Jul 22 2009


Pronounced SHIB-ol-eth. A shibboleth is a word, phrase, or mannerism that a group of people uses as a test to see if other people are members of that group.

It might also be a joke. For example:

There are 10 kinds of people in the world: those that understand binary code, and those that don’t.

If you are waiting for me to tell you the other 8 kinds of people, then it is clear that you fall into the second group.

During World War II a shibboleth that American soldiers used to determine whether someone was Japanese or not was to ask them to say, “lollapalooza.”

The word is Hebrew, and means either “kernel of grain” or “brook,” depending on who you ask; obviously neither has anything to do with passwords. The word’s current use comes from chapter 12 in the book of Judges.

What happens is a bunch of jerks from the tribe of Ephraim come to visit Jephthah (who has just successfully defeated the Ammonites) at his home in Gilead. The Ephraimites insult the Gidealites and threaten to murder Jephthah, and in response Jephthah gathers his army. Being a rather astute student of history, he utilizes a tactic seen years before when the Israelites fought against the nation of Moab (recorded in Judges 3): they sieze the fords of Jordan, preventing their enemies’ escape.

Jephthah then set up a checkpoint, where he asked all passers-through to say the word, “shibboleth,” as he knew that Ephraimites pronounced the word, “sibboleth.” The Ephraimites lost 42,000 men that day.

Some Bible scholars have decried Jephthah’s actions as wicked, but I see it differently: if you bring 42,000 people to someone’s house and make a death threat, you shouldn’t be alarmed when they take your threat seriously. Also, you might not want to threaten someone known to be an effective warrior and general.

While not technically accurate, the English poet John Milton summed it up the most eloquently:

“Without reprieve, adjudged to death, for want of well-pronouncing shibboleth.”

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Jun 7 2009

What’s in a name?

Most people are familiar with the Biblical story of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-nego

It’s funny that some people in the Bible are referred to by their Hebrew names, and others by their Greek or Babylonian names. Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-nego are the false-god-honoring Babylonian names given to three Jewish captives: Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah, respectively.

Meanwhile, Daniel (in whose book these men appear) is known primarily by his Hebrew name, Daniel, instead of his Babylonian name Belteshazzar.

Daniel means ‘God is my judge.’ While my given name is Daniel, I have gone by Dan for most of my adult life. It’s much more concise.

However, in changing my name, I have changed its meaning as well: by removing El (God), I am left only with Dan, which means ‘judge.’

I’m sure that after I am famous someone will read something into this, but the truth, as usual, is more boring: it just sounds cooler.

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