That’s the question raised by Ron Giese in the latest issue of the Journal of Biblical Literature: Ronald L. Giese Jr., “‘Iron Sharpens Iron’ as a Negative Image: Challenging the Common Interpretation of Proverbs 27:17,” JBL 135, no. 1 (Spring 2016): 61-76.
Here is a portion of the abstract:
Proverbs 27:17, “Iron sharpens iron, and one man sharpens the face his neighbor,” is almost universally seen as positive. Some view this maxim as an example of “tough love,” others as a rewording of a verse earlier in this passage, “Faithful are the wounds of a friend” (27:6).
There is little evidence, however, for these interpretations, which appear to reflect modern connotations of “sharpness.”
In fact, the biblical evidence for parts of a face that are “sharp” suggests a more negative reading, for sharp eyes or a sharp tongue show an intent to do violence or bring about destruction. The usage of the LXX’s verb for “sharpen” (παροξύνω) elsewhere confirms this interpretation. . . .
This study of the Hebrew and Greek verbs for “sharpen” suggests that v. 17 continues the idea of “friendships” to be avoided (vv. 13-16). The previous passage, then, teaches the positive aspects of friendship (vv. 1-10, esp. vv. 5-10), followed by the negative aspects in vv. 11-17. Iron sharpens iron, and one man sharpens the face of his neighbor (Prov 27:17).
And here is Dr. Giese’s conclusion:
The root חדד (“sharpen”) in the second half of the verse does not mean to “improve.”
The proper context for “sharpen” the face is passages elsewhere in the OT in which the tongue, lips, and eyes are made to be “sharp.” That is, the tongue, lips, and eyes are used like a sword or arrows.
The meaning of the verse is therefore along these lines: Just as a hard iron hammer pounds soft iron into something sharp, ready for battle, in the same way a man causes his neighbor to go on the attack (i.e., have a “sharp face”).
What would cause a man to anger his neighbor? The verse does not say, but too much time together in conversation (based on vv. 4-16) is a good guess.
“As iron sharpens iron” is a great slogan for friendship, “tough love,” and accountability among those who care for one another. The positive interpretation . . . however, requires too many leaps over too great a distance. It requires
(1) that Hebrew רע means “friend”;
(2) that “face” means “character”; and
(3) that “sharpen” in the second half of the verse means “improve” when used with “face.”
The first and second of these meanings are possible but unlikely in the context.
The third has no basis elsewhere, and in fact the evidence is all to the contrary. Though we do not find “sharpen” used with “face” elsewhere, there are multiple instances of key parts of the face used with the verb “sharpen,” with all of them showing a negative, not a positive, interpretation.
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Ron Giese (PhD, University of Wisconsin-Madison) is administrative pastor at Desert Springs Church in Albuquerque, New Mexico, which hosts the annual Southwest regional conference of the Gospel Coalition each year.