I like words. I like the sound of them as well as the sense of them. I love how one word can save the time of saying a bunch of other unnecessary words that otherwise would take a lot of words to say what you want to say, that is, if you actually have something to say on a particular day. Anyway.
How do you say “niche”? Does it rhyme with “sheesh” or does it sound like the word you’re not supposed to call a female you don’t like, which, if you’re so good you don’t know that word, it rhymes with “ditch”? There’s another possibly acceptable pronunciation of niche where it rhymes with “dish.” I’m not a fan of that one. It doesn’t make me sound smart, which rhymes with that necessary and uncontrollable* gastrointestinal function that’s not in good taste to let fly in social settings of nice people, and which also doesn’t make you sound at all smart.
*The uncontrollability of it comes after you’re sixty. Wait, you’ll see. Anyway.
What’s the spiritual point here? This is a blog to which nice people – and even some smart ones who probably already knew how to pronounce, “niche” – come for that sort of info. Ummm… I had a spiritual point when I began this. That’s the other thing that happens after sixty – farting and forgetting stuff.
Oh, yeah! There’s this thing about how we Christians say stuff. The thing is, we’re not exactly on the same page when it comes to what we’re supposed to say or how we’re supposed to say it. If you hadn’t noticed, among ourselves we disagree about some stuff.
There’s this story in the Bible where one group said something nasty to another group, and of course that’s always justification for homicide. The group of offenders, in order to escape the wrath of the offended ones were sneaking across a border at which the offended group stood guard in order to weed them out from among members of their own clan. Their foolproof method was a one-question quiz. They made them pronounce the word “Shibboleth.” If they said, “Sibboleth” instead, well, that’s an obvious breach of – well – a breach of something and worthy of death. The offended then massacred forty-two thousand of the offenders.
To be fair, this was a little more than – “You say tom-ay-to and I say tom-aw-to.” Their offense wasn’t so much about mispronunciation, but about how it proved that these guys were obviously from the wrong side of the tracks, actually, in this case, the river. But the point I’m trying to make is that we Christians – as well as all manner of other opinionated people groups – tend to hold to certain innocuous warning signals that disqualify offenders from our group, signals that we mistake for discernment.
It’s interesting that the term “shibboleth,” which according one dictionary says is “a word or way of speaking or behaving which shows that a person belongs to a particular group,” has made its way beyond biblical insider-speak. You’ll hear it in secular circles like, “their accent was a shibboleth of their social class.”
I don’t know exactly why this story is in the Bible, but it does strike me as odd that forty-two thousand people were killed because they had a different way of saying something! I mean it hardly seems like a capital offense! But I guess that was just how they rolled in those days. Good thing we’re so much more sophisticated these days as we judge (which rhymes with “won’t budge”) who belongs in our group and who doesn’t belong.
One Bible expert wrote, “The word Shibboleth has become a proverb for the minute differences, which religious parties thrust into exaggerated prominence, and defend with internecine ferocity” – a nicely bunched together collection of words in itself. I’m told that “internecine” refers to a bloody battle where both sides get badly hurt.
The same expert as above wrote, “In theological warfare the differences of watchwords have sometimes been the actual cause of the hatred and persecution; and sometimes the two opposing parties have been in agreement in every single essential fact, but have simply preferred other formula to express it, which has failed to cause any diminution in the fierceness of opinions.” A simple translation of which might be: Some people assign other people to spiritual death who think and speak differently than they do about the Bible.
It should be noted that I’m referring to thinly differentiated Christian “niches” (however you prefer to pronounce it) and not just about the grand dissimilarities between followers of Jesus and devotees of the sun or moon god. One is an issue of distinctions within the faith and the other between faiths. You may or may not want to use the shibboleth quiz on devotees of other religions.
Another commentator wrote, “Bigotry and sectarianism do great damage in the fact that they hinder the triumph of the gospel. Oh, how much wasted time and ammunition! How many men of splendid intellect have given their whole life to controversial disputes, when, if they had given their life to something practical, they might have been vastly useful!”
One final Selah*
So, however you prefer to pronounce your favorite theological concept, whichever subgroup above whom you consider yourself superior, I have just one question. Do you belong to the Christian niche that pronounces it “Shibboleth” or “Sibboleth”?
* “Selah” is found mostly in the Psalms and probably meant that the minstrel had just broken a string on his lyre, and while he was replacing it he wanted his audience to pause and think about the lyrics. So, please do – think about it, that is.