This blog offers a meditation on the Common Lectionary daily readings along with a headline from world news:
PLANES IN THE AIR ABOVE; NOBODY ON THE GROUND TO HELP YAZIDIS
12 The men of Ephraim were called to arms, and they crossed to Zaphon and said to Jephthah, ‘Why did you cross over to fight against the Ammonites, and did not call us to go with you? We will burn your house down over you!’ 2 Jephthah said to them, ‘My people and I were engaged in conflict with the Ammonites who oppressed us[a] severely. But when I called you, you did not deliver me from their hand. 3 When I saw that you would not deliver me, I took my life in my hand, and crossed over against the Ammonites, and the Lord gave them into my hand. Why then have you come up to me this day, to fight against me?’ 4 Then Jephthah gathered all the men of Gilead and fought with Ephraim; and the men of Gilead defeated Ephraim, because they said, ‘You are fugitives from Ephraim, you Gileadites—in the heart of Ephraim and Manasseh.’[b] 5 Then the Gileadites took the fords of the Jordan against the Ephraimites. Whenever one of the fugitives of Ephraim said, ‘Let me go over’, the men of Gilead would say to him, ‘Are you an Ephraimite?’ When he said, ‘No’, 6 they said to him, ‘Then say Shibboleth’, and he said, ‘Sibboleth’, for he could not pronounce it right. Then they seized him and killed him at the fords of the Jordan. Forty-two thousand of the Ephraimites fell at that time.
7 Jephthah judged Israel for six years. Then Jephthah the Gileadite died, and was buried in his town in Gilead.[c]
In modern usage “Shibboleth” has come to mean a phrase or slogan which sums up a treasured belief. But as the reader can see, that’s not its original meaning. In this passage it’s just a device for telling friend from foe by means of pronunciation. A not very reliable device, I imagine. Say we used the Scots word “loch” as shibboleth. Foreigners are notoriously poor a getting the “ch” sound and usually substitute “ck”. We might find however that we executed quite a few Scots with speech impediments, not to mention sparing loads of Germans (who have no trouble with the sound” plus any English who’d been practising!
The story reflects an era when the tribes of Israel only acted together when called to holy war against a common foe. Here the Ephraimites have not responded to a call from the Gileadite leader Jephthah and then turn against him because he’s getting too powerful. This results in inter-tribal warfare and the death of 42,000 men. This figure is nonsense, as none of the tribes could have mustered anything like that number of warriors, but its’ intended to represent a serious massacre. The author of Judges reports these tribal traditions because he wants to single out the charismatic leaders (Judges) called by God to guide his people. He presents Jephthah’s massacre as if it had God’s approval. Such slaughter was typical of “holy wars” where the enemy was seen as offending God and therefore deserving of death.
We can see the same motivation in the massacres carried out by he so-called Islamic State in Iraq.
We need to say clearly that “holy war” is not a Christian concept. The life and death of Jesus rule out this mode of fighting. That’s not to say that Christianity is passive. “I have not come to bring peace, but a sword” Jesus said, meaning that commitment to God’s rule involved disagreement, argument, separation, suffering, because it was not popular. He showed how to fight for God’s rule, without violence. In a time when Christian people are faced with a militant and distorted Islam they must respond by being true to their own fundamental beliefs. The weakness of Christian witness in this regard is due to its inept approval or disapproval of what the governments of “Christian nations” have done in the middle east over the last 50 years. The most effective response has been through humanitarian organisations such as Christian Aid, Action Aid, Medecins Sans Frontieres and the like. These are fighting the only sort of “holy war” permitted to Christian believers.