Continuing Downward

Judges 12:1-15
1The men of Ephraim were called to arms, and they crossed to Zaphon and said to Jephthah, “Why did you cross over to fight against the Ammonites and did not call us to go with you? We will burn your house over you with fire.” And Jephthah said to them, “I and my people had a great dispute with the Ammonites, and when I called you, you did not save me from their hand. And when I saw that you would not save me, I took my life in my hand and crossed over against the Ammonites, and the Lord gave them into my hand. Why then have you come up to me this day to fight against me?” Then Jephthah gathered all the men of Gilead and fought with Ephraim. And the men of Gilead struck Ephraim, because they said, “You are fugitives of Ephraim, you Gileadites, in the midst of Ephraim and Manasseh.” And the Gileadites captured the fords of the Jordan against the Ephraimites. And when any of the fugitives of Ephraim said, “Let me go over,” the men of Gilead said to him, “Are you an Ephraimite?” When he said, “No,” they said to him, “Then say Shibboleth,” and he said, “Sibboleth,” for he could not pronounce it right. Then they seized him and slaughtered him at the fords of the Jordan. At that time 42,000 of the Ephraimites fell. Jephthah judged Israel six years. Then Jephthah the Gileadite died and was buried in his city in Gilead. After him Ibzan of Bethlehem judged Israel. He had thirty sons, and thirty daughters he gave in marriage outside his clan, and thirty daughters he brought in from outside for his sons. And he judged Israel seven years. 10 Then Ibzan died and was buried at Bethlehem. 11 After him Elon the Zebulunite judged Israel, and he judged Israel ten years. 12 Then Elon the Zebulunite died and was buried at Aijalon in the land of Zebulun. 13 After him Abdon the son of Hillel the Pirathonite judged Israel. 14 He had forty sons and thirty grandsons, who rode on seventy donkeys, and he judged Israel eight years. 15 Then 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.

As Israel continues to spiral ever downward, the tenure of the judges becomes shorter. No longer did the judges bring long periods of peace. Jephthah exerted his influence for only six years. His leadership is followed by Ibzan, Elon, Adon, and Abdon. In 31 years, Israel had 5 different judges. If the men who followed Jephthah were like him in leadership style (brute force and violence) life in Israel was miserable.

In the previous story, Jephthah is fighting Israel’s enemies on the outside. In this reading, it’s civil war. He is pursuing his own people. Ephraim had a problem with hubris. They were incensed that Jephthah did not call upon them to help fight in the last battle. They wanted some of the glory, the plunder, and to escape any allegiance to this illegitimate son of Gideon. Jephthah wins the day and chases them back to their own homeland. But – while they were trying to escape across the river Jephthah’s men put them to the test. If they could not pronounce the word shibboleth (grain) correctly (according to Jephthah’s men) then they were killed. (This inability to pronounce “sh” was a dialectical pocket. These were common throughout the middle east, even up through the days of Jesus, and how you pronounced words identified where you were from, such as a “southern accent” would indicate here in the southern states of the U.S., y’all.) What we actually witness here is the utter brutality of Jephthah and his men. The next four judges serve equally short terms as leaders and they probably didn’t help Israel regain any of their former faithfulness to the Lord. God has been almost completely forgotten by this point in Israel’s history. When God is abandoned, times become desperate.