There is a strange little story in Judges 12 that I love. Actually, there are several strange stories in Judges that I love–but this one is near the top of the list.
There is war in the land. Two tribes, the Gileadites, and the Ephraimites, are enemies but are so similar it can be hard to know who is friend or foe. So, the Gileadites devised a little test to distinguish one from the other.
You couldn’t tell by the look, language, custom, name, etc. It was only a slight difference in pronunciation when saying a particular word that was a dead giveaway.
The Gileadites captured the fords of the Jordan leading to Ephraim, and whenever a fugitive from Ephraim would say, “Let me cross over,” the Gileadites would ask him, “Are you an Ephraimite?”
If he answered, “No,” they told him, “Please say Shibboleth.”
If he said, “Sibboleth,” because he could not pronounce it correctly, they seized him and killed him at the fords of the Jordan. So at that time, 42,000 Ephraimites were killed. Jephthah judged Israel for six years, and when he died, he was buried in one of the cities of Gilead. Judges 12:6-7
Now, there are about thirty-five different things happening in this passage and numerous ways to teach it. Immaturity? Rebellion? Revenge? All will preach but we are looking at just one aspect–the litmus test.
In Judges 12:6, a test phrase is used to distinguish one tribe from another. The Gileadites pronounced shibboleth with the “sh” meaning stream or river.
The Ephraimites, however, pronounced it without the “sh,” sibboleth, meaning corn.
Think of the troll underneath the bridge who asks a trick question to all who wish to cross. It’s like that but with an ancient clash of Grammarly and violent death. It’s a classic east coast/west coast feud.
Different tribes had different dialects, same as regional accents today.
For example, you come across my river or to my neck of the woods saying “yous guys” or “soda,” and I know immediately—you are not from my tribe. Now, I won’t cut ya, but I also won’t leave my purse or babies with you, stranger.
But, if you come across the river and ask what we are “fixin’” to do… well, “Hey friend, hold my baby and my money while I go get you a coke and pimento cheese.” See how that works?
Now, we use the term “shibboleth” to mean a “tell” or something we say or do that is distinct to who we are. It always reveals you no matter how good your cover was. And it may set you apart as an adversary or set you together as a friend.
Plus, it’s just fun to say. Shibboleth! Try shouting it if you’re feeling lucky! And there’s no Gileadites nearby.
As Christ-followers our words and actions should be shibboleths—distinct “tells” setting us apart from the world. I cannot sound like the world anymore. Because I no longer speak for myself, think for myself, or act on my own interests. I have a Master now and His ways are my ways. His words are my Words.
And the lost world around me should be able to hear it, see it, and recognize the difference or the shibboleth–the red flag that gives me away every time.
Rebellion is the world’s banner. Obedience is ours.
The world operates in a state of confusion. We operate in clarity.
On and on we go being sifted and sorted, not by trolls or tribes at a bridge, but by the Lord and the world. Sheep and goats. Distinctly His and distinctly NOT His.
Not everyone will like my look, my ways, my words, or my accent #heyyall. I’m okay with that.
I’d rather reveal myself so thoroughly the world knows immediately what tribe I belong to, than kill myself trying to poorly manicure and maintain ambiguity for safe passage.
Neutrality is exhausting and impossible to maintain anyway.
Working with behavior, here’s what I found to be true. You have to work really hard to conceal everything. Everything we say reveals something. Everything we do reveals something—a function, a need, a value, a priority, a wound, etc. Pay attention to the details, the minor degrees of separation on major subjects. The serpent in the garden was mere letters off from what God had said. Made quite a difference, didn’t it?
In today’s culture, the red flags abound if only we will be wise enough to discern them–or brave enough to bear them. It’s okay for them to know you are different. There’s no sense pretending salt is sugar.
Here’s a social/spiritual skill for your toolbox.
- When someone reveals themselves, believe them. (Discernment ignored is foolishness.)
- Be bold enough to reveal yourself to others. (Conviction concealed…is cowardice.)
Now our mission has changed, and it would be frowned upon, even criminal for you to smite your fellow man over mere mispronunciation…(we are looking at you “irregardlesses.”) You don’t have to slay every Ephraimite at the bridge. But you don’t have to put them in charge either. Inconsistencies matter. Saying right but doing wrong matters.
A mature Christian who says and does spiritually immature things–is not a mature Christian. A Christ-follower who rejects His Word and authority isn’t following Christ.
What are some words, phrases, or actions that are (or should be) shibboleths, or red flags, to the Body?
I’ll go first. “I am a Pro-Choice Christian.”