Judges chapter 12 records an odd little sequel to the tragic tale of Jephthah and his daughter. It has little to do with that tragedy and nothing to do with the daughter, and all things considered comes off as a bit anticlimactic. If I were writing Jephthah’s story as my own fiction, I would have combined the two stories to integrate them into a single narrative; but the Bible is sometimes sloppy that way. But I have a fondness for minor and irrelevant stories, especially if they are the source for an obscure factoid. So let me present the story of Jephthah and Ephraim.
Shortly after Jephthah’s victory over the Ammonites that came at such a personal cost, perhaps as he was still mourning the loss of his beloved daughter due to his rash vow (Judges 11:30-40), the men of Ephraim come to him with a gripe. Ephraim was another of the tribes of Israel, bordering Gilead on the other side of the Jordan River. They’re sore at Jephthah because he didn’t let them join in on his raid against the Ammonites.
The men of Ephraim called out their forces, crossed over to Zaphon and said to Jephthah, “Why did you go to fight the Ammonites without calling us to go with you? We’re going to burn down your house over your head.” (Judges 12:1 NIV)
Perhaps this isn’t the worst reason anybody’s ever gone to war, but it has to rank up there. The text deosn’t say exactly why the Ephraimites are throwing a hissy fit over someone else’s battle, but I’m guessing it’s envy. When Jephthah defeated the Ammonites, he took twenty of their towns (Judges 11:33) and doubtless came home with a lot of loot. His men were mercenaries, remember? I’m guessing that the Ephraimites were mad because they wished they had gotten a cut of the swag.
It might also have been a bit of snobbery; the text tells us that the Ephraimites insulted Jephthah’s men, saying “You Gileadites are renegades from Ephraim and Manasseh” (Judges 12:4). An earlier verse in the text tells us that Jephthah’s army was largely composed of “worthless” or “empty men”, outcasts like himself. How dare these losers presume to make war on our enemies without us!
Several years earlier, the Ephraimites had made the same complaint to Gideon when Gideon had defeated the Midianites, (Judges 8:1) So it could simply be that the Ephraimites were just buttheads.
Jephthah answered, “I and my people were engaged in a great struggle with the Ammonites, and although I called, you didn’t save me out of their hands. When I saw that you wouldn’t help, I took my life in my hands and crossed over to fight Ammonites, and the LORD gave me victory over them. Now why have you come up today to fight me?” (Judges 12:2-3)
My study Bible commends Jephthah for attempting diplomacy first. My own reading is that he was pretty pissed. At least I would be in his position. We weren’t told earlier that the Ephraimites had been asked to help, but it makes sense that the tribal leaders of Gilead would have done so. In any case, Jephthah doesn’t have time for this crap; the Eprhaimites had their chance to join the Coalition of the Willing, and they passed on it. So that’s their tough tacos.
This is roughly the same reply that Gideon gave the Ephraimites in Judges chapter 8. In the previous instance, the Ephraimites backed down. This time, they’re spoiling for a fight; and so Jephthah lets them have it.
As in the previous campaign against the Ammonites, Jephthah’s men kick butt. Not only does he send the Ephraimites running, he sends some of his forces to seize the fords of the Jordan. The tribe of Ephraim came from the other side of the river, you’ll remember.
So when the fleeing survivors of the Ephraimite army try to escape, they come up to Gileadite checkpoints at the fords. The sentries would ask anyone who came to the fords if he was an Ephraimite; and if the guy said no, the sentries would reply, “Okay, then say ‘Shibboleth.’”
The word “Shibboleth” in Hebrew meant “torrent” or “floods”, an appropriate password for a river ford. (Or it can also mean a sheaf of wheat, but under the circumstances the other interpretation seems more appropriate. But the point of the password was that the Ephraimites spoke with a regional accent that was different than the Gideonites. When an Ephraimite said “Shibboleth”, it came out sounding like “Sibboleth”. And in this way, Jephthah’s forces were able to cut off the fleeing remnants of the Ephraimite army.
This kind of password has been used on other occasions. Perhaps the best known version is the word “Lollapalooza”, which was used by American troops serving in the Pacific during World War II to test unidentified persons. Since the Japanese language doesn’t really differentiate between the “R” sounds and the “L” sounds, the reasoning was that a Japanese spy trying to say the word would come out something like “raraparusa” Whether this worked for American. GI’s as well as it did for Jephthah, I couldn’t say.
But the word “Shibboleth” is still used today in some circumstances to refer to code words, catch phrases and shared values one is expected to use in order to be accepted by a particular group. A politician might pay lip service to “Limited Government” or “Family Values” or “National Security” in order to please his base, even if his actual policies would work to the detriment of the values he espouses. (And to be sure, every political faction has its own cherished buzz words which it expects its leaders to invoke).
Personally, I find it hard enough trying to pronounce “Jephthah.”