The Word Made Fresh
1Then the men of Ephraim armed themselves and crossed over to Zaphon where they confronted Jephthah. “Why did you cross over to fight the Ammonites without saying a word to us about it? We ought to burn down your house, with you in it!”
2“My men and I were in the middle of a war with the Ammonites,” said Jephthah, “and I did call on you, but you wouldn’t come help. 3So, I took my life in my own hands and crossed over to fight the Ammonites. The LORD gave me the victory. So, why have you come here to fight me?”
4Then Jephthah summoned the men of Gilead and attacked the men of Ephraim and beat them badly. The Ephraimites had said that the men of Gilead were fugitives living in the lands of Ephraim and Manasseh. 5Jephthah’s men took control of the Jordan crossings and whenever an Ephraimite tried to cross, they would ask him if he was an Ephraimite, and if he answered, “No,” 6they would tell him to say, “Shibboleth.” If he pronounced it “Sibboleth,” they would capture him and put him to death.
The Ephraimites lost forty-two thousand men in that war.
7Jephthah continued as a leader in Israel for six years, then he died, and was buried in a town in Gilead.
8After Jephthah, Ibzan of Bethlehem judged Israel. 9He had thirty sons and daughters. He gave his daughters in marriage to men outside his clan and brought in thirty young women from outside his clan to marry his sons. He led Israel for seven years, 10until he died and was buried in Bethlehem.
11Then Elon from Zebulun judged Israel for ten years. 12Then he died and was buried in Aijalon in Zebulun’s territory.
13After him, Abdon son of Hillel from Pirathon judged Israel. 14He had forty sons and thirty grandsons who rode on seventy donkeys. He judged Israel for eight years. 15Then Abdon died and was buried at Pirathon in the hill country of the Amalekites in Ephraim’s territory.
1-7: Jephthah’s tribe is never revealed – he is of the family of Gilead (same as the judge Jair we met in chapter 10), an area that straddled both Ephraim and Manasseh. So now the Ephraimites complain that Jephthah left them out on purpose in his war again the Ammonites. The complaint escalates into warfare between the Ephraimites and Jephthah’s Gileadites. Jephthah is again victorious, in a big way according to the numbers given.
The separation of the twelve tribes of Israel has become so distinct that there is now a difference in local dialects, enabling the Gileadites to take advantage of the Ephraimites. Jephthah’s troops had taken control of the Jordan River crossings, and the Ephraimites who were losing the battle tried to escape back across the river. Jephthah’s men would test them with the word ‘shibboleth’, a word that refers to the head of a grain stalk. The letter “shin” in the Hebrew alphabet, roughly corresponding to our “s”, is sometimes pronounced “s” and sometimes “sh”. The Gileadites pronounced it ‘shibboleth,’ the Ephraimites pronounced it ‘sibboleth.’
Jephthah dies and is buried in, no surprise, Gilead.
8-15: Three more judges are named – Ibzan, Elon, and Abdon. Ibzan is a “Bethlehemite,” from the village of Bethlehem, which would be in the territory inherited by the tribe of Benjamin, but that tribe is not mentioned. Still, Ibzan takes care that his children marry outside his “clan,” which would still be part of his tribe. No particular reason is given for not allowing them to marry within his clan. Of these three judges, only Elon is identified as belonging to one of the original 12 tribes (Zebulun). Ibzan is a “Bethlehemite,” and Abdon a “Pirathonite.” This chapter is another indication of the slowly collapsing coherence of the tribes as they are increasingly absorbed into the cultures of the people around them and turn against the covenant made with God.
Pride and greed are the primary engines that drive the conflicts between nations and families. We will see this all through the Old Testament, and we will see it in our own country’s history and in the history of the world. The purpose of conflict has almost always been the acquisition of another country’s (or another person’s) assets. Or, of course, the need to protect oneself or one’s country from an aggressor trying to acquire those assets. It is a curse both to have too much and to want too much.