Notes on Judges chapter 12

by Jonathan Spurlock
(Holts Summit, MO)

Judges 12:1, KJV: And the men of Ephraim gathered themselves together, and went northward, and said unto Jephthah, Wherefore passedst thou over to fight against the children of Ammon, and didst not call us to go with thee? we will burn thine house upon thee with fire.

The men of Ephraim had done almost the same thing with Gideon some years earlier (Judges 8:2) when Gideon was in battle against the Midianites. Gideon gave them a peaceful answer at that time. One wonders if the Ephraimites had forgotten that Gideon had sent messengers asking for help (Judges 7:24) and that they were the ones who captured the two princes of Midian (Judges 7:25). Gideon knew that it would take time for Ephraim to prepare for battle and head north to the land of Zebulun, Naphtali, Asher, and west Manasseh, where the Midianites had camped. The site of the enemy camp was probably close to an entire days’ march from Ephraim.

Apparently, also, Ephraim forgot that Jephthah’s battle against Ammon took place on the east side of the Jordan, in the land of Gilead (see Judges 11 for the whole story). Also, Ammon had previously crossed the Jordan and fought against Judah, Benjamin, and Ephraim (Judges 10:8) but there is no record that any of those tribes asked for assistance from anyone else. The text does not say how long the Ammonites fought against those three western tribes.

Ephraim had, at least in this instance, used a very threatening tone in their message to Jephthah. When the men of Ephraim approached Gideon, they were angry that he allegedly didn’t involve them in the battle but they never threatened to do him bodily harm (Judges 8:1-3). Now Ephraim is threatening to burn down Jephthah’s house, with him in it!

Note also that the text says the men of Ephraim went north. Manasseh’s western territory was the land next to Ephraim but there is no record Jephthah settled there; Mizpeh was his residence, at least when the war against Ammon took place (Judges 11:34). Did they cross the Jordan to meet (perhaps threaten?) Jephthah, after the victory over Ammon? Strangely enough, Ephraim and Manasseh were blood brothers, sons of Joseph and his Egyptian wife, Asenath (Gen. 46:20), so this was a struggle between distant cousins.

2 And Jephthah said unto them, I and my people were at great strife with the children of Ammon; and when I called you, ye delivered me not out of their hands.

There is no mention of this in the text, where Jephthah sent messengers to any of the tribes or that Ephraim volunteered to help Jephthah in any way..

3 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 unto me this day, to fight against me?

Jephthah had passed over but these all seemed to have happened in Gilead, the east side of Jordan (Judges 11:29), according to the text. He reminds Ephraim that the LORD gave victory to Jephthah and his followers, then asks “why do you want to fight me?”.

4 Then Jephthah gathered together all the men of Gilead, and fought with Ephraim: and the men of Gilead smote Ephraim, because they said, Ye Gileadites (are) fugitives of Ephraim among the Ephraimites, (and) among the Manassites.

About the only truth in that statement or insult is that half the tribe of Manasseh chose to live in Gilead along with the tribes of Reuben and Gad (Numbers 32). Ephraim lost this battle against Gilead’s men.

5 And the Gileadites took the passages of Jordan before the Ephraimites: and it was (so), that when those Ephraimites which were escaped said, Let me go over; that the men of Gilead said unto him, (Art) thou an Ephraimite? If he said, Nay;

It is not certain where these passages or crossings were located, except that Ephraim’s territory was north of the crossing near Jericho. Benjamin was given the territory near Jericho when Joshua divided the land among the tribes (Joshua 18:11-28).

The men of Ephraim were bold enough to threaten Jephthah with burning down his house, with him inside, at the beginning of this chapter but now they were using anything they could in order to escape. The Gileadites controlled most of the Jordan River crossings, apparently, and, asked anyone trying to cross the Jordan a simple question: “Are you and Ephraimite?” If anyone said “No. . . .”

6 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 Jordan: and there fell at that time of the Ephraimites forty and two thousand.

The Gileadites were also aware of a difference in dialect between themselves and the Ephraimites. Apparently the Ephraimites could not pronounce the “sh” sound, as in “shibboleth”, only the “s” sound as in “sibboleth”. This relatively minor difference in speech or dialect was a true giveaway. Ephraim lost 42,000 men in this one battle alone (their total population size is not stated).

7 And Jephthah judged Israel six years. Then died Jephthah the Gileadite, and was buried in (one of) the cities of Gilead.

Nothing more is said of Jephthah after this verse, except a mention in 1 Samuel 12:11 as one who delivered Israel from their enemies, and in the “Hall of Fame”, Hebrews 11:32. He would be known as a judge or deliverer, defeating the Ammonites; one who put down a rebellion or insurrection by the Ephraimites; and one who honored his vow to God. His burial place is not mentioned specifically.

8 And after him Ibzan of Bethlehem judged Israel.

Most likely this was the Bethlehem in Judah, the city of Boaz and Ruth, and later David. This city is mentioned many times in the Old Testament. There was another Bethlehem, which was located in Zebulun’s territory (once, Joshua 19:15). The text does not specify which Bethlehem is in view here.

9 And he had thirty sons, and thirty daughters, (whom) he sent abroad, and took in thirty daughters from abroad for his sons. And he judged Israel seven years. 10 Then died Ibzan, and was buried at Bethlehem.

Ibzan is only mentioned here. There is no record of anything else he did which is mentioned in the text.

11 And after him Elon, a Zebulonite, judged Israel; and he judged Israel ten years. 12 And Elon the Zebulonite died, and was buried in Aijalon in the country of Zebulun.

The land of Zebulun had seen its share of battles during the days of the Judges. The men of Zebulun joined with Naphtali under Deborah and Barak to defeat Sisera (Judges 4), then when Gideon fought against the Midianites, Zebulun joined with Asher, Naphtali, and the western portion of Manasseh to assist Gideon. It seems fitting that at least one of the judges came from this tribe.

13 And after him Abdon the son of Hillel, a Pirathonite, judged Israel. 14 And he had forty sons and thirty nephews, that rode on threescore and ten ass colts: and he judged Israel eight years.

Nothing else is stated about Abdon except what is recorded in these verses. Regardless, he was raised up to be one of Israel’s Judges.

15 And Abdon the son of Hillel the Pirathonite died, and was buried in Pirathon in the land of Ephraim, in the mount of the Amalekites.

The exact location of Pirathon is not stated except that it was located in the land of Ephraim. Why it is called the “mount of the Amalekites” is nowhere explained.

Scripture quotations taken from the King James Version of the Bible (KJV).

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