🔼The word shibboleth: Summary
- Undulations, Wave Functions
- From the noun שבלת (shibboleth), flowing stream or an ear of grain, from the verb שבל (sabal), to undulate.
🔼The word shibboleth in the Bible
The words שבלת (shibboleth) and סבלת (sibboleth) were used by the judge Jephthah and his men of Gilead to identify refugees from Ephraim who wanted to cross the Jordan from west to east (Judges 12:6).
The Ephraimites were asked to say שבלת but their dialect turned it into סבלת. We have of course no real idea how any of the Hebrew of the Bible sounded (there are no sound recordings of those days) and all we have is the written text.
However, it's always assumed that text arose because people invented new symbols to capture their already spoken words, but that's not guaranteed. It's probably worth considering the possibility that in deep antiquity symbols were designed first (see Genevieve von Petzinger's mesmerizing book The First Signs) and passing folks were challenged to vocalize these.
It would have worked like a password. Folks that made a high pitched screech when seeing a star-like sign would be understood to be locals, and thus trusted, whereas folks who made a low grunting sound would have been recognized as strangers and thus mistrusted. It's perfectly possible that the many elaborate cave paintings that must have existed all over the world, in fact served to hone human vocalizations into some sort of standard and finally a language. The shibboleth-story may tell of that.
🔼Etymology of the word shibboleth
The word שבלת (shibboleth) is a feminine noun meaning either a flowing stream or an ear of grain:
The unused verb שבל (sabal) probably means to extend or go forth in a wavy fashion. Noun שבל (shobel) denotes a kind of flowing garment. Nouns שבלים (shibbelim) and שבלת (shibboleth) either refer to a flowing stream or to ears of grain. Nouns שבול (shebul) and שביל (shebil) mean way or path.
The word סבלת (sibboleth), on the other hand, doesn't otherwise exist. Some scholars (BDB Theological Dictionary) suppose that סבלת (sibboleth) is the Ephraimites' proper word for what the Gileadites called שבלת (shibboleth) but it might not be that simple.
The men of Gilead could have asked the Ephraimites to say anything, and they would have recognized their accent (like Peter was recognized to be from Galilee; Matthew 26:73). The men of Gilead called ears of grain שבלת, which means that they connected the growing of grain to the flowing of a river; it happened because it happened, not because anyone was doing anything about it (while obviously, in Gilead people also worked the land). The men of Ephraim, however, called grain סבלת, and that word derives from the verb סבל (sabal), meaning to bear or carry:
The verb סבל (sabal) means to bear or carry and that mostly in the sense of servitude. Nouns סבל (sebel), סבל (sobel) and סבלה (siblah) mean burden or load, and noun סבל (sabbal) mean burden-bearer.
The feminine noun סבלת (sibbolet) is presumably an alternate spelling of the regular word שבלת (shibbolet), which denotes ears of grain, presumably because these ears hang down because of their weight.
In other words, the difference between saying shibboleth and saying sibboleth is the difference between believing that you're getting somewhere because God leads you there and gives you what you need, and believing that you're getting somewhere because you're carrying your weight.
The word shibboleth reflects a flowing stream and a wealth of growing grain, while the word sibboleth reflects burdens, servitude and hardly ever enough.