Read Judges 12
Jephthah and Ephraim
12 The Ephraimite forces were called out, and they crossed over to Zaphon. They 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.”
2 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. 3 When I saw that you wouldn’t help, I took my life in my hands and crossed over to fight the Ammonites, and the Lord gave me the victory over them. Now why have you come up today to fight me?”
4 Jephthah then called together the men of Gilead and fought against Ephraim. The Gileadites struck them down because the Ephraimites had said, “You Gileadites are renegades from Ephraim and Manasseh.” 5 The Gileadites captured the fords of the Jordan leading to Ephraim, and whenever a survivor of Ephraim said, “Let me cross over,” the men of Gilead asked him, “Are you an Ephraimite?” If he replied, “No,” 6 they said, “All right, say ‘Shibboleth.’” If he said, “Sibboleth,” because he could not pronounce the word correctly, they seized him and killed him at the fords of the Jordan. Forty-two thousand Ephraimites were killed at that time.
7 Jephthah led Israel six years. Then Jephthah the Gileadite died and was buried in a town in Gilead.
Ibzan, Elon and Abdon
8 After him, Ibzan of Bethlehem led Israel. 9 He had thirty sons and thirty daughters. He gave his daughters away in marriage to those outside his clan, and for his sons he brought in thirty young women as wives from outside his clan. Ibzan led Israel seven years. 10 Then Ibzan died and was buried in Bethlehem.
11 After him, Elon the Zebulunite led Israel ten years. 12 Then Elon died and was buried in Aijalon in the land of Zebulun.
13 After him, Abdon son of Hillel, from Pirathon, led Israel. 14 He had forty sons and thirty grandsons, who rode on seventy donkeys. He led Israel eight years. 15 Then Abdon son of Hillel died and was buried at Pirathon in Ephraim, in the hill country of the Amalekites.
After defeating the Ammonites, Jephthah is confronted by the people of the tribe of Ephraim, acting incredulous that Jephthah would shame them by going to fight without them (even though he had called on them to fight before and they had not answered). Jephthah attacks the Ephraimites, and finds a clever means of identifying his enemies in the Hebrew word shibboleth. It seems that the Ephraimites spoke Hebrew in a different accent than the people of Gilead did (think Spaniard Spanish and Latin Spanish). When asked to say the word “shibboleth”, they pronounced it differently, and it became clear that they were of Ephraim.
What this passage is not trying to do is make any sort of ethical commentary on Jephthah’s actions against the Ephraimites—it is more a history than an endorsement. That said, there is something to learn from the way that Jephthah uses the shibboleth as a litmus test to identify the Ephraimites.
If we claim to hold to an identity of any kind, there are going to be clear tells that indicate that identity to the rest of the world. In the ancient world, circumcision functioned in this way—a clear, undeniable sign that a Hebrew male was part of the family of God. Here the word “shibboleth” functions much the same, distinguishing who is a part of Ephraim and who is not.
It is often hard to tell who is or is not a Christian—there are a great many people who claim the name of Jesus with their mouth, but with their hearts and their lives they forsake him. So, what are the shibboleths that give us away as followers of a generation that only does what is right in their own eyes? Jesus says this in John 14:23-24:
23 Anyone who loves me will obey my teaching. My Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them. 24 Anyone who does not love me will not obey my teaching.
Jesus is clear—the shibboleths of his followers are their very lives. Can the people around you clearly see that you follow Jesus? Can God? Do you live in a way that exemplifies the Gospel, or is it hard to pick you out from among the crowd? Jephthah makes it clear for us: If one looks like an Ephraimite, and talks like an Ephraimite, it’s probably an Ephraimite. Let’s pray that people look at us, hear us, and find Jesus.
- Is it easy or difficult for you to distinguish who among you is a follower of Jesus? Why or why not?
- What are some clear, specific shibboleths that should set followers of Jesus apart from the rest of the world?
- If you gave someone a list of those things, would they be able to look at your life and pick you out as a follower of Jesus?
Align my heart with Your heart, my words with Your words, and my ways with Your ways. Would the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable in your sight, and would they be clear indicators to the world around me of who I follow. Help me to live, eat, and bleed the Gospel in all that I do. Amen.
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