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Judges 12:5-7

“Then the Gileadites took the fords of the Jordan against the Ephraimites. Whenever one of the fugitives of Ephraim said, ‘Let me go over’, the men of Gilead would say to him, ‘Are you an Ephraimite?’ When he said, ‘No’, they said to him, ‘Then say Shibboleth’, and he said, ‘Sibboleth’, for he could not pronounce it right. Then they seized him and killed him at the fords of the Jordan.”

A shibboleth is a part of a plant containing grain. If we were to harvest wheat, shibboleth would be important to us. If we wanted to make cornmeal, then we’d be well off to have plenty of shibboleths (I don’t know if I’m using that word grammatically appropriately).

If we want to go to Gilead and we’re an Ephraimite, then we probably would be best to avoid any shibboleth.

Some concepts always fascinate me. Tricks of language, logic puzzles, archaic phrases (“needs must, as the devil drives” is a particular favorite), linguistic concepts (spoonerisms, forkerisms, tautologies, palindromes, semordnilaps, etc…), always fascinate me. The concept of a shibboleth is no exception.

One little letter. That’s all that stood between life and death. Sibboleth or shibboleth. A difference in pronunciation, the small marker of an outsider.

Shibboleth, as a concept rather than a grain, is any small thing that distinguishes the in-group from the out-group. Sometimes this is overt, as in “do you know the password?” Sometimes it’s clandestine, as in “are you wearing the right cufflink to enter our secret society?” Sometimes it’s informal, as in “you could tell by the way he dressed that he didn’t belong here.” It’s a fascinating concept, using our cultural quirks as a way of determining status.

What are our shibboleths? What subtleties ensure that we know the outsiders in our midst? As a church, we have plenty of them. If you’re saying the Lord’s Prayer and you say “trespasses”, then we’ll know you didn’t learn the Presbyterian version. If you do the sign of the cross at communion, we know you are a Catholic. Those are pretty generic for any Presbyterian church, and those are usually the most obvious ones. But the worst shibboleths are the ones that we don’t ever realize we have. When someone comes into the church and can’t find the bathroom. When someone walks out during the postlude, even though everyone always sits through it. When someone tries to use the door on the Winton side in the narthex. When someone parks in front of the church.

What others? I know there are many, even if we don’t realize it.

And what do those shibboleths say? Here is where we see the risk or the opportunity.

People don’t like feeling out of place. It takes a lot of bravery to enter a new space or community. It takes a lot of strength to learn the new cultural touchpoints. People don’t like that feeling. And when they trip over a shibboleth, it can be particularly humiliating. That’s the moment when we can seize them and kill them (metaphorically, of course). That’s what happens usually in most places. It’s disorienting and vulnerable. But that is the perfect opportunity to show what makes us who we are. We can welcome them. We can let them know that the shibboleths that they encounter are chances for us to learn from them and for them to feel comfortable pronouncing shibboleth however they want.  

Who do we want to be? “there are signs for the bathroom, you can go look for them.” Or “I know, it can be hard to find the bathrooms at first. Let me help you.”

The most important thing about our shibboleths is that we recognize them. We will always have them as long as we remain a unique community, but if we know what they are then we will know how to render them inert.


Rev. Jeff Fox-Kline

Twelve Corners Presbyterian Church


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