Shibboleths

Doctrine that’s right in our wheelhouse! Want to see what systematized theology looks like in person? Here’s an example of the power of the “Fifth Gospel.” HT: Bobby Conway

4SpiritualSecrets

“… ‘Then say, ‘Shibboleth’!’ And he would say, ‘Sibboleth,’ for he could not pronounce it right. Then they would take him and kill him at the fords of the Jordan. There fell at that time forty-two thousand Ephraimites.”  (Judges 12:6)

Although we Americans have a common language we all have accents that show our origins to a discerning ear.  The above incident demonstrates how thousands of years ago different regional accents caused the death of 42,000 people.

There had been a civil war among people of the same ethnicity.  As the victors captured survivors, the only way to tell if they were the enemy was to force them to say “Shiboleth.”  When prisoners could not pronounce the “sh” sound because of their regional accents, 42,000 of them were executed.

What does all this have to do with us today?  Metaphorically speaking, when we meet people we often have a…

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2 responses to “Shibboleths

  • Clarke Morledge

    I learn many things walking in the hallway of our church after services.

    In J. I. Packer’s essay “A Lamp in a Dark Place” found in his _Engaging the Written Word of God_ , page 123, Packer speaks of a term today such as “inerrancy” to be a type of shibboleth:

    “It is in truth, in the scriptural sense of the word, a ‘Shibboleth’; that is to say a touchstone whereby things are known… The word Shibboleth, which Ephraimites couldn’t pronounce, thus became a touchstone of identity. Now I want to put it to you that this word inerrancy is similarly a touchstone of identity. Reactions to it tell us what people really mean when the speak of the authority of the Bible. If inerrancy is denied, as it tends to be by those of our friends who think of the inspiration of Scripture in instrumental terms only, then that which has authority for them is only a privately edited Scripture, a Scripture minus those bits and pieces which they think are wrong. And of course, there is no higher court of appeal for them than what they think; and what they think today, they may change their mind about tomorrow. And it has to be said by their friends, for their friends see it more clearly, I think, than they themselves, that once you start along this line, all certainty is gone. This I have seen before.”

    Packer has an important point to make, and I would agree, but this does not fully explain the difficulty of using shibboleths. As Dick Woodward suggests, he notes that shibboleths can be used also to unnecessarily divide people, a form of identification badge that draws lines where they need not exist. In other words, we must ask the question: is this story from Judges 12 meant to be a descriptive report of what was done at the fords of the Jordan River, or is it a prescriptive spiritual principle for which we are to stand under obedience today?

    It would be fair to say that Ephraimites were not friendly towards the purposes of God in the world of ancient Israel, but as someone who has suffered for years with a speech impediment (though not as bad as it once was when I was much younger), I would shudder to think that the inability to pronounce a word correctly by a young Hebrew should be used as a basis for loping someone’s head off.

    A term like inerrancy, as it is the case with many other shibboleths within the church today, may simply carry different connotations for different people.

    Words mean something. Yet context determines meaning. When we hear such shibboleths it is paramount that we take the extra effort to understand what is being said. Are we dealing with an Ephraimite here or a Hebrew with a speech impediment?

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