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Bible Commentaries

Peter Pett's Commentary on the Bible
Judges 12

 

 

Introduction

Chapter 12. Jephthah and Ephraim Fall Out.

This chapter relates a quarrel between Jephthah and the Ephraimites, which was fatal to the latter; the period of Jephthah’s judging of Israel; his death and burial, and then briefly makes reference to three more judges of Israel, Ibzan, Elon, and Abdon.


Verse 1

Chapter 12. Jephthah and Ephraim Fall Out.

This chapter relates a quarrel between Jephthah and the Ephraimites, which was fatal to the latter; the period of Jephthah’s judging of Israel; his death and burial, and then briefly makes reference to three more judges of Israel, Ibzan, Elon, and Abdon.

Judges 12:1

And the men of Ephraim were gathered together, and went northward, and said to Jephthah, “Why did you pass over to fight against the children of Ammon, and did not call us to go with you? We will burn your house on you with fire.” ’

Next to Judah, Ephraim was the largest and strongest tribe in the confederacy. And they were jealous for their position of leadership. While not always fully responding to the call to arms (as seemingly in this case) once victory had been achieved they tended to be affronted that they had had no part in it.

It seems here also that they did not like the rise of a strong tribal group in Gilead which might usurp their position. Thus they decided to act on a pretext in order to exert their authority and superiority. Gathering a large army of about fifty military units (forty two military units were later decimated) they crossed the Jordan and moved northward towards Mizpah. It was civil war in the tribal confederacy. They no doubt hoped that Gilead had been weakened by their war against Ammon, and were certain that this Jephthah would prove no match for them.

Their excuse for the invasion was that they had not been called to help in the fight with Ammon. They felt slighted. But their real reason was in order to prevent Gilead becoming too strong. They overlooked the fact that over the years of oppression they had not moved a muscle to come to the aid of the tribes Beyond Jordan.

“We will burn your house over you with fire.” They would teach this upstart leader, and Gilead, a lesson they would not forget. The idea was that they would destroy him to teach them a lesson. Of course, if he had recognised his inferior position and their importance and submitted to them they might have been merciful. And that is probably what they expected. They had not reckoned on strong resistance. Were they not, with their brother Judah, one of the two most powerful tribes in the confederacy?


Verse 2

And Jephthah said to them, “I and my people were at a great strife with the children of Ammon, and when I called you, you did not save me out of their hands.”

Jephthah had no thought of submitting. He merely pointed out the great trouble that Gilead, Gad and Reuben had been in and that Ephraim, when called on along with others, had not been willing to do anything about it. ‘Did not save me.’ Here he was speaking of his people as now represented by himself. The call to the tribal confederacy for help, which had gone unheeded, was probably made by the elders of Gilead long before his appointment. But it had shown them that they would get no help from that quarter.


Verse 3

Judges 12:3 a

“And when I saw that you did not save me, I put my life in my hand, and passed over against the children of Ammon and Yahweh delivered them into my hand.”

Thus Gilead and he had done the only thing they could. Recognising that they would receive no assistance from the tribal confederacy they had taken matters into their own hands. Under his leadership they had taken the risk, trusted to their own sword arm and had attacked the children of Ammon, and with Yahweh’s strong help had been victorious. Note how proudly he speaks of his people in terms of himself. He was enjoying being judge of Gilead.

Judges 12:3 b

“Why then are you come up to me this day to fight against me?”

Like the strong man he was, and in the same way that he had done to Ammon, he showed his enemies that they were in the wrong. Let them consider well and give good reason for fighting against him. They should rather be thanking him, for Ammon had also made attacks on Ephraim (Judges 10:9).


Verse 4

Then Jephthah gathered together all the men of Gilead, and fought with Ephraim, and the men of Gilead smote Ephraim because they said, “You Gileadites, you are fugitives of Ephraim in the midst of Ephraim, and in the midst of Manasseh.” ’

The Epraimites made an insulting reply. They had already determined to teach this upstart a lesson. They accused the Gileadites of being inferior, ‘fugitives of Ephraim’. Possibly this suggested that they could be seen as having run away from them to a safe place across the Jordan. Or it may signify that their position should be one of subservience to Ephraim from whom they were now ‘fleeing’. They should recognise their inferiority and not forget their place. They should recognise that they were part of, and owed what they had to, the Ephraim-Manasseh alliance of brothers east of Jordan, Ephraim being the superior partner, who were responsible for them and from whom they had, in a cowardly way, withdrawn and hidden themselves across the Jordan. They needed to be suitably repentant and submissive and recognise their place. It was deliberately provocative.

There could be only one reply. Having showed the message to the elders of Gilead Jephthah gathered the fighting men of Gilead and attacked the Ephraimites, thoroughly defeating them


Verse 5-6

Judges 12:5 a

‘And the Gileadites took the fords of Jordan against the Ephraimites.’

Having defeated Ephraim Jephthah moved swiftly and set strong guards at the fords that led back over the Jordan, to prevent the Ephraimites escaping. Jephthah was a great general, but he was not as merciful or tactful as Gideon. He was determined to destroy Ephraim’s whole army, and did not consider the future. This inter-tribal fighting, though forced on Jephthah, would weaken the whole tribal confederation, and more so when he dealt with his enemy with such severity. But he had been deeply insulted and was a hard man.

Judges 12:5 b

‘And it was so, that when the fugitives of Ephraim said, “Let me go over”, the men of Gilead said to him, “Are you an Ephraimite?”

The writer’s sympathy was clearly with Gilead. Notice how he throws back in the face of Ephraim their jibe ‘the fugitives of Ephraim’ (verse 4). Now it was Ephraim who were ‘the fugitives of Ephraim’, fleeing for their lives. But when they came to the fords of Jordan to escape they were met by strong guards of Gileadites who questioned all who sought to cross as to whether they were Ephraimites (literally ‘Ephrathites’ , another name for Ephraimites, also occurring in 1 Samuel 1:1; 1 Kings 11:26).

Judges 12:5-6 a. (Judges 12:5 c-6a)

‘If he said, “No”, then they said to him, “Now say "Shibboleth". And he said ‘Sibboleth’. For he could not so frame his words as to pronounce it correctly. Then they laid hold of him and slew him at the fords of the Jordan.’

The Gileadites were merciless. They had a simple test for whether a man was an Ephraimite. The Ephraimites pronounced their ‘sh’ like an ‘s’. So when they were asked to say ‘shibboleth’, they said ‘sibboleth’ and few could disguise it. And when they did that they killed them. This demonstrates how Ephraim kept themselves to themselves, so much so that over time they had developed different pronunciations and ways of speaking which they were unable to immediately adjust, and that only happens over a long time. The confederacy was not in a good state.

Shibboleth means ‘a stream in flood’. It was probably considered a good joke by the Gileadites. When the Ephraimites could not pronounce it they were ‘swept away by a flood’ rather than being able to cross the ford.

Judges 12:6 b

‘And there fell at that time of the Ephraimites forty two military units.’

The total slain by the battle and its aftermath was forty two military units. We do not know how many escaped. It may be that ‘forty two’ had a significance that we do not now know. They had jeered Gilead and now died. Compare how there were ‘forty two’ young louts who were killed for jeering Elisha (2 Kings 2:24). The number six sometimes indicates a falling short (of the perfection of seven), compare the number 666 (a threefold falling short). Perhaps forty two indicated a sevenfold falling short (seven times six).


Verse 7

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

Jephthah ‘judged Israel’ for six years. That is was responsible for acting as God’s representative over a part of Israel for six years. All who judged a part of Israel were seen as ‘judging Israel’. He may have died from wounds, or disease, for his life was short. And he never received acceptance by his family for there was no room for him in the family grave. He was buried ‘somewhere in Gilead’. To man he was an outcast to the end. But he was accepted by God.

“Six years.” In view of the seven years of Ibzan and the ten of Elon, this may indicate a life cut short, falling short of the seven.


Verse 8

And after him Ibzan of Bethlehem judged Israel.’

There were two Bethlehems, one in the tribe of Zebulun, (Joshua 9:15) and another in the tribe of Judah. We do not know which one it was although, as Bethlehem in Judah is called ‘Bethlehem-judah’ elsewhere (Judges 17:7-9;Judges 19:1-2; Judges 19:18), it was probably in Zebulun.


Verse 9-10

Judges 12:9 a

‘And he had thirty sons, and thirty daughters whom he sent abroad, and took in thirty daughters from abroad for his sons.’

This was a sign of his prestige and wealth. It would appear that he was polygamous but encouraged his sons to be monogamous. His family gave him wide influence, for his daughters no doubt made influential matches, cementing alliances with important families and clans, and he would marry his sons well with the same idea in mind. ‘Thirty’ is probably a round number to indicate perfect completeness (three intensified). ‘Sent abroad’, that is, away from the family home. This brings home even more deeply the sacrifice that Jephthah made in order to please God when he gave his only daughter.

Judges 12:9-10

‘And he judged Israel seven years. And Ibzan died, and was buried in Bethlehem.’

He died at the end of his divinely perfect judgeship, and was buried in his native place, in the family grave.


Verse 11

And after him Elon the Zebulunite judged Israel, and he judged Israel ten years.’

These judges remind us that judges were needed in times of peace as well as in war. They are mentioned to make up the twelve. It may well be that little was known of them but their names. ‘Ten years.’ Possibly indicating ‘a number of years’, and a satisfactory judgeship.


Verse 12

And Elon the Zebulunite died, and was buried in Aijalon in the country of Zebulun.’

Each was accorded honours in burial because of their faithful service. They had this in common, that they judged well and faithfully.


Verse 13

And after him Abdon the son of Hillel, the Pirathonite, judged Israel.’

“The Pirathonite.” So called from Pirathon, where he was born, and which was in the tribe of Ephraim, as appears from Judges 12:15. It was also later the home of Benaiah, David’s captain (2 Samuel 23:30).


Verse 14

Judges 12:14 a

‘And he had forty sons, and thirty grandsons, who rode on seventy ass colts.’

He had an abundant family, described in this way to bring to the number seventy, divine perfection intensified. Compare Gideon (Judges 8:30). The fact that they rode on ass colts demonstrates that they exercised authority.

Judges 12:14 b

‘And he judged Israel eight years.’

He clearly began to judge while quite old to have so many grandsons. These judges may have been partly contemporary. He too had the privilege of divinely appointed authority over some of God’s people.


Verse 15

And Abdon the son of Hillel the Pirathonite died, and was buried at Pirathon, in the land of Ephraim, in the hill country of the Amalekites.’

Here was another Pirathonite who lived and died in honour and was gathered to his fathers. The ‘hill country of the Amalekites’ may have commemorated a great battle with the Amalekites, or have been their former dwelling place, or there may even have been a small group who dwelt there.

 


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Bibliography Information
Pett, Peter. "Commentary on Judges 12:4". "Peter Pett's Commentary on the Bible ". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/pet/judges-12.html. 2013.

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