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Bible Commentaries
Judges 12

Lange's Commentary on the Holy Scriptures: Critical, Doctrinal and HomileticalLange's Commentary

Verses 1-7

Ephraim’s proud and envious conduct towards Jephthah

Judges 12:1-7

1And the men of Ephraim gathered themselves together, and went northward [proceeded to Zaphon], and said unto Jephthah, Wherefore passedst thou over [Why didst thou pass on—proceed—] to fight against the children [sons] of Ammon, and didst not call us to go with thee? we will burn thine house upon thee with fire. 2And Jephthah said unto them, I and my people were at great strife [in a severe conflict] with the children [sons] of Ammon; and when [omit: when] I called you, [and] ye delivered me not out of their hands [hand]. 3And when I saw that ye delivered me not, I put my life in my hands [hand], and passed over [on] against the children [sons] of Ammon, and the Lord [Jehovah] delivered them into my hand: wherefore 4then are ye come up unto me this day, to fight against me? Then [And] Jephthah gathered together all the men of Gilead, and fought with Ephraim: and the men of Gilead smote Ephraim, because they [had] said, ye Gileadites are fugitives of Ephraim among the Ephraimites, and among the Manassites [fugitives of Ephraim are ye Gilead, in Ephraim and Manasseh]. 5And the Gileadites took the passages [fords] of [the] Jordan before the Ephraimites [toward Ephraim]: and it was so, that when those Ephraimites which were escaped [the fugitives of Ephraim], said, Let me go over; that the men of Gilead said unto him, Art thou an Ephraimite? If he said, Nay; 6Then said they unto him, Say now Shibboleth: and he said Sibboleth: for he could not1 frame to pronounce it right. Then they took him and slew [slaughtered] him at the passages [fords] of [the] Jordan. And there fell at that time of the Ephraimites forty and two thousand. 7And Jephthah judged Israel six years: then died Jephthah the Gileadite, and was buried in one of the cities of Gilead.


[1 Judges 12:6.—“Could not,” is too strong. Keil: “חֵכִין, stands elliptically for הֵכִין לֵב, to apply the mind, to give heed. Cf. 1 Samuel 23:22; 1 Chronicles 28:2, with 2 Chronicles 12:14; 2 Chronicles 30:19.”—Tr.]


The victory of Jephthah is followed by a repetition of what took place after Gideon’s heroic achievement. The overbearing pride of the chief tribe, Ephraim, vents itself in each instance against the victor who has risen up within the smaller tribe, and has become the saviour of the people. Now as then the presumptuous jealousy of the tribe complains that it has not been invited to take part. But this apparent eagerness for war was hypocritical. The thing really desired was a share in the booty and the results of success. Ephraim would help to reap, where it had not sown. The injustice of the tribe was even greater on this occasion than in the time of Gideon. For then it really did render some little assistance, albeit only after Gideon had first led the way. But here it had been called on for help, and had stayed at home. As soon, however, as victory had been obtained, it came with threats and war. But it was not so successful now as with Gideon. That hero, when they clamored against him, was still in pursuit of the enemy, and was obliged, for the sake of his own success, to allay their pride and presumption by gentleness. Jephthah had no reason for submitting to such arrogance. Nor did the Ephraimites come with words only; they were prepared to use force. They derided the people, and thought that with arms in their hands they could chastise Gilead and humble Jephthah. They will set his house on fire over his head. Then Jephthah shows that he is not only a hero against enemies but also the Judge in Israel. It is his authority which he tries and proves by chastising Ephraim. But here also, as in his dealings with the sons of Ammon, he first establishes the righteousness of his conduct by clear words. However, if sinful Ephraim had cared for righteousness, it would in no case have entered on this course. It relied on violence, like Ammon; and like Ammon it experienced the chastisement of violence. No Judge of whom the history tells us inflicts such chastisement and exercises such power within the nation as well as against alien enemies, as does Jephthah. But it was needed; and the humiliation of Ephraim for its sin was less severe than it might otherwise have proved, because the punishment came in the time of Israel’s freedom, and not at the expense of that freedom.

Judges 12:1. And proceeded to Zaphon. The older Jewish expositors, whom Ewald and Keil have followed, already found in צָפוֹנָה, not direction toward the north, but the name of a city, which lay beyond the Jordan in the tribe of Gad (Joshua 13:27). This interpretation rests on the requirements of the context. For in order to explain verses 4 and 5, Ephraim must have advanced across the Jordan. The remark in the Jerusalem Talmud (Shwiith, 9, 2), which identifies Zaphon with עמתו, Amathus, Aemath, cf. Amateh (cf. Ritter, xv. 1031), is therefore altogether suitable. For this city was still known in later times as a strong point on the Jordan, as Josephus repeatedly states. The Onomasticon, also (ed. Parthey, p. 26), says concerning it, that it lay beyond the Jordan, to the south of Pella; for Ritter’s oversight, who supposes that the Onomasticon identifies Amathus with another Aemath in the tribe of Reuben, is not to be concurred in. Amathus, according to its stated distance from Pella (in vigesimo primo milliario), could not lie in the tribe of Reuben—which agrees so far with the fact that Zaphon was in Gad.

Judges 12:2. And Jephthah said unto them. It was not related above that Jephthah called on the tribe of Ephraim to assist, as he here reminds them; but that he would do so, was to be expected. But even if he had not done so, what was there to justify Ephraim in its contention and war? Jephthah’s answer is not defiant: it allows that Gilead would gladly have accepted help, if only a helper had been at hand. Jephthah would gladly have yielded the precedence in victory to Ephraim, if Ephraim had only wielded arms against the enemy as bravely as it now uses words against its brethren. But when he saw that there was no deliverer, he put his life in his hand, and God gave the victory. Did not Jephthah devote his dearest possession in order to obtain from God the victory for which he entreated Him?

The Midrash has a thought in this connection, which, when disengaged from its unhistorical wrappings, is judicious and profound. It says that for the things which befell Israel under Jephthah only the priests were to blame. Why did they not annul the vow of Jephthah! Why did they not restrain Ephraim from civil war! It is manifest that a truth is here suggested which applies to all times. It is undoubtedly the duty of persons equipped with spiritual power, to lift up their voices for peace, and especially to labor for concord between the single tribe and all Israel. If they neglect this duty, their candlestick—this also the Midrash intimates—will sooner or later be overthrown.

Judges 12:3. Wherefore then are ye come up unto me this day to fight against me? Ephraim’s attempt is actually more culpable than Ammon’s. In itself considered, civil war between cognate tribes is a disgrace, which can only spring from ungodliness. But the sin of Ephraim, when it proposes to burn the house of Jephthah, is still further aggravated by the fact that it is directed against the restorer of the divine law and the deliverer of Israel. It is moral and national treason. The Spartans also, under all sorts of pretexts, had left Athens to face alone the advancing Persians. But when the battle at Marathon had been won, the auxiliary troops who arrived too late to be of service, praised and applauded the heroism of Athens (Herod. vi. 120). Jephthah dwells on the injustice of Ephraim, who would not indeed fight against Ammon, but now (“this day”) undertakes to make war on him (he always stands personally for his people), in order to excuse his armed resistance. Ephraim now receives the punishment which properly it had already deserved at Gideon’s hands. It is totally defeated by the hero; and its men find themselves entered on a calamitous flight.

Judges 12:4-5. And the men of Gilead smote Ephraim. It was not Jephthah, as the fine representation gives us to remark, who prosecuted the bloody pursuit. He contented himself with chastising Ephraim according to its presumption; but the people of Gilead had been exasperated by the contempt of the Ephraimites. It is true that the sentence in which the ground of the wrath of the Gileadites over an utterance of the Ephraimites is expressed, is not easily expounded: בְּתוֹךְ מְנַשֶׁה פְּלִיטֵי אֶפְרַיִם אַתֶּם גִּלְעָד בְּתוֹךְ אִפרַיִם כִּי אָמְרוּ. For it is not at once apparent how the Gileadites could be called “fugitives of Ephraim,” seeing they were descendants of Manasseh. A closer inspection, however, makes this intelligible. Ephraim raised a claim to participate in war, only in the cases of Gideon and Jephthah. not in those of the other Judges. It is manifest, therefore, that it based its claim upon the fact that Gideon and Jephthah belonged to Manasseh, its own sister-tribe. At any rate, the House of Joseph. Ephraim and Manasseh, had from of old a consciousness of a certain unity of its own. It treated as one with Joshua (Joshua 17:14 ff.). It entered together into its territory (Judges 1:22). Under king Solomon it was under a common administrative officer (1 Kings 11:28). Now, in the “House of Joseph” Ephraim had the chief voice; for Manasseh was divided, and its possessions lay scattered among other tribes. Hence, it could with some plausibility claim it as its right that no division of the House of Joseph should undertake a warlike expedition without its participation. Nor do Gideon and Jephthah deny this right. “We did call thee,” says the latter; “but thou didst not come.” Only the manner in which Ephraim raised its claim was sinful, unjust, and arrogant. For it raised it, not in the time of distress, but for the sake of the booty; and instead of applauding a great achievement, it indulged in derision, which exasperated the warriors of Gilead. For in storming at Jephthah for not calling it, it denies to Gilead every right of separate action. “How can Gilead presume to exercise tribal functions, and set a prince and judge over Israel?” “Gilead is no community at all,” but only a “set of fugitives,” who act as if they were a tribe, whereas in fact they belong elsewhere. They use the word peletim (fugitives) by way of contumely, just as among the Greeks φνγάς meant both fugitive and banished. Ye are “fugitives of Ephraim,” taunted the Ephraimites, and would set yourselves up as an independent principality. In so saying, Ephraim arrogantly put itself in the place of the House of Joseph, to which Gilead also belonged, since it was the son of Machir of Manasseh. “Gilead belongs in the midst of Ephraim and Manasseh.” This addition was intended to add point to what preceded. Gilead is nothing by itself, has no tribal rights; it belongs to the House of Joseph. This was true, indeed; and Gilead’s descendants lived on both sides of the river (Numbers 26:30 ff.); but “fugitives” they were not. The half-tribe of Manasseh beyond the Jordan was as independent as any other tribe; and in the war against Ammon Gilead proper was doubtless joined by men of other tribes, especially Gad. It was therefore no wonder that the men of Gilead became greatly exasperated, and did not spare the Ephraimites even in their flight. Jephthah only defeated them; but the multitude slew them like enemies, and gave no quarter. Thus, sin and contumely beget passion and cruelty. The discord of brethren inflicts the deepest wounds. Nowhere does hatred rise higher, than where concord is natural.

Judges 12:6. Then said they to him, Say Shibboleth. Ephraim meets with remarkable experiences at the fords of the Jordan. In Gideon’s time, it gained easy victory there over the Midianites whom that hero chased into their hands; now it is itself chased thither and there put to death. In the outset, its men had taunted Gilead with the term “fugitives of Ephraim,” and now they are themselves in very truth פְּלִיטֵי אֶפְרַיִם. Before they prided themselves upon their tribe name Ephraim, which they haughtily used for the whole House of Joseph; and now, when an Ephraimite came to the stream, he is fain to deny his tribe in order to save his life. The enraged men of Gilead will not suffer one Ephraimite to cross the river; hence the requisition of every one who wished to pass over, to say Shibboleth, which no Ephraimite could do, for he could only say Sibboleth. What “Shibboleth” meant, is of minor importance; but as its enunciation was required at the river, and in order to pass it, it may be assumed that the Gileadites thought rather of the signification “stream” than “ear,” both of which the word has. Every Ephraimite in this extremity had the feeling afterwards depicted in the Psalm (Psalms 69:3 [Psalms 69:2]): “I am come into depths of waters, and the stream overflows me,” וְשִׁבֹּלֶת שְׁטָפתְני.—When, during the Flemish war, the insurrection against the French broke out, May 25, 1302, the gates were guarded, and no one was suffered to pass out, except such as were able to say, “Scilt ende friend,” which words no Frenchman could pronounce. (Mensel, Gesch. von Frankr. ii. 134; Schmidt, Gesch. von Frankr. i. 682).

And there fell at that time of the Ephraimites forty and two thousand. The number 42 (7 times 6) appears to be not far removed from a round number; but its occurrence is associated with severe and well-merited judgments on sin. As here 42,000 sinful Ephraimites fall, so 42 of the mockers of the prophet Elijah are killed by bears (2 Kings 2:24); and when the judgment of God breaks forth over the house of Ahab, 42 brethren of Ahaziah are put to death by Jehu (2 Kings 10:14).

Judges 12:7. And he was buried in one of the cities of Gilead. Herein the mournful lot of Jephthah, resulting from the surrender of his daughter, shows itself. He had no heir, as he had had no inheritance. He was the first and the last in his house. The greatness of his deeds is proved by the fact that they were nevertheless remembered; for in what city he was buried was not known, just as to us Mizpah, the place where he had his home, is also unknown, and as the place of his birth is not mentioned, it is not known what his father’s name was; it is not known whore his own grave is. “Gilead” begat him, and Gilead received his corpse. He shares no father’s tomb, and no son shares his. He was a great hero who lived and died solitary; only faith in God was with him. Six years he ruled; when they were finished, his rest from labor and sorrow began. His name did not return; Gilead’s power rose not again: but he was not forgotten in Israel. His sorrow and victory are typical—so the older expositors suggest—of Him who said: “Not my will, but thine, be done!”


Jephthah’s vocation was extraordinary, and equally extraordinary was his fate. He gave up everything to God for his people; and yet at last the envy of his countrymen pursues him. They threaten to burn his house, which for their sake he has made desolate. He makes no boast of this, however; yet exercises discipline with a strong hand. Six years he judged, and in the seventh rested from an office that had brought him so much grief.
1. Prior to success friends are few; but afterwards all wish to share in it. While there is danger, he who takes the lead is called valorous; after the victory, usurper. Sin regards not the offerings which the warrior brings, but only the results which he has obtained. The evil will not assist in sowing; but yet would fain participate in the harvest.
2. Life offers nothing to such as serve not God, even though one rise as high as Jephthah. If Jephthah had not rebuilt the altar of Jehovah in Israel, he had been happier in the desert and the silence of seclusion. The charm of life must be sought in the gospel. Life is short; and though prolonged, full of trouble. Every religion builds its altar for eternity. For Him who has wrought six days for his Saviour, and confessed Him, there opens on the seventh the Sabbath of eternity.

Starke: The godly are never long without a cross: they are tried at home and abroad; without is fighting, within is fear (2 Corinthians 7:5).—Sailer: The gospel without suffering belongs to heaven; suffering without the gospel, to hell; the gospel with suffering, to earth.

[Henry: It is an ill thing to fasten names or characters of reproach on persons or countries, as is common, especially on those who lie under outward disadvantages; it often occasions quarrels of ill consequences, as here. See likewise what a mischievous thing an abusive tongue is.—Wordsworth: Here we see a specimen of that evil spirit of envy and pride which has shown itself in the Church of God. They who are in high place in the Church, like Ephraim, sometimes stand aloof in the time of danger. And when others of lower estate have stepped into the gap, and have stood in the breach, and braved the danger, and have fought the battle and gained the victory, as Jephthah the Gileadite did (the man of Gilead, which was not a tribe of Israel), then they are angry and jealous, and insult them with proud words, and even proscribe and taunt them with being runaways and deserters, and yet daring to claim a place among the tribes of Israel. Has not this haughty and bitter language of scorn and disdain been the language of some in the greatest western church of Christendom against the churches of the reformation? Has it not sometimes been the language of some in the Church of England towards separatists from herself? Schism doubt less is a sin; but it is sometimes caused by the enforcement of anti-scriptural terms of communion, as it is by the Church of Rome; and the sin of the schism is hers. It is often occasioned (though not justified) by spiritual languor and lethargy in the Church of God. Zeal for God and for the truth is good wherever it be found. Let the churches of Christ stand forth in the hour of danger and fight boldly the good fight against the Ammonites of error and unbelief. Then the irregular guerrilla warfare of separatist2 Jephthahs and their Gileadites will be unnecessary, and they will fight side by side under the banner of Ephraim.—The same: The Gileadites did not slay the Ephraimites because they did not agree with them in pronunciation, but because they were Ephraimites, which was discovered by their different pronunciation. The strifes in the Church of God lie deeper than differences of expression in ritual observances or formularies of faith. They lie in the heart, which is depraved by the evil passions of envy, hatred, and malice; and slight differences in externals are often the occasions for eliciting the deep rooted prejudices of depraved will, and the malignant feelings of unsanctified hearts. Let the heart be purified by the Holy Spirit of peace, and the lips will move in harmony and love.—The same: That river which in the days of Joshua had been divided by God’s power and mercy, in order that all the tribes might pass over together into Canaan, the type of heaven, is now made the scene of carnage between Gilead and Ephraim. In the Church of God, the scenes of God’s dearest love have often been made, the scenes of men’s bitterest hate. The waters of baptism, the living waters of the Holy Scriptures, and of the holy sacrament of the Lord’s Supper—these “passages of our Jordan”—the records and pledges of God’s love to the Israel of God, have been made the scenes of the bitterest controversies, and of blood shed of brethren, by those who bear the name of Christ. The holy sepulchre itself has been made an aceldama.—Tr.].


[1][Judges 12:6.—“Could not,” is too strong. Keil: “חֵכִין, stands elliptically for הֵכִין לֵב, to apply the mind, to give heed. Cf. 1 Samuel 23:22; 1 Chronicles 28:2, with 2 Chronicles 12:14; 2 Chronicles 30:19.”—Tr.]

[2][Dr. Wordsworth looks on Jephthah as “one who does mighty deeds in an irregular manner, at a time when those persons who are placed in authority by God, and who ought to employ God’s appointed means in a regular way, are faithless to their trust, and neglect their duty to God and his Church. His work may be compared to that of the Wesleys and Whitefields,” etc. see on Judges 11:1. The definition of “irregularity” here given, applies to all the Judges. In a certain sense, they were all irregular; but that Jephthah was so in any special sense is abundantly refuted by Dr. Cassel’s exposition.—Tr.]

Verses 8-15


three judges of uneventful lives in peaceful times: ibzan of bethlehem, elon the zebulonite, and abdon the pirathonite


Ibzan of Bethlehem, Elon the Zebulonite, and Abdon the Pirathonite

Judges 12:8-15

8And after him Ibzan of Beth-lehem judged Israel. 9And he had thirty sons [,] and thirty daughters whom [omit: whom] he sent abroad [sent out, i. e. gave in marriage], and took in [brought home] thirty daughters from abroad for his sons: and he judged Israel seven years. 10Then died Ibzan [And Ibzan died], and was buried at Bethlehem. 11And after him Elon, a [the] Zebulonite, judged Israel, and he judged Israel ten years. 12And Elon the Zebulonite died, and was buried in Aijalon in the country of Zebulun. 13And after him Abdon the son of Hillel, a [the] Pirathonite, judged Israel. 14And he had forty sons and thirty nephews [grandsons], that rode on threescore and ten ass colts: and he judged Israel eight years. 15And Abdon the son of Hillel the Pirathonite died, and was buried in Pirathon in the land of Ephraim, in the mount of the Amalekites [Amalekite].


The special value of the notices concerning these three Judges consists in the contrast which they offer to the fortunes of Jephthah. These three all have what Jephthah had not. They all have children in abundance, and are happy in them (Psalms 127:3 ff.). Ibzan has thirty daughters, whom he gives in marriage, and thirty daughters-in-law. Abdon, likewise, has forty sons, and looks on thirty flourishing grandsons. The people is familiar with the places of their nativity, and knows where their sepulchres are. Indeed, some of these places, even with their old names, are not lost to this day. For even the native place of Ibzan, although it was not the celebrated Bethlehem, but another in Zebulun (Joshua 19:15), has in our day been identified as Beit Lahm by Robinson (iii. 113). Keil’s remark that we are not to think here of the Bethlehem in Judah, must indeed be allowed, although the Jewish legend does think of it and identifies Ibzan with Boaz.3 But that this Bethlehem always appears with the addition “in Judah” (so also in Judges 17:7), has its ground in the very fact that the other Bethlehem was not unknown. The definition “in Judah” could here be the less omitted because the next Judge also belonged to Zebulun.

Aijalon also, the place where Elon, the second mentioned Judge, is said to have died, and where he probably also resided, seems to be recognized in Jalûn, a place of ruins (cf. Van de Velde, referred to by Keil). Pirathon,4 the birthplace of the third Judge, whose name Hillel is a highly celebrated one among the Jews of later times, was already recognized by Esthor ha-Parchi in the modern Fer’ata (פרעתה), and has been rediscovered by Robinson and others (cf. Zunz, in Asher’s Benj. of Tudela, ii. 426; Robinson, iii. 134). They all enjoy in fact every blessing of life of which Jephthah was destitute; we hear of their children, their fathers, and their graves; but of their deeds we hear nothing. They have judged, but not delivered. They enjoyed distinction, because they were rich; but they never rose from the condition of exiled and hated men to the dignity of princes, urged thereto by the humble entreaties of their countrymen. Of them, we know nothing but their wealth; of Jephthah, nothing but his renown. They had herds, but made no sacrifices. Their daughters were married; but the unmarried daughter of Jephthah survives them all as an example of the obedience and faith of every noble maiden heart. They had full houses, and widely known monuments; and Jephthah went from an empty house to an unknown grave: but his name, consecrated by the Apostle’s benediction, shines forevermore as that of a hero of faith. Such contrasts the narrator wishes to rescue from concealment. The heathen Achilles, according to the legend of the Greeks, chose immortal fame in preference to length of life and pleasure. What would we choose, if choice were given us between lbzan or Hillel and Jephthah? Or rather, let us Christians choose the Cross of Him who lives forever!


After Gideon and Abimelech, two peaceful Judges are named, concerning whose official life nothing is reported. A similar relation subsists between Jephthah and his successors. The comparison may serve for instruction. The result of Gideon’s deeds was glory and greatness; of Abimelech’s tyranny, terrors and punishment. Both kinds of results were brought to view, for the instruction of the nations, in the career of Jephthah His victory was mighty against those without; his chastisement towards those within. The seed which he sowed in tears, sprang up in joy for others.
The three Judges have everything that Jephthah has not,—children, paternal home, and commemoration of their death. But they have no heroic victory like his, and his only daughter is an example for all time. Jephthah judged only a short time, and died bowed down with grief and loneliness. But neither can prosperity avail to lengthen years. These peaceful Judges judged only seven, ten, and eight years, respectively. How different is Jephthah’s life from theirs! But the kingdom of God does not move onward in tragedies alone, but also in meekness and quietude.
The teachings of God are calculated to serve truth, not to promote human glory. Worldly vanity strives for the immortality of time. It is a strange exhibition of human folly, when great deeds are performed for the sake of the monuments and statues with which they are rewarded. In the kingdom of God, other laws obtain. Jephthah is the great warrior hero; but neither the place of his birth nor that of his death is known. Monuments determine nothing in the history which God writes, but only Godlike deeds. The faithful who have died in God, are followed by their works.

Starke: It is better to bestow celebrity on one’s native land, by virtuous actions, than to derive celebrity from one’s native land.


[3]The unhistorical character of the legend is the more evident, the more clear it is that chapter 12 treats only of northern heroes, whereas the narratives of southeastern aeroes and struggles begin at chapter 13, and continue ***own to Samuel and David.

[4]It lies on a Tell, which Judges 12:15 calls the mountain of Amalek, perhaps from Joshua, the conqueror of Amalek, cf. Judges 5:14.

Bibliographical Information
Lange, Johann Peter. "Commentary on Judges 12". "Commentary on the Holy Scriptures: Critical, Doctrinal, and Homiletical". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/lcc/judges-12.html. 1857-84.
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