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Bible Commentaries
Judges 12

Parker's The People's BibleParker's The People's Bible

Verses 1-15

Judges 12:0

1. And the men of Ephraim gathered themselves together [literally, were called together; the same phrase in chap. Jdg 7:23-24 ], and went northward [in order to cross the Jordan fords. Mizpeh in Gilead lay to the north-east of the tribe of Ephraim], and said unto Jephthah, Wherefore passedst thou over to fight against the children of Ammon, and didst not call us ["the tribe of Ephraim throughout the book of Judges is represented in a most unenviable light." Compare the similar complaint of the Ephraimites to Gideon, chap. Judges 8:1 ; see also Jos 17:14-18 ] to go with thee? We will burn thine house upon thee with fire [that is, we will burn thee alive in thy house; a threat which shows somewhat the wildness of the times. See a similar threat in chap. Joshua 14:15 , and an execution of it in chap. Joshua 15:6 . Burning was a mode of capital punishment; see Genesis 38:24 ; Jos 7:25 ].

2. And Jephthah said unto them, 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. For a similar phrase, see Jer 15:10 ]; and when I called you, ye delivered me not out of their hands. [The Ephraimites held themselves selfishly aloof. When Jephthah says, "I called you," he speaks in the person of Gilead or of the Gileadites].

3. And when I saw that ye delivered me not, I put my life in my hands [in the hollow of my hand], and passed over against the children of Ammon, and the Lord delivered them into my hand [Jephthah makes his appeal to Jehovah]: wherefore then are ye come up unto me this day [for the phrase "come up," see chap. Jer 1:1-16 ], to fight against me?

4. Then Jephthah gathered together all the men of Gilead [under great provocation. By "the men of Gilead," understand the eastern tribes generally], and fought with Ephraim: and the men of Gilead smote Ephraim, because they said [here the translation and meaning are regarded by eminent critics as highly uncertain: one says that 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 [an extremely obscure passage. The Speaker's Commentary gives the following as the most grammatically correct and natural rendering of this and the two following verses: "The men of Gilead smote Ephraim, for they, the Gileadites, said, Ye are fugitives to Ephraim (Gilead lies between Ephraim and Manasseh); and Gilead took the fords of Jordan before Ephraim, and it came to pass, when the fugitives of Ephraim said, Let me pass over, and the Gileadites asked him, Art thou an Ephraimite? and he answered, No; then said the Gileadites to him, Say Shibboleth, etc., so they, the Gileadites, slew them at the ford of Jordan], among the Ephraimites, and among the Manassites.

5. And the Gileadites took the passages of Jordan [because only through them could the Ephraimites escape to their own tribe] before the Ephraimites [literally, to Ephraim]: and it was so, that when those Ephraimites which were escaped [fugitives to Ephraim. It has been suggested that a bitter retribution may be implied in these words. "The Ephraimites had taunted the eastern Manassites with being fugitives to Ephraim, and in the next verse they themselves appear to be in another but fatal sense fugitives to Ephraim] said, Let me go over; that the men of Gilead said unto him, Art thou an Ephraimite? If he said, Nay;

6. Then said they unto him, Say now Shibboleth [a ford; depth of waters; water-flood; channel]; and he said Sibboleth [according to The Speaker's Commentary, this is a curious instance of dialectic difference of pronunciation between the east and west Jordanic tribes.... The sh may have been as impossible for an Ephraimite to pronounce as th is to a Frenchman]: for he could not frame to pronounce it right. ["Archdeacon Farrar says, 'On May 25th, 1802, all the French were detected by their inability to pronounce the words,' scilt, end, friend. "] Then they took him, and slew him at the passages of Jordan [the Arabic version says, they led him across, but the word means rather massacred, butchered]: and there fell at that time of the Ephraimites forty and two thousand [not necessarily that they were all butchered, but only that that was the number of the invading army; it may include the slain in battle and those killed at the fords; see chap. Jer 4:16 ].

7. And Jephthah judged Israel [his authority embracing all Israel after the subjugation of the Ephraimites] six years. Then died Jephthah the Gileadite, and was buried in one of the cities of Gilead [literally, in cities of Gilead; according to the LXX. in his city, Gilead, that is, Ramoth-Gilead, or Mizpeh of Gilead].

8. And after him Ibzan [about whom nothing further is known than is found in these three verses; some have supposed him the same as Boaz] of Bethlehem [Josephus assumes that Bethlehem-Judah is here meant] judged Israel.

9. And he had thirty sons, and thirty daughters [implying polygamy, wealth, and great state. Compare 2 Kings x. I and Jdg 8:30 ], whom he sent abroad [whom he gave in marriage out of his house], and took in thirty daughters from abroad for his sons. And he judged Israel seven years.

10. Then died Ibzan, and was buried at Bethlehem.

11. And after him Elon [the name means a Terebinth: it is customary for Orientals even now to name their children from trees. Archdeacon Farrar says that one of his muleteers in Palestine was named "Father of Olives "], a Zebulonite, judged Israel; and he judged Israel ten years.

12. And Elon the Zebulonite died, and was buried in Aijalon [a place in the tribe of Zebulun, not elsewhere mentioned: where the vowel-points are omitted, the names Elon and Aiialon are identical in Hebrew] in the country of Zebulun.

13. And after him Abdon [ servant ] the son of Hillel [praising. The Rabbi called Hillel is regarded as by far the greatest and best of the Rabbis], a Pirathonite [and therefore of the tribe of Ephraim], judged Israel.

14. And he had forty sons and thirty nephews [the Hebrew has, sons of sons: the word "nephews" in our version always means grandsons, "nieces" is a word which means granddaughters in Wyclif's Bible], that rode on threescore and ten ass colts [implying wealth and distinction]: and he judged Israel eight years.

15. And Abdon the son of Hillel the Pirathonite died, and was buried in Pirathon [now called Feratah, six miles west of Shechem] in the land of Ephraim, in the mount of the Amalekites [pointing to an early settlement of Amalekites in Central Palestine. "The twenty-five years, apparently consecutive ones, occupied by the judgeship of Ibzan, Elon, and Abdon, seem to have been very uneventful and prosperous, since the only record of them preserved in the annals of their country relates to the flourishing families and peaceful magnificence of two of their number.... Jephthah's victory over the enemies of Israel was followed by twenty-five years of peace under three judges.... All the three belong to the western tribes. The first from Bethlehem, the second from Zebulun, and the third from Ephraim.] [The venerable John Trapp, remarking on Judges 8:6 , says, "They were discerned by their lisping, their dialect betrayed them. How many have we that can hardly lisp out a syllable of good language, and if they attempt it, falter fearfully." On Jdg 8:14 he quaintly remarks, "In Persia the peasant never rideth; the gentleman never goeth on foot, but fighteth, tradeth, con-ferreth, doeth, all on horseback."]


WE have just inquired, Is Abimelech dead? and to that inquiry we received a very decisive reply. Are the Ephraimites dead? Are they clean gone for ever? To this inquiry what reply can we discover in the history which is now before us? Why concern ourselves about an extinct tribe? Principally because we deny that the tribe is extinct. There are no extinct tribes where great moral characteristics and inspirations are concerned. Men die, but Man lives. The individual type seems to modify, and to pass away by development or by extinction, but a certain ground-line runs through all human history; there is a purpose in it, there is a grand central idea which abides. This we shall see if we study the history of Ephraim, as revealed in this incident connected with the war of Jephthah upon the children of Ammon.

Are the Ephraimites dead? Are they dead who are hard upon a man when he is in circumstances of extremity? Are they dead who do not fear to strike the last blow upon a man who is supposed to be staggering and to be unable to resist? Jephthah was exhausted. The war had been a triumphant one, but even triumph is succeeded by exhaustion. Prosperity takes out of a man the very energy which he was required to show in securing the honour. Great efforts are followed by great weaknesses. Added to this, there was a vow claiming execution. The only child was away upon the mountains on a two months' respite, and in this time of extremity and agony, proud and arrogant Ephraim came to ask a question and deliver a threatening. Are the Ephraimites, then, dead? Have they no successors? Are we now quite patient, after the manner of Christ, with men who are tired, for the moment outworn, and to whose physical exhaustion great mental prostration is added? If so if there are no such men; if there are no such cruel proposals and demands; if there are no such untimely and aggravating threats, then the Ephraimites are dead, and shame be to the preacher who would exhume such men even that he might rebuke their forgotten wickedness.

Are the Ephraimites quite dead? Are there not men who cannot bear that anything should be done but by themselves men who will deny the victory rather than award the merit? Are there not men who would not allow even the world to be converted but under their inspiration, and guidance, and cooperation? Are there Christian communions which deny to one another that they are accomplishing real and solid good in society? Is there a spirit of criticism which says, "The work may be only in appearance a kind of superficial work is no doubt being done, but time will test and time will tell," a spirit which hampers and frets great Christian aggressions by narrow-minded and impious criticism? Ephraim could not bear that the battle should be won in which Ephraim had taken no part We measure successes by the part which we ourselves have in them. If we were not in the fray, leading it, and causing it to issue in victory, how can we suppose that the fray was other than a tumult in which there was neither reason nor righteousness?

Are the Ephraimites quite dead? Are there not people who profess to be offended because they were not invited? Ephraim said, "Wherefore passedst thou over to fight against the children of Ammon, and didst not call us to go with thee?" ( Jdg 12:1 ). We stand much upon the etiquette of invitation. We are so self-restrained, and so conscious of intolerable modesty, that unless we are properly invited to pray we will not worship God, and unless we are besought almost by deputation to take an interest in Christian service we will stand back in unchristian resentment. There are people who must be invited every day. What they suppose themselves to be it is almost impossible to tell. But they must be invited, entreated; the impression must be produced upon them that the universe would go out like a dying spark if they did not come to its patronage and sustenance. They have to be courted by the Church, waited upon, sedulously attended to. If a card should be sent to other people and not to them they would have no part or lot in the matter. Their dignity perish with them! They have no right to be in the Church. They are spots in the feast of charity. Who issues the invitations? The Lord. Whose battle is it? The battle is not yours, but God's. For whom do we work when we open the door, light the lamp, throw in the coin of charity? Is it for the minister for some man? Then why this sensitiveness? Why this retirement to bed, and covering oneself up with all the clothes, and sweltering in an undeserved and unrecognised obscurity? Who called us to the service? Our call is from eternity. We respond to a divine decree and purpose, and as we were not born of men into this service we do not own their rulership: we are the sons of God, and we will work, whoever sends for us, or ignores us, or praises us. That is the spirit of consecration, and any other spirit in any man, in the pulpit or out of it, is not of God. Reason would be shocked were we to go into detail upon this matter. The childishness, the pettishness, the resentment, which we see in some poor souls, would discourage the strongest heart, were not our trust put in the living God. When such Ephraimites retire, are they any loss? Yes, they are: when they have gone we have lost folly, pride, petulance, arrogance and a great burden which we carried with a sense of intolerable pain.

Are the Ephraimites quite dead? Are they dead who have curiously forgotten their own faithlessness in the past? Jephthah said, "When I called you, ye delivered me not out of their hands. 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" ( Jdg 12:2-3 ). Men curiously forget the invitations that they have actually received. They put them aside, because they were not willing to obey them; and having put them out of sight, they have put them out of memory; and having put them out of memory, they impiously deny their existence. The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked. Were the Ephraimites, then, so brave and bold and constant in all faithfulness that they should criticise the action of Jephthah? People should be very careful how they criticise. The popular proverb is a wise one which says, "They who live in glass houses should not throw stones." Jephthah remembered the case. He had not forgotten sending for the Ephraimites at a critical time in his history, and the Ephraimites paid no heed to his cry. We cannot always be sending for the men who are supposed to be neglected. There is a point at which common reason says, No; we will send no more for you. There is a point indeed at which decency can proceed no further. The people who have always to be sought, and always to be sent for, and always to be implored to come, will break the patience they have misunderstood, and will come to the ruin which they deserve.

Are the Ephraimites quite dead? Are they dead in whom envy culminates in revenge? "We will burn thine house upon thee with fire" ( Jdg 12:1 ). They had better have reckoned with the enemy first. Some houses are not easily lighted. The spirit of men, however, is here clearly revealed. They envied Jephthah his honours, and envy has but a short distance to go to reach revenge. What will not envy do? Of what is it compounded? Of what hateful juices is that devil's cup made up, envy, the spirit that has no generous word even for a friend, much less an antagonist; envy, that reduces everything that is done to the lowest possible point; envy, so critical in vision, so unjust in criticism; envy, that, serpent-like, entwines itself around the heart, and transforms what ought to be a fountain of benevolence into a fountain of deadly bitterness? Envy cannot rest in mere criticism. Envy must do mischief: not only is there a condemnatory word, but there is a word of menace: the inward fire expresses itself in outward conflagration. Beware of the very first symptom of envy, jealousy! Cultivate the noble spirit, the spirit of appreciation and recognition, and if in this respect you water others, you shall be divinely watered yourselves; your heart shall be as an abundant harvest field, laden with the very gold of heaven.

Are they dead who are insolent, who descend to the use of contemptuous taunts? If not, then the Ephraimites are not dead. The Ephraimites said to Jephthah and his tribe, "Ye Gileadites are fugitives of Ephraim among the Ephraimites, and among the Manassites" ( Jdg 12:4 ). You belong to neither one tribe nor another; ye upstarts, ye off-scouring, how dare you fight without asking us to lead you? That tribe can come to no good. Watch its history, and see whether such vaunting can end in honour. Are insolent men dead? the men who stealthily pick up stones and carry them until a suitable opportunity arises for throwing them at those who have outrun them and outfought them in the war? Are you ever reminded of your lowly parentage? Is it ever whispered that you were not born in royal circles? Does any adversary ever give the hint, quite in a Christian spirit, and in a fine and beautiful hypocrisy, that you were not born as highly and famously as he was, albeit the place of his birth has not to this day been discovered, though it might possibly have been found out if the lowest creature on earth had thought it worth while to put the vain and useless inquiry? Jephthah was stunned by this taunt. Many a man can bear a threat to have his house burned who cannot endure too much impertinence. Some noble natures have chafed under insolence who could have gone with some steadfastness even to martyrdom. Jephthah was roused. He now came to a kind of war he would have avoided if he could. So long as it was a heathenish war a battle with the enemy, he was equal to the occasion; but when the battle became internecine, of the nature of a family feud, partaking somewhat of the quality of civil war, his soul revolted. So long as it was Ammon, the outward heathen enemy, he was not unprepared to go forward even alone to fight the foe. But who would enter into a family feud, a tribal dispute? Who would not rather half apologise, and explain as far as possible, and swallow somewhat, rather than play the foul game of Cain and Abel? Jephthah was quiet, almost as quiet as Gideon at the first when the same Ephraimites assailed him. Jephthah said: I did send for you; I wanted you to come; I did not forget your high position; but when ye did not come I put my life in my hand; I had my life on my palm, like a loose bird that might at any moment fly away, and in that condition I went out to fight Ammon, and I take no merit or undue praise to myself: "The Lord delivered them into my hand: wherefore then are ye come up unto me this day, to fight against me?" He reasons well! There is a touch of condescension in his reasoning which detracts nothing from its dignity and cogency. Presently they will go too far with him. Ephraim said, "Ye are but the fugitives of the tribes, ill-born, ill-bred; Ephraim will not have you; Manasseh will not have you; you are playing between the two, being outcast of both, away with you!" It was enough! We shall see who was overthrown. The Gileadites took the fords of the Jordan, and said in effect, "Every man who passes here will have to give a good reason for his doing so." When any man said, "Let me go over," the men of Gilead said unto him, "Art thou an Ephraimite?" Now we have come to real conflict Apologies are no excuse at this point, nor explanations. Every man now holds his life who can hold it. If the man said, No, I am not an Ephraimite, they tested him: they said 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." Do not interfere with divinely-qualified soldiers. They may expose themselves to your criticism now and again, but in so far as they are divinely qualified they will conquer at the last. There will be a period of apology and self-exculpation, there will be moments given up to explanatory statements; but let them alone, they cannot be slain. If you apply fire to their houses, the very houses will not burn. They must win, because they are sent of God.

Sometimes we misapply the use of this word Shibboleth as, indeed, what do we not misapply when we come into the spiritual interpretation of the Bible? Now the phrase is used in this sense, namely: if we cannot pronounce the Shibboleth of a sect we are regarded as heterodox. It has become quite a proverb amongst us, has this use of the word Shibboleth. Men defend themselves by saying one to another, Although we cannot pronounce your Shibboleth, we claim to be independent and accurate thinkers. The term Shibboleth has no relation whatever to that kind of remark. The test was put, not as a test of orthodoxy, but as a test of character, and is it not true that character is tested by little things? Regarding a Christian country, the men are comparatively few in number who are guilty of great crimes or aggravated transgressions against the state, or against one another. How many men could arise and indignantly repel great impeachments: but the question relates to little matters: and what can test character more than little experiments, minute utterances and observances? We may not have sinned against God, or against one another, in a manner that could be called romantic or tragical, but what about the little offences, the minor immoralities, the white lies, the leaving out the words of letters which give them their real meaning? What about mispronunciation, false accent, calculated emphasis so laid on as to give false colour to the thought that is being uttered? What about attitudes, postures, hints? What about unuttered defamations? What about "hesitated dislike"? It is along that line you know whether men can say Shibboleth or Sibboleth. The leaving out of a syllable changes the whole message; the introduction of false emphasis is destructive of integrity. Let us, therefore, examine ourselves in so-called little things and minute ceremonies and utterances: then what hand has not done the wrong deed? What tongue has not spoken in the wrong tone, if not in the wrong language? Who, then, can claim to be white-robed? Who can say of himself that his purity is like the snow, untrodden, and unstained? We must not recede from the application of such passages by limiting them to sectarian differences, or metaphysical contrasts; but follow out the exact line of the thought, and then we shall come to a test of sincerity, a test of truthfulness, a test of character, we shall know whether a man is trying to save his life at the expense of truth. The Ephraimite said in effect: "I will tell any number of lies, if you will only let me escape." But the Ephraimites have mocked the Gileadites let them mock them now! So it shall be at the great upwinding of things. Sceptics, assailants, enemies of Christ and his cross, have yet to meet that same Christ in an official examination. The war does not end just now. All things are to be brought up for arbitrament and final decision, and we read of those who shall pray the rocks and the hills to fall upon them and hide them from the face the wrath, the burning countenance of the Lamb. We must be prepared for these test interviews and final examinations; then it will be seen that all pride, and arrogance, and insolence, and flippancy will have no reply in that day. Be wise ere the sun go down. Kiss the Son, while his anger is kindled but a little. If we have spoken haughtily even against the Son of God it may be forgiven us, if we repent with our hearts. He himself has said so. He never shut the door upon contrition, repentance, or attempts at restitution. Wherein we have been unjust to the Bible, unjust to the Church, unjust to Christ, wherein we have been excusing ourselves from joining the war on petty grounds of not having been invited, let us repent this very day, call ourselves not only sinners, but fools in the sight of God for such a mean exculpation; and with one heart and mind and soul, let us say or sob, "God be merciful to me a sinner!"


Almighty God, do thou bless us according to our need, and have mercy upon us according unto the multitude of our sins. Thy loving-kindnesses cannot be reckoned up: behold, they are more than the sands upon the sea-shore, and they exceed the stars in multitude. We live upon them: without them we could not live. We are fed by the mercy of the Lord; we are led by the light of his glory; we stand on the rocks which he has laid as foundations, and our whole life is rooted in his eternity. We look up unto heaven expectantly and gratefully. We love thee for all thou hast given, and we must continue to live upon thy regard for us. Thou hast redeemed us at a great cost: thou hast called us to the cross of the Saviour; thou hast made known unto us thy purpose to save our souls. We are therefore full of gladness, and a new song is in our mouth, and our expectation is from on high. We commit one another to thy tender care, for they are well kept whom thou dost keep. Lead us by still waters and in green pastures, and show us where thou dost make thy flock couch at noon; and may we always be in thine arm, or guided by thine eye, or sustained by thine hand. Let thy wisdom be within us a continual light, and thy grace an abiding hope. Make our way straight before our feet: bring down all high places; make all rough places smooth; lift up the valleys; and thus do thou, preparing a way for us, delight us with the city which is at the end. We bless thee for the hope of heaven the all-completing world, the place all light, all purity, all love. We have heard of it with the hearing of the ear, and thou art daily satisfying us that it is more than eye hath seen or ear heard or heart conceived the sublimest of thy wonders, a city worthy of thyself. Meanwhile help us to work more, to dig deeply, to do our present duty with both hands earnestly. May our eyes be in our head, may our hearts be true and loyal to God's doctrine, and in all the way of life may we know that to do is to learn, that to obey is to be instructed, and if we do the will we shall know the doctrine, and the mystery shall not appal us, but draw us on by a marvellous fascination. This life we want to live; this discipline we are prepared by thy Spirit to undergo. The Lord work in us all the good pleasure of his will, and the work of faith with power, and then call us into upper places to behold sights we cannot now see, and enter upon work which at present is too much for our poor strength. Amen.

Bibliographical Information
Parker, Joseph. "Commentary on Judges 12". Parker's The People's Bible. https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/jpb/judges-12.html. 1885-95.
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