Jephthah Battles Ephraim

Bible Reference: Judges Chapter 12

Heart of Story: Jephthah attempted to explain to the Ephraim’s why they were not included in the battle with the Ammonites. Arguably, the battle between Gilead and Ephraim is the first incident of a civil war among the children of Israel.

Back Story: Prior to Jephthah attacking the Ammonites, he sent word to Ephraim asking their assistance in warring against the Ammonites. The Ephraimites didn’t respond to Jephthah’s request. After Jephthah and the Gileadites defeated the Ammonites, Ephraimites were incensed that they weren’t included in the battle. They threatened to burn down Jephthah’s house in Mizpah, Gilead. Several Bible commentators noted that the Ephraimites anger was because they did not get an opportunity to loot spoils of war from Ammonite cities.

Story Line: Similar to the way Jephthah attempted to reason with the Ammonite king, Jephthah attempted to explain how his army engaged in battle with the Ammonites without the Ephraimites. Jephthah’s explanations to the Ephraimites had no effect. In fact the Ephraimites call the Gileadites “renegades from Ephraim and Manasseh” (Judges 12:4).

Jephthah called the Gilead men and they fought against Ephraimites and prevailed capturing the fords across the Jordan River into Ephraim. When a surviving Ephraimite soldiers attempted to cross the Jordan River at a ford, the Gileadites used Ephraimite pronunciation the word “shibboleth” to identify if the man was an Ephraimite.

The Bible recorded that 42,000 Ephraimites were killed at this time. This number seems inordinately high number of dead soldiers. Possibly, 42,000 was an estimated number or meant to imply a high number of deaths. When Ephraim entered the Promised Land about 250 years earlier, it size was 32,500 clans (Numbers 26:37 NIV).

Jephthah led Israelite six years. Then he died and was buried in the town of Gilead (Judges 12:7 NIV). Most likely, Gilead was a town near Mizpah on the eastern side of the Jordan River.

Pondering Relationships: “renegades from Ephraim and Manasseh” (Judges 12:4). In today’s language, a renegade is a deserter from one’s faith, cause, or religion; someone who rejects tradition. By using this accusation, Ephraim accused Gilead of separating themselves both from Manasseh and Ephraim, who were the sons of Joseph. Among the tradition-focused Israelites, the Ephraimites were slandering the Gileadites.

The Bible didn’t record that the Ephraimites invaded Gilead. We surmise that they did so by the Bible description that Gileadites captured the  Jordan River fords and killed Ephraimites who pronounced “schibboth” differently than Gileadites.

In ancient Hebrew “shibboleth” meant stream or flood. One Bible scholar contended that the Ephraimites weren’t able to sound the “sh” in shibboleth; however, the NIV Study Bible averred that Gileadites pronounced “schibboleth” as “thibboleth” while Ephraimites as “shibboleth.” Whichever the correct pronunciation, Gileadites were able to differentiate Ephraimites from Gileadites using how Ephraimites pronounced the word.

Reflection: Why do you think that the Ephraimites were so angry at the Gileadites that they were willing to go to war with them?

Copyright: July 6, 2019; Carolyn A. Roth

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