However, it does have an epilogue which I’m a bit happier with, so I’ll go with that, even if it’s still brutal and uncompromising. That’s the book of Judges for you.
So anyway, one of Israel’s judges, a warrior called Jephthah (who I always picture as being played by Clint Eastwood) goes to war with a neighbouring tribe. How did they know who was on which side? Accents. The enemy pronounced the word ‘shibboleth’ differently, so if they couldn’t say the “Sh” properly, they got killed. If I ever get a voice activated computer, my password’s going to be shibboleth.
It’s a tough, violent story, but there’s a great use of it in The West Wing. The President has to decide if a group of refugee Chinese Christians are genuine or not, and so, just before a conversation with the leader of the refugees, this story gets quoted – the words of this man will decide if he’ll be granted asylum or not.
I really liked this use of the story until I was silly and thought about the implications. Because it’s my words that catch me out sometimes.
Yeah, I’m a Christian. Yeah, I’ve been to church since I was a baby. Yeah, I write a blog where I talk about the Bible. All these things are true.
But my words betray me at times. In the last 48 hours I’ve cursed, among others, my fellow drivers, reality TV stars, those responsible for traffic management, people who can’t use apostrophes and anyone who ever had anything to do with the construction of my iPhone. I’ve also developed a form of Tourette’s where I automatically yell scathing abuse upon any mention of the UK’s coalition government.
And that’s before the stuff that directly affects me on a day-to-day level.
Hypocritical? You betcha. At the end of the day, I struggle to say “shibboleth”.
What sort of witness is that? Do I sound like Jesus in any way, shape or form?
See, the people who say words will never hurt them are wrong. Sticks and stones may be an immediate threat, but words are insidious. How many of us have woken up at 3am, inexplicably upset at something awful someone said twenty years ago? How many of us find our lives crippled because, when we were young, others chose to tear down rather than build up, chose to not say the words we needed to hear?
How we use words is frighteningly important.
Of course, how we react to them is important too. Get your pronunciation wrong and Jephthah would kill you dead. What happens when people say the wrong thing to us? When they disagree with our doctrine or politics, when they’re just in the wrong place at the wrong time? Can they hear the words of Jesus when we’re getting ready to bite? Can we react with grace rather than rage?
Back to The West Wing. The President talks to the leader of the Christians about some biblical trivia, which he aces, but the moment of truth is when he speaks movingly of his faith. That’s when we can hear grace and and passion, that’s when his words reveal what’s in his heart.
That’s his shibboleth.