Dennis McCarty

Dennis McCarty

The Old Testament book of Judges depicts a chaotic time after the Children of Israel reached the Promised Land. Israel’s Twelve Tribes weren’t even getting along with each other, let alone anyone else.

Archaeologists who study that time and place argue whether the invasion of Canaan even happened, let alone the way Judges describes it. What’s more important to me, though, is wisdom we can gain from stories in Judges.

One revolves around a war leader named Jephthah and the imposing-sounding word “shibboleth.”

The book’s title, “Judges,” refers to the many chieftains, or “judges,” who led the Israelites.

In one story, Jephthah leads the Hebrew tribes of Gilead against the Ammonites, in the land that we now know as Jordan. Jephtha defeated the Ammonites handily, but another Hebrew tribe, the Ephraimites, were offended that they weren’t asked to help (and presumably share in the war’s spoils). So their army crossed the Jordan river and invaded Gilead themselves.

Jephthah defeated them as well. Then his men seized the river crossings so the Ephraimites couldn’t cross back into their own land.

Since the soldiers of Ephraim looked just like the soldiers of Gilead, they could just claim to be Jephthah’s men to return home. The Ephraimites spoke Hebrew with a different accent than the Gileadites, though. So the guards at the river came up with a test. If someone wanted to cross, the guards would get them to say the word for river: “shibboleth.”

An Ephraimite would pronounce it differently. As soon as he did, the guards would kill him. According to Judges, they killed 42,000 men for mispronouncing that word.

In English, “shibboleth” might sound like some kind of monster out of an X-Men movie. In the dictionary, though, it means dividing people up for some petty reason, even an outright silly reason.

Then again, maybe that’s not so very different from a movie monster.

In such ancient times, killing tens of thousands of defeated enemies might seem the normal course of things. Hopefully, we’ve learned better since that time.

Still, in our divided America, we might do well to ponder this story from Judges. We’re still dividing people for silly reasons. Say, if someone has an “R” or a “D” next to their name, we might not kill them, but we may take that as an excuse to consider them scum of the earth.

Different skin colors are meaningless as far as a person’s DNA is concerned. But we divide people along those lines, too. Or whether they wear a crucifix, a crescent or a star of David, or carry a lotus flower. Or whether their parents were born in this country or somewhere else. The list is almost endless.

Going back to the warrior chieftain Jepththah, he paid a high price for his warlike determination. He wanted to defeat the Ammonites so badly, he promised God that if he won, he would sacrifice the first living thing he saw on returning home.

When he got home, who should meet him but his own daughter, “singing and dancing” at news of his victory. As the story goes, he had obligated himself to God. So that was the end of her.

I have two daughters of my own. I can’t imagine.

We don’t all have to agree. We don’t even have to like one another. But “shibboleth” teaches us that we need to find ways to get along, rather than dividing people along arbitrary lines and despising those on the other side. There’s a high price for that in the long term.

The Rev. Dennis McCarty is a Unitarian Universalist minister, writer and lecturer.


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