Syrians, Shibboleths, and Christian Mercy It is no secret that I think that the Republican candidates for the presidency, along with most of the Republican governors, misunderstand the Bible. But I am constantly impressed by the deep cuts they find of Bible stories to misinterpret.
The most recent hidden track they've chosen to misinterpret is the story of the Shibboleth, which is a story of how to identify your enemies and what to do with them once you've found them. Like much of the Old Testament, it doesn't go well for the enemies.
This comes from the Book of Judges, where the people of Gilead, after defeating members of the Tribe of Ephraim, the Gileadites moved to murder the survivors. The Ephraimites fled to the River Jordan, attempting to ford the river to return home. The Gileadites, knowing that the Ephraim language had no "sh" sound, requested that people attempting to ford the river say "Shibboleth." Anyone who pronounced it "sibboleth" was then murdered.
"Art thou an Ephraimite?" "Um, uh … No?" "Prove it. Say ‘shibboleth.'" "Sibboleth." "Aha! Die Ephraimite!" "Oh sit."
So when Jeb Bush comes along and says we should let in refugees only if they can prove that they're Christian, this is what he's doing. "You're a Christian – I mean, you can prove you're a Christian. You can't prove it, then, you know, you err on the side of caution," He's reenacting the Shibboleth story. But here's the thing: the people of Gilead are the bad guys in this story. They're lead by Jephthah, a Judge who had previously been punished by being sold into the Philistine and Ammonites after doing "evil in the sight of the Lord" having "forsook the Lord and did not serve Him," and a man who eventually murdered his beloved daughter as a burnt offering to the Lord. He's not raised up as an example of people to emulate.
This is the lesson that Republicans like Jeb Bush have taken from the Bible. This is maybe the only lesson, actually, other than that we should also smite Sodomites, because God doesn't seem to be doing that anymore either. The refugees in question will suffer the consequences for failing the shibboleth test as well: dying actually pretty close to the River Jordan of the original story where the Ephraimites said their last "oh sit." Demanding shibboleth is just pure racism. It is literal Old Testament viciousness that had no place even in the faith of the first century Christian church, much less the 21st.