When a fugitive said, “Let me go over,” the men of Gilead said to him, “Are you an Ephraimite?” When he said, “No,” they said to him, “Say shibboleth.” And he said, “Sibboleth,” for he could not pronounce it right. Then they seized him and slew him at the fords of the Jordan. And there fell at that time 42,000 Ephraimites. [The Bible, Judges 12: 5-6]
When I read the above extract as the preface to an essay on the importance of right pronunciation, my first response was a laugh. As a teacher of English language and literature, I was struck by the deep irony as well as dark humour in the Biblical episode. Language became a tool for identifying the enemy. And the word used for the identification test is “shibboleth” which means ‘a password, phrase, custom, or usage that reliably distinguishes the members of one group or class from another.’ The author of the Book of Judges revealed a profound sense of black humour by slitting 42,000 throats with the word ‘shibboleth.’ The choice of the word makes the massacre profoundly absurd.
The Jews had reasons to cultivate such sense of profound absurdity. Their god, Yahweh, was fond of playing the cat-and-mice game with them. Right from the time he teased their first ancestors with the forbidden apple up to the creation of Israel under the aegis of the United Nations Organisation, Yahweh loved to play the nauseatingly endless series of condemnation-redemption game. He would let his chosen race eat the forbidden apple first. Then he would send them a leader [the Judges, for example] to redeem them from their sins. The vicious cycle of sin and redemption. That was Yahweh’s favourite game. One of Shakespeare’s characters put it succinctly, “As flies to wanton boys, so are we to the gods; they kill us for their sport.”
In one of my favourite classical movies, The Fiddler on the Roof, the protagonist who is a Jew asks Yahweh, “For once, why don’t you choose some other race as your beloved?” [Quoted from memory]
Yahweh listened to his prayer, it seems. He handed over his mantle to America eventually. Having given the Jews their Promised Land in Israel, America decided who the sinners in the world were and how the redemption would be carried out. First the Communists and then the Muslims became the Chosen Race of America. Those who could not pronounce the American shibboleths had their throats slit at countless fords.
As America is getting visibly tired of playing Yahweh, China and India are emerging to fill the potential vacuum.
There won’t be a world without Yahweh and his cat-and-mice games. Not even in our personal lives. Godmen and other such missionary incarnations (many of whom are women today) become the wanton boys (and tomboys) in our lives. There is no escape!