Tuesday, June 14, 2011


In the Old Testament we find the story (Judges 12:1-6) of a battle between the Gileadites and the Ammonite.The Gileadites win, but the Ephraimites, from the east side of the Jordan River, are upset that the Gileadites never invited them to be part of the war and so they invade Gileadite territory. The Gileadites win that war also and then to make sure none of the invading army escapes back to Ephraim they set guards at the passage over the Jordan river that leads back to Ephraim.

To get home the Ephraimite men pretend to be Gileadites so they can cross the Jordan. However, the Gileadite soldiers are wise. They stop everyone trying to cross the river and ask, “Are you an Ephraimite?” If the man answers no, the interrogator asks, “Then say Shibboleth.”

This was a clever test because the Ephraimites could not pronounce the “sh” sound and would reply, “Sibboleth,” at which point they were discovered and executed. We are told that 42,000 men lost their lives because they could not say shibboleth.

I’ve pondered on this story a lot and imagined what must have gone on. After the first dozen or so men were given the verbal test, at least some of the other 41,986 would have known what the test was and passed along the warning. But why then did so many fail the test and die? If they knew they couldn’t pronounce the word when asked, why did they attempt to cross? Were they self deceived? Did they think they were saying shibboleth when they were really saying sibboleth? Did they just hope no one would notice they weren’t saying it right? If the person giving the warning couldn’t say the word correctly either, perhaps they got the message wrong and mislead the others. We don’t know exactly what happened, but the absence of one tiny letter caused the death of thousands.

In the early 1600s the word shibboleth came into the English language and means “a use of language regarded as distinctive of a particular group” or “a custom or usage regarded as distinguishing one group from another.” In other words, a shibboleth is something that divides us from something else.

As I’ve pondered the story, I’ve realized it’s the detail in the application of the gospel in our lives that distinguishes us from others. I’ve learned that I need to watch that I’m not self deceived. I need to make sure I am following those who “pronounce” the gospel message correctly. I need to repent and not just hope that no one will notice that I’m doing something wrong. I need to make sure I “speak” the gospel language without missing a letter.

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