The war with the Ammonites had been won. God had given victory. The adversary had been subdued before the children of Israel. Jephthah was again in hits house in Mizpah. He had done with his daughter according to his vow. At least two months must have gone by when the men of Ephraim gathered themselves together and, marching northward, came to Jephthah in a body. It was apparent that they were in an evil mood. They demanded to know why Jephthah had fought that war with Ammon without them, seeing that the Gileadites were but fugitives of Ephraim among the Ephraimites and among the Manassites. Without even waiting for a reply, for they were violently angry, they shouted in Jephthah’s ears that they would burn his house upon him with fire. It was clear that they were not trifling. Jephthah remonstrated with them. These were his words, “I and my people were in 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 against me this day, to fight against me?” The step that Jephthah now took—through his aids, he gathered together all the men of Gilead for war—indicates that the Ephraimites, instead of admitting their folly and returning to their homes like sensible men, persisted in menacing Jephthah. They even may have set fire to his house as they had threatened. This much is certain. Their behavior continued alarming. It called for drastic action. A fire had been kindled by these proud and unreasonable men, that had to be extinguished without delay, if half the nation was not to be plunged in civil war. So Jephthah lost no time in calling the men of Gilead to arms. It may be imagined that before the outbreak of the conflict the men of Ephraim were again told to desist from their madness and disperse. But instead of allowing themselves to be dissuaded, these quarrelsome men, bent on trouble, railed at the Gileadites as they had done at Jephthah, repeating the monstrous charge. “Ye Gileadites are fugitives of Ephraim (among the Ephraimites and among the Manassites.” These were hateful and contemptuous words, calculated to cut to the quick and to pierce the soul. That it was also in a spasm of rage that the Gileadites now fell upon the Ephraimites and (drove them away as smoke, is evident from the notice, “And the men of Gilead smote Ephraim because they said, Ye Gileadites are fugitives of Ephraim among the Ephraimites and among the Manassites.” The Ephraimites, as totally defeated, entered upon a palarnitious flight, but the enraged Gileadites were thirsting after the blood of their fleeing brethren and therefore cut off their only way of escape by taking before them the passes of Jordan. There they slew them like enemies and gave them no quarters. They would not suffer one Ephraimite to cross the river alive; hence they required of everyone who wished to pass over to say Shibboleth, which no Ephraimite could do, for he could only say Sibboleth. “And the Gileadites took the passages of the Jordan before the Ephraimites; and it was so, that when the Ephraimites which were escaped said, Let me pass over; that the men of Gilead said to him, Art thou an Ephraimite? If he said, Nay; then said they 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 the Jordan’; and there fell at that time of the Ephraimites forty and two thousand.” The Gileadites were not content to defeat their brethren in war; they wanted them killed to the last man. For their anger was fierce.
Yet the calamity that overtook the arrogant, heartless, and hypocritical Ephraimites was deserved. For their sin was great. They were actually more culpable than Amon. They had crossed the Jordan to wage civil war. Their conduct was a disgrace. It could only spring from ungodliness. Their sin, when it threatened to burn Jephthah’s house, was aggravated by the fact that it struck at the deliverer of Israel and the restorer of God’s law. It was national treason. Yet the men of Ephraim had not allowed their action to stand out in their own minds as treason. They had not admitted to themselves and to one another that they were in a sinful way. If they had, they would not have set out on their mad venture. Thus what they had done is to persuade themselves by fallacious reasonings that their grievance was real and that it justified the kind of action that they had taken. Their competency as deceivers of self and of one another indicates how that they had allowed their understanding to be darkened by passion and carnal pride and their judgment to be warped by an imaginary grievance. This was their first great sin. They were not intellectually blind. In their hearts they knew that they were sinners before the Lord exceedingly. But they were spiritually perverse. Seeing, they did not perceive. The Ephraimites must be taken as (an example of what sinful pride and arrogancy does to a man, how that they distort his vision, pervert his judgment and send him headlong to his fall. For these were the sins of Ephraim, namely pride and arrogancy.
These sins found expression first of all in the voiced grievance of the men of Ephraim. As was said, they felt themselves aggrieved because, as they said, Jephthah had fought that war with Ammon without them. But the sins of the men of Ephraim also found expression in that vile taunt of theirs, “Ye Gileadites are fugitives of Ephraim among the Ephraimites and among the Manassites.” Let us notice that they call the Gileadites “fugitives of Ephraim”. To grasp the point to this taunt we should have before our mind the following historical facts. 1) The Gileadites, being as they were the offspring of Michar, the grandson of Manasseh belonged to the tribe of Manasseh. 2) Ephraim and Manasseh were the sons of Joseph. In the house of Joseph, Ephraim had the first voice by virtue of the fact that in the blessing of Jacob Ephraim was preferred before Manasseh. Let us recall how that Joseph “took them both, Ephraim in his right hand toward Jacob’s left hand, and Manasseh in his left hand toward Jacob’s right hand, and brought them to him. But Israel stretched out his right hand, and laid it upon Ephraim’s head, who was the younger, and his left hand upon Manasseh’s head, guiding his hands wittingly; for Manasseh was the firstborn”. With his hands in this position Jacob blessed the two sons. 3) As a result of Jacob’s action, the tribe of Ephraim took the stand that the tribe of Manasseh, including the Gileadites, was completely under its jurisdiction and therefore had not the right of independent action. 4) At the beginning of the conquest of Canaan, the tribe of Manasseh was divided and one-half the tribe received its possession east of the Jordan where it formed an independent tribe, empowered to take independent action, if need be. And this power that particular branch of the tribe of Manasseh—the branch that went by the name of Gileadites—had now exercised by initiating, under the leadership of Jephthah, that war with the Ammonites. It was this action on the part of the Gileadites that had infuriated the tribe of Ephraim. Their accusation was that the Gileadites, through that doing, had wantonly escaped, outrun, their jurisdiction, openly flouted their authority. Hence, they tauntingly accepted them as fugitives of the Ephraimites, i.e. of Ephraim’s authority. This was equivalent to accosting them as fugitives of justice, law and order, right rule and making them out for insurgents, for men who in their wickedness, had risen in opposition to a duly established authority. And1 to sharpen their taunt they added, “among the Ephraimites and among the Manassites are ye Gileadites fugitives,” i.e. ye, who despise our authority, nevertheless have your possessions among us,” i.e. ‘ye eat of our good land and enjoy all the benefits that accrue from dwelling among a strong, capable, and well-ordered tribe, but ye refuse even to counsel with that tribe to say nothing of submitting yourself to its voice—ye contemptible outlaws.’ This, in effect, is what they said to Jephthah. And this, in effect is what they said to the Gileadites. But what they said was not true. The Gileadites did not dwell among the Ephraimites. As was said, they had their possessions east of the Jordan where they formed, together with the tribe of Manasseh to which they belonged, an independent tribe, with its own tribal rights. But according to the men of Ephraim, Gilead was nothing by itself, had no tribal rights; it belonged to Ephraim. Yet there was an element of truth in this. According to Num. 26:30ff, some of the descendants of Gilead lived west of the Jordan and had their possessions in Ephraim. But fugitives, outlaws, they were not.
Jephthah did not dispute with the men of Ephraim about the jurisdiction of this tribe over the Gileadites in particular and’ over the tribe of Manasseh in general. He waived this point. Judging from his reply, he well knew and all along had: taken cognizance of the fact that Ephraim and Manasseh had from of old a certain unity of their own and that of the two Ephraim had the chief voice. In his reply he makes the startling revelation that, during the Ammonite oppression, he had accordingly also appealed to the tribe of Ephraim for help but that the appeal had fallen on deaf ears. Ephraim had not lifted a hand, and had thus indicated that the plight of Jephthah and his brethren was of no concern to them. Such were the facts. “I and my people,” said Jephthah to them, “were at great strife with the children of Ammon; and when I called you, ye delivered me not out of their hands.” “When I called you . . .” The text in the original reads, “in my pain and distress I cried unto you, and ye delivered me not . . .” Jephthah here speaks for himself and his people. He continued “And when I saw ye delivered me not,” ‘when I perceived that I and my brethren could expect nothing from you in the way of help,’ “I put my life in my own hands,” ‘I hazarded my own life and the life of my people,’ “and passed over against the children of Ammon and the Lord delivered them unto my hand.” Jephthah’s answer was not defiant. He only wanted them to understand that he had no intention of flouting their authority, that he would gladly have yielded the precedence to them, if responding to his cry, they had only taken up arms against the enemy. He wanted them to understand that, through their unwillingness, they had compelled him and his brethren to take independent action. If he had done wrong they had no one but themselves to blame. His concluding question to them was, “Wherefore then are ye come up against me this day to fight against me,” ‘to burn my house upon me with fire and to lash me and my people with thy tongue’? One would think that, at the hearing of this, the men of Ephraim as consumed by shame and remorse, would have admitted their madness and humbly sought Jephthah’s pardon. But they didn’t. For they were proud and wicked men. Just what they had to say in reply to Jephthah’s defense, is not stated. The sacred narrator does not reveal details. It is probable that, in defense of themselves, they denied that they had ever received a petition for help, as if they had to wait until they were asked. It is certain that they persisted in threatening Jephthah and in reviling the Gileadites in general. Otherwise Jephthah would not have called his brethren to arms. In the light of Jephthah’s revelation the hypocrisy of the men of Ephraim amazes. Apparently they loved the brethren and in that love had so wanted to help poor brethren in distress that they started a civil war because Joshua had fought his war without their assistance. But, as Jephthah revealed, the plight of brethren in distress was the least of their worries. It could not be otherwise. Love does not fight against brethren who war God’s warfare. Love does not threaten to burn down houses of Israel’s deliverers. But injured carnal pride does. And likewise envy and jealousy.
There is finally this question. What did Jephthah have to do with the slaying of the fugitive Ephraimites at the passes of the Jordan. There are four possibilities. 1) He ordered it. 2) He did not order it but condoned it. 3) He neither ordered nor condoned but forbad it. 4) It took place without his knowledge. Which of these possibilities contains the facts cannot be determined from the text of the sacred narrative but must be made out on general principles of Israel’s law. As was said, the sin of the Ephraimites was great. It was national treason and therefore must be placed in the category with the sins for which the offender, according to Israel’s law, had to be put to death. Under the impulse of injured carnal pride, the Ephraimites had crossed the Jordan to slay God’s people and a god-fearing judge and deliverer of Israel. They were thus avowed enemies of God and His people, as were the surrounding heathen. As such they also had to be dealt with. If Jephthah did not expressly order that slaying at the fords of the Jordan, he must have at least permitted it and rightfully so. Yet in slaying those fugitive Ephraimites the Gileadites must be charged with murder, if they were driven by carnal anger. And that they were, as is evident from the notice, “And the men of Gilead smote Ephraim, because they said, Ye are fugitives of Ephraim.
The sacred writer concludes the history of Jephthah with the statement, “And Jephthah judged Israel six years. Then died Jephthah the Gileadite, and was buried in one of the cities of Gilead.” Jephthah’s lot was extraordinary. He was despised and rejected, and had to spend nearly his whole life in exile. Finally he was raised up to deliver the very brethren who had cast him from their midst. Though he gave up everything for his people, the envy of his countrymen threaten to burn his house—a house, which for their sake he had made desolate. He was a great hero of faith who died as he had lived—solitary.
Now follows brief notices concerning three judges. The first of these is Ibzan of Bethlehem who judged Israel seven years, died, and was buried in Bethlehem. He was succeeded by Eton, a Zebulonite, who judged Israel ten years. The third judge was Abdon the son of Hillel whose judgeship lasted eight years. Ibzan had thirty daughters, whom he gave in marriage, and thirty daughters-in-law. Abdon, likewise, had forty sons and thirty prosperous grandsons. These judges did not wage war with the enemies of Israel and thus had no victories. Their respective careers were thus uneventful.
“And the children of Israel did evil again (continued to do evil) in the sight of the Lord; and the Lord delivered them into the hand of the Philistines forty years.” The same history repeats itself everywhere. Not one single tribe is exempted from it. The history of Israel under the judges is a history of sin, repeating itself over and over, and of divine grace, constantly devising new means of deliverance. “And the children of Israel did evil in the sight of the Lord and served Baalim. And the anger of the Lord was hot against Israel and he delivered them into the hands of the spoilers that spoiled them. . . . Nevertheless the Lord raised up judges, which delivered them out of the hands of the spoilers. . . . And it came to pass when the judge was dead that they returned and corrupted themselves more than their fathers . . .” Such was the ever re-occurring round of events in tire time of the judges and through all the ages of the Old Dispensation and through the centuries of the new. The whole history of the church is included in those four sentences. The anger of the Lord waxed hot against His people not to consume them in His wrath but to purge them in His mercy. Withersoever they turned, they would collide with God’s hand as against them for evil. Then in their extremity they would cry unto God. And He would send deliverance, so that Israel would again see His works. There would again be peace in the land. But another generation would rise that knew not the Lord neither the work that he had wrought through His servant, the judge, and the nation again served Baal. Apostasy would be followed by subjection, whether it was inflicted by eastern or western neighbor-tribes. Chapter III of the book of the Judges includes the “five princes of the Philistines” among those through whom Israel was to become acquainted with distress and war. The book began with the oppression of the Mesopotamian king in the east, from which Othniel, the hero of Judah, liberated the people. After tracing a circular course through the east and northeast it ends in the west; and the tribes of Judah, with which the narrative began, is again brought forward at the close. As far back as chapter 7 we read that God “gave up Israel into the hands of the Philistines and the sons of Ammon”. “The achievement of Jephthah against Ammon is first reported. The judges named immediately afterwards, belong to northern tribes, two to Zebulon, one to Ephraim. “Now the writer comes to speak of the great conflicts which Israel had to wage with the five Philistine cities on the coast and which continued to the time of David. The tribes especially concerned in these conflicts were Dan, the western part of Judah, and Simeon encircled by Judah. Once the men of Judah had won even the great cities on the sea coast. Afterwards they were not only unable to maintain possession of them but through their own apostasy from God became themselves dependent on them. Dan had already long been unable to hold his ground anywhere except in the mountains. Now the Philistines were powerful and free in all the Danite cities. Chapter 10:15 tells of the, earnest repentance of Israel before God. But such a statement is not made here, although the history of a new Judge—Samson—is introduced. Everywhere else the narrative, before it relates the history of the Judge, premises that Israel had cried unto God, and that consequently God had taken pity on them. Now it is remarkable that the narrative of Samson’s history is not preceded by a similar remark. It is a point worthy of special notice. For since the history of Israel’s apostasy is repeated, that of its repentance would likewise have to be repeated. That which he does not relate, the narrator must have believed had no existence. And in fact, no such repentance could have taken place at this time in Dan and Judah, as we read of in Gilead. The history of Samson proves this. If, then, such a man nevertheless arose, the compassion which God thereby manifested, was called forth by a few believers scattered here and there. The power which shows itself in the history of Samson is likewise of an individual character. It its only disconnected deliverances which Israel receives through him. It is no entire national renovation, such as were brought about by former judges. Hence the history of Samson differs entirely from the history of the preceding judges.”