01/31/21 “Shibboleth”

Judges 12:1-6

One reviewer says that it’s “one of the most exciting, colorful, and disturbing of its kind. It combines stories of political intrigue and assassination, lies and deception, assault and murder, courage and fear, great faith and idolatry, power and greed, sex and suicide, love and death, military victories and civil war.” No, it’s not Steven Spielberg’s next blockbuster, or even a “New York Times” best seller. It’s the book of Judges. Oddly, though, only one short passage from Judges shows up in the lectionary, and that’s a rather dull introduction to a far more exciting story. Our passage for today is not that passage but another one I came across in my daily reading last year.

It’s a good one for us to think about because of one particular word in it: shibboleth. You’ve probably heard this word in other contexts. We use it in two ways. We might call a word or saying a shibboleth if it’s a truism of sorts, like the shibboleth that “crime doesn’t pay.” Or, more often, we call a word or phrase a shibboleth when it distinguishes a person or group in some way—like where they come from or what social strata they occupy.

If you stop for a meal in the northeastern part of the country, and you ask your waiter or waitress what kind of pop they have on the menu, they’ll look at you kind of funny, until they realize that you’re probably from the Midwest. What we call “pop,” most people in the Northeast call “soda.”  The word we use for carbonated beverages is a shibboleth that reveals where we’re from.

The idea of a “shibboleth” comes from our passage for today. But, as you heard and read, the shibboleth in our story leads to consequences far more serious than a raised eyebrow or a chuckle at a tourist’s expense. It’s a matter of life and death. And the fact is that we do use shibboleths in ways that can have life-altering consequences for our families, church, community, and nation.

The shibboleth comes into play in the very last part of a story about Jephthah. Actually, there’s a trilogy of stories about Jephthah, and they’re all fascinating. We meet Jephthah in Chapter 11, where we learn that he was the son of Gilead by a prostitute. Gilead also had other sons with his wife, and they weren’t interested in sharing any of the family wealth with Jephthah. Jephthah flees from his brothers and becomes the leader of a band of outlaws who went raiding up and down the countryside.

Things went south for the tribe of Gilead when the Ammonites made war against Israel. They needed the military skills Jephthah had, so they go to him and beg him to lead them into battle. “Not so fast,” Jephthah says. “You’re the ones who rejected me and drove me out of my father’s house.” “Well, yes, we are,” the Gileadites admit, but they need him now. Jephthah makes a deal with them. He’ll come and lead them in battle, but if he defeats the Ammonites, he becomes the head of the tribe. The desperate Gileadites agree.

Jephthah first tries diplomacy with the Ammonites. That proves unsuccessful, so Jephthah begins his march to battle. On the way, he makes a vow to God about what he will do if God gives him the victory—a vow which had some very tragic consequences for him and his only child, a daughter. That story’s in Chapter 11, if you want to check it out.

You’d think that the story would end when the victorious Jephthah takes his place as the head of the Gileadites. But, there’s more family dysfunction in store. The men of another Israelite tribe, the Ephraimites, hear about the Jephthah’s victory, and they are ticked off. They’re mad because they weren’t invited to be part of the battle. Why they’re mad is anyone’s guess. Maybe it’s a pride thing. Maybe they hated being left out of the spoils of war. Jephthah says he did ask them and they refused. Is he telling the truth? Who knows? There’s no mention of such a call to arms in the earlier stories.

But the Ephraimites aren’t the only ones who are fighting mad at their Israelite brothers. The Gileadites have their own beef. The Ephraimites had called them names! They had called the Gileadites a word that meant “fugitives” or “renegades” from the tribe of Ephraim, suggesting that the Gileadites had abandoned their true home tribe. Pride on both sides won out over the need for unity within the family of God’s people, and the battles began.

Jephthah and his troops secure the crossing points of the Jordan River which separated the lands of the two tribes. The battle goes Jephthah’s way, and now the tables are turned. The losing Ephraimites who are stranded on the Gilead side of the river are now literal fugitives as they try to get back to their own land.

Jephthah comes up with an ingenious and cruel plan to prevent the fugitives’ escape. When a man would ask permission to cross the river, the Gileadites would ask, “Are you an Ephraimite?” If the man said “no,” he had to pass a test. He had to say the word “Shibboleth.” It was a common word—one that meant “stream” or “an ear of corn.” But, the thing was, the Ephraimites didn’t have the “shh” sound in their dialect. They pronounced that word “Sibboleth.” How the would-be river crosser pronounced that one sound meant the difference between life and death. If he said the word wrong, he was killed on the spot.

42,000 Ephraimites died because of the way they spoke the word “Shibboleth.” Imagine that. Because of a single sound, 42,000 lives were cut down. 42,000 families lost a beloved father, brother, son, friend. 42,000 fewer farmers, builders, tradesmen, musicians, and artists. 42,000 occasions for grief. 42,000 lives lost because of a shibboleth.

You know what makes this story even sadder? The killers and the killed were members of the same family. They were all Israelites—all descended from common ancestors. They all claimed the same God and shared the same history. And yet, they were killing each other over pride and greed.

It’s easy to shake our heads over this story. It’s easy to shake our heads over how narrow-minded they were. How unable they were to see what they had in common. How easily they devised a quick and easy way to identify who was friend and who was foe, who was acceptable and who wasn’t, who would live and who would die. But, before we get too sanctimonious, we should ask ourselves, how often do we find ways to do the same thing? We should ask ourselves, “What shibboleths do we use against others?”

There’s the one we share with the Gileadites—how someone speaks. Do they sound like they’ve been educated in a largely white, affluent, suburban school district or not? Do they sound like they grew up in Ohio or at least in the United States? Does their accent identify them as being from an acceptable or unacceptable part of the world, and what do we then immediately assume about them? That they’re one of us, or an Appalachian “hillbilly,” or a snooty Ivy-Leaguer? That they’re scroungers out to steal what is rightfully ours or one of the “huddled masses yearning to breathe free”?

We have other speech-related shibboleths. When you pull up behind someone with a bumper sticker that reads “Black Lives Matter” or “It’s a child, not a choice,” or “Stop the Steal” or “Save the Planet,” how do you categorize that driver? if the bumper sports a picture of a rainbow or one of an automatic weapon, do you nod in approval of a like-minded citizen or shake your head at their ignorance? How did you react to the yards sporting a “Biden for President” sign or one still flying a Trump flag? What do you assume about someone who says that mask-wearing is a patriotic and Christian duty versus someone who says it’s an infringement of their rights? Without knowing anything else about them, we use these shibboleths to decide whether they’re one of us, or one of them.

We have other shibboleths that don’t even require an oral exam. They’re obvious: the color of someone’s skin. Their clothing. Tattoos and piercings. The condition and location of the house they live in or the place they worship in. The kind of vehicle they’re driving and how they’re driving it. Even the license plate can be a shibboleth. My Dad was a travelling salesman who spent lots of time on the road, and he instilled in me an early and deep disdain for any driver with Michigan plates. If we’re honest with ourselves, we’ll find that we each have a long list of shibboleths that we use to quickly pigeonhole people—some that we share with others and some that are uniquely our own.

We might try to comfort ourselves by saying that this Bible story doesn’t really apply to us, because it’s about enemies in a time of war. And, we might say that our shibboleths don’t carry with them the same dire consequences; no one dies as a result of getting our shibboleths wrong.

But, if we listen to today’s angry rhetoric and the voices on any side of the political divide, we often do sound like we’re at war with each other. And the consequences can and do result in people dying. A man was murdered while jogging in a white neighborhood for the simple reason that he was black. Asian-Americans have been accused of causing the pandemic and threatened with violence, because they resemble people from China. Elected leaders are getting death threats because they don’t embrace a particular political stand. Blacks, Hispanics, and Native Americans are sickening and dying of COVID at much higher rates because of long-standing shibboleths that prevent them from crossing the river to the side with affordable and accessible health care. Even if our shibboleths don’t lead to physical harm, they can and do cause harm to the lives and spirits of those who fail our tests, as we make it clear in any number of ways that we don’t respect them and consider them to be outsiders at best and enemies at worst.

Like the Gileadites, our shibboleths harm members of our very own family, because we are all members of the human family. Regardless of what side of any given border we live on, regardless of how we speak or what we look like or how we live, every battle we fight is a family feud, and each one is every bit as sad as the fight between the Gileadites and the Ephraimites.

In our Bible Study on Thursday night, we talked about the things that made someone unacceptable in the eyes of the Pharisees—in other words, their shibboleths. Jesus pretty much failed them all. In fact, Jesus pretty much rejected them all. He healed on the Sabbath and kept the wrong company. He reached out to people who failed the Pharisees’ tests: people with the wrong political ties, who came from the wrong hometown, who believed the wrong things, whose bodies were wrong by way of gender or disability.

Jesus had only one shibboleth: did the person standing before him believe in him? That’s the only test they had to pass to receive his gift of acceptance and forgiveness and eternal life. And even that test sometimes came only after Jesus had given them a chance to know him—think Zacchaeus up in his sycamore tree and the Pharisees around the dinner table. Jesus didn’t care about who or what someone was or had been. He only cared about who and what they could be.

The good news is that Jesus doesn’t look at our bumper stickers or our street address or listen to the way we talk. He looks on our hearts and listens to our spirits. He draws us close to him through that grace we describe as prevenient, and then he poses his one shibboleth: “God so loved the world that God gave me, God’s only son, that whosoever believes in me may not perish but have eternal life. Do you believe in me?”

Our “yes” to his shibboleth moves us to put away the shibboleths we wield against others. In their place, our lives become shibboleths themselves. Our willingness to accept others with the same grace by which Jesus accepts us, our service to our neighbors and the humility with which we serve, our willingness to love those whom Jesus loves are the shibboleths that mark us as followers of Jesus.

The book of Judges is the story of a nation and a family in a downward spiral of division—from each other and from God. Jephthah’s shibboleth was a symbol of that division. But Jesus shows us a better way—the way of looking at each person as he does: as deserving of compassion, mercy, and grace. Jesus has only one shibboleth by which he judges us: do we believe in him? He stands at the river between the world and God’s kingdom, waiting for us to say “yes.” When we do, he welcomes us to our place on his side of the river—the side of love and acceptance and life, the side of peace with one another and with God.  When we stand with him, we put away our shibboleths, and we welcome others as he welcomes us. Amen.

~~ Pastor Carol Williams-Young