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Bible Encyclopedias

Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological and Ecclesiastical Literature

Shibboleth

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(Heb. Shibbo'leth, שׁבֹּלֶת ). After Jephthah bad beaten the Ammonites, the men of Ephraim were jealous of the advantage obtained by the tribes beyond Jordan, and complained loudly that they had not been called to that expedition. Jephthah answered with much moderation; but that did not prevent the Ephraimites from using contemptuous language towards the men of Gilead. They taunted them with being only fugitives from Ephraim and Manasseh a kind of bastards that belonged to neither of the two tribes. A war ensued, and the men of Gilead killed a great number of Ephraimites; after which, they set guards at all the passes of Jordan, and when an Ephraimite who had escaped came to the riverside and desired to pass over, they asked him if he were not an Ephraimite? If he said No, they bade him pronounce Shibboleth; but he pronouncing it Sibboleth (q.v.), substituting שׂ or ס for שׁ, according to the diction of the Ephraimites, they killed him. In this way there fell 42,000 Ephraimites (Judges 12). (See JEPHTHAH).

The word Shibboleth, which has now a second life in the English language in a new signification, has two meanings in Hebrew:

(1) an ear of corn. (Genesis 41, etc.);

(2) a stream or flood and it was, perhaps, in the latter sense that this particular word suggested itself to the Gileadites, the Jordan being a rapid river. The word, in the latter sense, is used twice in Psalms 69, in Psalms 69:2; Psalms 69:15, where the translation of the A.V. is "the floods overflow me," and "let not the water flood overflow me;" also in Isaiah 27:12 ("channel"); Zechariah 4:12 ("branch"). If in English the word retained its original meaning, the latter passage might be translated "let not a shibboleth of waters drown me." There is no mystery in this particular word. Any word beginning with the sound sh would have answered equally well as a test. The above incident should not be passed over without observing that it affords proof of dialectical variations among the tribes of the same nation, and speaking the same language in those early days. There can be no wonder, therefore, if we find in later ages the, same word written different ways, according to the pronunciation of different tribes or of different colonies or residents of the Hebrew people; whence various pointings, etc. That this continued is evident from the peculiarities of the Galilaean dialect, by which Peter was discovered to be of that district (Mark 14:70). Before the introduction of vowel points (which took place not earlier than the 6th century A.D.) there was nothing in Hebrew to distinguish the letters Shin and Sin, so it could not be known, by the eye in reading when h was to be sounded after s, just as now in English there is nothing to show that it should be sounded in the words sugar, Asia, Persia; or in German, according to the most common pronunciation, after s in the words Sprache, Spiel, Sturm, Stiefel, and a large class of similar words. It is to be noted that the sound sh is unknown to the Greek language, as the English th is unknown to so many modern languages. Hence in the Sept. proper names commence simply with s which in Hebrew commence with sh; and one result has been that, through the Sept. and the Vulg., some of these names, such as Samuel, Samson, Simeon, and Solomon, having become naturalized in the Greek form in the English language, have been retained in this form in the English version of the Old Test. Hence, likewise, it is a singularity of the Sept. version that in the passage in Judges 12:6 the translator could not introduce the word "Shibboleth" and has substituted one of its translations, στάχυς "an ear of corn," which tells the original story by analogy. It is not impossible that this word, may have been ingeniously preferred to any Greek word signifying "stream," or "flood," from its first letters being rather harsh sounding, independently of its containing a guttural. See Gunther, De Dialect. Triburum Judoe, Ephraim, et Benjamin (Lips. 1714). (See HEBREW LANGUAGE).

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Bibliography Information
McClintock, John. Strong, James. Entry for 'Shibboleth'. Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological and Ecclesiastical Literature. https://www.studylight.org/encyclopedias/eng/tce/s/shibboleth.html. Harper & Brothers. New York. 1870.

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