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In the first century, did fencing style swords exist? Was there ever such a thing as a one-edged sword? I’m puzzled by the mention of a two-edged sword, as if sharper than another kind of sword. If there were no other kind, why wouldn’t it just say “sharper than a sword”?

Heb 4:12 - For the word of God is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart.

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    A sword may have two blades to it, that is to say each side of the sword is sharpened, unlike, say, an ordinary cutlery knife for spreading butter on toast. Such a sword can pierce, as well as slice. It is a matter of depth of penetration. As is the context. There is also the matter of sharpening, not just one edge (against a horizontal) but both edges of a single blade being sharpened, to give an extremely sharp blade.
    – Nigel J
    Mar 15 at 21:32

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Comparative Passages
In Greek, there are two words for sword, μάχαιρα, machaira, and ῥομφαία, rhomphaia. The primary difference between the two is size. A machaira is a large knife or small sword. A rhomphaia is larger and usually attached to a pole. Typically each would have a only single edge so describing either as "two-edged" is unusual.1,2There are four passages to consider:

and take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God
(Ephesians 6:17 ESV)
καὶ τὴν περικεφαλαίαν τοῦ σωτηρίου δέξασθε καὶ τὴν μάχαιραν τοῦ πνεύματος ὅ ἐστιν ῥῆμα θεοῦ

For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart. (Hebrews 4:12)
ζῶν γὰρ ὁ λόγος τοῦ θεοῦ καὶ ἐνεργὴς καὶ τομώτερος ὑπὲρ πᾶσαν μάχαιραν δίστομον καὶ διϊκνούμενος ἄχρι μερισμοῦ ψυχῆς καὶ πνεύματος ἁρμῶν τε καὶ μυελῶν καὶ κριτικὸς ἐνθυμήσεων καὶ ἐννοιῶν καρδίας

In his right hand he held seven stars, from his mouth came a sharp two-edged sword, and his face was like the sun shining in full strength. (Revelation 1:16)
καὶ ἔχων ἐν τῇ δεξιᾷ χειρὶ αὐτοῦ ἀστέρας ἑπτά καὶ ἐκ τοῦ στόματος αὐτοῦ ῥομφαία δίστομος ὀξεῖα ἐκπορευομένη καὶ ἡ ὄψις αὐτοῦ ὡς ὁ ἥλιος φαίνει ἐν τῇ δυνάμει αὐτοῦ

“And to the angel of the church in Pergamum write: ‘The words of him who has the sharp two-edged sword. (Revelation 2:12)
καὶ τῷ ἀγγέλῳ τῆς ἐν Περγάμῳ ἐκκλησίας γράψον τάδε λέγει ὁ ἔχων τὴν ῥομφαίαν τὴν δίστομον τὴν ὀξεῖαν

When used with sword, there are two types of word: ῥῆμα, rhema, and λόγος, logos. Therefore, the passage in Hebrews has common elements with those in Revelation (and not with Ephesians):

                 Type       Characteristic    Word of God              
Ephesians 6:17   macharia   of the Spirit     rhema
Hebrews 4:12     macharia   two-edged         logos
Revelation 1:16  rhomphaia  sharp two-edged   logos
Revelation 2:12  rhomphaia  sharp two-edged   logos 

Two-Edged
In his commentary on Revelation, Gerald L. Stevens notes the connection between the two-edged rhomphaia in Revelation and the two-edged macharia in Hebrews:3

Mouth: sharp, two-edged sword (1:16), martial imagery allusive of war, but "out of the mouth" means not a normal war. Rather, this is a war of words, of witness and testimony. Sword imagery in biblical contexts normally implies a word of judgement.47 John uses martial imagery throughout Revelation, but some interpreters do not pick up that John's rhetoric is subversive.48 This sword is not in the hand, as in normal warfare. Rather, this sword is out of the mouth, which makes all attempts to represent this artistically somewhat clumsy.

The only weapon in this war is words. Isaiah confirms this way of framing the conflict, as the expected Davidic ruler will "strike the earth with the rod of his mouth" and will vanquish the wicked "with the breath of his lips" (Isa 11:4 NRSV)49 This conflict is of witness and testimony, the claims of Caesar versus the claims of Christ. The sword coming out of the mouth of the Son of Man is the theological equivalent of Jesus' penetrating question to his disciples in Mark 8:29 - "Who do you say that I am" - now addressed to believers in late first-century Asia Minor. John's sword has two characteristics. Being sharp, the sword cuts through anything, including Roman imperial propaganda, as in Virgil's almost euphoric celebration of the world Augustus created as savior and peacemaker.50 Being two-edged, the sword cuts two ways, negatively as judgement, but positively as salvation.51 John's uses here echoes that in Hebrews, "For the Word of God is living and active and sharper than any two-edged sword, and piercing even as far as the division of soul and spirit, of both joints and marrow, and able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart" (Hebrews 4:12).

A two-edged sword cuts "both ways." The Word of God which is sent to bring salvation brings judgement if rejected. Commenting on John 5:24-27 Craig R. Koester says:

In positive terms, Jesus promised that anyone "who hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life; he does not come into judgement, but has passed from death to life" (5:24)...In negative terms, those who do not believe in him remain under divine judgement.4

In Hebrews the two-edges refer to the faith of the believer (cf. Hebrews 4:1-3). The sword pierces to the division of the soul and is discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart: it knows the truth of one's profession of faith. Chapter 4 of Hebrews addresses hearing His voice and hardening heart. Both of these may go "either way". It is possible to ignore His voice and harden the heart.

The macharia is active. It can reveal if one has heard or not; more importantly it is not symbolic of final judgment as the rhomphaia because it is living, it can change the hardened heart.

Addendum
A Two-Edged Sword/Word Picture

The two-edged sword which is symbolic of the Word of God, calls a reader to both Greek and Hebrew texts. In Hebrew, פֶּה is the word for both mouth and edge. דָּבָר is word but these same consonants can be pronounced דֶּבֶר, which is "pestilence" or "plague." The imagery of a two-edged sword coming from the mouth creates an interesting picture: enter image description here The mouth bringing the Word is the edge bringing pestilence, plague, or death.


Notes:
1. Rhomphaia
2. Makhaira
3. Gerald L. Stevens, Revelation, The Past and Future of John's Apocalypse, Pickwick Publications, 2014, pp. 271-272
4. Craig R. Koester, Symbolism in the Fourth Gospel, Meaning, Mystery, Community, Fortress Press, 1995, p. 88
47. Anthony T. Hanson, The Wrath of the Lamb, SPCK, 1957, pp. 166-167
48. CF. David L. Barr, "The Lamb Who Looks Like a Dragon? Characterizing Jesus in John's Apocalypse" pp. 205-206 in The Reality of Apocalypse: Rhetoric and Politics in the Book of Revelation. Edited by David L. Barr, SBLSymS, Num. 39. Edited by Christopher R. Matthews, Society of Biblical Literature, 2006.
49. Isaiah's imagery in Isa 11:4 and John's imagery in Rev 1:16 echoes in the unusual description of the lawless one in 2 Thess 2:8, "whom the Lord Jesus will destroy with the breath of his mouth."
50. Ecl. 4. Ferguson pointed out the "almost 'messianic' aura that surrounded the expectations of the people in the Augustan age," Backgrounds of Early Christianity, Erdmans, 2003, p. 114. CF. Horace, Satires, Epistles, and Ars poetica, Translated by H. Rushton Fairclough, LCL 194, Harvard University Press, 1926, 2.1.15; Andrew Perriman, The Coming of the Son of Man: New Testament Eschatology for an Emerging Church, Paternoster, 2005, p. 163
51. Cf. Mitchell G. Reddish, Revelation, Smyth & Helwys, 2001, p. 41

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The NT contains two different words for "sword" with some fascinating references.

  • μάχαιρα (machaira) occurs in Matt 10:34, 26:47, 51, 52, 55, Mark 14:43, 47, 48, Luke 21:24, 22:36, 38, 49, 52, John 18:10, Acts 12:2, 16:27, Rom 8:35, 13:4, Eph 6:17, Heb 4:12, 11:34, 37. It was the instrument that the disciples used in the garden at Christ's arrest. It is (BDAG):

a relatively short sword or other sharp instrument, sword, dagger

  • ῥομφαία (rhomphaia) occurs in Luke 2:35, Rev 1:16, 2:12, 16, 6:8, 19:15, 21. It is (BDAG):

a large and broad sword used by non-Greek-speak peoples, especially the Thracians

Double-Edged Sword

The double-edged sword is referenced in the Bible as follows:

  • Heb 4:12 - For the word of God is living and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword [μάχαιρα (machaira)], it pierces even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow. It judges the thoughts and intentions of the heart.
  • Rev 1:16 - In his right hand he held seven stars, from his mouth came a sharp double-edged sword [ῥομφαία (rhomphaia)], and his face was like the sun shining in full strength.
  • Rev 2:12 - To the angel of the church in Pergamum write: These are the words of the One who holds the sharp, double-edged sword [ῥομφαία (rhomphaia)].
  • Judges 3:16 - Now Ehud had made for himself a double-edged sword [LXX: μάχαιρα (machaira)] a cubit long. He strapped it to his right thigh under his cloak
  • Ps 149:6 - May the high praises of God be in their mouths, and a double-edged sword [LXX: ῥομφαία (rhomphaia)] in their hands
  • Prov 5:4 - in the end she is bitter as wormwood, sharp as a double-edged sword [LXX: μάχαιρα (machaira)].

In all cases, the Greek for "double-edged" is δίστομος (distomos) = "two mouthed". This creates a play-on-words in the description of Jesus in Rev 1:16 where we read:

... out of His mouth, a sharp sword [of] two mouths ...

This Greek is a direct allusion to the Hebrew idiom of the sword devouring its victims:

  • Deut 32:42 - I will make My arrows drunk with blood, while My sword devours flesh—the blood of the slain and captives, the heads of the enemy leaders.”
  • Isa 1:20 - But if you resist and rebel, you will be devoured by the sword.” For the mouth of the LORD has spoken.
  • 2 Sam 2:26 - Then Abner called out to Joab: “Must the sword devour forever? Do you not realize that this will only end in bitterness? How long before you tell the troops to stop pursuing their brothers?”
  • 2 Sam 11:25 - Then David told the messenger, “Say this to Joab: ‘Do not let this matter upset you, for the sword devours one as well as another. Strengthen your attack against the city and demolish it.’ Encourage him with these words.”
  • Jer 2:30 - “I have struck your sons in vain; they accepted no discipline. Your own sword has devoured your prophets like a voracious lion.”
  • Jer 12:12 - Over all the barren heights in the wilderness the destroyers have come, for the sword of the LORD devours from one end of the earth to the other. No flesh has peace.
  • Jer 46:10 - For that day belongs to the Lord GOD of Hosts, a day of vengeance against His foes. The sword will devour until it is satisfied, until it is quenched with their blood. For the Lord GOD of Hosts will hold a sacrifice in the land of the north by the River Euphrates.
  • Jer 46:14 - “Announce it in Egypt, and proclaim it in Migdol; proclaim it in Memphis and Tahpanhes: ‘Take your positions and prepare yourself, for the sword devours those around you.’
  • Eze 21:28 - Now prophesy, son of man, and declare that this is what the Lord GOD says concerning the Ammonites and their contempt: ‘A sword! A sword is drawn for slaughter, polished to consume, to flash like lightning—
  • Nah 2:13 - “Behold, I am against you,” declares the LORD of Hosts. “I will send your chariots up in smoke, and the sword will devour your young lions. I will cut off your prey from the earth, and the voices of your messengers will no longer be heard.”

Back to Heb 4:12

What are we to make of this "two-mouthed sword" that is (idiomatically) capable of dividing soul and spirit?

The word of God is likened to such a dissecting sword that was capable of separating very fine parts just as the teachings in God's word are. Ellicott observes this:

Piercing even to the dividing asunder . . .—Rather, and piercing even to the dividing of soul and spirit, both joints and marrow. For the comparison of God’s word to a sword see Isaiah 49:2; Ephesians 6:17; (Revelation 1:16); comp. also Wisdom Of Solomon 18:15-16, “Thine Almighty word leapt down from heaven out of Thy royal throne . . . and brought Thine unfeigned commandment as a sharp sword, and standing up filled all things with death.” The keen two-edged sword penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit (not soul from spirit), with unfailing stroke severing bone from bone and piercing the very marrow. The latter words, by a very natural metaphor, are transferred from the material frame to the soul and spirit.

And is a discerner . . .—Is quick to discern, able to judge, the thoughts (reflections, conceptions, intents) of the heart. Man’s word may be lifeless, without power to discriminate, to adapt itself to a changed state or varying circumstances, to enforce itself: the Spirit of God is never absent from His word.

Barnes is even more helpful:

For the word of God - The design of this and the following verse is obvious. It is to show that we cannot escape the notice of God; that all insincerity, unbelief, hypocrisy, will be detected by him; and that since our hearts are perfectly open before him, we should be sincere and should not attempt to deceive him. The sense is, that the truth of God is all-penetrating and searching, and that the real thoughts and intents of the heart will be brought to light, and that if there is insincerity and self-deception there can be no hope of escape. There has been a great variety of opinion here about the meaning of the phrase "the Word of God." Some have supposed that it means the Lord Jesus; others, the whole of the divine revelation; others the gospel; others the particular threatening referred to here. The "Word of God" is "what God speaks" - whether it be a promise or a threatening; whether it be Law or gospel; whether it be a simple declaration or a statement of a doctrine. The idea here is, that what "God had said" is suited to detect hypocrisy and to lay open the true nature of the feelings of the soul, so that there can be no escape for the guilty. His "truth" is adapted to bring out the real feelings, and to show man exactly what he is. Truth always has this power - whether preached, or read, or communicated by conversation, or impressed upon the memory and conscience by the Holy Spirit. There can be no escape from the penetrating, searching application of the Word of God. That truth has power to show what man is, and is like a penetrating sword that lays open the whole man; compare Isaiah 49:2. The phrase "the Word of God" here may be applied, therefore, to the "truth" of God, however made known to the mind. In some way it will bring out the real feelings, and show what man is.

The Cambridge commentary is more succinct:

sharper than any two-edged sword The same comparison is used by Isaiah (Isaiah 49:2) and St Paul (Ephesians 6:17) and St John (Revelation 2:16; Revelation 19:15). See too Wis 18:15-16, “Thine Almighty Word leaped down from heaven … and brought thine unfeigned commandment as a sharp sword.” Philo compares the Logos to the flaming sword of Eden (Genesis 3:24) and “the fire and knife” (μἁχαιραν) of Genesis 22:6.

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  • Lots of good information there, but except in Rev. 1:16, it doesn't seem that the adjective adds anything. (And it isn't even present in many of your quotes.)
    – WGroleau
    Mar 15 at 23:19
  • @WGroleau - what is not present in many quotes? I have documented the two types of sword in the Bible - some which are described as double edged. What is missing?
    – Dottard
    Mar 15 at 23:32
  • Many of them do not say "double-edged." And those that do would inspire the same question.
    – WGroleau
    Mar 16 at 0:39
  • @WGroleau - the word "double-edged" only occurs in the six places listed above. The word "sword" varies as listed above because you asked about different types of sword.
    – Dottard
    Mar 16 at 1:46
  • What I asked is why the adjective, when (as far as I know) there aren’t any single-edged swords.
    – WGroleau
    Mar 17 at 13:34

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