Walter Brueggemann: Iron Rationed

Now there was no smith to be found throughout all the land of Israel; for the Philistines said, “The Hebrews must not make swords or spears for themselves”; so all the Israelites went down to the Philistines to sharpen their plowshare, mattocks, axes or sickles; The charge was two-thirds of a shekel for the plowshares and for the mattocks, and one-–third for sharpening the axes and for setting the goads (I Samuel 13:19-21)

This brief, innocent-looking text is one never heard in church. It nonetheless tells us a great deal about the socio-economic, military situation of Israel in the early days of Israel’s settlement in the land. We know from the several narratives that the Philistines were Israel’s great nemesis in those early days. Thus Saul fought against the Philistines (I Samuel 13:1-7), Jonathan routed the Philistines (14:1-24), David confronted and defeated the Philistine “champion” (I Samuel 17:1-54), Saul rescued the town of Keilah from the Philistines (23:1-14), and eventually the Philistines killed Saul and Jonathan (I Samuel 31:1-10).

We know that the Philistines were part of the movement of the “Sea Peoples,” a migration that swept south and west at the beginning of the Iron Age. (I am happy to report that my first paper in graduate school was a paper on “The Sea Peoples” under George Landis). The Philistines, in Israelite perspective, represented a very different culture, a difference marked in Israelite lore by tagging them as “uncircumcised” (I Samuel 14:6, 17:26, 36, 31:4, II Samuel 1:20). They constituted a powerful continuing competitor to Israel for control of the land of the Shephelah on the southwest edge of “Palestine.” The Philistines threat to Israel did not subside until David’s decisive victory in the Valley of Rephaim (II Samuel 5:17-25).

In our text we have a report on an instance in the on-going struggle of these two peoples who vied for control of the land. In this instance the Philistines have the upper hand and were determined to keep it so. One way of maintaining dominance by the Philistines over Israel was to deny Israel access to the equipment required to flourish. Thus it is reported that the Philistines did not allow the Israelites to have any blacksmiths in Israel, that is, any artisan who could work with and shape iron into useful tools. As a result Israel could not produce for themselves the tools needed for agriculture…no plowshares, no axes, no sickles, and no pick-axes (mattocks). The Israelites had to rely on production to such tools by the Philistine blacksmiths, so that the Philistines could control production and so limit Israel’s capacity for agriculture. That in itself may have been an impediment to economic prosperity for the agricultural community. But of course the greater danger for the Philistines, noted in the text, is that an Israelite blacksmith could readily take iron intended for agricultural use and reshape such iron for weapons of war. Thus the Philistine prohibition on blacksmiths in Israel amounts to arms control and the inability of Israel to maintain military equipment to protect itself from an attack by the Philistines. We are told, moreover, that when an Israelite did of necessity engage a Philistine blacksmith, the fees were quite high. Thus on all counts Israel was kept dependent and therefore vulnerable, without means for the growth of its agricultural economy and without military capacity.

The capacity of the Philistines to limit and control iron (and therefore weapons) was on my mind as I thought about US gun violence and the recent decision of the Supreme Court to make guns everywhere more available. The Court’s decision in The District of Columbia v. Heller in 2008 made guns everywhere available in a way that has led to an explosion of gun violence. In seeking to understand the Second Amendment and that Court decision I have been informed by Thom Hartmann, The Hidden History of Guns and the Second Amendment (2019), who was in turn informed by Carl Bogus, “The Hidden History of the Second Amendment,” UC Davis Law Review 31 (1998). Hartmann, after Bogus, shows that behind the amendment was the long history of slave state “militia” whose work it was to patrol and control slaves and to recover escaped slaves. The leaders of the plantation economy (e. g. Jefferson, Madison) feared a standing army, and would have none of it. One reason for resistance to a standing army was that any slave who served in the army would have a claim to emancipation. Such leaders did not want such an army, but wanted instead to assure that the reach of the federal government would not and could not do away with “state militia.” Thus the amendment guarantees the continuing right of such “organized militia” to work their unrestrained will in the slave economy, unhindered by federal check or restraint. The purpose of the amendment was to continue the means to control the slave population. The only ones who could rightly have a gun was a “citizen,” which of course meant a white property owner. Thus guns were safely withheld from any slave (or any Black) person, none of whom could qualify as a citizen. Thus Hartman can conclude:

It didn’t take any time at all for white southerners to realize that if the race-based hierarchy of the Old South was to be preserved, white people needed to be the only armed people…Today the genocide of Native Americans has settled into a slow simmer of malnutrition, poverty, and voter suppression; the enslavement of people of African descent has shifted from plantations to slums and prisons; and the modern police state constructed during the conquest era, the slavery era, and Reconstruction after the Civil War, and thrown into high gear in the 1970s with Nixon’s war on drugs, is still alive and well. All it requires to keep it in place is lots of guns (65, 89).

The Philistines would have followed the calculus of this reasoning with appreciative judgment!

The ruling of the Court in the Heller case that made guns widely available turned out to be one of the worst of Court decisions, and one of the most poorly reasoned of any decision. Justice Scalia who wrote the majority opinion had made for himself a reputation as an “originalist.” It is clear, however, that he has claim to be an originalist in this case, for in this opinion he devised an entirely new justification for guns to protect “hearth and home;” he gave reason for his judgment that had never before been before the court. No court heretofore had thought that the amendment concerned a private right to guns. The outcome of that opinion has been the fostering of new gun usage and, consequently, an eruption of violence in many social settings. Hartmann observes of much of recent gun violence (p. 87):

…The shooter is characteristically white and male,

…The shooter kills indiscriminately in response to a strongly felt grievance, and 

…The shooter’s actions are “strangely explained away” as a “lone wolf,” or mental disturbance.

Thus much of the gun violence continues to be in the hands of whites in a new gun culture that is without restraint or check. While the Philistines had a policy of keeping “iron” out of the hands of Israelites, our current policies have been surfeit of guns in the hands of whites in a continuing assault on Black people by unrestrained police and other militia groups.

The Philistines feared that the Israelites would beat their plowshares, mattocks, axes, and sickles into swords and spears. They understood that iron is readily converted from agricultural tools into weapons of war. What the Philistines did not anticipate that there would arise in Israel poets who had the remarkable vision of doing conversion in the opposite direction, from weapons of war to agricultural tools:

They shall beat their swords into plowshares,

And their spears into pruning hooks;

nation shall not lift up sword against nation,

neither shall they learn war any more (Isaiah 2:4, Micah 4:3).

It is a stunning act of prophetic imagination to propose that society does not need to be ordered according to lethal weapons, not according to guns made regularly and everywhere available, not according to guns assigned to “well organized militia,” not according to guns used to monitor, control, or intimidate vulnerable populations. Of course the Philistines could observe the eagerness of Israelites, via Saul, Jonathan, and David, to convert their tools into weapons. The Philistines did not know of the counter-view of the poets and surely could not have trusted that vision in any case.

More likely the Philistines would themselves have gravitated to the conversion of tools to weapons urged by the prophet Joel who counters his poetic antecedents:

Beat your plowshares into swords,

and your pruning hooks into spears;

let the weakling say, I am a warrior” (Joel 3:10; Hebrew 4:10).

Joel’s poetic imperative is situated in a summons to war that has overtones of apocalyptic urgency: “for the day of the Lord is near in the valley of decision” (v. 14). But then, such apocalyptic urgency is always on the lips of those who are filled with fear and anger and who imagine that war or some such armed violence is a necessary and adequate solution to the issue at hand. Joel’s fearful summons is the more popular response to crisis, and he could see the danger all around. Joel judged, as we often do, that the forceful use of “iron” will assure security. Thus in Israel we have two competing, contradictory poetic scenarios. On the one hand, Isaiah and Micah, in the more familiar poetry, imagine a move from weapons to tools. Joel, in a less well known scenario, summons from tools to weapons.

We may judge that the move from tools to weapons is based in fear, perhaps even fear that is warranted. Conversely, the move from weapons to tools is based in hope that “not learning war” will lead to more beneficial social outcomes. If we juxtapose the two poetic offers, we can see that the issue is one of fear versus hope. And admittedly, hope seems fragile and flimsy in the face of real threat.

Likely the Philistines would not know how to respond to such an either/or, bound as they were to the practice of weapons and the force of war. And so it is in much of our world. The remarkable claim of biblical poetry is that the other alternative of hope is kept alive on the lips of the poets. In the end, the community of faith bets on hope, and refuses to succumb to the force of fear that is all around. The contest of fear and hope, of “tools to weapons” or “weapons to tools” is currently as alive for us as it always is.

We may note that in our passage from I Samuel 13, the narrative reports in the last sentence that the way in which the Philistines had rationed iron to Israel had worked: 

So on the day of the battle neither sword nor spear was to be found in the possession of any of the people with Saul and Jonathan (v. 22).

But then, quite remarkably, there is this laconic note at the end:

But Saul and his son Jonathan had them (v. 22).

The narrative offers no explanation. We are left to wonder; had they a secret deal with the Philistines? Or had they a surreptitious blacksmith?  Or are we to think the Lord of Hosts had armed them? In any case, we learn that the rationing of iron by the Philistines is not foolproof; it never is and never can be! Iron may be rationed by the strong and kept from the vulnerable; however the iron is distributed, we are left with fear...or with hope! Hope outruns fear in the same way that tools eventually will outrun weapons!


Walter Brueggemann is one of the most influential Bible interpreters of our time. He is the author of over one hundred books and numerous scholarly articles. He continues to be a highly sought-after speaker.


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