Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers
1. Fierce and jealous conduct of the Ephraimites. Judges 12:2-3. Jephthah’s expostulation with them. Judges 12:4. Their defeat. Judges 12:5-6. The fugitives, tested by the word “Shibboleth,” are massacred. Judges 12:7. Death and burial of Jephthah. Judges 12:8-10. The judgeships of Ibzan, (Judges 12:11-12) Elon, and (Judges 12:13-15) Abdon.
And the men of Ephraim gathered themselves together, and went northward, and said unto Jephthah, Wherefore passedst thou over to fight against the children of Ammon, and didst not call us to go with thee? we will burn thine house upon thee with fire.(1) Gathered themselves together.—Literally, were called. Hence the Vulg. renders it “a sedition arose in Ephraim.” No doubt the phrase arose from the circulation of some warlike summons—whether watchword or token—among the tribe (Judges 7:23-24; Judges 10:17).
Northward.—Mizpeh in Gilead lay to the northeast of the tribe of Ephraim. The Hebrew word is Tsaphonah, rendered Sephenia in some MSS. of the LXX. (Cod. A., Kephenia). Hence some suppose that it means “towards Tsaphon,” a town in the Jordan valley not far from Succoth, which the Jews identified with Amathus (Joshua 13:27).
And didst not call us.—The tribe of Ephraim throughout the Book of Judges is represented in a most unenviable light—slothful and acquiescent in time of oppression, and turbulently arrogant when others have taken the initiative and won the victory (Joshua 17:14-18; Judges 8:1). They brought on their own heads the terrible disgrace and humiliation which Jephthah inflicted on them. They resembled Sparta in dilatoriness, and perhaps in courage; but when Athens had won Marathon, Sparta had at least the generosity to congratulate her (Herod. v. 20).
We will burn thine house upon thee with fire—i.e., we will burn thee alive in thy house. They regarded it as an unpardonable offence that Jephthah should have delivered Israel without recognising their hegemony (see Judges 8:1). The horrible threat shows the wild manners of the times (Judges 14:15; Judges 15:6; Judges 20:48); and if a whole tribe could be guilty of such conduct, it shows how little cause we have for surprise at the much less heinous aberrations of individual men like Gideon and Jephthah and Samson.
And Jephthah said unto them, I and my people were at great strife with the children of Ammon; and when I called you, ye delivered me not out of their hands.(2) I and my people were at great strife with the children of Ammon.—Literally, I was a man of strife, I and my people, and the children of Ammon exceedingly. We have a similar phrase in Jeremiah 15:10. Jephthah adopts the tone of a recognised chief, as he had done to the Ammonites.
And when I called you, ye delivered me not.—Ephraim was not immediately affected by the Ammonite oppression, any more than it had been by the Midianite. The effect of those raids was felt chiefly by Manasseh and by the Eastern tribes. Hence the Ephraimites held themselves selfishly aloof. That we are not told of this previous appeal of the Gileadites to Ephraim illustrates the compression of the narrative. We cannot tell whether it took place before or after the summons of the Gileadites to Jephthah.
And when I saw that ye delivered me not, I put my life in my hands, and passed over against the children of Ammon, and the LORD delivered them into my hand: wherefore then are ye come up unto me this day, to fight against me?(3) I put my life in my hands.—Rather, in the hollow of my hand (caph). (See for the phrase, Psalm 119:109; Job 13:14; 1Samuel 20:5; 1Samuel 28:21.) It expresses extreme peril.
The Lord delivered them into my hand.—Here the word for “hand” is yad. Here, as he had done in arguing with the king of the Ammonites (Judges 11:21-24), Jephthah appeals to the decision of Jehovah, as proving that he had done rightly.
Wherefore then are ye come up . . . ?—For the phrase “come up” see Judges 1:1-16. Jephthah’s answer is as moderate as Gideon’s (Judges 8:2-3), though it does not display the same happy tact, and refers to topics which could not but be irritating. Whether it was made in a conciliatory spirit or not, we cannot tell. Certainly if Ephraim persisted in aggressive violence after these explanations, they placed themselves so flagrantly in the wrong that civil war became inevitable.
Then Jephthah gathered together all the men of Gilead, and fought with Ephraim: and the men of Gilead smote Ephraim, because they said, Ye Gileadites are fugitives of Ephraim among the Ephraimites, and among the Manassites.(4) All the men of Gilead.—This probably implies the Eastern tribes generally.
And the men of Gilead smote Ephraim because they said . . .—The translation and the meaning are here highly uncertain. It seems to be implied that in spite of Jephthah’s perfectly reasonable answer the Ephraimites advanced to attack Gilead, and goaded the Gileadites to fury by intolerable taunts, which prevented the Gileadites from giving any quarter when they had won the victory.
Ye Gileadites are fugitives of Ephraim.—If the English Version is here correct, the meaning is, “You people of the eastern half of the tribe of Manasseh are a mere race of runaway slaves, who belong neither to Ephraim nor to Manasseh” (1Samuel 25:10). It is very possible that fierce jealousies may have sprung up between the Eastern Manassites and their tribal brethren of the West, and that these may have mainly originated in the fact that the Eastern Manassites less and less acknowledged the lead of Ephraim, but changing their character and their habits, threw in their lot more and more with the pastoral tribes of Reuben and Gad. The taunt sounds as if it had sprung from a schism in clanship, a contemptuous disclaimer on the part of Ephraim of any ties with this Eastern half-tribe. Indeed, the taunt may have been so far true that very probably any who fell into debt or disgrace in Ephraim and Eastern Manasseh might be as likely to fly to Western Manasseh as an English defaulter might escape to New York. And if the Ephraimites indulged in such shameful jibes, it might well be deemed sufficient to account for the ruthless character of the fighting. But the rendering of the English Version is very uncertain, and the versions vary in the view they take of the meaning, punctuation, and even of the reading of the passage. On the whole, the best view is to render the words thus: The men of Gilead smote Ephraim [not only in the battle, but in the far more fatal pursuit] because they [the men of Gilead] said, Ye are fugitives of Ephraim (see on Judges 12:5). Then follows the geographical explanation and historical illustration of the clause, which is, “It was possible for the Gileadites to inflict this vengeance, for (1) Gilead [lies] between Ephraim and [Eastern] Manasseh.” [Part, at any rate, of Gilead belonged to Gad, and lies geographically between the district of Eastern Manasseh and the district of Ephraim, as is sufficiently clear since Ephraim has advanced “northwards,” or towards Tsaphon (Judges 12:1), for the attack.] Then (2) there follows the seizure of the fords, which led to the total slaughter of all these Ephraimite fugitives. One slight circumstance which adds probability to this view is that “fugitives” (comp. Jeremiah 44:14) is a term which could hardly be applied to a whole tribe.
And the Gileadites took the passages of Jordan before the Ephraimites: and it was so, that when those Ephraimites which were escaped said, Let me go over; that the men of Gilead said unto him, Art thou an Ephraimite? If he said, Nay;(5) Took the passages of Jordan.—Only through these fords could the Ephraimites escape to their own tribe. (Comp. Judges 3:28; Judges 7:24.) But while it was excusable to cut off all escape from a dangerous foreign invader, it showed a terrible exasperation to leave no chance of flight to Israelites in a civil war.
Before the Ephraimites.—Literally, to Ephraim, which perhaps means “towards, or in the direction of, Ephraim” (per quœ Ephraim, reversurus erat, Vulg.).
When those Ephraimites which were escaped.—The fact that the Hebrew phrase is exactly the same as in Judges 12:4, “fugitives of Ephraim,” adds. great additional force to the view which we have adopted. If the rendering of the English Version be adopted in Judges 12:4, we can only suppose that there is a bitter retribution implied in the words. The Ephraimites had taunted the Eastern Manassites with being “fugitives of Ephraim,” and in the next verse they themselves appear to be in another, but fatal, sense “fugitives of Ephraim.”
Art thou an Ephraimite?—There must have been considerable traffic across the Jordan fords, and the object was to distinguish between Ephraimite fugitives and harmless travellers and merchants.
Then said they unto him, Say now Shibboleth: and he said Sibboleth: for he could not frame to pronounce it right. Then they took him, and slew him at the passages of Jordan: and there fell at that time of the Ephraimites forty and two thousand.(6) Say now Shibboleth.—The word means “ford;” (Psalm 69:2) “depth of waters;” (Judges 12:15) “water flood;” (Isaiah 27:12) “channel.” The LXX. render it (Cod. B) “an ear of corn” ( Vulg., quod interpretatur spica), and the word might have this meaning also (as it has in Genesis 41:5), because the root from which it is derived means both “to flow” and “to spring.” In the Alexandrian MS. of the LXX. the rendering is, “Tell us then the watchword;” but that is rather an explanation than a translation.
And he said Sibboleth.—
“And how ingrateful Ephraim
Had dealt with Jephthah—who by argument
Not worse than by his shield and spear
Defended Israel from the Ammonite
Had not his prowess quelled their pride
In that sore battle where so many died,
Without reprieve, adjudged to death
For want of well pronouncing Shibboleth.”
Milton, Sams. Agon. 282-289.
The word Shibboleth has become a proverb for the minute differences which religious parties thrust into exaggerated prominence, and defend with internecine ferocity. In this instance, however, the defective pronunciation was not the reason for putting men to death, but only the sign that the man is an Ephraimite. In theological warfare the differences of watchword or utterance have sometimes been the actual cause of the hatred and persecution; and sometimes the two opposing parties have been in agreement in every single essential fact, but have simply preferred other formulæ to express it, which has failed to cause any diminution in the fierceness of opinions. “It was,” says South, “the very shibboleth of the party, nothing being so much in fashion with them as the name, nor more out of fashion, and out of sight too, as the thing itself” (Sermons, 6:128).
For he could not frame to pronounce it right.·—This is a most singular circumstance, and it is one which, if it stood alone, would have decisive weight in the question of chronology. Nothing is more natural or more analogous with common linguistic phenomena than that differences of dialect and pronunciation should develop themselves between tribes divided by the deep barrier of the Jordan valley; and these differences would arise all the more rapidly if the Eastern tribes were powerfully subjected to Syrian and other foreign influences. (Comp. Nehemiah 13:24.) Still, it must have required a certain lapse of time before a difference so marked as the inability of the Western tribes to pronounce the letter sh could have arisen ( Vulg., eâdem litera spicam exprimere non valens). Cassel quotes an interesting parallel from the war of the Flemish against the French. On May 25, 1802, all the French were detected by their inability to pronounce the words Scilt ende friend. In the LXX. and Vulg. Shibboleth could not be reproduced, because the sound sh is unknown in Greek and Latin. Hence the LXX. use stachus, “wheat-ear,” for Shibboleth, and leave out Sibboleth altogether.
Slew him.—We might wish that the meaning were that assigned to the word by the Arabic version, “they led him across.” The word means, rather, massacred, butchered; Vulg., jugulabant. (Comp. Jeremiah 39:6.) The LXX. render it “sacrificed”—almost as though each Ephraimite were regarded as a human sacrifice.
Forty and two thousand.—This immense ¡slaughter effectually reduced the strength and arrogance of this overweening tribe. It is not, of course, meant that 42,000 were butchered at the fords, but only that that was the number of the invading army, or the number of those who fell in the campaign.
And Jephthah judged Israel six years. Then died Jephthah the Gileadite, and was buried in one of the cities of Gilead.(7) Judged Israel.—The word implies that he was one of the recognised Shophetim, but there are no details to show in the case of any of the judges either what were the limits of their jurisdiction or what amount of authority it implied.
In one of the cities of Gilead.—The Hebrew only says, “in cities of Gilead.” This may, no doubt. mean “one of the cities of Gilead,” as in Genesis 19:29 “the cities in the which Lot dwelt” means “in one of which Lot dwelt.” But the burial-place of so renowned a hero as Jephthah was not likely to be forgotten, and the reading adopted by the LXX. and Vulg., “in his city, Gilead” (i.e., Ramoth-Gilead or Mizpeh of Gilead), is furnished by a mere change of into The Sebee, in which Josephus says he was buried, may be a corruption of Mizpeh.
And after him Ibzan of Bethlehem judged Israel.(8) Ibzan.—Nothing more is known of Ibzan than is detailed in these three verses. The notion that Ibhtsam (אבצו) is the same as Boaz (בֹּ֫עַז) has nothing to support it.
Of Beth-lehem.—Usually assumed, as by Josephus (Antt. v. 7, § 13), to be Bethlehem in Judah. There are, however, two reasons against the identification: (1) That Bethlehem is even in this book distinguished as Bethlehem Judah (Judges 17:7; Judges 17:9; Ruth 1:2; 1Samuel 17:12), or Bethlehem Ephratah (Micah 5:1); (2) Judah seems at this epoch to have stood entirely aloof from the general life of the nation. There was a Bethlehem in Zebulon (Joshua 19:15), and as the next judge was a Zebulonite (Judges 12:11), and that tribe had been recently powerful and prominent (Judges 4:10; Judges 5:18), it may be the town here intended.
And he had thirty sons, and thirty daughters, whom he sent abroad, and took in thirty daughters from abroad for his sons. And he judged Israel seven years.(9) Thirty sons, and thirty daughters.—Implying polygamy, wealth, and state (Judges 8:30).
Whom he sent abroad—i.e., whom he gave in marriage “out of his house” (Vulg., quas emittens foras maritis dedit). The only reason for recording the marriage of his sons and daughters is to show that he was a great man, and sought additional influence by intermarriages with other families. It showed no little prosperity that he lived to see his sixty children married.
And after him Elon, a Zebulonite, judged Israel; and he judged Israel ten years.(11) Elon.—The name means “a terebinth.” Orientals to this day are often named from trees. (One of the author’s muleteers in Palestine was named Ab Zeitûn, “father of olives.”)
And Elon the Zebulonite died, and was buried in Aijalon in the country of Zebulun.(12) Was buried in Aijalon.—There is a play of words between אלון (Elon) and איילון (Ayalon), which is precisely the same word, though with different vowelpoints. It means not “a terebinth,” but “gazelle.” Ajalon is not Yalo, which is in the tribe of Dan (Joshua 10:12; 1Samuel 14:31); and it is at least doubtful whether it should not be read Elon, as in the LXX. (Ailon, both for the judge and his burial-place), in which case we must suppose that the place was named from him. It is not mentioned elsewhere.
And after him Abdon the son of Hillel, a Pirathonite, judged Israel.(13) Abdon.—The name means “servant.” Some suppose that he is the unknown Bedan of 1Samuel 12:11.
Hillel.—The first occurrence of a name (“praising”) afterwards destined to be so famous in the annals of Jewish theology. Hillel, the rival of Shammai, shortly before our Lord’s day, may be regarded, with all his faults, as by far the greatest and best of the Rabbis.
A Pirathonite.—And, therefore, of the tribe of Ephraim.
And he had forty sons and thirty nephews, that rode on threescore and ten ass colts: and he judged Israel eight years.(14) Thirty nephews.—The Hebrew has “sons of sons” (benî bhanîm), and the word nephews in our version always means “grandsons” (nepoles), e.g., in Job 18:19, Isaiah 14:22, 1Timothy 5:4, as in old English generally; similarly nieces means “granddaughters” in Wiclif’s Bible (Genesis 31:43, &c). “The Emperor Augustus . . . saw ere he died the nephew of his niece, that is to say, his progenie to the fourth degree of lineal descent” (Holland’s Pliny, vii. 13; Bible Word Book).
That rode on threescore and ten ass colts.—Riding on asses’ foals in trappings of state implies that they were all wealthy and distinguished persons (Judges 10:4)—perhaps, like the Turkish pennon on the horsetail, that they commanded a division (Ewald, 2:38, 39). Again the LXX. euphemise the ass-colts into the grand and poetic word pōlous. Josephus says that Abdon used to ride in state with his seventy sons and grandsons, “who were all very skilful in riding horses.”
And Abdon the son of Hillel the Pirathonite died, and was buried in Pirathon in the land of Ephraim, in the mount of the Amalekites.(15) In Pirathon.—The city of David’s hero, Benaiah (2Samuel 23:30; 1 Maccabees 9:50; Jos. Antt. xiii. 1, § 3). It is now Feratah, six miles west of Shechem.
In the mount of the Amalekites.—The phrase is explained in Judges 12:14. It points to an early settlement of Amalekites in Central Palestine.