The 12th chapter of Judges tells us how the men of Ephraim crossed to the east side of Jordan to fight against Jephthah and the men of Gilead. Jephthah and the Gileadites won. The survivors of Ephraim tried to retreat to their own territory on the west side of the Jordan.
But whenever an Ephraimite requested safe passage across the Jordan River, the men of Gilead would ask: “Are you an Ephraimite?” When the frightened Ephraimite said, “No,” the men of Gilead would say: “Alright, say ‘Shibboleth.’ ”
The men of Ephraim had an accent which prevented them from properly pronouncing the sh sound. So instead of saying “Shibboleth,” they would say “Sibboleth” – a dead give-away. 42,000 Ephraimites met their deaths on the banks of the Jordan River because they couldn’t say the one word that would mark them as friend instead of foe – the word Shibboleth.
The Christian Church has had a number of “Shibboleths” over the centuries which help us to distinguish between friend and foe, between truth and error: the Apostles’, Nicene and Athanasian Creeds, the Lutheran Confessions as embodied in The Book of Concord, 1580, and more recent doctrinal statements such as This We Believe. Such creeds, or statements of belief, mark us for who and what we are – and help us to distinguish friend from foe.
Around the year 1700, Alexander Selkirk got into an argument with his captain in the South Pacific. He was left alone on a desert island for four years. His hair and beard grew long and wild. The sun burned his skin to a dark and leathery brown. He all but gave up hope.
One day a passing ship anchored near the island. Four men were dispatched in a rowboat to explore the island and look for fruit. The sailors approached cautiously. There were legends of demons and cannibals. As they neared the beach, out from the bushes burst Selkirk, crying desperately, his arms flailing, his long hair waving wildly, his cracked and blistered skin looking ghastly.
The sailors rowed furiously away from the screaming demon who had now plunged into the water after them, shrieking at the top of his lungs.
But slowly their panic began to subside. They stopped rowing and rested their hands on the oars as they listened to the voice of “the monster” hollering across the water: “I believe in God the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth, and in Jesus Christ, His only Son, our Lord…” It was the poor man’s “Shibboleth.” The men in the boat now knew that he was not a monster. He was a Christian. Words matter. Creeds matter. As they accurately echo what the Bible teaches, they still mark friend or foe.