Judges 12:6
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.
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(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.

12:1-7 The Ephraimites had the same quarrel with Jephthah as with Gideon. Pride was at the bottom of the quarrel; only by that comes contention. It is ill to fasten names of reproach upon persons or countries, as is common, especially upon those under outward disadvantages. It often occasions quarrels that prove of ill consequence, as it did here. No contentions are so bitter as those between brethren or rivals for honour. What need we have to watch and pray against evil tempers! May the Lord incline all his people to follow after things which make for peace!Shibboleth; and he said Sibboleth - This is a curious instance of dialectic difference of pronunciation between the East and West Jordanic tribes. It is an evidence of the sound "sh" having passed into the Hebrew from the East of Jordan, possibly from the Arabians, with whom the sound is common.

Forty-two thousand - The number includes the slain in battle and those killed at the fords.

Jud 12:4-15. Discerned by the Word Sibboleth, Are Slain by the Gileadites.

4-6. the men of Gilead smote Ephraim, because they said, Ye Gileadites are fugitives of Ephraim—The remonstrances of Jephthah, though reasonable and temperate, were not only ineffectual, but followed by insulting sneers that the Gileadites were reckoned both by the western Manassites and Ephraimites as outcasts—the scum and refuse of their common stock. This was addressed to a peculiarly sensitive people. A feud immediately ensued. The Gileadites, determined to chastise this public affront, gave them battle; and having defeated the Ephraimites, they chased their foul-mouthed but cowardly assailants out of the territory. Then rushing to the fords of the Jordan, they intercepted and slew every fugitive. The method adopted for discovering an Ephraimite was by the pronunciation of a word naturally suggested by the place where they stood. Shibboleth, means "a stream"; Sibboleth, "a burden." The Eastern tribe had, it seems, a dialectical provincialism in the sound of Shibboleth; and the Ephraimites could not bring their organs to pronounce it.

Shibboleth signifies a stream or river, which they desired to pass over; so it was a word proper for the occasion, and gave them no cause to suspect the design, because they were required only to express their desire to go over the Shibboleth or river.

He said Sibboleth. It is well known, that not only divers nations, but divers provinces, or parts of thee same nation, who use the same language, differ in their dialect and manner of pronunciation. He could not frame to pronounce it right, or rather, he did not frame or direct himself to speak so, or to speak right, i.e. so as he was required to do it. The Hebrew text doth not say that he could not do it, but that that he did it not, because he, suspecting not the design of it, uttered it speedily according to his manner of expression.

At that time; not in that place, at the passages of Jordan, but in that expedition, being slain either in the battle, or in the pursuit, or at Jordan.

Then said they unto him, say now "Shibboleth",.... Which signifies a stream or course of water, at which they now were; and so it was as if they had bid them say,"may I, or let me, pass over the stream of this river;''so Jarchi; and this being the case, though it was done to try them, and by their pronunciation learn whether they were Ephraimites or not, they were not upon their guard, but in an hurry, and at once expressed the word as they commonly did:

and he said, sibboleth; pronouncing the letter "shin" as if it was "sin", or a "samech"; just as the French, as Kimchi observes, pronounce "s" like a "t"; and though the Gileadites and Ephraimites were of the same nation of Israel, and spoke the same language, yet their pronunciation differed, as did that of the Galilean Jews from others in the times of Christ, Matthew 26:73, and so in all nations, among the Greeks, Romans, and among ourselves, people in different counties pronounce in a different manner; which Kimchi thinks was in the Ephraimites owing to the air or climate, as the French, he observes, pronounce "s" as a "t", with a soft and gentle sound:

for he could not frame to pronounce it right; or "thus" (t), as he was bid to do; being used to pronounce otherwise, he could not frame the organs of speech, or so dispose and order them as to say "shibboleth"; or he did not frame, order, and dispose (u); he was not careful to do it, though with some care he could, being not aware of the design of the Gileadites in it:

then they took him and slew him at the passages of Jordan; everyone as they came thither, who could not say "shibboleth"; these they suffered not to pass over, but slew them:

and there fell at that time of the Ephraimites forty and two thousand; not at the passages of Jordan only; but what fell there, with those at the battle, and in the pursuit, amounted to this number; so that the Ephraimites paid dearly for their pride and insolence.

(t) "sic", Pagninus, Montanus. (u) "non dirigebat", Montanus.

Then said they unto him, Say now {e} 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.

(e) Which signifies the fall of waters, or an ear of corn.

6. Shibboleth … Sibboleth] An interesting proof of the difference in dialect between the eastern and western tribes. By confusion of sounds shibbôleth (שׁבלת) would become sibbôleth (שׂבלת), and then sibbôleth (סבלת the form here); though liable to confusion in pronunciation, the letters shin (ש) and sâmekh (ס) are etymologically quite distinct. The word means ‘ear of grain’ (Genesis 41:5 ff., Isaiah 17:5 etc., Assyr. šubultu) or ‘flood,’ ‘stream’ (Isaiah 27:12; Psalm 69:2; Psalm 69:15), in the latter sense only in late writings; in this early narrative it would probably have been understood to mean ‘ear1[46].’ A modern parallel is to be found in Doughty, Arabia Deserta i. p. 155: “A battalion of Ibrahîm Pasha’s troops had been closed in and disarmed by the redoubtable Druses in the Léja. The Druses coming on to cut them in pieces, a certain Damascene soldier among them cried out, ‘Aha! neighbours, grant protection at least to the Shwâm (Syrians), which are children of the same soil as you.’ It was answered, They would spare them if they could discern them. ‘Let me alone for that,’ said the Damascene;—and if they caused the soldiers to pass one by one he would discern them. It was granted, and he challenged them thus, ‘Ragal, O man, say Gamel!’ Every Syrian answered Jemel; and in this manner he saved his countrymen and the Damascenes.”

[46] The ‘ear of wheat’ was an ancient symbol of Ishtar, the goddess of heaven; and in later astronomy the Aramaic shebelta was the name of the Virgo Spicifera in the Zodiac: possibly, therefore, popular religious associations may have had something to do with the choice of the test word, as well as its tell-tale sibilant, See Winckler, Gesch. Isr. ii. 277 f.; KAT.3, 428; A. Jeremias, Das A.T. im Lichte des Alt. Or.2, 109.

could not frame] A doubtful rendering. For yâkîn (impf.) read yâkôl (perf.) was not able; so Syr., cf. Vulgate non valens.

forty and two thousand] Obviously an exaggeration. Cf. Jdg 8:10 n.

Verse 6. - Say now Shibboleth, etc. We have thus, as it were, accidentally preserved to us a curious dialectical difference between the Ephraimites and the inhabitants of Gilead. A similar difference exists at the present day between the pronunciation of the inhabitants of different parts of Germany. What the Hanoverians call stein, a stone, the other Germans call shtein. Shibboleth means both an ear of corn and a stream. Forty and two thousand. It is possible that the war between Jephthah and the Ephraimites may have lasted a considerable time, though only the single incident of the slaughter at the fords of Jordan is mentioned, so that the large number of 42,000 men may be less improbable than it seems at first sight. There is, however, always some doubt as to the correctness of numbers (see 1 Samuel 6:19). Judges 12:6When the Gileadites had beaten the Ephraimites, they took the fords of the Jordan before the Ephraimites (or towards Ephraim: see Judges 3:28; Judges 7:24), to cut off their retreat and prevent their return to their homes. And "when fugitives of Ephraim wanted to cross, the men of Gilead asked them, Art thou Ephrathi," i.e., an Ephraimite? And if he said no, they made him pronounce the word Shibboleth (a stream or flood, as in Psalm 69:3, Psalm 69:16; not an ear of corn, which is quite unsuitable here); "and if he said, Sibboleth, not taking care to pronounce it correctly, they laid hold of him and put him to death at the fords of the Jordan." In this manner there fell at that time, i.e., during the whole war, 42,000 Ephraimites. The "fugitives of Ephraim" were the Ephraimites who had escaped from the battle and wished to return home. The expression is used here in its ordinary sense, and not with the contemptuous sense in which the Ephraimites had used it in Judges 12:4. From this history we learn quite casually that the Ephraimites generally pronounced sh (shin) like s (samech). הכין is used elliptically for לב הכין, to direct his heart to anything, pay heed (compare 1 Samuel 23:22; 1 Chronicles 28:2, with 2 Chronicles 12:14; 2 Chronicles 30:19).
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