There’s a tongue-twisting tale in the first half of the Bible with life and death consequences.
The potted version of this story, which you’ll find in Judges 12, goes something like this.
There was a fine military warrior from Gilead called Jephthah. He’d been cast out of the crew by his half-brothers because a prostitute was his Mum rather than his Dad’s wife. Quite how that was Jephthah’s ball of wrong to carry around is perplexing, but it was his burden all the same.
The Ammonites declared war on the Gileadites and in an ironic twist, they realised that there was only one warrior likely to secure victory for them: Jephthah.
Jephthah answered the snivelling call and ‘filled with the Spirit of the Lord’, Judges 11: 29-32 tells us, he gave the Ammonites an absolute shellacking.
It was a battle fought solo by the Gileadites as their former mates over the Jordan, the Ephraimites, made a deliberate decision to sit on their hands and watch the show from the sidelines.
Instead, they waited for the dust of victory to settle then crossed the Jordan and waged war on their Gilead brothers. Yeah, go figure. They said they felt gibbed they didn’t get a guernsey to the war they’d chosen to sit out but, more likely, they wanted a look in on the loot the Gileadites had hauled away from the Ammonites.
The Gileadites fought off the shrivelling Ephraimites and secured the stretches of the Jordan River that lead back to Ephraim, but it all got a bit confusing. The Ephraimites were still shlepping over the Jordan and, even on a clear day, it was hard to pick an Ephraimite from a Gileadite. Even today, I struggle with that one.
The Gileadites devised a cunning linguistic plan. They knew the Achilles Heel of the Ephraimite tongue: they couldn’t shut-up. Truth known, they couldn’t articulate the word ‘shut-up’, or any other ‘sh’ word.
The Gileadites, an eastern tribe, on the other hand, had had extensive speech therapy from their foreign neighbours and had no struggle with Shirley, shambolic or even shakshuka.
Sorting the wheat from the chaff (or the Gileadites from the Ephraimites in this case) suddenly became simple: if you can say the magic password, you’re safe. If you can’t, well that’s a shame – no more words for you.
The word wasn’t significant in meaning; it meant river or ear of corn.
If you can get your tongue around it, you get to stay in the cool group. If you can’t, well it sucks to be you.
For 42,000 pesky Ephraimites, ‘sibboleth’ would be the word last spoken. Either that or “Oh, sit!”.
Why are we still talking about shibboleth in 2017? Because we’re surrounded by them.
Issues, categories, hot topics, leanings, postures and positions. Magic words or actions that usher us into a welcoming place, or cast us out into a place for those who don’t quite fit. Words or actions that receive the gentle nod of approval and inclusion, or the cool rejection of not quite having our vocabulary or praxis as precise as we ought.
We’re often quick to apply labels whenever we can. Cultural and spiritual shibboleths. They simplify our lives. They also divest things of meaning, turning them from acts of love or worship into academic, semantic or legalistic games.
It’s conservative or progressive.
It’s sugar/no sugar, paleo/CrossFit, vegetarian/carnivore.
It’s push-bike, powered bike, or no bike.
It’s not ‘love your neighbour’, it’s ‘incarnational ministry’.
It’s not a church of Jesus followers; it’s mega-church, thick-church, word-of-faith-church, deep-church, sit-on-your-hands church, house-church, authentic-church, high-church – each with their own knowing or shunning nods.
It’s complementarian or egalitarian.
It’s tongue-talking or un-gifted.
In each volley of shibboleths, we’re in danger of pushing the centre to the edges and building mountains out of relatively (relatively) small stuff. Unchecked, we turn minor differences into supercilious eyebrow raises.
Our shibboleths can define us. We become characterised by them. They become our biggest ‘yes’ because, based on the oxygen we give them, they represent our highest soapbox.
Perhaps all of these abstractions liberate us from personal application. In the abstract, we can turn commentator over a practitioner; Pharisee over follower.
What do our shibboleths achieve? They help divide. Sometimes they help divide truth, but we often end up guilty of pushing the little stuff to the middle of the room and squeezing Jesus out the back door.
We may not kill over our shibboleths, but we’re not averse to metaphorically crucifying another over differences in doctrine, belief and practice.
Jesus declares himself the ultimate shibboleth. “I am the way, truth, and life,” He says, “no man can come to the Father except by me”.
“This Jesus is the stone that was rejected by you, the builders, which has become the cornerstone. And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.”
Why talk about shibboleth? Because if you ever find yourself creating your own criteria for acceptance into the little microcosm of goodness you’ve deemed worthy, it’s a good moment to remind yourself that God the Father has broken every chain, every yoke, and every wall through His only Son, Jesus. He doesn’t need you to add a thing. And he doesn’t want you to either.
Paul encourages us to “walk with all lowliness and meekness, with patience, bearing with one another in love. Endeavouring to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.” (Ephesians 4:2-3).
Seems shimple enough.