Word of the Day: Shibboleth

existence of GodThe Hebrew word shibboleth literally means “torrent of water” or “ear of corn.” But its use in English comes from a clever wartime trick from the Bible.

Chapter 12 of the book of Judges records intertribal warfare between the tribe of Ephraim (on the west of the Jordan River) and the territory of Gilead (on the east side). At the end of the battle, the Gileadites captured the fords of the Jordan. To identify the Ephraimites, they demanded that everyone wanting to cross into Ephraim say the word, “shibboleth.” The Ephraimite dialect of Hebrew had no “sh” sound, and for them it came out as “sibboleth.” The Gileadites identified and killed 42,000 Ephraimites with this trick.

The word shibboleth can mean a truism or widely held belief, but the more interesting definition is an identity test or litmus test or test of belonging.

For example, “Unless you are circumcised, according to the custom taught by Moses, you cannot be saved” (Acts 15:1). Circumcision becomes a shibboleth.

The Taxpayer Protection Pledge, a public promise to never raise taxes, has become a shibboleth for Republican politicians.

Tattoos might be a shibboleth for a motorcycle gang, and a style of clothing or makeup might be a shibboleth for a high school clique.

The atheist community has shibboleths as well. Like any such test, they can be too quickly used to dismiss potential members. For example, the typical American atheist is in favor of same-sex marriage, is pro-choice, is liberal, and is a Democrat. But I know atheists who don’t fit each of these labels, and I’d hate to see them shunned or have their (different) voices and ideas shut down.

Consider the case of Bill Maher, the writer of the documentary Religulous (2008). He was the winner of the Atheist Alliance International’s 2009 Richard Dawkins award. This caused a stir within the atheist community because, while his popular film was a powerful credential, Maher has rejected vaccinations in some circumstances. His atheist credentials were in doubt because he had fallen victim to some of the biases that atheists dislike in those who accept superstitions or religion.

Shibboleths have their place, but make sure they don’t replace a thoughtful and reasoned analysis with a knee-jerk response.

Photo credit: Wikimedia

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14 thoughts on “Word of the Day: Shibboleth

  1. Another rare agreement! However, one of the shibboleths of the atheist / liberal camp is taking things out of context, which you did above. The quote from Acts 15 would seem to indicate that circumcision was a requirement for salvation. What the entire passage teaches is that while this was a contention of some (which you accurately quoted) the church position of the first century came down firmly on the OTHER SIDE of this position, making circumcision NOT a requirement for salvation.

    It is unfortunate you chose a passage and used it out of context, when you could have so easily used a more universally agreed on passage. For instance, John 3:16 says, “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” Had you chosen one of these sorts of passages, you could have made your point without reinforcing the impression that liberals and atheists distort, misquote or take passages out of context at will.

    Giving you the benefit of the doubt, I’m sure it wasn’t your intention to perpetuate that stereotype. Law of unintended consequences?

    • Another rare agreement!

      Something worth celebrating!

      However, one of the shibboleths of the atheist / liberal camp is taking things out of context

      Any idiot can make a mistake, and I’m certainly idiotic sometimes. I don’t know that atheists have this particular failing any more than any other group, however.

      What the entire passage teaches is that while this was a contention of some (which you accurately quoted) the church position of the first century came down firmly on the OTHER SIDE of this position, making circumcision NOT a requirement for salvation.

      That’s a helpful clarification, thanks. What this passage becomes, then, is a shibboleth for some in the early Christian movement.

      reinforcing the impression that liberals and atheists distort, misquote or take passages out of context at will.

      Is that a common misperception? My own perception was that, on the contrary, atheists are famously better informed about Christianity than Christians are.

      But perhaps you’re talking about a deliberate misreading or misrepresentation of a passage. As my recent series on slavery shows, that’s certainly done on the Christian side. That’s just one example, of course, and counts for nothing in the big picture, but FYI.

      We run in different circles, so perhaps that explains the different perception, but my own perception is that atheists are careful to quote things correctly (though of course they make mistakes) and are quick to point out errors in their fellows. I don’t know of a community (I’m thinking here of the public community–blogs, podcasts, etc.) that is harder on itself to make sure its position is unassailable (as much as practical).

      • You focussed on the perception about atheists but did admit your error in context—thanks. I find it interesting that you then claimed that you find “atheists are careful to quote things correctly (though of course they make mistakes) and are quick to point out errors in their fellows.” I find this an incredibly generous claim for your side, unsubstantiated by evidence. It is indeed evidence of seeing your side through rose colored glasses however.

        As for the claim that atheists know the Bible better than Christians, the study shows that there is appalling lack of knowledge out there. That is indeed disappointing, and not reflective of the folks I hang out with. But I’m not sure knowledge of Vishnu and Maimonides is all that relevant to the topic you usually discuss. Atheists knew more about these by some small margins as well, inflating their “knowledge of religion.”

        • I find this an incredibly generous claim for your side, unsubstantiated by evidence. It is indeed evidence of seeing your side through rose colored glasses however.

          Wow. It’s excellent that you were able to cut through the noise so quickly and identify that the problem is mine. You’ve got the gift!

  2. “Torrent of water” or “ear of corn”???!!! How in the world did these two things get connected? If corn is on the menu you’d better be careful about asking someone to pass it to you!
    You’d think God would be smart enough to communicate in a language that was a bit less ambiguous.

    avalon

    • I had the same question. I’m not sure if there is confusion in the mind of scholars (there are some words about which they’re confused) or if these two odd definitions are really attached to the same word.

      But, of course, English is hard to beat for nuttiness. I recently came across the concept of autoantonyms–words that are their own antonyms. Example: “chuffed” means either pleased or displeased (depending on context). Or consider “seed”: to seed a field means to add seeds, but to seed a tomato means to remove them. Dusting a cake with powdered sugar means to add dust; dusting the furniture means to remove it.

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