A word occurring only once in the Bible (in Judges 12:6), shibboleth literally means “ear of corn” or “river.” However, it is not the literal meaning of shibboleth that marks its significance but its clever use by the tribe of Gilead to distinguish between enemy and ally.
During the time of the judges, there was a mighty warrior from Gilead named Jephthah who had been banished by his half-brothers because his mother was a prostitute. However, when the king of the Ammonites began to war against Gilead, the elders of Gilead approached Jephthah, begging that he might become their commander (Judges 11:1–3). Jephthah accepted the call and, filled with the Spirit of the Lord, led a great victory against the Ammonites (verses 29–32). This victory was won without the help of the Ephraimites, who had refused to help Gilead (Judges 12:2).
The use of the word shibboleth figures into Jephthah’s story this way: the tribes of Israel were divided by the Jordan River—some located on the west and some on the east. The eastern tribes, including Jephthah’s, had adopted certain pronunciations and practices of foreign nations, distinguishing themselves from their brothers in the west. The word shibboleth was an example. Those in Gilead pronounced it “shibboleth,” but those in Ephraim, west of Jordan, pronounced it “sibboleth.” The dialect was different.
After Jephthah’s great victory against the Ammonites, the men of Ephraim crossed the river to fight against their brothers from Gilead. The Ephraimites’ stated reason for fighting was that they were enraged they had not been included in the battle (Judges 12:1), although it is more likely they just wanted part of the spoil.
In the ensuing fight, Jephthah’s men captured the fords of the Jordan leading back to Ephraim, but many Ephraimites still tried to cross over, hoping their Gileadite brothers would not be able to distinguish friend from foe. However, the men of Gilead knew the people of the west could not pronounce the sh sound, as they had not mixed with foreigners as their brothers from the east had. So the Gileadite soldiers asked each man who tried to cross over the fords to say, “Shibboleth.” Every man who was from Ephraim would respond, “Sibboleth,” therein revealing his identity. With the help of this clever tactic, Jephthah’s men caught forty-two thousand men and put them to death that day (Judges 12:2–6).
Shibboleth is one of many words that the English-speaking world has borrowed from the Bible. In modern contexts, a shibboleth is any identifying word, manner of speaking, or behavior that shows someone to be part of a particular group. A person’s reference to gasoline as “petrol” is a shibboleth pointing to British influence. The word shibboleth can also refer to an old, oft-repeated idea that is widely believed but of questionable veracity; for example, a trite saying such as “great minds think alike” could be considered a shibboleth.