We just completed a sermon series at Auburn United Methodist Church where we spent time this summer reclaiming some of the important truths of our faith. We revisited the stories of Creation, Noah and the Ark, Daniel in the Lion’s Den, Ruth and Naomi, to name a few. In other words, we reached into the Bible and selected texts that we know and love and we listened for the timeless message needed for our lives today.
One of the stories that we did not share is from the book of Judges 12. It is a strange story of the time the Ephraimites attacked the people of Gilead. The Ephramites were defeated in battle. In their defeat, the soldiers of Ephram longed to escape Gilead but they first had to cross a stream or river. The army of Gilead was aware of the Ephramites plan for retreat, so they posted sentries at the river crossing to test each person who crossed over. The test was simply to engage the passersby in conversation and listen for the way each person pronounced the word shibboleth (which means "stream" in Hebrew). The people of Gilead knew that those from Ephram did not articulate the “sh” sound in the word shibboleth;instead, they said, “sibboleth.” Those who did not make the proper sounds were pointed out as enemy soldiers from Ephram and they were killed.
This odd story tucked away in our Bible is not often shared in Sunday school, preached from pulpits, and to my knowledge this sacred text has not inspired classical art. One truth that this story does point out, though, is something that resides inside the human condition. There is something within the DNA of our humanity that at times listens for the sounds that make us different from one another. We humans like to know who is with us and who is against us. We like to discover the answer to the question, “Are you friend or foe?”
As I have thought about this story alongside our human condition, I give thanks that our questions and concerns are not often those of God. When we read the many stories of our sacred text, we discover a broader perspective; we discover the view of the one who listens and looks upon human beings in this way:
“(And God said) Let us make human beings in our image” (Genesis 1:26).
“For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb” (Psalm 139:13).
“God so loved the world . . .” (John 3:16-17).
“(Jesus said) Love one another” (John 13:34).
“Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience. Bear with each other and forgive one another. . . And over all these virtues put on love . . .” (Colossians 3:12-14).
Our Scriptures point out that God’s perspective and our human perspective are often quite different. We often want to divide and listen for the subtleties that make us different when God longs that we live in unity and as one (Galatians 3:26-29). As we move into these exciting days of fall and continue to learn to live in a pandemic, it is easy to find ourselves caught up in the “friend or foe” questions of the world. My prayer is that we will see one another through the lens of God. I pray that we will listen to one another with patience and kindness. It is also my prayer that during this pandemic season we will respect the decisions of our beloved institutions with the grace of one who created us and loves us all, for these are the sounds and subtleties of speech that seem to matter most to God.
Dr. Cory Smith is the Senior Minister of Auburn United Methodist Church. He is a graduate of the University of Southern Mississippi, The Candler School of Theology at Emory University and Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur, Georgia. He is married to Alicia, and they have one daughter, Sarah Morgan.