Judges 12 details a civil war between Ephraim and the Gileadites of Manasseh. God used Jephthah and the Gileadites to humble Ephraim. The haughty Ephraimites felt they could bully Jephthah and the Gileadites as they had previously bullied Gideon (Judges 8). Jephthah and his men ended up slaying 42,000 Ephraimites. One of the keys to the Gileadites’ lopsided victory was seizing the fords over the Jordan River. And when fleeing Ephraimites tried to cross, they were asked for a “password.” The password was “shibboleth.” Various commentators have offered different definitions for the word, but its meaning is not necessary to understand the text. Here is what we need to know: The Ephraimites could not pronounce the word “shibboleth,” as the Gileadites. Thus, they replied, “sibboleth.” Having been betrayed by their dialect, the Gileadites then slew the Ephraimites.
Wordsmiths know that, beyond its Biblical source, shibboleth has come to mean any word or practice separating one group from another. Christians should have shibboleths, correct? They are called upon to transform themselves from the world rather than conform to it (Romans 12.1-2). However, while perusing several online dictionaries, I noted that they also tended to look upon a shibboleth unfavorably, calling it an “old-fashioned” or “outdated” idea still clung to by some. In the example sentences provided by those aforementioned dictionaries, shibboleths seem connected with “conservative-thinking” people. So, evidently, “progressives” must not be hampered by them. Frankly, it is hard to keep up with the self-righteousness of progressives. Their mores change so swiftly that sometimes they snare even themselves when a past tweet or video surfaces. It reminds me of the foolish man building his house upon the sand (Matthew 7.26-27).
God is aware of the mindset that mocks established standards. Jeremiah records God’s words: “Stand by the ways and see and ask for the ancient paths, where the good way is, and walk in it; and you will find rest for your souls.” (6.16) Not unlike those living today, Jeremiah’s contemporaries replied, “We will not walk in it.” (ibid.) To borrow modern parlance, those in ancient Judah found the old paths “shibboleth.” But who gives such persons the right to esteem something as antiquated? Honestly, it seems like it is the “right” of the squeakiest wheel, those with the largest echo chamber. Those of us with our shibboleths abandoned the arena of popular culture, education, and media. Hence, we can only blame ourselves for allowing the castigation of truth as incompatible with temporary society.
But lest we forget, the victors from the source material had their shibboleth while the defeated had their sibboleth. As someone has said in summation of the book of Revelation, the message is that in the end, God wins. That is applicable here as well. God brings victory to those with the shibboleth, not sibboleth. No, it is not a superior concept because it is older. We can find new ways to do something that is “old.” (e.g., We may use new mediums to teach the “old Jerusalem Gospel.”) The shibboleth is what was given by God in His inspired word. Sibboleths reflect the precepts of men (cf. Matthew 15.8-9). We must not drop even one consonant sound (cf. Deuteronomy 4.2; 12.32; Proverbs 30.6; Revelation 22.18).
When I eventually cross the Jordan River ford, I want to find life, not death. Don’t you agree? To safely cross, an obedient life is our “password.”