shib·​bo·​leth | \ ˈshi-bə-ləth also -ˌleth \

A use of language regarded as distinctive of a particular group and distinguishing from others.



Judges 12:1–7

Jephthah Defeats Ephraim

Then the men of Ephraim assembled and crossed the Jordan to Zaphon. They said to Jephthah, “Why have you crossed over to fight the Ammonites without calling us to go with you? We will burn your house down with you inside!” But Jephthah replied, “My people and I had a serious conflict with the Ammonites, and when I called, you did not save me out of their hands. When I saw that you would not save me, I risked my life and crossed over to the Ammonites, and the LORD delivered them into my hand. Why then have you come today to fight against me?” Jephthah then gathered all the men of Gilead and fought against Ephraim. And the men of Gilead struck them down because the Ephraimites had said, “You Gileadites are fugitives in Ephraim, living in the territories of Ephraim and Manasseh.” 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 six years, and when he died, he was buried in one of the cities of Gilead.



Now, there’s about thirty-five different things happening in this passage and numerous ways to teach it. Immaturity? Rebellion? Revenge? We are looking at just one of these. 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 violence and death. It’s a classic east coast/west coast feud. But, in this one forty-two thousand people died, as opposed to just Biggie and Tupac.

Different tribes had different dialects, same as regional accents today #babel. 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? A shibboleth is a “tell” or something we say that is distinct to who we are. It may reveal you or set you apart from an adversary or set you together with a friend. Plus, it’s just fun to say. It’s one of my favorite “sounds like cussing, but it’s from the Bible” words to stun students with. I spill my coffee? “Well, shibboleth!” I pretend to be shocked by whatever gossip you’re just hearing, but I’ve known for weeks? “Shi-bo-LETH!”

As Followers our words and actions should be shibboleths—distinct and setting us apart from the world. As a slave, 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. My desires are His desires. And the lost world around me should be able to hear it, see it, and recognize the difference—or the shibboleth. 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. Right now, obedience is one of the most distinct ways to be set apart from the world. In our house and in my head, the script sounds like this:

My day will be defined by obedience, not necessarily success. I choose to trade things that will be rewarded by man for things that honor my relationship with the Father.

This is my goal and metric for each day. I wrote it down, I memorized it, and now I find myself repeating it to my children. And I hope to hear them repeating it to themselves and others. On days when I disappoint me or man, when the stuff doesn’t get done, when the expectations weren’t met, and the plans couldn’t be kept… scorn may even abound, but I am satisfied and at rest if I know I was faithful to Him first. Not everyone will like my look, my ways, my words, or my accent #heyyall. I’d rather reveal myself so thoroughly the world knows immediately what Family I belong to than poorly manicure and maintain ambiguity. Neutrality is exhausting and impossible to maintain.

Here’s a social/spiritual skill for your toolbox. When someone reveals themselves, believe them. 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 and respond accordingly. You don’t have to slay every Ephraimite at the bridge but having discernment enough to know who likely will need saving in the water and who is a strong enough swimmer to save you makes for a lovely day of tubing on the river. Inconsistencies matter. Saying right but doing wrong matters. Press into the wise, pour into the weak.

What are some words, phrases, or actions that are shibboleths, or flags, in the world and Body? I’ll go first. “I am a Pro-Choice Christian.”