Shibboleth

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Judges 12:1-15

Are you “in” or “out”?  “Bang on trend” or “out of fashion”?  “Up to the minute” or “behind the times”?  Life is full of exclusive clubs.  We discriminate by age, gender, race, wealth, strength, intelligence, looks, taste.  We can turn anything into a barrier to entry.  But the LORD is very different.  And two incidents at the Jordan river will show just how different He is.

Yesterday we considered how God had made a way through the Jordan river for His people to pass.  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.  None of the Israelites deserved to enter into the promises, but in God’s mercy, sinners freely cross from wilderness to rest – from death to life.

In today’s story we again see sinners attempting to cross the Jordan.  But when this crossing is patrolled by humans, there’s 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 and have more or less settled down.  After Joshua dies Israel is ruled by “Judges”, and the book of Judges tells us of 13 of them.

One of them is called Jephthah. He’s 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.  They paid a terrible price.  What a very different policy for border crossing!

But when it’s men who take charge of the entrance requirements, things invariably 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 “outsiders” by something in them: Nationality, Race, Tribe, Family, Gender, Achievements, Money, Looks, Status, Brains, Brawn, Something.  This being the case, the entrance requirements have to be discriminatory.

If this was God’s recruitment policy there’d have to be some kind of God ordained ‘ism’ – whether racism, sexism, intellectualism or accent-ism!

But thank God that Christ’s Kingdom is different.  Safe passage is not granted on the basis of anything in us.  We pass over on the basis of Jesus, our Forerunner, not because of any trait of our own.  Therefore His Kingdom looks very different.

In the book of Revelation we see 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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