Thousands die of mispronunciation
Ephraim picks a fight1 Angry warriors from Ephraim’s tribe crossed the Jordan River and confronted Jephthah at the town of Zaphon. They said, “Why did you go into battle with the Ammonites and cut us out? Why didn’t you invite us to come? We’re going to teach you a lesson for that. We’re going to burn your house down on top of you.” 2 “What are you talking about?” Jephthah said, “I called you at the very beginning. You didn’t come. These Ammonites have made life miserable for me and my people for a long time. You didn’t come to our rescue. 3 When I realized I was on my own, I risked my life and took the troops I had and we fought the Ammonites. The LORD let us win. So, what are you doing here stirring up trouble with me?”
Israel vs Israel4 Jephthah assembled his troops from Gilead, and they fought and defeated Ephraim. The dispute erupted into a battle after Ephraim’s representatives insulted Jephthah. They said, “You and your men are a worthless gang of outcasts. Nobody wants you. Not in Ephraim. And not in your own tribe of Manasseh.” 5 Some of Jephthah’s warriors circled around behind Ephraim’s fighting men. This cut off their retreat because Jephthah’s men took control of the shallow fords at the Jordan River, which Ephraim’s troops had to cross to go home. Whenever someone came there to cross, men of Gilead asked, “Are you from Ephraim?” When travelers said, “No,” Gilead men gave them a test. 6 They said, “Say the word Shibboleth.” People from Ephraim pronounced the word “Sibboleth.” They couldn’t pronounce it the other way. When they mispronounced the word, Gilead troops killed them on the spot. Gilead killed 42,000 men of Ephraim. 7 Jephthah led Israel for six years, and then he died. They buried him in one of the towns in Gilead.
Three little-known leaders8 Ibzan of Bethlehem led Israel after Jephthah. 9 He had 30 sons and 30 daughters. He arranged all 60 marriages to people outside the extended family—to people in other clans. He led Israel for seven years. 10 When he died, people buried him in Bethlehem. 11 Afterward, Elon from Zebulun led Israel for 10 years. 12 He died, and people buried him in the town of Aijalon, in Zebulun. 13 The next leader was Abdon, Hillel’s son. He lived in the city of Pirathon. 14 He had 40 sons and 30 grandsons. They each rode on a donkey—70 donkeys. He led Israel for eight years. 15 When Abdon died, they buried him at Pirathon in Ephraim’s tribe, among the hills of Amalek.
Location of Zaphon is uncertain, but likely east of the Jordan River. Some place it in Gad’s tribal territory, near Succoth. One ancient ruin suggested by some: Tell es-Sadidiye, south of the Sea of Galilee, and roughly 20 miles (32 km) southeast of Beth-shan.
His brothers had already kicked him out of the house once (11:2).
Scholars disagree over how to interpret the insult. Did intruders from Ephraim call them fugitives on the run? Or were they referring to the fact that Jephthah and his troops were former robbers, killers, and the kind of people who got disowned, disinherited, and generally dissed for being terrible human beings?
Ehud took the fords, too, in his war against Moab (3:28).
Here, the writer turns Ephraim’s insult of Jephthah back onto Ephraim by using the same Hebrew word, which can mean “fugitive” on the run.
People in Ephraim apparently dropped their “h’s” when they spoke. Perhaps it was a bit like singing, “If I ‘ad a ‘ammer, I’d ‘ammer in the morning.” Centuries later, Jesus’ disciple Peter got called out for his Galilean accent: “Come on. You know you’re one of them because you have the same accent they do” (Matthew 26:73). An ancient story in the Babylonian Talmud makes fun of Galileans for their accent that involved the “h” sound in words. “You stupid Galilean. Do you mean a donkey (ham r), wine (hamar), wool (‘amar), or a lamb (immar)?
There was a Bethlehem in Judah’s tribe. And there was another Bethlehem north in Zebulun’s tribe. Scholars disagree about which one Ibzan called home.
Marriage was an opportunity to create alliances, peace treaties, and business deals. Kings took advantage of these opportunities when they married a princess daughter to a prince from another kingdom. Herders and farmers did the same.
This city was apparently in the tribe of Ephraim (12:15). Later, one of King David’s elite warriors is identified as Benaiah of Pirathon in Ephraim’s tribe (1 Chronicles 27:14).
Donkeys were a favorite mode of transportation in Bible times, and one of the most expensive.
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