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What are the Origins of "Beat Swords into Plowshares"?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 23, 2024
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The term “beat swords into plowshares,” in reference to turning away from military activity to pursue peace, comes from the Bible. There are several references to turning swords into plowshares and vice versa in the Bible, reflecting the widespread use of both swords and plowshares in Biblical times. Today, the term has been adopted by many Christian peace organizations as a motto or title, and it is also famously included in the Plowshares Movement, an anti-nuclear movement which arose in 1980.

In the Book of Joel, one verse refers to beating plowshares into swords and pruning hooks into spears, in a verse in which people are encouraged to rise up to defend themselves and their values. The same phrasing is used again in the Books of Micah and Isiah, with an opposite meaning, in verses which tell people to beat swords into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks, referencing the need to return to peace. A sword is a potent symbol of military efforts, while a plowshare symbolizes agrarian life and community.

The contrasting uses of this term in the Bible could be used to illustrate the need to defend oneself when appropriate, but to dismantle the tools of war after a mission has been accomplished. “Swords into plowshares” is often taken to mean a return to peaceful ways, and a very final way of turning one's back on war, by literally destroying the weapons with which war could be waged. One could also theoretically take it to mean that the tools of war are potentially always ready to hand, given the verse in which people beat plowshares into swords, although this interpretation is not widespread.

Many peace activists have pushed their nations to beat swords into plowshares by retooling things designed for military use so that they can benefit civilians. In fact, many military inventions do benefit civilians, such as sonar, which was designed to look for enemy ships and submarines, but which can also be used as ultrasound to visualize the interior of the body in a noninvasive way. Military technology is often applicable to civilian uses, assuming that the military is willing to release it to the general public.

The cry of “beat swords into plowshares” is also used by organizations which lobby for peace and humanitarian efforts around the world. For example, some organizations promote the rehabilitation and training of boy soldiers in Africa under the argument that if one can beat swords into plowshares, surely people who have been trained for war can be trained for something else. Many of these organizations call for a general laying down of weapons on all sides so that people involved in conflict can pursue nation-building and improvement of living conditions, rather than focusing on war.

Language & Humanities is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a Language & Humanities researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By stoneMason — On Apr 17, 2014

@burcinc-- Of course, context is important. If one reads the context of the verse in Isaiah 2:4, it is apparent that God is foretelling the future.

God is talking about how law and order will spread and people will make peace and will never go to war again. So it's not really a direction by God, but rather a declaration of what is to come.

And I personally think that "beating swords into plowshares" is meant literally since a society that never goes to war again will not need swords and other tools of war. So they will make other tools with them.

By burcinc — On Apr 16, 2014

I don't think it's a good idea to interpret a phrase from the Bible alone, without considering the context in which it was said.

I think the phrase "And they will hammer their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks" is specific to the group of people that God is referring to and their situation. Why do we generalize it?

By ZipLine — On Apr 16, 2014

Although this exact phrase is specific to the Bible, the books of all monotheistic religions or "religions of the book" as some call it, give a similar message.

The idea is that believers should not be cowardly and should fight and defend their rights and property when under attack. But they should not ignite conflict when there is no threat and should live in peace with their neighbors.

Tolerance, compassion, love, justice and courage are main themes of the Bible, the Torah and the Qur'an. All books encourage followers and believers to take the appropriate course of action in different situations. As far as I understand, God neither likes cowards, nor those who create conflict without a just reason.

By Wisedly33 — On Apr 04, 2014

It's actively pursuing peace instead of actively pursuing war, and to make your intentions clear, you take a tool of war and turn it into a tool that will help others eat.

One of the great themes of the Bible is that God's people should pursue peace instead of conflict (in spite of what some skeptics say). There are numerous warnings there about what happens to people who start trouble and will not live in peace with their neighbors.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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