And Forgive Us Our Shibboleths


Doris Salcedo | Shibboleth

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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  • Diane Rosier Miles

    This is such an insightful and timely article, and I hope that it gets the broad circulation that it deserves. Judith’s writing always reflects both wisdom and erudition.

    • Judith Nembhard

      Hello Diane,
      How nice to hear from you and to know that you found the post worthwhile. Listening to the current public discourse causes the heart to tremble. I don’t know how people can say the things they do. Such intolerance, bigotry, and one-sided ways of thinking! It would be heartening to see a change.
      Thanks for being a supportive reader. I appreciate your comments. JN

    • Gloria Gregory

      Dr. Nembhard Your article is educational, stimulating , and apropos for the unsettling days we live in. Many are eager to point out our differences when we could use the opportunity to celebrate our uniqueness and similarities.
      Thank you for your creativity and introduction to this new word.

      • Judith Nembhard

        Greetings, Dr. Gloria, How nice to hear from you! I certainly agree with you that these are unsettling times, and things are exacerbated by those who see difference at every turn. This sad reality colors the landscape of life today. Changed perspectives and changed hearts. That’s what we need. Thanks for reading my post and for your kind words. JN