Shibboleth. Is this one of your favorite words? Just kidding. Very likely you’ve never used it. But it’s a real word, one that has relevance for these times.
In the Hebrew, the word shibboleth means “ear of grain,” but today, according to the online Merriam-Webster dictionary, it is “a usage or custom regarded as distinguishing one group from another.” It is “a word or saying used by adherents of a party or sect or belief group.” The word itself is used in the Bible in a dramatic encounter between two tribes–the Gileadites and the Ephraimites. You can read the story in Judges 12:1-15. The two tribes went to war, and the Ephraimites got the worst of it, but thousands of their men escaped and tried to get back to their home territory. When they came to a ford held by the Gileadites, they asked to be allowed to cross over, but they were asked, “Are you an Ephraimite?” If the returning fighter said “No,” he was told to say shibboleth. That was the password. If he said sibboleth, his life was no longer his own. As the Ephraimites came by, those who said sibboleth instead of shibboleth were “put to the edge of the sword.” They were branded by a tribal characteristic that made them pronounce the word differently from their Gileadite enemies. Based on a linguistic password, 42,000 Ephraimites died at the ford.
Passwords are essential for navigating life nowadays. According to one source, Americans have about 200 passwords. That’s hard to believe. Thankfully, I have only about 10. I find it annoying when I try to access a particular site to get an article and have to produce or make up a password. I have one doctor who requires that I go to a “portal” and sign in with my password to get information about my visit and to make later appointments. I prefer to deal with a normal practitioner who has a receptionist that can tell me to come in at ten o’clock next Tuesday.
Today shibboleths are used like passwords to “put people to the sword” if they don’t give the acceptable answer. They don’t believe the same way as the other person does, and they don’t subscribe to the same ideology on cultural, even religious, matters. Shibboleths are used to label others and to assert a more “righteous” status than that of the other person. It happens all the time.
For the Ephraimites, it was a linguistic test. Perhaps those people had a lisp or some kind of language impediment that prevented them from pronouncing the word to suit the Gileadites. That difference got them into real trouble. Our society doesn’t have a shortage of shibboleths. The culture is awash in them: “socialist,” “racist,” “pro-life,” “pro-choice,” “radical,” “conservative,” liberal,” “mask,” “freedom of religion,” “border wall,” “abortion,” “Black Lives Matter,” “Supreme Court nomination,” “gender equality,” “Affordable Care Act,” “diversity,” “climate change,” “immigration,” “guns,” “vaccine,” “lock-down.” Failure to make the “correct” pronouncement on any one of these shibboleths can get you into a heated argument. It can get you labeled Leftist or Right Wing or something worse. The Gileadites are at work using the shibboleths to make a distinction between those who are for them and those who are the enemy. They have a low tolerance level for difference.
The Gilleadites “put to the sword” those whose tribal characteristic identified them as “Other,” and as such didn’t fit into the accepted way of thinking. Today we frequently read about sportscasters, professors, and reporters at networks who are let go, relieved of their positions. Their words distinguished them as believing something different from what others wanted to hear. One group of individuals planned to bring down a state governor because she got their shibboleth wrong.
Today, shibboleths persist in a kind of caste system that sees certain people as belonging in a particular place, and so they are shamed and relegated to a subordinate social level. The shibboleth of “low income housing” or the name of a certain city or country is enough to stigmatize the people living there. They are belittled because they just don’t get the password right. But it’s capricious to believe that one’s traditions are better than those of another, so they can’t pass the test to become a part of one’s circle. Such an attempt at control and exclusivity is unacceptable.
In this month of decision, we need to be aware of the shibboleths that abound in our country and their awful consequences. Let us not attempt in any way to put others “to the sword” because they don’t give the password that coincides with our ideology. We must leave room for other people’s views and accept them for who they are–individuals created by God with free will. They are free to see things differently.
One morning in 1997 when the media was abuzz with the news of the death of designer Versace, I went to work at the Washington, DC high school where I was an assistant principal. I was oblivious to the news. Walking in the corridor where my special education students had their classes, I was stopped by one of them who told me about the death. And it was also from her that I learned the correct pronunciation of the designer’s name. We can learn from anyone. We must learn from one another. Let’s not allow our shibboleths to get in the way of our becoming open to living and learning together without reprisal.
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