Shibboleths Then and Now

     There are a number of conflicts described in the Book of Judges one of which was between Gilead and Ephraim. Gilead was in the portion of Manasseh on the east side of the Jordan River north of Jerusalem. The leader of Gilead was Jephthah who was a “mighty man of valor” though he was the son of a harlot. He had been expelled from his home by his half brothers because they did not want to share their inheritance with him (Judges 11:1-3).

     Jephthah evidently had certain skills and attracted and led a corps of rough characters. When Ammon came to make war on Israel the elders of Gilead found themselves in need of a man who understood efficient violence and to they recruited Jephthah. He was not only good in the violent arts he was efficient as a negotiator. He agreed to help Gilead if they would recognize him as their leader after the conflict was concluded. Gilead agreed. Jephthah also reasoned with Ammon but they would not listen (Judges 11:12-28).

     Thus the matter came to war. Jephthah wanted God’s help and favor but he made a rash vow in the process of requesting that help. He promised to sacrifice the first thing he saw upon his return home. This rash promise caused him trouble later. The conclusion of this episode has caused quite a bit of interpretation. We simply note Judges 11:34-40.

     After the conflict with Ammon there arose another but with Ephraim. Judges 12:1-4 demonstrates that the politics of that time are not much different than those of today. As it worked out Jephthah defeated Ephraim though some of the enemy escaped. Jephthah evidently realized that if the Ephraimites could gather back up they could continue to be a problem for him. As he had control of the Jordan and its crossings he developed a plan that took advantage of a difference in speech between those of Ephraim and those of Gilead.

     When a person wished to cross the river a man of Gilead would ask him if he was from Ephraim. If the answer was “No” then he was asked to say “Shibboleth.” They would say “Sibboleth” because “they could not pronounce it right” (Judges 12:5-6). The word is said to mean a flowing stream or possibly an ear of corn or cluster of grain. The meaning in this case (the scene did include a river, however) is not as important as the pronunciation of the word. Those of Ephraim did not use the “sh” sound when they said the word. Thus they were identified and killed. It was a time of great violence.

     So it is that the idea of a shibboleth has passed down to our times. It has in it the concept of a test word or phrase that reveals something about the person who uses the word. “Roll Tide” and “War Eagle” are sometimes viewed as test words here in Alabama. The degree of seriousness with which these words are used varies from fan to fan, but we all know where the folks who use either of these phrases (or some other such expression of support for a team) are coming from.

     There are other ways our use of words reveals things about us. Obviously profane and vulgar language reveals “where we come from” in terms of culture we have adopted and how we were raised. Paul reminded us that as Christians “no corrupt communication” should flow from our mouths (Ephesians 4:29). As soon as we hear someone using foul language we know at least something about that person. My uncle Garland said that the use of profanity revealed an inferior vocabulary.

    Perhaps even more seriously these days we hear people speak of a woman’s “right to choose” with regard to abortion. This expression neglects the reality that an aborted child is fully a person from the time of his or her conception (Psalm 139). Thus abortion is murder.

    As in Judges 12, what we say and how we say it has serious consequences. Those were terribly violent times. I wonder if we have improved much. Some of our shibboleths reveal we have a way to go.