Say “Shibboleth”…

22 Mar

Anyone know what this is a photo of, that is, what the Hebrew letter sin/shin is written on? No prizes this time...

This week and next sees me in Llanelli, South Wales, teaching an introduction to linguistics and language learning skills to 17 Koreans, 3 Brits and 1 American. No Jews this time, though there are a few times in Scripture when some unsuspecting Israelites may have wished they had had the chance to do this course. Some basic skills in phonetics or techniques for language learning in the community might just have spared them a headache or two, or even losing their heads completely in one particular instance.

In one of the sadder incidents in the Old Testament, one which along with many others in the book of Judges seems to illustrate the depths to which Israel had fallen, we read that:

Jephthah then called together the men of Gilead and fought against Ephraim. The Gileadites struck them down because the Ephraimites had said, “You Gileadites are renegades from Ephraim and Manasseh.” The Gileadites captured the fords of the Jordan leading to Ephraim, and whenever a survivor of Ephraim said, “Let me cross over,” the men of Gilead asked him, “Are you an Ephraimite?” If he replied, “No,” they said, “All right, say ‘Shibboleth.’” If he said, “Sibboleth,” because he could not pronounce the word correctly, they seized him and killed him at the fords of the Jordan. Forty-two thousand Ephraimites were killed at that time. (Judges 12:4-6)

Forty-two thousand! Killed for shpeaking with a funny acshent. Wow.

Thankfully, other instances had less far-reaching consequences. Let’s fast forward a few centuries till we meet Peter warming himself by the fire in the Sanhedrin courtyard during Jesus’ trial.

After a little while, those standing there went up to Peter and said, “Surely you are one of them; your accent gives you away.” Then he began to call down curses, and he swore to them, “I don’t know the man!” (Matthew 26:73-74)

Peter was unmistakably a Galilean; as Matthew says, his every word gave it away. And being a Galilean hanging out in Jerusalem at that precise moment in time, in the Sanhedrin even, at once revealed who Peter was — in the eyes of any onlooker, he simply must be one of Jesus’ cronies.

Language is not just a means of communication; it is our identity, part of who we are, and who others see us to be. Like it or not, it associates us with certain social or racial groups and defines to the mind of everyone else  just who we are.

A couple of decades later, even some basic phrases may have helped another two apostles stay clear of a potentially very difficult situation.

When the crowd saw what Paul had done, they shouted in the Lycaonian language, “The gods have come down to us in human form!”  Barnabas they called Zeus, and Paul they called Hermes because he was the chief speaker.  The priest of Zeus, whose temple was just outside the city, brought bulls and wreaths to the city gates because he and the crowd wanted to offer sacrifices to them. But when the apostles Barnabas and Paul heard of this, they tore their clothes and rushed out into the crowd, shouting:  “Friends, why are you doing this? We too are only human, like you. […] Even with these words, they had difficulty keeping the crowd from sacrificing to them.

Barnabus watches as Paul leads away the cow that was about to be sacrificed; 12th-13th century stained glass at Bourges cathedral.

Maybe “Teach Yourself Lycaonian” was one of the parchment scrolls that Paul had left in Troas. Whatever, it seems that Paul and Barnabas did not get what was going on; they had not stopped to learn the local peoples’ language. Starting in Greek speaking synagogues, and preaching using the Greek Septuagint translation, Paul brought the gospel to scattered Jews and Gentile God-fearers. But pure pagans who spoke a different language were quite a different challenge. A bit like us today — for after all, “everyone understands English these days” — it is alright to preach and think that they are understanding us, but at times it would be more useful if we could understand them!

It is impossible to “just preach the gospel”, for “the gospel” does not exist in some a-cultural form that can be applied across the whole gamut of human existence. The gospel comes to us in ways we understand, and must be passed on to others in ways that they in turn will be able to understand. These ways may not be ours, and without language that gives us access to the heart, history and communication patterns of a people, we may find that they find our preaching, at best, simply incomprehensible.

For all his commission as the “apostle to the Gentiles”, it seems that in his ministry Paul never got further than using Greek, the lingua franca of the eastern Roman Empire. As a bi-cultural person, brought up as a Roman citizen in the Jewish diaspora and educated in Greek, he straddled these cultures but never seems to have strayed beyond the bounds of these familiar paths, much less learned a language for pioneer ministry in the process.

For this as much as for any other reason Paul cannot be considered the model par excellence for the cross-cultural worker today. For this we have to look to another, to the one who left his “home culture”, immersed himself in another, took on its ways — including learning relevant languages — and in every way became “one of them”: Jesus of Nazareth.

Language learning is not an optional extra for the cross-cultural worker. As a singular aspect of culture, language becomes the bottleneck through which our knowledge and ministry must pass. To enter another’s world necessarily involves us in learning their language; to do anything else is to declare their identity irrelevant. Commitment to language learning identifies us in a way that no other skill does with the people we work amongst. To speak another’s language (well) is a to honour them and opens the door to an insider’s understanding of the culture that in turn enables us to communicate in relevant ways. Deprived of this knowledge, our communication will remain stilted and we will fail to develop appropriately contextualised churches, if we even succeed in communicating the gospel at all. As Eugene Nida said:

Expert language ability helps to identify the missionary most effectively with the indigenous society, and such identification is essential to a truly successful ministry. As missionaries we must work in the field, not on the field. It is not the geographical scope, but the degree of cultural penetration which marks truly effective missionary enterprise, and there is no substitute for proper use of the local idiom.

Comparative phonetics here we come!

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2 Responses to “Say “Shibboleth”…”

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  1. Eternal Life or mortal symbol « JRFibonacci's blog: partnering with reality - April 16, 2012

    […] Say “Shibboleth”… (eatingwithsinners.wordpress.com) […]

  2. the activity of God, including the activity of language « power of language blog: partnering with reality by JR Fibonacci - June 17, 2012

    […] Say “Shibboleth”… (eatingwithsinners.wordpress.com) […]

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