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Thursday, October 22, 2009

Shibboleths - Notin' But Natan

When we named our second son Nathan my father could not pronounce the name. He said, "Natan? I can't say notin' but Natan." This failure on his part was because he was raised as a little child to speak German and his formal education only went to the eighth grade. The German language does not have a 'th' sound, as in thing or thought. Consequently he could not pronounce a name with a 'th' sound, like Nathan. This inability continued throughout his life. He was never able to overcome it. 

This relates to a story from the Bible about the word 'Shibboleth.' The Book of Judges, chapter 12, relates a story about a civil war between the tribes of Gilead and Ephraim. Gilead defeated Ephraim and secured the fords of the Jordan River between the two tribes. when the Ephraimites attempted to cross over to their homeland the Gileadites put them to a simple test.

". . . whenever a survivor of Ephraim said, "Let me cross over," the men of Gilead asked him, "Are you an Ephraimite?" If he replied, "No," they said, "All right, say 'Shibboleth.' " He said, "Sibboleth," because he could not pronounce the word correctly, they seized him and killed him at the fords of the Jordan. Forty-two thousand Ephraimites were killed at that time."

This Hebrew word 'Shibboleth' has come to stand for a principle, belief or practice that distinguishes one particular group or class of people from another. We are surrounded by shibboleths, some innocent and some not so innocent. Teens work hard to distinguish themselves from their elders and to identify with one another. Thus, for some teen sub-groups wearing a gold ring or stud in your nose, eyebrow, or even tongue has become a shibboleth. Its easy to give many other examples.

In the 1930s, the decade in which my novels are set, people with Germanic background and roots were the largest ethnic group in the United States. They had many shibboleths as well. If they grew up speaking only German, like my father, there were many words they could not pronounce. Likewise many preferred certain so-called German foods such as sauerkraut and bratwurst.

All this got me to thinking about what shibboleths distinguish us Christians from our unbelieving neighbors. One such belief is that Jesus of Nazareth is both God and Man, united in one person. A deep and abiding respect for marriage is another belief. This belief is under great attack today by the culture in which we live where sex outside of marriage is common and no longer considered immoral. Another is the definition of marriage as a legally recognized bond between any two people, regardless of sex.

Its beginning to look like there is no river between our two tribes and it makes no difference whether we say 'shibboleth' or 'sibboleth.'