Shibboleth

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Yesterday we saw the way God had opened up for the people to cross the Jordan river.  In a Red-Sea-like miracle, the new Israel “passed over” with Joshua (meaning “Jesus”) at their head.  This event proclaimed the way sinners can enter God’s rest.  Only through His initiative, only through a Passover-like salvation, only with Jesus at our head.  But in this God-ordained way, sinners freely cross from wilderness to rest – from earth to heaven.

In our story for today we again see sinners attempting to cross the Jordan.  But when this crossing is patrolled by humans we see a very different policy of border control.

It all comes about in the book of Judges – the book following Joshua.  The people have entered the land, fought many battles, shrank back  from others, more or less settled down and then Joshua dies.  Following his leadership, Israel is ruled by “Judges”, and the book of Judges tells us of 13 of them.

One of them is called Jephthah from Gilead.  In Judges 12, men from the tribe of Ephraim pick a fight with Jephthah and the Gileadites.  That wasn’t smart.  The men of Gilead fight back ruthlessly and put many to the sword.  Crucially, they also control the escape routes back across the Jordan.  Fleeing Ephraimites would try to pass themselves off as locals, but the men of Gilead had a cunning test:

when those Ephraimites which were escaped said, Let me go over…  the men of Gilead said unto him, Art thou an Ephraimite? If he said, Nay; Then said they unto him, Say now Shibboleth: and he said Sibboleth: for he could not frame to pronounce it right. Then they took him, and slew him at the passages of Jordan: and there fell at that time of the Ephraimites forty and two thousand. (Judges 12:5-6)

We are shocked by the juxtaposition.  Such a simple test.  Such dire consequences.  Such immense blood-shed.  The river would have flown red with the blood of Ephraimites.  See here for more modern examples of “Shibboleths” being used to distinguish friend from foe.

But you can’t help but feel for the Ephraimites.  Put to the sword because of their accent.  They couldn’t say “sh” even if their life depended on it.  And they paid a terrible price.  What a very different policy for border crossing!

But when it’s humans who take charge of entrance requirements – to anything! – it will operate according to the “flesh”.  That is to say, we will look for human abilities and identities to qualify or justify ourselves.  The in-crowd will be distinguished from the out-crowd by something in them: Nationality, Race, Tribe, Family, Gender, Achievements, Money, Looks, Status, Brains, Braun, Something.  This being the case, the entrance requirements will simply have to be discriminatory.

And if this was God’s recruitment policy there’d have to be some kind of ism – whether racism, sexism, intellectualism, accentism, etc.

But what if safe passage was granted not on the basis of something in you.  What if we get safe passage on the basis of Someone Else?  Someone freely given to all?  What would that in-crowd look like?

Well the book of Revelation shows us the multi-national multitudes in heaven.  They have been saved by Jesus the Lamb and brought through to the promised rest:

After this I beheld, and, lo, a great multitude, which no man could number, of all nations, and kindreds, and people, and tongues, stood before the throne, and before the Lamb, clothed with white robes, and palms in their hands;  And cried with a loud voice, saying, Salvation to our God which sitteth upon the throne, and unto the Lamb.  (Revelation 7:9-10)

Or to put it another way: Jesus is the end of all Shibboleths.

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