Shibboleth

SHIBBOLETH (shĭb'bō-lĕth, Heb. shibbōleth, an ear of grain or a stream). A word that was differently pronounced on the two sides of the Jordan, and so was used by the men of Gilead under Jephthah as a test to determine whether the speaker was of Ephraim or not (Judg.12.5-Judg.12.6). This word is used proverbially today; e.g., “That was his Shibboleth.”



The significant point to the story is not the meaning of the word shibboleth, but its pronunciation. So Eng. VSS do not tr. but merely transliterate the word, along with the Ephraimite attempt to pronounce it: sibboleth (Heb. סִבֹּלֶת). It is clear that the word was chosen because it would reveal one of the dialectic pronunciation differences between the two groups. It may be oversimplifying the matter to conclude that the differences were necessarily in terms of the conventional pronunciation of the Heb. sibilants שׁ (sh) and ס (s). The LXX has Σύνθημα (password) for shibboleth in text A, and Στἀχυς (ear of corn) in text B, but neither text seeks to reproduce an actual mispronounced Ephraimite VS, saying only that they could not repeat the word correctly. This seems to be most obviously explained by the fact that the Gr. alphabet does not distinguish between sh and s. Speiser has suggested that this solution is not corroborated by any evidence, and that any of the W Sem. languages did not have both sounds as independent phonemes. He provides the alternative theory that the Gileadites may have used an initial th sound for sh, which was completely foreign to the Israelites. The Ephraimites, in attempting this strange sound, managed to reproduce only s.

Bibliography

G. F. Moore, Judges (1895); E. A. Speiser, “The Shibboleth Incident,” BASOR, LXXXV (1942), 10-13.

International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (1915)

A test of speech applied by the men of Gilead to the Ephraimites, who wished to cross the Jordan, after defeat. If they pronounced the word cibboleth, their dialectic variety of speech betrayed them. (Jud 12:6). The word probably has the sense of stream or "flood" (compare Ps 69:2).