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Bible Commentaries
Judges 12

The Expositor's Bible CommentaryThe Expositor's Bible Commentary

Verses 1-7


Judges 12:1-7

WHILE Jephthah and his Gileadites were engaged in the struggle with Ammon jealous watch was kept over all their movements by the men of Ephraim. As the head tribe of the house of Joseph occupying the centre of Palestine Ephraim was suspicious of all attempts and still more of every success that threatened its pride and preeminence. We have seen Gideon in the hour of his victory challenged by this watchful tribe, and now a quarrel is made with Jephthah who has dared to win a battle without its help. What were the Gileadites that they should presume to elect a chief and form an army? Fugitives from Ephraim who had gathered in the shaggy forests of Bashan and among the cliffs of the Argob, mere adventurers in fact, what right had they to set up as the protectors of Israel? The Ephraimites found the position intolerable. The vigour and confidence of Gilead were insulting. If a check were not put on the energy of the new leader might he not cross the Jordan and establish a tyranny over the whole land? There was a call to arms, and a large force was soon marching against Jephthah’s camp to demand satisfaction and submission.

The pretext that Jepthah had fought against Ammon without asking the Ephraimites to join him was shallow enough. The invitation appears to have been given; and even without an invitation Ephraim might well have taken the field.

But the savage threat, "We will burn thine house upon thee with fire," showed the temper of the leaders in this expedition. The menace was so violent that the Gileadites were roused at once and, fresh from their victory over Ammon, they were not long in humbling the pride of the great western clan.

One may well ask, Where is Ephraim’s fear of God? Why has there been no consultation of the priests at Shiloh by the tribe under whose care the sanctuary is placed? The great Jewish commentary affirms that the priests were to blame, and we cannot but agree. If religious influences and arguments were not used to prevent the expedition against Gilead they should have been used. The servants of the oracle might have understood the duty of the tribes to each other and of the whole nation to God and done their utmost to avert civil war. Unhappily, however, professed interpreters of the divine will are too often forward in urging the claims of a tribe or favouring the arrogance of a class by which their own position is upheld. As on the former occasion when Ephraim interfered, so in this we scarcely go beyond what is probable in supposing that the priests declared it to be the duty of faithful Israelites to check the career of the eastern chief and so. prevent his rude and ignorant religion from gaining dangerous popularity. Bishop Wordsworth has seen a fanciful resemblance between Jephthah’s campaign against Ammon and the revival under the Wesleys and Whitefield which as a movement against ungodliness put to shame the sloth of the Church of England. He has remarked on the scorn and disdain-and he might have used stronger terms-with which the established clergy assailed those who apart from them were successfully doing the work of God. This was an example of far more flagrant tribal jealousy than that of Ephraim and her priests; and have there not been cases of religious leaders urging retaliation upon enemies or calling for war in order to punish what was absurdly deemed an outrage on national honour? With facts of this kind in view we can easily believe that from Shiloh no word of peace, but on the other hand words of encouragement were heard when the chiefs of Ephraim began to hold councils of war and to gather their men for the expedition that was to make an end of Jephthah.

Let it be allowed that Ephraim, a strong tribe, the guardian of the ark of Jehovah, much better instructed than the Gileadites in the divine law, had a right to maintain its place. But the security of high position lies in high purpose and noble service; and an Ephraim ambitious of leading should have been forward on every occasion when the other tribes were in confusion and trouble. When a political party or a church claims to be first in regard for righteousness and national well being it should not think of its own credit or continuance in power but of its duty in the war against injustice and ungodliness. The favour of the great, the admiration of the multitude, should be nothing to either church or party. To rail at those who are more generous, more patriotic, more eager in the service of truth, to profess a fear of some ulterior design against the constitution or the faith, to turn all the force of influence and eloquence and even of slander and menace against the disliked neighbour instead of the real enemy, this is the nadir of baseness. There are Ephraims still, strong tribes in the land, that are too much exercised in putting down claims, too little in finding principles of unity and forms of practical brotherhood. We see in this bit of history an example of the humiliation that sooner or later falls on the jealous and the arrogant; and every age is adding instances of a like kind.

Civil war, at all times lamentable, appears peculiarly so when the cause of it lies in haughtiness and distrust. We have found however that, beneath the surface, there may have been elements of division and ill will serious enough to require this painful remedy. The campaign may have prevented a lasting rupture between the eastern and western tribes, a separation of the stream of Israel’s religion and nationality into rival currents. It may also have arrested a tendency to ecclesiastical narrowness, which at this early stage would have done immense harm. It is quite true that Gilead was rude and uninstructed, as Galilee had the reputation of being in the time of our Lord. But the leading tribes or classes of a nation are not entitled to overbear the less enlightened, nor by attempts at tyranny to drive them into separation. Jephthah’s victory had the effect of making Ephraim and the other western tribes understand that Gilead had to be reckoned with, whether for weal or woe, as an integral and important part of the body politic. In Scottish history, the despotic attempt to thrust Episcopacy on the nation was the cause of a distressing civil war; a people who would not fall in with the forms of religion that were in favour at headquarters had to fight for liberty. Despised or esteemed they resolved to keep and use their rights, and the religion of the world owes a debt to the Covenanters. Then in our own times, lament as we may the varied forms of antagonism to settled faith and government, that enmity of which communism and anarchism are the delirium, it would be simply disastrous to suppress it by sheer force even if the thing were possible. Surely those who are certain they have right on their side need not be arrogant. The overbearing temper is always a sign of hollow principle as well as of moral infirmity. Was any Gilead ever put down by a mere assertion of superiority, even on the field of battle? Let the truth be acknowledged that only in freedom lies the hope of progress in intelligence, in constitutional order and purity of faith. The great problems of national life and development can never be settled as Ephraim tried to settle the movement beyond Jordan. The idea of life expands and room must be left for its enlargement. The many lines of thought, of personal activity, of religious and social experiment leading to better ways or else proving by and by that the old are best-all these must have place in a free state. The threats of revolution that trouble nations would die away if this were clearly understood; and we read history in vain if we think that the old autocracies or aristocracies will ever approve themselves again, unless indeed they take far wiser and more Christian forms than they had in past ages. The thought of individual liberty once firmly rooted in the minds of men, there is no going back to the restraints that were possible before it was familiar. Government finds another basis and other duties. A new kind of order arises which attempts no suppression of any idea or sincere belief and allows all possible room for experiments in living. Unquestionably this altered condition of things increases the weight of moral responsibility. In ordering our own lives as well as in regulating custom and law we need to exercise the most serious care, the most earnest thought. Life is not easier because it has greater breadth and freedom. Each is thrown back more upon conscience, has more to do for his fellow men and for God.

We pass now to the end of the campaign and the scene at the fords of Jordan, when the Gileadites, avenging themselves on Ephraim, used the notable expedient of asking a certain word to be pronounced in order to distinguish friend from foe. To begin with, the slaughter was quite unnecessary. If bloodshed there had to be, that on the field of battle was certainly enough. The wholesale murder of the "fugitives of Ephraim," so called with reference to their own taunt, was a passionate and barbarous deed. Those who began the strife could not complain; but it was the leaders of the tribe who rushed on war, and now the rank and file must suffer. Had Ephraim triumphed the defeated Gileadites would have found no quarter; victorious they gave none. We may trust, however, that the number forty-two thousand represents the total strength of the army that was dispersed and not those left dead on the field.

The expedient used at the fords turned on a defect or peculiarity of speech. Shibboleth perhaps meant stream. Of each man who came to the stream of Jordan wishing to pass to the other side it was required that he should say Shibboleth. The Ephraimites tried, but said Sibboleth instead, and so betraying their west-country birth they pronounced their own doom. The incident has become proverbial and the proverbial use of it is widely suggestive. First, however, we may note a more direct application.

Do we not at times observe how words used in common speech, phrases or turns of expression, betray a man’s upbringing or character, his strain of thought and desire? It is not necessary to lay traps for men, to put it to them how they think on this point or that, in order to discover where they stand and what they are. Listen and you will hear sooner or later the Sibboleth that declares the son of Ephraim. In religious circles, for example, men are found who appear to be quite enthusiastic in the service of Christianity, eager for the success of the church, and yet on some occasion a word, an inflexion or turn of the voice will reveal to the attentive listener a constant worldliness of mind, a worship of self mingling with all they think and do. You notice that and you can prophesy what will come of it. In a few months, or even weeks, the show of interest will pass. There is not enough praise or deference to suit the egotist, he turns elsewhere to find the applause which he values above everything.

Again, there are words somewhat rude, somewhat coarse, which in carefully ordered speech a man may not use; but they fall from his lips in moments of unguarded freedom or excitement. The man does not speak "half in the language of Ashdod"; he particularly avoids it. Yet now and again a lapse into the Philistine dialect, a something muttered rather than spoken, betrays the secret of his nature. It would be harsh to condemn anyone as inherently bad on such evidence. The early habits, the sins of past years thus unveiled, may be those against which he is fighting and praying. Yet, on the other hand, the hypocrisy of a life may terribly show itself in these little things; and every one will allow that in choosing our companions and friends we ought to be keenly alive to the slightest indications of character. There are fords of Jordan to which we come unexpectedly, and without being censorious we are bound to observe those with whom we purpose to travel further.

Here, however, one of the most interesting and, for our time, most important points of application is to be found in the self-disclosure of writers-those who produce our newspapers, magazines, novels, and the like. Touching on religion and on morals certain of these writers contrive to keep on good terms with the kind of belief that is popular and pays. But now and again, despite efforts to the contrary, they come on the Shibboleth which they forget to pronounce aright. Some among them who really care nothing for Christianity, and have no belief whatever in revealed religion, would yet pass for interpreters of religion and guides of conduct. Christian morality and worship they barely endure; but they cautiously adjust every phrase and reference so as to drive away no reader and offend no devout critic; that is, they aim at doing so; now and again they forget themselves. We catch a word, a touch of flippancy, a suggestion of license, a covert sneer which goes too far by a hairsbreadth. The evil lies in this, that they are teaching multitudes to say Sibboleth along with them. What they say is so pleasant, so deftly said, with such an air of respect for moral authority that suspicion is averted, the very elect are for a time deceived. Indeed we are almost driven to think that Christians not a few are quite ready to accept the unbelieving Sibboleth from sufficiently distinguished lips. A little more of this lubricity and there will have to be a new and resolute sifting at the fords. The propaganda is villainously active, and without intelligent and vigorous opposition it will proceed to further audacity. It is not a few but scores of this sect who have the ear of the public and even in religious publications are allowed to convey hints of earthliness and atheism. A covert worship of Mammon and of Venus goes on in the temple professedly dedicated to Christ, and one cannot be sure that a seemingly pious work will not vend some doctrine of devils. It is time for a slaughter in God’s name of many a false reputation.

But there are Shibboleths of party, and we must be careful lest in trying others we use some catchword of our own Gilead by which to judge their religion or their virtue. The danger of the earnest, alike in religion, politics, and philanthropy, is to make their own favourite plans or doctrines the test of all worth and belief. Within our churches and in the ranks of social reformers distinctions are made where there should be none and old strifes are deepened. There are of course certain great principles of judgment. Christianity is founded on historical fact and revealed truth. "Every spirit which confesseth that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh is of God." In such a saying lies a test which is no tribal Shibboleth. And on the same level are others by which we are constrained at all hazards to try ourselves and those who speak and write. Certain points of morality are vital and must be pressed. When a writer says, "In mediaeval times the recognition that every natural impulse in a healthy and mature being has a claim to gratification was a victory of unsophisticated nature over the asceticism of Christianity" - we use no Shibboleth test in condemning him. He is judged and found wanting by principles on which the very existence of human society depends. It is in no spirit of bigotry, but in faithfulness to the essentials of life and the hope of mankind, that the sternest denunciation is hurled at such a man. In plain terms he is an enemy of the race.

Passing from cases like this, observe others in which a measure of dogmatism must be allowed to the ardent. Where there are no strong opinions strenuously held and expressed little impression will be made. The prophets in every age have spoken dogmatically; and vehemence of speech is not to be denied to the temperance reformer, the apostle of purity, the enemy of luxurious self-indulgence and cant. Moral indignation must express itself strongly; and in the dearth of moral conviction we can bear with those who would even drag us to the ford and make us utter their Shibboleth. They go too far, people say: perhaps they do; but there are so many who will not move at all except in the way of pleasure.

Now all this is clear. But we must return to the danger of making one aspect of morality the sole test of morals, one religious idea the sole test of religion and so framing a formula by which men separate themselves from their friends and pass narrow bitter judgments on their kinsfolk. Let sincere belief and strong feeling rise to the prophetic strain; let there be ardour, let there be dogmatism and vehemence. But beyond urgent words and strenuous example, beyond the effort to persuade and convert there lie arrogance and the usurpation of a judgment which belongs to God alone. In proportion as a Christian is living the life of Christ he will repel the claim of any other man, however devout, to force his opinion or his action. All attempts at terrorism betray a lack of spirituality. The Inquisition was in reality the world oppressing spiritual life. And so in less degree, with less truculence, the unspiritual element may show itself even in company with a fervent desire to serve the gospel. There need be no surprise that attempts to dictate to Christendom or any part of Christendom are warmly resented by those who know that religion and liberty cannot be separated. The true church of Christ has a firm grasp of what it believes and is aiming at, and by its resoluteness it bears on human society. It is also gracious and persuasive, reasonable and open, and so gathers men into a free and frank brotherhood, revealing to them the loftiest duty, leading them towards it in the way of liberty. Let men who understand this try each other and it will never be by limited and suspicious formulae.

Amidst pedants, critics, hot and bitter partisans, we see Christ moving in divine freedom. Fine is the subtlety of His thought in which the ideas of spiritual liberty and of duty blend to form one luminous strain. Fine are the clearness and simplicity of that daily life in which He becomes the way and the truth to men. It is the ideal life, beyond all mere rules, disclosing the law of the kingdom of heaven; it is free and powerful because upheld by the purpose that underlies all activity and development. Are we endeavouring to realise it? Scarcely at all: the bonds are multiplying, not falling away; no man is bold to claim his right, nor generous to give others their room. In this age of Christ we seem neither to behold nor desire His manhood. Shall this always be? Shall there not arise a race fit for liberty because obedient, ardent, true? Shall we not come in the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God unto a perfect man, unto the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ?

For a little we must return to Jephthah, who after his great victory and his strange dark act of faith judged Israel but six years. He appears in striking contrast to other chiefs of his time, and even of far later times, in the purity of his home life, the more notable that his father set no example of good. Perhaps the legacy of dispeace and exile bequeathed to him with a tainted birth had taught the Gileadite, rude mountaineer as he was, the value of that order which his people too often despised. The silence of the history which is elsewhere careful to speak of wives and children sets Jephthah before us as a kind of puritan, with another and perhaps greater distinction than the desire to avoid war. The yearly lament for his daughter kept alive the memory not only of the heroine but of one judge in Israel who set a high example of family life. A sad and lonely man he went those few years of his rule in Gilead, but we may be sure that the character and will of the Holy One became more clear to him after he had passed the dreadful hill of sacrifice. The story is of the old world, terrible; yet we have found in Jephthah a sublime sincerity, and we may believe that such a man, though he never repented of his vow, would come to see that the God of Israel demanded another and a nobler sacrifice, that of life devoted to His righteousness and truth.

Bibliographical Information
Nicoll, William R. "Commentary on Judges 12". "The Expositor's Bible Commentary". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/teb/judges-12.html.
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