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Bible Commentaries
Judges 12

Coffman's Commentaries on the BibleCoffman's Commentaries

Verses 1-6


“And the men of Ephraim were gathered together and passed northward; and they 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 thy house upon thee with fire. And Jephthah said unto them, I and my people were at great strife with the children of Ammon; and when I called you, ye saved me not out of their hand. And when I saw that saved me not, I put my life in my hand, and passed over against the children of Ammon, and Jehovah delivered them into my hand: wherefore then are ye come up unto me this day, to fight against me? Then Jephthah gathered together all the men of Gilead, and fought with Ephraim; and the men of Gilead smote Ephraim, because they said, Ye are fugitives of Ephraim, ye Gileadites, in the midst of Ephraim, and in the midst of Manasseh. And the Gileadites took the fords of the Jordan against the Ephraimites. And it was so, that, when any of the fugitives said, Let me go over, the men of Gilead said unto him, Art thou an Ephraimite? If he said, Nay; then said they unto him, Say now Shibboleth; and he said Sibboleth; for he could not frame to pronounce it right: then they laid hold on him, and slew him at the fords of Jordan. And there fell at that time of Ephraim forty and two thousand”

“The men of Ephraim gathered together and passed northward” On another occasion, they had similarly confronted Gideon, who appeased them with diplomatic words and a sharing with them of the spoils of war, but when they attempted to do a similar thing here, no doubt expecting exactly the same kind of meek and submissive response that Gideon gave, they encountered a man of a different temperament from Gideon. Jephthah simply rejected their claims as false and promptly deployed his men in battle array.

“Northward” Hervey suggested that, “The alternative reading for this word, i.e., `Zaphon, a city of the Gileadites,’ should be used, because a movement of Ephraim to Gilead would have been eastward, not northward.”(F1)

It is evident that the providence of God is visible in this humiliating defeat of Ephraim. Their conceited arrogance was a problem that threatened all of Israel, and, if their demand to be recognized as head of the tribes of Israel had not been frustrated, the apostasy of all Israel might indeed have occurred much earlier than it did, because, even this early in their history, the tendency of Ephraim and their followers was consistently antagonistic toward Jehovah and increasingly oriented toward idolatry. Such unhappy developments in Ephraim had originated with their ancestor Joseph’s marriage to the daughter of a pagan priest. What a tragedy is evident in this paragraph that, instead of being happy and praising God for the victory Jehovah had given Jephthah over the enemies of Israel, these conceited, greedy Ephraimites came over, spoiling for a fight, no doubt expecting to be bought off by Jephthah’s dividing the spoils of victory with them, in the same manner that Gideon had done on a similar occasion previously.

One cannot fail to be amazed at the critical nonsense hurled at this chapter. Wellhausen, as quoted by Moore, complained that, “This paragraph comes too late. Jephthah is already at home, and at least two months have passed (Judges 11:39), and besides, the claim that the help of Ephraim had been sought and refused, does not accord with Judges 11.”(F2)

Such criticism takes no account whatever of the device of retrogression in telling a narrative. There are thirty examples of this same phenomenon in Sir Walter Scott’s “Ivanhoe.” Here, the narrator, whom we believe to have been Samuel, merely went back to the time prior to the demobilization of Jephthah’s army in order to relate this account of the civil war. If that is not exactly what happened, then the demobilization of Jephthah’s army had not taken place until the events related to Jephthah’s vow had been resolved. In our view, the fact of Jephthah’s gathering together, “all the men of Gilead” (Judges 12:4), does not refer to the recruitment of his army but to its deployment against Ephraim. In any case, there is absolutely nothing wrong with the sequence of events related in these chapters.

And as for the critical complaint that the request of Jephthah for Ephraim’s help, which Ephraim refused, “does not correspond with Judges 11,” the critics simply failed to see that Ephraim’s allegations against Jephthah were false. A man in whom was the Spirit of God would not have lied about what happened.

As Dalglish’s discerning comment has it, “The vow of Jephthah and its fulfillment had carried the story beyond the defeat of the Ammonites (Judges 11:33), and the editor (we think it was Samuel the narrator, J.B.C.) now returns to that setting in order to relate the altercation of Jephthah with the men of Ephraim.”(F3)

“We will burn thy house upon thee with fire” What a horrible price the Ephraimites were determined to exact as remuneration for their injured pride! “Later a Philistine threat of this kind was made in Judges 14:15 and fulfilled in Judges 15:6.”(F4)

“I called you… ye saved me not” “The reason this was not mentioned in Judges 11 was simply because it was of no effect.”(F5)

“They said, Ye are fugitives of Ephraim, ye Gileadites” Strahan remarked that, “These words make no sense.”(F6) On the other hand, it is comments like that which are without good sense. Right here is the reason why Ephraim would not respond to Jephthah’s plea. The Ephraimites considered Jephthah as a nobody and his “men” as a group of social outcasts, that is, fugitives from their respective tribes. It was their low opinion of Jephthah and his men that led to their refusal to supply the requested aid, and their anger overflowed when God gave Jephthah the victory without them.

“And they took the fords of the Jordan against Ephraim” A great army of Ephraim had moved against Jephthah and the Gileadites, and God gave Jephthah a great victory over them, as the remnants of the defeated army attempted to flee back to Ephraim, the Gileadites took the fords of the Jordan, and by a clever linguistic test identified the Ephraimites and slaughtered a vast number of them. Keil stated that the number of Ephraimites slain was, “Forty and two thousand during the whole war.”(F7)

“Shibboleth… Sibboleth” It is amazing that scholars have found no consensus whatever on the meaning of this word. F. F. Bruce gave the meaning as, “a stream in flood.”(F8) Yates gave it as, “an ear of corn.”(F9) Of course, it is not the meaning of this word that was important, but the pronunciation of it. The Ephraimites here, like Peter in the N.T. (Matthew 26:73), were betrayed by their speech. The Ephraimites were unable to pronounce the “sh,” pronouncing it as “s” instead. Boling states that, “As late as World War II, the Dutch underground was able to screen out German spies by asking them to pronounce the name of the Dutch city Sheveningen, which only the Dutch can do properly.”(F10) Dalglish mentioned that also, “There is a general inability among the Germans to pronounce the `th’ in `thither’.”(F11) Speaking of the tragic results of this bloody civil war, Campbell noted that, “Many times since that sad event, strife among the people of God has occurred because of the same sort of pride, jealousy and hurt feelings.”(F12) As a result of this smashing defeat of Ephraim, that tribe’s influence was definitely checkmated until the times of the death of Solomon and the division of the kingdom of Israel.

Verse 7


“And Jephthah judged Israel six years. Then died Jephthah the Gileadite, and was buried in one of the cities of Gilead”

“In one of the cities of Gilead” It seems quite unlikely that a man of Jephthah’s stature would have been buried in some unknown place, and therefore, we are inclined to accept as very probably true the rendition of this phrase as it stands in the LXX, the Syriac, the Arabic and Vulgate versions of the Bible, “He was buried in his city Gilead.”(F13)

Verses 8-10


“And after him, Ibzan of Bethlehem judged Israel. And he had thirty sons; and thirty daughters he sent abroad, and thirty daughters he brought in from abroad for his sons. And he judged Israel seven years. And Ibzan died, and was buried in Bethlehem.”

“After him” This means “after Jephthah,” the preceding judge, as is the similar meaning in Judges 12:11; Judges 12:13.

“Ibzan” “This name means swift (horse?).”(F14)

“Ibzan of Bethlehem” Keil denied that this was the Bethlehem in Judah on the basis that, “That Bethlehem is usually distinguished as `Bethlehem Judah’ (Ruth 1:2) or as `Bethlehem Ephratah’ (Micah 5:1).” In our view this is not sufficient reason for setting aside the plain statement of Josephus that, “When Jephthah was dead,(F15) Ibzan took the government, being of the tribe of Judah and of the city of Bethlehem.”(F16)

Josephus also declared that, “Ibzan did nothing in his seven years of administration that was worth recording or deserved a memorial.”

“Thirty sons… thirty daughters” This identifies Ibzan as a polygamist. No specific reason is given for his seeking spouses for his sixty offspring from “abroad.” He might have been striving to build up his influence with other tribes of Israel.

We are amazed at the following ridiculous comment of Dalglish:

“The inclusion of the last three minor judges at this juncture may have been occasioned by the judgment of the editor that they flourished later than the previously mentioned judges, though we have no DATA to support the contention.”(F17)

Such a comment rejects the Biblical record as “data,” despite the fact of its being backed up categorically by Josephus. There is no more dependable “data” than the concurring testimony of these two sources!

Verses 11-12


“And after him Elon the Zebulunite judged Israel; and he judged Israel ten years. And Elon the Zebulunite died, and was buried in Aijalon in the land of Zebulun”

“Elon” “This name means `Oak’ or `Terebinth.’“(F18) Josephus spelled the name `Helon.’ Josephus’ comment on this judge was, “Neither did Helon do anything remarkable.”(F19)

A curiosity here was pointed out by Yates. “The consonants of Aijalon (Judges 12:12), the vocalized reading of Elon’s burial place, are identical with the name of the judge. The place may simply have been named Elon; the location is not known.”(F20)

Verses 13-15


“And after him Abdon the son of Hillel the Pirathonite judged Israel. And he had forty sons and thirty sons’ sons; that rode on threescore and ten ass colts: and he judged Israel eight years. And Abdon the son of Hillel the Pirathonite died, and was buried in Pirathon in the land of Ephraim, in the hill-country of the Amalekites”

“The Pirathonite” This identifies the residence of this judge as Pirathon in the territory of Ephraim. Dalglish located this place as, “Some eight miles southwest of Nablus.”(F21)

“Abdon” “This name means `service.’“(F22)

He is only recorded to have been happy in his children; for the public affairs were then so peaceable, and in such security, that neither did he perform any glorious action. He had forty sons, and by them left thirty grandchildren; and he marched in state with these seventy… He left them all alive after him; he died an old man, and obtained a magnificent burial in Pyrathon.(F23)

Bibliographical Information
Coffman, James Burton. "Commentary on Judges 12". "Coffman's Commentaries on the Bible". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/bcc/judges-12.html. Abilene Christian University Press, Abilene, Texas, USA. 1983-1999.
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