There is an ancient trap that has resurfaced in the modern Messianic movement that is a major divider between Messianic groups in America and also around the world. This word is ‘Shibboleth’, an ancient Hebrew term used to expose people of a different tribe or religious group as outsiders and leave them open to character assassination or exclusion from the accusatory person or group. The pronunciation of the word, if different than theirs; resulted in the immediate murder of the other Israelite.
A shibboleth is a word or custom whose variations in pronunciation or style can be used to differentiate members of ingroups from those of outgroups. Within the mindset of the ingroup, a connotation or value judgment of correct/incorrect or superior/inferior can be ascribed to the two variants.
The term originates from the Hebrew word shibbólet (שִׁבֹּלֶת), which literally means the part of a plant containing grains, such as an ear of corn or a stalk of grain or, in different contexts, “stream, or torrent”. The modern usage derives from an account in the Hebrew Bible, in which pronunciation of this word was used to distinguish Ephraimites, whose dialect lacked a /ʃ/ phoneme (as in shoe), from Gileadites whose dialect did include such a phoneme.
Recorded in the Book of Judges, chapter 12, after the inhabitants of Gilead inflicted a military defeat upon the tribe of Ephraim (around 1370–1070 BC), the surviving Ephraimites tried to cross the Jordan River back into their home territory and the Gileadites secured the river’s fords to stop them. In order to identify and kill these refugees, the Gileadites put each refugee to a simple test:
“Gilead then cut Ephraim off from the fords of the Jordan, and whenever Ephraimite fugitives said, ‘Let me cross,’ the men of Gilead would ask, ‘Are you an Ephraimite?’ If he said, ‘No,’ they then said, ‘Very well, say “Shibboleth” (שבלת).’ If anyone said, “Sibboleth” (סבלת), because he could not pronounce it, then they would seize him and kill him by the fords of the Jordan. Forty-two thousand Ephraimites were killed on this occasion.” —Judges 12:5–6, NJB
MODERN GENERAL USAGE
In numerous cases of conflict between groups speaking different languages or dialects, one side used shibboleths in a way similar to the above-mentioned Biblical use, i.e., to discover hiding members of the opposing group. Modern researchers use the term “shibboleth” for all such usages, whether or not the people involved were using it themselves.
Today, in American English, a shibboleth also has a wider meaning, referring to any “in-group” word or phrase that can be used to distinguish members of a group from outsiders – even when not used by a hostile other group. The word is less well recognized in British English and possibly some other English-speaking groups. It is also sometimes used in a broader sense to mean jargon, the proper use of which identifies speakers as members of a particular group or subculture.
The term shibboleth can also be extended, as in the discipline of semiotics, to describe non-linguistic elements of culture such as diet, fashion and cultural values.
Cultural touchstones and shared experience can also be shibboleths of a sort. For example, people about the same age who are from the same nation tend to have the same memories of popular songs, television shows, and events from their formative years. One-hit wonders prove particularly effective. Much the same is true of alumni of a particular school, veterans of military service, and other groups. Discussing such memories is a common way of bonding. In-jokes can be a similar type of shared-experience shibboleth.
Yet another more pejorative usage involves underlining the fact that the original meaning of a symbol has in effect been lost and that the symbol now serves merely to identify allegiance, being described as nothing more than a “shibboleth.
MODERN RELIGIOUS USAGE
The spelling and pronunciation of Biblical names such as ‘Yahweh” (Yahveh) or ‘Yeshua’ (Yahshua, Y’shua) are at contention between Messianic groups today and are used as dividers between groups and individuals. The zeal of Messianic groups for correct doctrine has resulted in the breaking up of Congregations and the splitting up of Messianic Synagogues. It is said that change promotes growth, but at what price? The Christian Church has split since its inception over doctrines, dogma and the issues of interpreting ‘words’ resulting in over 4,000 divisions (denominations) at odds with one another over the pronouncing of words and also differences over the traditions of men. The same splits occur in Messianic groups but at an accelerated pace.
Question: is this type of argument a healthy exercise for Messianic Israel to engage in?
Answer: NO. A divisive attitude of believers in Yeshua is nothing less than destructive. We cannot follow the same dusty sideroads that the wandering Christian Church has traveled down for centuries, to its shame.
There is no final or definitive answer to this tribal spat this side of Yeshua’s return to rule and reign. Only He can settle this ancient controversy in His children’s hearts and minds.
Walking on the Emmaus road,
Rav James Talbott,
Yeshua HaTikvah Yisrael Ministry