Shibboleth

In 2007 Columbian artist Doris Salcedo created a temporary installation at the Tate Modern art museum in London. Her crew formed a long, dramatic crack in the concrete floor of the gallery. It started as a thin break at one end of the room that expanded and split like the widening tributaries of a river. During the months it was viewed by the public and in spite of the posted warnings about the nature of the exhibit, some visitors reported injuries due to tripping over the uneven floor where the gash went as deep as two feet. Salcedo named her interactive artwork Shibboleth, a word which calls up the uncomfortable idea of dividing, creating a clear us vs. them.

 

To find the genesis of the word shibboleth, we have to look to the Book of Judges in the first half of the Bible. Here we see a rough man named Jephthah. Born from a prostitute and booted out of his father’s home by his half-brothers, he had made a name for himself among renegades and scoundrels who were searching for a leader just as much as they were itching for a fight. When the Ammonites came to start a war, the very people who had thrown Jephthah out of town begged him to come back home and be their leader. They needed a warrior and this coarse, haggling outcast was just the fella to do the job.

 

Judges 11 gives us a few details about the battle and Jephthah’s foolish vow which resulted in the disgraceful and unnecessary death of his only child. Then we see Jephthah’s predicament with the tribe of Ephraim. (Historical Context: Many generations before Jephthah came on the scene, the leaders of Israel had divided the land between the 12 sons of Jacob. Joseph, Jacob’s most successful and powerful son, wanted his blessing to go to his own sons—Manasseh and Ephraim—creating two half-tribes.) Fast forward to Jephthah, the illegitimate son from Gilead and the tribe of Manasseh, now being hounded by his kinfolk, the Ephraimites, for excluding them from the battle against the Ammonites. The men from the tribe of Ephraim told Jephthah, “How dare you go fight the Ammonites without calling us to go with you! We’re going to burn down your house over your head.”

 

Jephthah wouldn’t stand by in the face of this egregious threat. His troops were told to station themselves on the shores of the Jordan River and deny any Ephraimite to cross alive. They’re told to quiz these relative relatives. When someone approached them, they would ask if they were from Ephraim. Then they were supposed to ask them to say, “Shibboleth.” They knew the Ephraimites had a particular pronunciation of this innocuous Hebrew word which meant “an ear of corn.” If they said, “Sibboleth” Jephthah’s men would murder them on the spot. Shibboleth became a password, a means to separate two people groups who should have been allies.

 

Centuries later, the word shibboleth is a stand-in for a custom or phrase which is designed to divide and separate. Author and professor Eddie S. Glaude, Jr. used the term in a recent article where he answered his own question about the fragile state of our democracy when faced with widespread systematic racism. He said, “The answer to that question will depend, in part, on white America’s willingness to leave the shibboleths of American racism behind…” A willingness to acknowledge that some know (and can say) the correct password to gain passage across the Jordan into privilege and safety and others don’t, and then to be bothered enough by this realization to act.

 

The gallery floor of the Tate still bears the scar of its past art exhibit, though the crack has been filled in. The symbolism of Doris Salcedo’s Shibboleth begged people to look down and see the disfigured gap, if for no other reason than to avoid tripping over it or falling into it. Salcedo explained in an interview, “It represents borders, the experience of immigrants, the experience of segregation, the experience of racial hatred.”

 

So now that we see the crack, how we help others—or in some cases, stop preventing others—to cross the divide reveals our deepest character. Not because I have anything especially extraordinary to offer and in spite of being utterly flawed and downright clumsy, but if I can be one person standing on the edge of this deep, horrific gash in the ground, staring at tangled rebar and bits of bone and rock revealed by the crevice, waiting to offer a hand to those on the other side, then at least I am one.

Just

I’ve come to believe that words are very powerful. With only a slight change in wording, the intended meaning can be completely altered. For example, imagine you’re shopping with a friend and unsure how you look in an outfit you’ve tried on. Standing in front of one those giant dressing room mirrors, would you rather hear: 1.) “You are not fat.” 2.) “You are not thatfat.” Four little letters but the difference is night and day.

 

Depending on the language, vocabulary can be very confusing. As my African-born son can attest, English seems unnecessarily tricky with so many synonyms that mean the same thing and homonyms which sound the same but mean something different and words with multiple meanings. You could argue that its complexity makes our language richer, but if you’re new to English it just makes you want to plug up your ears and go back to bed.

 

One word with many varied meanings that I’ve recently noticed I may overuse is the adjective/adverb just. Beside its connection to fairness and morality, it can also mean now, only, barely, simply, recently. I use it all day long.

 

“Mom, when’s supper?” It’s just5:00. You can’t be hungry yet. Eat this carrot.

 

Later that night, around 7:00 pm: “Mom, I’m hungry.” What? We justate!

 

You made it justin time. Give me justa minute. We’re justgoing to one store. Justsit there and think about what you did!

 

I’ve also noticed how often we use the word justwhen it comes to faith. If you’ve got a very sick relative and people ask you how they can help during such a difficult time we often say, “Just pray.” There’s a note of last resort here, as if seeing that all the spots for bringing supper to the family are filled, you might as well give them the job of merely praying.

 

But in this context, it could also mean you are giving this goodhearted friend a very simple, specific yet important task. “Just pray,” you say. “Set aside whatever doesn’t need doing right away and beg God to intercede. Please make this your focus today.”

 

Looking at the lyrics to the gospel song “Closer Walk with Thee,” we see justused to describe a scene which would be anything but ordinary: “Just a closer walk with Thee/Grant it, Jesus, is my plea/Daily walking close to Thee/Let it be, dear Lord, let it be” We don’t merely walk with God like it’s no big deal. We strive for a complete connection, justas in onlyis the goal.

 

If you search the Scriptures for instances of the word just, you’ll have plenty of reading. You’ll find “Noah did everything just as God commanded him” in the Old Testament and “People brought all their sick to Jesus and begged him to let the sick justtouch the edge of his cloak, and all who touched it were healed” in the New Testament.

 

With a possibly ambiguous word like just, we have to pause and determine which meaning is intended. Then we see Noah’s preciseness in his obedience and Jesus’ mighty power to heal. Such a tiny word but packed with so much capability.