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N the days of the Judges there was continued strife between the tribe of Ephraim, which
was on the west side of the Jordan, and the men of Gilead who were on the other side. These Gileadites were a rougher people than their opposite neighbours, being separate from the comparative culture of the Western tribes and leading a more independent, nomadic life. Of them came Jephthah, whose romantic history is familiar; and Elijah, the Tishbite, who defeated the priests of Baal in a memorable conflict. Now there was war between these peoples, for which there seems to have been no good reason except in the love of conflict; and the Gileadites prevailed, and took possession of the fords of the Jordan, so that when the Ephraimites who had ventured into the enemy's country sought to return to their own territory they were stopped until they could show on which side they belonged, and prove their right to go over. The test was a simple one, merely the pronunciation of a word. The word chosen was, apparently, the name given to the water which ran before them, the name answering to our word river. The men who desired to cross were asked what they called this stream. If they were Gileadites they at once said Shibboleth, but if they were Ephraimites they could not pronounce the word in that way, but said Sibboleth.
There was a difference in the dialects; and those who failed to speak in the Eastern way were known to belong to the other side, whereupon they were put to death. This was not because they could not give a particular sound to certain letters, but because they were enemies, and had been conquered in battle. It was because of the different tribal relations, and as a consequence of such a war as had been waged, that the defeated were dealt with after the manner of the times. It was cruel, but the cruelty was not the result of so small a matter as the difference between an aspirate and a sibilant.
This incident has been carelessly misunderstood. It is used as if the whole affair turned the trifling difference
difference in articulation; whereas it was a political difference, almost a difference of nationalities, and an event in a relentless war. But, it is said, commonly with a sneer, to men of one opinion, or to one sect or party, “You will not accept another and have fellowship with him, unless he assents to your Shibboleth,” that is, your platform, or your creed, as if this were of very
remark is as if one said that a Republican will not vote for a Democratic Governor or President, because Democrat and Republican are not spelled alike, and do not sound alike when they are spoken. Even so genial and charitable a writer as Dean Stanley remarks that “Many a party watch-word, many a theological test, has had no better origin than this difference of pronunciation between the two rough tribes, which has thus become the type or likeness of all of them." The remark lacks the usual accuracy of the writer. There was in the early church a long controversy over two Greek words which differed in a single vowel. It now seems a petty thing to contend about, but the difference was one of great significance; for the one word denoted that the Lord Jesus Christ was of the same nature with God, and the other that He was in his nature similar to God. The contest was not over a letter, but over a profound truth, and a belief of radical importance.
It is evident that slight manifest differences may have a large importance; not for what they are in themselves, but for what they represent. The physician puts his finger upon the pulse of his patient, and, according to its beating, determines the conditions which he is to meet. But no man ever died because his pulse was too rapid, while many a man has given up his life because of his fevered condition, which was betrayed by the throbbing at the wrist. The principle is obvious, and can be almost indefinitely extended. There are few matters more important, or more difficult in many cases, than to look beyond things themselves to their relations. A word which is small if measured by syllables may be larger if judged by its meaning; and slight differences in sound may denote large differences in character. This which is true of words is true also of acts, and these must be estimated in their connections. Large and small are, therefore, indeterminate. words. Words are the expression of thought, and thought of character. “Words are the man is a saying not too serious, if taken in a liberal way, as it should be; for an occasional word, hastily or thoughtlessly spoken, may denote but a momentary feeling. Still, if we indulge ourselves in hasty words, we must not find fault if they are allowed more value than fairly belongs to them. Be what you would be thought to be, is a reasonable requirement; and that we consent to be judged by what we consent to do is not an unreasonable demand. The jury must decide on the evidence laid before it.
Nationality is declared by the pronouncing of words. It is not merely that different nations have different languages, but that the parts of a nation have separate dialects. Old English is often unintelligible to one who has learned only the modern tongue. But in modern England the language of the Yorkshire man is almost foreign to one who is familiar only with the speech of the South. Even in our own country different sections have different words and tones, so that a man's birthplace or residence is betrayed by the terms he uses, and the way in which they are spoken. Happily, each section considers its own dialect the best, so that the variation need not be disowned. It remains true as it was in Palestine that Shibboleth and Sibboleth tell on which side of the river a man belongs.
But besides these natural distinctions there are others which are under our control. Good words, well chosen, well applied, show the cultivated mind of a man who reads good books, and is accustomed to good conversation. His vocabulary need not be large, if he knows its limits, and does not transgress them. There is not much need of long and strange words in our ordinary intercourse. Good breeding is often manifested in the use of simple terms, clearly understood by speaker and hearer. Especially is it foolish to use the words of a foreign language when we cannot speak them properly. The misuse of a word betrays the affectation which trifles with it. I was told of a preacher at a college who went out of his way to speak of the unlucky son of Dædalus, whose wings were seared by the heat, so that he fell into the sea; the preacher threw the accent on the second syllable, an error