Judges 12 – Jephthah and the Ephraimites; Three Minor Judges
A. Jephthah and the Ephraimites conflict.
1. (1) The men of the tribe of Ephraim are angry with Jephthah.
Then the men of Ephraim gathered together, crossed over toward Zaphon, and said to Jephthah, “Why did you cross over to fight against the people of Ammon, and did not call us to go with you? We will burn your house down on you with fire!”
a. Why did you cross over to fight against the people of Ammon, and did not call us to go with you: The tribe of Ephraim felt slighted by Jephthah and was angry that they did not have a central and prestigious role in the victorious battle over the Ammonites.
i. There is a tendency within all of us to not want to do a job unless we receive credit. It is evident that the people of the tribe of Ephraim were more concerned with getting the credit than with seeing a job done.
ii. “Why should the Ephraimites complain about a victory accomplished through God’s intervention for the benefit of all the tribes? It was a strange jealousy that spurred on Ephraim.” (Wolf)
iii. This seems to be a consistent problem with the people of the tribe of Ephraim; they gave a similar response to Gideon in Judges 8:1-3. Then Gideon answered the complaining men of Ephraim with tact and diplomacy. Jephthah was a very different sort of man.
b. We will burn your house down on you with fire: The people of Ephraim also backed up their anger with a threat. They threatened to burn down Jephthah’s house with him in it.
i. “This clearly again reveals the sad disintegration of the nation. The consciousness of the unity of the people seems largely to have been lost.” (Morgan)
2. (2-3) Jephthah responds to the people of the tribe of Ephraim.
And Jephthah said to them, “My people and I were in a great struggle with the people of Ammon; and when I called you, you did not deliver me out of their hands. So when I saw that you would not deliver me, I took my life in my hands and crossed over against the people of Ammon; and the LORD delivered them into my hand. Why then have you come up to me this day to fight against me?”
a. The LORD delivered them into my hand: Jephthah’s idea was clear. God won a great victory through him when the Ephraimites stood by, though they had the opportunity to help. In this he pointed out the essentially unjust character of their complaint.
b. When I called you, you did not deliver me: The people of Ephraim here seem to be simply chronic complainers. When they had a chance to step out boldly for God they did not do it. Yet when the work was done and God was glorified, they complained that they didn’t get to participate.
i. “The fact that a victory had been gained over their common enemy appears to have been overlooked. Accusation and counter-accusation followed in bewildering succession; the claim that they had been passed over was met by the charge that an appeal had been made to them to which they had not responded.” (Cundall)
3. (4-6) The Gileadites (led by Jephthah) overwhelm the people of the tribe of Ephraim.
Now Jephthah gathered together all the men of Gilead and fought against Ephraim. And the men of Gilead defeated Ephraim, because they said, “You Gileadites are fugitives of Ephraim among the Ephraimites and among the Manassites.” The Gileadites seized the fords of the Jordan before the Ephraimites arrived. And when any Ephraimite who escaped said, “Let me cross over,” the men of Gilead would say to him, “Are you an Ephraimite?” If he said, “No,” then they would say to him, “Then say, ‘Shibboleth’!” And he would say, “Sibboleth,” for he could not pronounce it right. Then they would take him and kill him at the fords of the Jordan. There fell at that time forty-two thousand Ephraimites.
a. The men of Gilead defeated Ephraim: Apparently the men of Ephraim were better at talking than fighting, because the men of Gilead seemed to conquer them easily.
b. Then they would say to him, “Then say, ‘Shibboleth’”: The word shibboleth means either “ear of grain” or “flowing stream.” With this word the people from the tribe of Ephraim were easily identified by their dialect. They had a hard time pronouncing the “h” in Shibboleth and said Sibboleth instead, therefore giving themselves away.
i. It is said that during the Second World War, the German soldiers sometimes identified Russian Jews by the way they pronounced the word for corn: “kookoorooza.” Their distinctive pronunciation revealed their ethnic background. So it was for these men of Ephraim. “The Ephraimites were betrayed by their speech; so was Peter many years afterward (Matthew 26:73).” (Cundall)
ii. The term shibboleth therefore came into the English language as something which determines which side you are one. In modern English usage a shibboleth is the same as an “acid test.”
iii. Today, there are certain true shibboleths in a person’s vocabulary. In Judges 12:6, you could know something about a person by how they said “Shibboleth.” Today when someone talks about Jesus, you can listen to what they say and learn something about them. You can listen as they speak about the Bible, and you know something about them. It is also true that as much as our dialect gives us away, so does our everyday speech. Others should be able to tell that we are Christians by the way we talk.
iv. At the same time, “How thankful we should be, that our admission to the privilege of the Kingdom of God does not depend upon our pronunciation; that the reality of the new-birth is not tested by the accuracy with which we utter the creed; that we shall not be excluded from the gates of the New Jerusalem because we fail in the utterance of an ‘h’!” (Meyer)
4. (7) The remainder of Jephthah’s time as a judge.
And Jephthah judged Israel six years. Then Jephthah the Gileadite died and was buried in among the cities of Gilead.
B. Three minor judges.
1. (8-10) The judge Ibzan.
After him, Ibzan of Bethlehem judged Israel. He had thirty sons. And he gave away thirty daughters in marriage, and brought in thirty daughters from elsewhere for his sons. He judged Israel seven years. Then Ibzan died and was buried at Bethlehem.
a. Ibzan of Bethlehem: This does not seem to be the same city called “House of Bread” that David, son of Jesse would later make famous.
i. “Beth-lehem is not to be identified with Bethlehem in Judah, which is usually written as Bethlehem-judah… The likelihood is that this Beth-lehem was the town in western Zebulun, about 10 miles north of Megiddo (Joshua 19:15).” (Cundall)
b. He had thirty sons. And he gave away thirty daughters in marriage: Ibzan practiced the traditional custom of making alliances through marriage and was wealthy and prestigious enough to have so many children and so many alliances through marriage.
2. (11-12) The judge Elon.
After him, Elon the Zebulunite judged Israel. He judged Israel ten years. And Elon the Zebulunite died and was buried at Aijalon in the country of Zebulun.
a. Elon the Zebulunite: He was next in a succession of briefly-reigning judges. He is also from a different tribe from the past few judges from before him. God called leaders from various tribes, instead of from one tribe only.
3. (13-15) The judge Abdon.
After him, Abdon the son of Hillel the Pirathonite judged Israel. He had forty sons and thirty grandsons, who rode on seventy young donkeys. He judged Israel eight years. Then Abdon the son of Hillel the Pirathonite died and was buried in Pirathon in the land of Ephraim, in the mountains of the Amalekites.
a. He had forty sons and thirty grandsons, who rode on seventy young donkeys: This was a demonstration of the wealth, prestige, and influence of this briefly-reigning judge.
i. “Pirathon was the birth-place of David’s captain, Behaiah (2 Samuel 23:30; 1 Chronicles 11:31, 27:14).” (Cundall)
b. In the mountains of the Amalekites: These were the same Amalekites that God had put a curse upon for their treatment of the weakest and most vulnerable in the wilderness wanderings out of Egypt (Exodus 17:8-13; Deuteronomy 25:17-19; 1 Samuel 15:2-3).
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