Jerusalem Bible: 424 + 32
The New King James Bible: 422 + 27
The New Living Bible: 184 + 54
The New Revised Standard Bible: 474 + 37
The Revised Standard Bible: 480 + 34
The Revised Webster Bible: 424 + 24
The Young Literal Translation: 421 + 21

The results above may not be 100% accurate because I did not compare every occurrence of the Hebrew word with its equivalent in English translations. What the numbers above show is the number of times the word “sword” or “swords” appears in an English translation when compared with the number of times the word “sword” or “swords” appear in the Hebrew Bible. It is also possible that the English translations used other Hebrew words and translated them as “sword” or “swords.”

But the results show three important things:

1. English translations are not consistent in translating Hebrew words. It is true that it is impossible to translate consistently word for word from the Hebrew, since no translation is a literal translation of the Hebrew original.

2. It is impossible for a person to depend on one version alone, since is many cases, a translation may not reflect the real intent or the original words of the author or authors who wrote in Hebrew.

3. Whenever a person is doing a study of a biblical word, one must not depend on an English translation alone. Since most people do not have a basic knowledge of Hebrew, it becomes imperative that they consult Hebrew lexicons, commentaries, and other resources in order to gain an accurate meaning of a Hebrew word.

In conclusion, let me say that no one should be shaken by the differences we find in English translations of the Bible. We have to remember that no translation is meant to be a word-for-word translation of the Hebrew and Greek. Rather, the intent of a translation is to provide an accurate understanding of the message of the Bible.

Every translation of the Bible is good and every translation of the Bible has its flaws. No translation of the Bible will translate a certain Hebrew word the way I think it should be translated, but in the end, a translation will carry the message that God cares for us and that he demonstrated his love for us by sending Jesus Christ to reveal the magnitude of God’s love. And that is all we need to know.

Claude Mariottini
Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary

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One Response to The Word "Sword" in the Old Testament

  1. >Thanks for your interesting post about the inconsistent ways that the Hebrew word cherev (sword) is translated. I agree with your conclusions. It's amazing that such a simple example in Hebrew has such variation. It is difficult to think how else you could translate cherev other than sword, yet translators find all sorts of things, and can't even agree whether it is singular or plural. Just imagine what differences for all other words, verbs, etc. there are. It all goes to show that the more we can read the original Hebrew and bypass a translation altogether, the better…

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