And the Gileadites took the passages of Jordan before the Ephraimites; and it was so, that when those Ephraimites which were escaped said, Let us go over; that the men of Gilead said unto him, Art thou an Ephraimite? If he said, Nay; Then said they unto him, Sag 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.
During the period of the judges the national life of Israel deteriorated badly. It began as a matter of negligence. The individual tribes of Israel failed to clean out the pockets of heathenism which remained after the over-all conquest of Joshua. It developed in the form of outright wickedness. As time went on, the children of Israel began to associate with these heathen peoples and finally to copy their idolatrous practices. The result was that the one thing which held Israel together, a common faith in Jehovah and His promises, was no longer effective. Just how bad this splintering effect was, became evident in the later history of Jephthah.
The difficulty here arose particularly from the tribe of Ephraim. There had been rumblings of it already years before at the time of Gideon, when he had put to flight the hosts of Midian. He had sent messengers to mount Ephraim, calling them to come and help him in the pursuit of Midian. They had come, and, taking the fords of Jordan, had slain Oreb and Zeeb, princes of Midian. Still, when they had met Gideon personally, it had been with a bitter spirit of complaint because he had not called them before the battle with Midian instead of afterward. But Gideon had been able to sidestep their complaint by reminding them of the glory they had gained by slaying Oreb and Zeeb, and they had been satisfied.
Now in the case of Jephthah the situation was much the same. Jephthah received from the Lord a great victory over the Ammonites. Hardly had he returned from battle before the Ephraimites came to him and said, “Wherefore passedst thou over to fight against the children of Ammon, and didst not call us to go with thee? we will burn thine house upon thee with fire.”
The difficulty with the Ephraimites was that they possessed an exalted opinion of what their position in the nation of Israel should be. This no doubt went back to their origin as a tribe. They were the descendants of one of Joseph’s sons. Not only bad Joseph in his day been the most outstanding member of his family, but before the death of Jacob he alone of all the family had been given a double portion in the nation through his sons Ephraim and Manasseh. And then in addition when the two sons of Joseph had been brought to Jacob personally for his final blessing, Ephraim had been preferred above Manasseh, even though he was the younger of the two. Through all the years and centuries that had followed the Ephraimites remembered this. There was always an underlying feeling in that tribe that they among the tribes of Israel were superior to the rest, and the proper leaders of the nation. Now in the days of lawlessness which characterized the period of the judges, this proud attitude broke out in open expression and became the cause of trouble.
The fact was that Ephraim lacked completely the superiority of which it boasted. Had they studied the history of Israel carefully and objectively, they would have realized that a blessing had been given by Jacob which was superior even to theirs, it was the blessing of the tribe of Judah which contained the promise of the covenant seed. Moreover, Ephraim lacked not only men of leadership ability, but also the spiritual strength and faith which were absolutely necessary to true leadership in Israel. But their very pride would not allow them to admit this. Rather they sought to defend their own exalted opinion of themselves by refusing to recognize any right or ability of leadership in anyone else.
In reality Jephthah had called them to battle against the Ammonites. This he made plain immediately in his answer to them. “I and my people,” he said, “were at great strife with the children of Ammon; and 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: wherefore then are ye come up unto me this day to fight against me?”
But as persuasive as this reasoning might appear to have been, it had no effect upon the men of Ephraim. When the call mentioned by Jephthah had come to them, they had hardly even taken notice of it. After all, Jephthah had not even been a member of their own tribe, and it had seemed quite a presumption on his part to think that he could call them to battle. And even more, for anyone at that time to suggest a campaign against the great and powerful Ammonites had appeared little short of utter folly. But now the battle was over, and Jephthah had won an amazing victory. It made them burn with jealousy to think that they had had no part in it, and it was not long before they began to hate Jephthah for what he had done without them. It seemed to them that the only way in which they could vindicate themselves was to go out and prove themselves stronger than he was; they would burn down his house upon him with fire. There was no way of reasoning with men like that; there was no way of turning away the anger of their envy; they were determined to vindicate themselves with evil.
For Jephthah there was left only one thing to do. Regretfully he called out his army again. Such arrogance and pride in Israel could not be allowed to go unpunished. The price would be dear; civil war would rend apart the people of God’s chosen nation; and once the battle was joined, it would have to be followed through until the men of Ephraim repented.
In a way the battle was never really even. It was true that the men of Ephraim came from a large and influential tribe, while the men of Gilead gathered behind Jephthah represented but a small part of the lesser tribes beyond the Jordan. But with Jephthah and his men was the cause of righteousness. Thus the Lord was with them, and they could not fail. Soon after the battle was joined, the men of Ephraim were scattered.
In this battle, however, there developed another aspect of this history which was even sadder. When first the men of Gilead gathered to defend Jephthah, the Ephraimites tied to turn them back with derision, “Ye Gileadites are fugitives of Ephraim among the Ephraimites, and among the Manassites.” It was as much as to say that the men of Gilead had no importance whatever in Israel, except that which they received from their associations with the tribes of Ephraim and Manasseh. As is usually the case, this use of ridicule had quite the opposite effect from that which was intended. Instead of becoming discouraged, the men of Gilead were infuriated. Incensed with anger and hatred, they fought just that much more effectively. They were men determined to justify their own existence, and in addition they were thirsting for revenge.
The result was that once the forces of the Ephraimites were defeated, the men of Gilead still were not satisfied. Looking for still more revenge, they hurried to the fords of the Jordan river and took control of them. This was a position of crucial importance, for every Ephraimite, in order to return home, would have to pass over here. Neither did it take the Ephraimites long to discover their danger. Each one of them that was taken was immediately put to death without mercy. Thus, as they came down to the river to pass over and were asked by the men of Gilead, “Art thou an Ephraimite?” they would answer, “Nay.” For the men of Gilead this created a problem, for there were many from other tribes that daily crossed over the Jordan river in the regular commerce which took place between the different parts of the nation. But soon they came up with a solution. It was a peculiarity of the tribe of Ephraim that it could not pronounce a “sh” sound whenever they tried, it would come out as just a plain “s” sound. Thus, whenever anyone would come down to the river and would deny being an Ephraimite, they would tell him to say, “Shibboleth.” Those who were of other tribes were perfectly capable of doing this; but the men of Ephraim would only be able to say, “Sibboleth.” With this they were exposed and immediately put to death. The result was that there died of the Ephraimites 42,000 men.
This was a sad chapter in the history of Israel. Undoubtedly the Ephraimites, by threatening de life of Jephthah for no other reason than jealousy, had committed a great sin, and it was necessary that for this they should be punished. Thus the end result was surely just and of the Lord. Nonetheless, it was evident that also the men of Gilead allowed themselves to be driven on by pride also, as much or more than by righteous indignation. Thus they carried the slaughter of Ephraim much farther than was necessary. In all, this event makes clear how far the splintering of the life of Israel had developed. The various tribes were no longer bound together by one uniting faith. In their sin they were driven farther and farther apart.
We do not know in how far Jephthah himself took part in or even approved of the slaying of the Ephraimites. We do read that he gathered the men to battle; but in connection with the “Shibboleth” incident his name is not mentioned. It may well be that this matter was carried on without his immediate knowledge or approval. We do read that he continued as judge after that, although for a comparatively short time. The total years of Jephthah’s judgeship were six. This work was continued and concluded in the land of Gilead.
After Jephthah, the forces of Israel were never rallied to victory over their enemies again during all the remaining period of the judges, except, that is, for one battle during the days of Samuel. In a large part Israel became the plaything of the surrounding nations. Especially the Philistines ran roughshod over them. Even before the example of a man such as Samson the people were too timid and fearful to be rallied in their own defense. Even more, they were too sinful to torn in repentance from their wickedness. It was a very low ebb in the history of God’s covenant nation.
Nor was it that the Lord left himself without testimony. He did send his judges. Three particularly are mentioned,—Ibzan, Elan, and Abdon. We must conclude that they were faithful in their labors for Jehovah; but their influence remained considered to very local areas: Ibzan to Bethlehem, Elon to Zebulon, and Abdon to Pirathon of Ephraim. The only distinction for which they were finally remembered was that in contrast to the rest of the nation they were prospered by God and were given many descendants. All of the time the way was being prepared for two of the greatest judges of all, Samson and Samuel.