Sunday, October 26, 2014

All Agog

The French President was frankly puzzled.  He had received a call from the American President who hoped to enlist his country’s aid in America’s Global War on Terrorism.  The American appealed to their common Christian faith, and then added:

“Gog and Magog are at work in the Middle East.... The biblical prophecies are being fulfilled.... This confrontation is willed by God, who wants to use this conflict to erase his people’s enemies before a New Age begins.”

The French President made polite diplomatic noises to the American, but as soon as he got off the phone he had his staff contact one of the top Biblical scholars at the University of Lausanne with an urgent question:

Who the heck are Gog and Magog?

The answer he got probably didn’t help him much, because I remember wondering the same thing when I first encountered those mysterious names and was frustrated by the lack of useful information.  This is one of those annoying places in the Bible where the text makes a throwaway reference to something the original readers were probably very familiar with, but then later readers spend the next couple thousand years speculating on what it meant.

Depending on who you ask, Gog and Magog could be giants, or demons, or chieftains, or symbolic personifications, or harbingers of the Apocalypse.  Or all of them at once.  Take your pick.

They first turn up in the Book of Genesis in one of the many genealogical lists that pop up in the first few chapters.  This particular genealogy lists the descendants of the sons of Noah, and is sometimes called “The Table of Nations”, because it purports to show how all the nations of the region known at the time descended from Noah’s sons.  Broadly speaking, the Sons of Japheth settled in Europe and the North; the sons of Ham moved South to Africa, and the sons of Shem, the Semetic people, got the Middle East and Asia.  A lot of the assumptions classifying humanity into three “races”, (Black, White and Asian) owe their own genealogy to the Sons of Noah.

But back to the list:

The sons of Japheth:  Gomer, Magog, Madai, Javan, Tubal, Meshech and Tiras.  (Genesis 10:2 NIV)

Yes, this passage is where Gomer Pyle got his name from.  We aren’t told if Gomer ever settled in Mayberry, NC, or joined the Marine Corps.  We are told even less about Magog; we’re just given his name.

Some ancient Greek text associate Magog with the kingdom of Lydia in western Asia Minor, modern day Turkey.  The First Century Jewish historian Josephus said that Magog was the ancestor of the Scythians.  A later medieval writer said that Magog moved to Scandinavia and became the first King of Sweden, (which the Swedes thought was actually kind of cool).  Irish chroniclers also claimed descent from Japheth through Magog’s Scythian children.  Other writers blamed Magog for begetting the Goths, the Finns, the Huns and the Slavs.  Still later, others equated the descendants of Magog with the Mongols and identified Gog and Magog as provinces in the legendary Kingdom of Prester John.

Note that these are all northern tribes; (Japheth’s descendants were thought to have spread out north, remember); and that all of them were considered barbaric, and in most cases unusually war-like.

Gog does not turn up in the Table of Nations, but there is a guy named Gog mentioned in 1 Chronicles chapter 5 as one of the descendants of Reuben, one of the twelve sons of Jacob.  He has no connection to the Son of Japheth as far as I can tell.

Magog might have just remained just a name on the Table of Nations and a source for 1960s sitcom characters but for the wacky prophet Ezekiel.

The word of the LORD came to me:  “Son of man, set your face against Gog, of the land of Magog, the chief prince of Meshech and Tubal; prophesy against him and say:  ‘This is what the Sovereign LORD says: I am against you, O Gog, chief prince of Meshech and Tubal.’” (Ezekiel 38:1-3 NIV)

It could be that this “Gog” is a descendant of the tribe of Magog; but the prefix “ma-“ in Hebrew can also mean “place of”; so perhaps Ezekiel is talking about “Gog, from the Land of Gog.”  Which would be redundant, but since Ezekiel is using the names as code words for an otherwise unnamed enemy and other names from the descendants of Japheth as its allies, I suppose it really doesn’t matter.

The prophecy goes on to describe Gog as commanding vast armies and predicting that he will sweep down from the north with his hordes to conquer all the lands to the south.  Barbarian hordes from the north, remember?  This is why later readers liked to associate Gog and Magog with Scythians and Huns and Visigoths and Swedes and such. Then, in his pride, Gog will attack the land of Israel; at which point God will say, “enough is enough, butt-head!”

“I will summon a sword against Gog on all my mountains, declares the Sovereign LORD.  Every man’s sword will be against his brother.  I will execute judgment upon him with plague and bloodshed; I will pour down torrents of rain, hailstones and burning sulfur on him and on his troops and on the many nations with him.  And so I will show my greatness and my holiness , and I will make myself known in the sight of many nations.  Then they will know that I am the LORD.”  (Ezekiel 38:21-23)

Hoo-hah!  Real apocalyptic stuff.  And that’s just a sample; chapters 28 and 29 of Ezekiel are full of stuff like that.  At the time he was writing, Ezekiel was one of the exiles carried off to Babylon when King Nebuchadnezzar  conquered the Kingdom of Judah.  Shortly before this particular prophecy, he and his fellow exiles had learned that the city of Jerusalem and its Temple had finally been destroyed.  So in this section, Ezekiel is anticipating a day when the people of Israel have returned to their land; and when “the Nations”, future enemies of Israel, will again try to attack it.

Not surprisingly, this and related passages of Ezekiel have been regarded as prophecies of the End Times.  Nor is it surprising that John, in writing his Book of Revelation, evoked Ezekiel in his own psychedelic imagining of the End of the Ages:

When the thousand years are over, Satan will be released from his prison and will go out to deceive the nations in the four corners of the earth – Gog and Magog – to gather them for battle.  In number they are like the sand on the seashore.  They marched across the breadth of the earth and surrounded the comp of God’s people, the city he loves.  But fire came down from heaven and devoured them.  (Revelation 20:7-9)

Here Gog and Magog have been split into two different guys, but John is essentially summarizing the prophecy in Ezekiel, except where the earlier prophet has Gog representing a foreign nation or group of nations arrayed against Israel, John seems to have Gog and Magog symbolizing spiritual and moral evil assaulting God’s people from within as well as from without.

In the Qur’an, Gog and Magog are referred to as Yajuj and Majuj; and there is a story of how a righteous king named Dhul-Qarnayn built a huge wall to hold back their hordes from attacking. The name Dhul-Qarnayn means “possessor of two horns”, and some scholars have identified him with Alexander the Great, who portrayed himself on his coinage wearing ram’s horns.  The story of the Great Wall holding the barbarians back is doubtless what led some scholars to think of the Mongols and the Great Wall of China.  Regardless of who built the wall and who was behind it, the Qur’an states that eventually that wall will crumble and the imprisoned hordes unleashed to bring destruction on the earth.

In British tradition, however, Gog and Magog are neither nations nor kings; they are giants.  Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain tells a story about a hero named Corinus who wrestles a giant named Gogmagog and chucks him off a cliff.  There is a group of hills just south of Cambridge called the Gog Magog Downs, said to be the transformed body of a giant who had been rejected by a river nymph.  I guess rejection will do that to a guy.

But the giants Gog and Magog also appear in British legend as downright benign characters in London, where an old tradition names them as guardians of the city.  Images of them are carried in the annual Lord Mayor’s show.

But for the most part, Gog and Magog are associated with destruction and battle, which is why George W. Bush invoked them in his conversation with Jacques Chirac.

Interestingly enough, though, when Bush’s father, George H.W. Bush, was in college, his nickname in Yale’s Skull and Bones club was “Magog”.

Just sayin’, is all.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Simon vs. Simon

He was a sorcerer and a charlatan; he was demonized as the source of every heresy to trouble the Early Church; he loved the most beautiful woman in the world, and it is said he was the arch-enemy of the first pope.  And he had his very own sin named after him.

But who was Simon Magus?

He appears very briefly in Acts chapter 6; a man named Simon in the city of Samaria who boasted great powers.  He was one of many prophets and would-be messiahs who popped up in Palestine during the First Century.  The text tells us that he practiced sorcery and had attracted a wide amount of attention in the region.  He billed himself as “The Great Power” and people attributed his magic to divine power.  Then Philip showed up.

Philip was a follower of Christ who, like many others, had fled the city of Jerusalem fleeing the attempts by the Temple authorities, (and by later convert Saul in particular), to suppress the Church.  He was one of the seven deacons, chosen by the Twelve Apostles to perform administrative functions and organize the Church’s charitable mission while the Apostles themselves devoted their attention to teaching.  (One of Jesus’ original disciples was also named Philip, but this seems to have been a different guy).

The name “Philip” is Greek, so perhaps he was a Greek convert to Judaism who had become a follower of Jesus.  Or perhaps one of his parents was Greek and the other Jewish, as was the case with Paul’s student, Timothy.  Or possibly Philip was just the name he went by among his Gentile friends. 

Philip came to Samaria and began preaching the good news of the kingdom of God.  The text tells us that many were baptized, both men and women, including Simon.

Was Simon sincere?  The text tells us that he “believed and was baptized” and offers no judgment on this, although it does remark that Simon was impressed by the “signs and miracles” he saw Philip performing and that he followed Philip everywhere.

It seems very likely that Simon saw Philip’s message as The New Thing, and rather than denouncing it, as the Jewish religious leaders in Jerusalem did, he sought to latch onto it so he could incorporate it into his own schtick.  Or perhaps he really was moved by Philip’s preaching, and his initial acceptance of the message was sincere.

The Apostles back at the Home Office in Jerusalem heard about Philip’s success, and sent Peter and John to take a look.

When they arrived, they prayed for them that they might receive the Holy Spirit, because the Holy Spirit had not yet come upon any of them; they had simply been baptized into the name of the Lord Jesus.  Then Peter and John placed their hands on them, and they received the Holy Spirit.  (Acts 8:15-17 NIV)

This deserves a little more attention.  Frequently the Book of Acts refers to believers “receiving the Holy Spirit” but does not go into great detail about what this means. It was an intense, ecstatic religious experience in which the person felt full of spiritual power and excitement.  In some cases, the text describes them speaking in different languages, “speaking in tongues.”   The church tradition in which I grew up doesn’t like to talk a whole lot about this aspect of the Primitive Church, because we Lutherans tend to be wary about things like enthusiasm; but other churches, coming out of the Charismatic Movement and other churches of the Pentecostal tradition, make the expression of the Holy Spirit central to their worship.

Whatever the specifics, what Peter and John did had a noticeable effect on the Samaritan believers, and Simon was impressed.  Afterwards, he came up to the apostles with a bag of cash and asked them how much it would cost to teach him the trick.  Bad move, Simon.

Peter answered:  “May your money perish with you, because you thought you could buy the gift of God with money!  You have no part or share in this ministry, because your heart is not right before God.  Repent of this wickedness and pray to the Lord.  Perhaps he will forgive you for having such a thought in your heart.  For I can see that you are full of bitterness and captive to sin.”  (Acts 8:20-23)

Did Simon repent?  According to the text, he backs down, and contritely says “Pray to the Lord for me so that nothing you have said may happen to me.”   (v.24)  So maybe his heart was in the right place, but he just didn’t fully grasp the Gospel message.  Lord knows that Peter certainly missed the point on more than one occasion during Jesus’ ministry. 

Some historians have suggested that Simon was actually Paul of Tarsus and that the story in Acts 8 is based on disagreements the two had early on, but that the name was changed after the Pauline and Petrine factions of the Church resolved their differences.  I don’t think I can buy that interpretation, though.  The picture we get in Acts 8 of the opportunistic charlatan trying to buy magic powers jibes with neither fanatical Pharisee we get in Saul’s earliest appearances, nor the driven Apostle for Christ we see in the rest of Acts and in his epistles.

The Book of Acts makes no more mention of Simon and we have to turn to other sources to learn what happened next.

In his book Antiquities of the Jews, the Jewish historian Josephus makes mention of a sorcerer working for procurator Felix, the Roman administrator in Caesarea at about this time.  Some Latin texts of his work call the sorcerer “Simon” and identify him with the Simon of Acts chapter 8; but the guy mentioned by Josephus was a Jew from Cyprus, not a Samaritan.  Simon was not that uncommon a name; Peter’s name was originally Simon for that matter.

About a century later, the Early Christian writer and apologist Justin Martyr and later on Bishop Irenaeus added to the story of Simon Magus.  Both men associated Simon with the Gnostics, a sect of Christianity which grew up during the Second Century and which the orthodox Church Fathers considered heretical.

I can’t really do much justice to the teachings of Gnosticsim, partially because their precise doctrines varied from branch to branch, and partially because they wrote very little that has come down to us, and much of what we know about them comes from hostile sources like Justin and Irenaeus.  The Gnostics claimed to possess an oral tradition of Secret Knowledge derived from Christ himself in addition to the plain vanilla Gospel taught by the Mainstream Church.  Among other things, they taught a form of dualism where Matter is inherently corrupt and on the Spirit is wholly good and that the only way a fleshly human can attain the Realm of Perfection is through the pursuit of gnosis, or knowledge.

According to Justin and Irenaus, Simon Magus was the founder of Gnosticism. Simon taught the existence of what he called the Ennoia, or the First Thought of God, a divine emanation which took on an existence of its own.  This Ennoia became bound to a human form as a mortal woman of exceptional beauty, who was re-incarnated many times through history.  Helen of Troy was one of her incarnations.  Another was Simon’s girlfriend, who also happened to be named Helena.

It occurs to me that this might have been the origin of part of the mediaeval Faust legend, another dabbler in Dark Arts who desired the Helen whose face did launch a thousand ships and burned the topless towers of Ilium.

The Church Fathers took a dim view of Simon’s girlfriend.  The Third Century writer Hippolytus said that she was a prostitute from Tyre and that Simon made up the Ennoia story to justify shacking up with her.  Oh, and that the Gnostics were big on Free Love.  Damn Gnostic Hippies.

Simon also, it was said, taught that he himself embodied all three aspects of the Trinity, appearing to the Jews as the “Son of God,” mediating for sin; to the Samaritans as the “Father” and Creator; and to the Pagan world as the “Holy Spirit”.

He supposedly went to Rome, where he was opposed on several occasions by Peter.  Finally, according to Hippolytus, Simon told his disciples to bury him alive, promising that he would rise from the dead on the third day.  They did.  But he didn’t.

The apochryphal Acts of Peter, written in the Second Century gives a different version of Simon’s death.  It describes the running duels of Magic vs. Miracle between Simon the Sorcerer and Simon Peter in greater detail.  In order to prove himself a god, Simon levitates high over the Forum in Rome.  Peter prays that God stop him, and Simon plummets to his death.  That pisses off the Emperor Nero, who had bet five bucks on the Magus, so much that out of spite he crucifies Peter upside-down.

That’s the ending that legend and popular tradition gives to Simon.  But I prefer to leave him the way the Book of Acts does:  apologizing for his foolish request and asking for forgiveness.

Simon did leave one other legacy behind him.  Traditionally, the sin of selling church offices, and profiting off the selling of spiritual functions, has come to be called simony.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Goofus and Gallant in the Vineyard

My parents never subscribed to Highlights for Children -- I preferred Children’s Digest because it ran Tintin adventures – but occasionally I would read the magazine when I was little in the waiting room of the doctor’s office.  On for the regular features that use to run in Highlights – (and probably still does; Highlights will exist as long as there are pediatrician clinics) – was a cartoon called “Goofus and Gallant”.

If you’ve ever read Highlights, I’m sure you’ve seen it.  Gallant and Goofus are two brothers; at least I’ve always assumed they are related.  The first panel would show Gallant doing something polite and respectful; say, helping an old lady across the street; and the second panel would show Goofus in the same situation doing something stupid; like taking cell phone video of the old lady getting hit by a car to post on YouTube.

There was no plot to these cartoons; just the salutary example of the Good Boy contrasted with the deplorable example of the Bad one.  Sometimes Goofus would go first, sometimes Gallant; but the strip always gave us this nice contrast between the Right Way and the Wrong Way.

This kind of dualism is a natural way to convey a moral message: Good vs. Evil; Virtue vs. Vice; Minneapolis vs. St. Paul.  It’s not surprising that Jesus used this kind of comparison in one of his parables.

What is surprising is that he did it wrong.

“What do you think?  There was a man who had two sons.  He went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work today in the vineyard.’ “‘I will not,’ he answered, but later he changed his mind and went. “Then the father went to the other son and said the same thing.  He answered, ‘I will, sir,’ but he did not go.” (Matthew 21:28-30 NIV)

That’s not how it’s supposed to go!  He mixed the brothers up!  It’s as if Goofus set the table for dinner and Gallant stuck lima beans up his nose.  How could Jesus make such a mistake?

Maybe because Jesus wanted to convey a different message.

Let’s back up a bit and look at the context.  On the occasion he told this parable, Jesus was teaching in the temple courts in Jerusalem, one of the plazas within the walls of the Temple, but outside the building itself.  There he encountered some of the chief priests and elders of people who wanted to know where the hell he got the idea he could set himself up as some kind of a prophet.  “By what authority are you doing these things … And who gave you this authority?” (Matthew 21:23)

Perhaps they were genuinely curious as to the source of his teachings, but given Jesus’ response, I suspect they were hoping he’d say something they could use against him.

Jesus answers with a question of his own:

Jesus replied, “I will also ask you one question.  If you answer me, I will tell you by what authority I am doing these things.  John’s baptism – where did it come from?  Was it from heaven, or from men?”  (Matthew 21:24-25)

He threw the “Gotcha” question right back at them.  John the Baptist had died only a year or two before and was widely regarded as a prophet.  If the authorities agreed that he was a messenger from God, Jesus could reasonably ask why they ignored him.  On the other hand, if they said that John was just a guy with no divine mandate, they’d be going against popular opinion.

Unwilling to commit themselves, they replied “We don’t know.”  And so Jesus said “Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things.”  (Matthew 21:27)

Now, at first glance, this exchange doesn’t seem to have much connection to the parable Jesus tells immediately afterward; but considering who his audience at the time, it’s pretty obvious whom Jesus intended the second son to represent:  the religious elites, the self-righteous ones who uttered pious platitudes, but whose lives reflected neither God’s justice, nor his compassion.  And if the priests saw this pointed at themselves, well, if the funny hat don’t fit, you don’t gots to wear it.

At the end of his parable, Jesus asks these priests, which of the two sons did what his father wanted?  They had to answer, “The first.”

Who, then, does the first son represent?  Jesus tells them, and brings the parable back to the point he made earlier:

Jesus said to them, “I tell you the truth, the tax collectors and prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God ahead of you.  For John came to you to show you the way of righteousness, and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes did.  And even after you saw this, you did not repent and believe him.”  (Matthew 21:31-32)

“Prostitutes and tax collectors” are often used in the Gospel as a shorthand for people considered social outcasts for their wickedness:  prostitutes because they lived outside the approved sexual mores, and tax collectors because they were essentially collaborationists, private contractors hired by the occupying Romans to collect taxes, who profited by collecting more than Rome required and pocketing the difference.  The Gospels often lump “sinners and tax collectors” together in the same group.

TO me this parable says two things.  Most obviously, it condemns the hypocrite who talks the talk, but who shows far less nimbleness in the walking department.  Christians like to call this type of behavior pharisaical, although that’s grossly unfair because it paints a simplistic view of what the Pharisees taught and because it lets the Sadducees, who also opposed Jesus, completely off the hook, not to mention the Herodians.  Singling out the Pharisees also lets us pretend that we today aren’t also guilty of obsessing about the letter of the Law while blowing off the spirit.

But Goofus and Gallant are all about compare and contrast.  While the Parable of the Brothers in the Vineyard condemns the hypocrite, it also commends the person who outwardly seems to be ungodly, at least by the prissy, external criteria of the hypocrite, but who nevertheless strives to be charitable, decent and ethical in his personal life.

I have to admit that a lot of Christians have trouble with this.  I was raised in the Lutheran tradition, which emphasizes that we are saved by God’s Grace, not by our own Good Works, and which regards the doctrine of “Works Righteousness” as an anathema.  We like to quote the passage from Isaiah that “… all our righteous acts are like filthy rags…” (Isaiah 64:6)

But I think we make too much of that verse.  My own Good Works may indeed be worthless – for the purposes of buying my way into Heaven – but they have value in other respects.

For one thing, we are told that it pleases God when we do his will, even if we don’t wholly succeed in our attempts.  That in itself is a biggie.  For another, the Good Works that we do are how we respond to God’s love for us.  As James puts it:  “Show me your faith without deed, and I will show you my faith by what I do. … As the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without deeds is dead.” (James 2:18,26)

But perhaps most importantly, from a strictly practical point of view, doing Good Works makes our world a better place.  You don’t need to believe in the Gospel of Christ to understand that; you don’t even have to believe in God.

I’ve heard some Christians express the perverse notion that Good Works are only virtuous when they are performed by Bible-believing Christians, and that works performed by anybody else, no matter what the intention, is self-serving and sinful.  I can’t agree.  An act which helps my neighbor helps my neighbor and this is true whether I am trying to follow God’s Law or the promptings of my own conscience.  It certainly makes no difference to my neighbor.

“But surely,” one might say, “it is better still to respect God AND to obey his Commandments!”  Well, there is that.  That’s the problem with dualistic examples like Goofus and Gallant; they provide two contrasting examples with no gradations of nuance in-between.  But by focusing on this particular contrast in this particular parable, Jesus is telling us to look at the results rather than what color jersey a person is wearing and if they’re on “our team”.

“By their fruit you will recognize them,” Jesus says in another place,  (Matthew 7:20)  That’s how you can really tell Goofus from Gallant.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Say the Secret Woid

Judges chapter 12 records an odd little sequel to the tragic tale of Jephthah and his daughter.  It has little to do with that tragedy and nothing to do with the daughter, and all things considered comes off as a bit anticlimactic.  If I were writing Jephthah’s story as my own fiction, I would have combined the two stories to integrate them into a single narrative; but the Bible is sometimes sloppy that way.  But I have a fondness for minor and irrelevant stories, especially if they are the source for an obscure factoid.  So let me present the story of Jephthah and Ephraim.
Shortly after Jephthah’s victory over the Ammonites that came at such a personal cost, perhaps as he was still mourning the loss of his beloved daughter due to his rash vow (Judges 11:30-40), the men of Ephraim come to him with a gripe.  Ephraim was another of the tribes of Israel, bordering Gilead on the other side of the Jordan River.  They’re sore at Jephthah because he didn’t let them join in on his raid against the Ammonites. 
The men of Ephraim called out their forces, crossed over to Zaphon and said to Jephthah, “Why did you go to fight the Ammonites without calling us to go with you?  We’re going to burn down your house over your head.”  (Judges 12:1 NIV)
Perhaps this isn’t the worst reason anybody’s ever gone to war, but it has to rank up there.  The text deosn’t say exactly why the Ephraimites are throwing a hissy fit over someone else’s battle, but I’m guessing it’s envy.  When Jephthah defeated the Ammonites, he took twenty of their towns (Judges 11:33) and doubtless came home with a lot of loot.  His men were mercenaries, remember?  I’m guessing that the Ephraimites were mad because they wished they had gotten a cut of the swag.
It might also have been a bit of snobbery; the text tells us that the Ephraimites insulted Jephthah’s men, saying “You Gileadites are renegades from Ephraim and Manasseh” (Judges 12:4).  An earlier verse in the text tells us that Jephthah’s army was largely composed of “worthless” or “empty men”, outcasts like himself.  How dare these losers presume to make war on our enemies without us!
Several years earlier, the Ephraimites had made the same complaint to Gideon when Gideon had defeated the Midianites, (Judges 8:1)  So it could simply be that the Ephraimites were just buttheads. 
Jephthah answered, “I and my people were engaged in a great struggle with the Ammonites, and although I called, you didn’t save me out of their hands.  When I saw that you wouldn’t help, I took my life in my hands and crossed over to fight Ammonites, and the LORD gave me victory over them.  Now why have you come up today to fight me?”  (Judges 12:2-3)
My study Bible commends Jephthah for attempting diplomacy first.  My own reading is that he was pretty pissed.  At least I would be in his position.  We weren’t told earlier that the Ephraimites had been asked to help, but it makes sense that the tribal leaders of Gilead would have done so.  In any case, Jephthah doesn’t have time for this crap; the Eprhaimites had their chance to join the Coalition of the Willing, and they passed on it.  So that’s their tough tacos. 
This is roughly the same reply that Gideon gave the Ephraimites in Judges chapter 8.  In the previous instance, the Ephraimites backed down.  This time, they’re spoiling for a fight; and so Jephthah lets them have it.
As in the previous campaign against the Ammonites, Jephthah’s men kick butt.  Not only does he send the Ephraimites running, he sends some of his forces to seize the fords of the Jordan. The tribe of Ephraim came from the other side of the river, you’ll remember. 
So when the fleeing survivors of the Ephraimite army try to escape, they come up to Gileadite checkpoints at the fords.  The sentries would ask anyone who came to the fords if he was an Ephraimite; and if the guy said no, the sentries would reply, “Okay, then say ‘Shibboleth.’” 
The word “Shibboleth” in Hebrew meant “torrent” or “floods”, an appropriate password for a river ford.  (Or it can also mean a sheaf of wheat, but under the circumstances the other interpretation seems more appropriate.  But the point of the password was that the Ephraimites spoke with a regional accent that was different than the Gideonites.  When an Ephraimite said “Shibboleth”, it came out sounding like “Sibboleth”.  And in this way, Jephthah’s forces were able to cut off the fleeing remnants of the Ephraimite army.
This kind of password has been used on other occasions.  Perhaps the best known version is the word “Lollapalooza”, which was used by American troops serving in the Pacific during World War II to test unidentified persons.  Since the Japanese language doesn’t really differentiate between the “R” sounds and the “L” sounds, the reasoning was that a Japanese spy trying to say the word would come out something like “raraparusa”  Whether this worked for American. GI’s as well as it did for Jephthah, I couldn’t say.
But the word “Shibboleth” is still used today in some circumstances to refer to code words, catch phrases and shared values one is expected to use in order to be accepted by a particular group. A politician might pay lip service to “Limited Government” or “Family Values” or “National Security” in order to please his base, even if his actual policies would work to the detriment of the values he espouses.  (And to be sure, every political faction has its own cherished buzz words which it expects its leaders to invoke).

Personally, I find it hard enough trying to pronounce “Jephthah.”