Harry Whittaker
Judges And Ruth

16. “Shibboleth” (ch. 12)

The loss of his daughter was not the only trial Jephthah had to face at this time of victory. The men of Ephraim were known throughout Israel for their sense of self-importance. Taking undue pride in the precedence assigned to their tribe in Jacob’s prophetic blessing on Joseph’s younger son, they never lost an opportunity to assert what they deemed to be their primacy in Israel. Even with Joshua, himself a man of Ephraim, they had shown themselves cantankerous and greedy of territory (Josh. 17:14), so that it had called for much forbearance and tact on Joshua’s part in the handling of their selfish complaint. Gideon had had to face the same problem. Instead of applauding his heroism, stamina and skill in routing the Midianites, they childishly complained that they had been ignored in the rally and struggle for liberty.

Jephthah had to face the same unreasonable spirit. Angry at being left in the background when glorious victories were being won by such an upstart leader, the Ephraimites gathered in force and crossed Jordan into Gilead. Possibly, too, they felt it unwise to allow a man such as Jephthah to become too powerful, for then their own dominance of central Israel might be challenged.

But in Jephthah they had a man of different material from either Joshua or Gideon. These two were, both of them, men lacking self-confidence; whereas Jephthah feared no one save the God whom he worshipped. Besides this, he was terribly depressed by the loss of his only child, so he was not disposed to exercise overmuch patience with such unreasonable neighbours.

Even so, as with the Ammonites, he reasoned with them, pointing out bluntly that appeal had been made to them earlier, but in vain. This time spent in futile parley at least enabled Jephthah to rally his men once more. They, laden with spoils of war, had already dispersed to their own homes. Once again the battle was joined — a sorry spectacle, this, Israelite against Israelite! — and once again Jephthah’s valour and brains won the day.

A convenient password

When the men of Ephraim turned to flee, Jephthah with quick foresight detailed off squads of men to travel swiftly to the fords of Jordan. It was Ehud’s coup de grace over again (3 :28). Yet in his fairness Jephthah strictly forbad them to slay any except the men of Ephraim who should fall into their hands there (for the fords of Jordan were always busy with travellers other than Ephraimites).

Evidently there was some local trick of speech characteristic of the men of Ephraim which enabled a rough and ready discrimination to be made between them and others. The Englishman’s traditional inability to say “braw bricht moonlicht nicht” in guid Scots, and the Frenchman’s common failure with the English th are other examples of the same sort of linguistic peculiarity. Possibly too Jephthah’s men chose the word ‘Shibboleth’ not only because of its initial consonant but also because of the ambiguity in its meaning; for it can signify either ‘a flood of waters’ (to be crossed) or ‘an ear of corn’ (to be threshed).

How many men fell in this deplorable strife among brethren? It is difficult to take the AV’s forty-two thousand seriously. A possible reading is: “forty-two fighting men” (see “Bible Studies”, 10.15).

Thereafter Jephthah was left in peace. Indeed it is fairly likely that for the rest of his days he was accepted by most of the central tribes as the God-given Judge of Israel.

In this capacity he lived for only six short years. The Hebrew text has the nonsensical reading that “he was buried in the cities of Gilead”. But it requires, however, only the very smallest emendation to read (as LXX) ‘in his own city’, i.e., Mizpeh.

Can it be that Jephthah’s short tenure of office points to his being middle-aged when he became chief of Gilead? The fact that he had no other child after his daughter, and the sharp contrast with the enormous families of other judges of Israel, perhaps encourages this idea.

Jephthah and Christ

Jephthah stands out as a man of many admirable qualities. Not only was he patient with his enemies and unresentful of wrongs done to him. Not only was he a strong personality amongst men and brilliantly versatile in war. But also in an age of declension he was a man outstanding for his godliness! Although only half an Israelite, he was by his faith and zeal for the Lord the finest of them all in that day of very small things. Throughout a life of change and uncertainty — the life of an outlaw — he maintained his intimacy with the Word of God given through Moses. And through that Word he nurtured his sense of justice until the day when he was called to exercise it on behalf of the people of the Lord. Against all discouragements, he put God first in his life: “I have opened my mouth unto the Lord, and I cannot go back.” What more fitting words for his epitaph? Assuredly the name of Jephthah did not creep into Hebrews 11 through accident or oversight.

It is not difficult to trace a number of intriguing parallels between Jephthah and Christ.

“Minor” judges

Jephthah was followed in the central tribes by three other “minor” judges about whom little is recorded.

Ibzan of Bethlehem in Zebulun (Josh. 19:15), by contrast with Jephthah and his one daughter, had a remarkably well-organized family of thirty sons and thirty daughters all of whom were suitably married off. There is no word of deliverance or military exploits, so presumably these were not necessary during his seven years.

There is no possibility that he should be equated with Boaz, the husband of Ruth.

He was followed by Elon, also of Zebulun. Aijalon, his city (not to be confused with the Aijalon made famous by Joshua’s long day), was probably named after him.

Next came Abdon the son of Hillel. He belonged to Ephraim, the centre of his administration being only a few miles west of Shechem. Again there is mystifying mention of a vast family, but after a relatively short rule of eight years he died without obvious successor, and declension set in again.


Went northward, to the fords near Succoth; or, possibly (as RVm) to Zephon which was near Succoth, north of the Jabbok.
Gathered together. His meagre army was already dispersed after the battle against Ammon.
Shibboleth. LXX turns this into Stachys (Rom. 16:9). Presumably this test word would be introduced into casual conversation, and thus the unsuspecting Ephraimite would unconsciously give himself away. The same word s’bol comes in Isa. 53:4 (= Matt. 8:17) — a more powerful instance of how he who took Sibboleth on himself died!

Slew. The Hebrew word normally means sacrificial slaying. Then why here? Fuller’s comment is: “Haply this execution, without order of Jephthah, might be done by the Gileadites in heat of anger, soldiers in the precipice of their passion being sensible of no other stop but the bottom.”
Elon was evidently a tribal name; Num. 26:26.
Abdon by an easy distortion becomes Bedan (1 Sam. 12:11).
The mount of the Amalekites was probably so named from 7:12,24,25.

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