I’m not the jealous type. That said, on one particular occasion I remember the green monster of envy creeping up in an unusually strong way. I was in college and had already met and begun a friendship with Brianna (who is now my wife). Her dormitory building was close to mine and also near the marching band practice field. I was at band practice one hot afternoon on that field (yes, I’m a band nerd) and saw out of the corner of my eye Brianna walking to her dormitory building accompanied by a guy who lived on my hall. Oh yes. Worse yet, he was a nice guy! Even though Brianna and I were not yet dating, I can’t remember a time in which I was more distracted and hot with jealousy than in that moment. Here was a guy doing the very thing that I would have preferred to do at the time! Ooooo…it was bad. I was helpless to do anything as the band director called us to attention and proceeded with the lengthy practice. All I could do was hope that this guy proved dull to the girl that I had my heart set on. Luckily, this particular episode of jealousy wasn’t particularly costly and didn’t lead to any disaster. After all, I’m walking with Brianna now, aren’t I? However, envy, jealousy, insecurity, etc. can prove very problematic, even deadly. In Judges 12, as we near the end of Jephthah’s story, we see two presentations that reveal just how destructive these feelings and the implications thereof can be.
a. PRESENTATION #1: An Internal Squabble-12:1-6
After the victory of Israel over the sons of Ammon and the tragedy of Jephthah sacrificing his daughter, one of tribes wakes up and arrives late to the party…again. “Then the men of Ephraim were summoned, and they crossed to Zaphon and said to Jephthah, ‘Why did you cross over to fight against the sons of Ammon without calling us to go with you? …” (12:1). If you will remember, the same tribe in chapter 8 accosted Gideon after defeating the Midianites without them. What a curious thing it would have been for Jephthah to come off a great victory only to be negatively confronted by his own countrymen because they weren’t a part of what was going on. Here, the Ephraimites, with armies ready for battle, appear before Jephthah and rain on Israel’ parade because they felt slighted.
However, rather than just rain on Israel’s parade, the Ephraimites even threatens their cousins with destruction—“we will burn your house down on you” (12:1). Yikes! The tribe of Ephraim does not just arrive to talk it out, they arrive with troops ready for battle. Jephthah had already lost his one and only daughter (albeit because of his own failure), and now his extended family wanted to take away his home. “Instead of congratulating Jephthah for his accomplishment and thanking him for delivering them from the Ammonite menace, in their jealousy and wounded sense of self-importance, the Ephraimites determined to destroy the deliverer” (Block, Judges, Ruth, 381).
In keeping with his negotiating ways, Jephthah tries to talk his way out of another crisis (Remember, he had already negotiated with his brothers in an effort to his people (see 11:4ff) and had inappropriately negotiated with God (see 11:29ff)). Here, he tells Ephraim—“I and my people were at great strife with the sons of Ammon;…” (12:2a). The way the translation has been smoothed out in English misses an important nuance about what Jephthah says here. Though in the NASB it reads “I and my people were at great strife,” a better translation would read “I and my people were contentious.” The word “contentious” intentionally places Jephthah in the same class as the Ephraimites (“Then the men of Ephraim said to him, ‘What is this thing you have done to us, not calling us when you went to fight against Midian?’ and they contended with him vigorously”-8:1). Here, Jephthah reminds these would-be aggressors that his entire public life has been characterized by contention (and winning against aggressors). The Ephraimites may not have realized it yet, but in Jephthah, these hostile cousins had met their match (Block, Judges, Ruth, 381).
Also, Jephthah reminds the Ephraimites that “when I called you, you did not deliver me from their hand” (12:2b). Paraphrase—It is not like you were not invited to help. You missed out and it is your fault.
Annoyed by this affront from the Ephraimites, Jephthah continues with a self-congratulatory report of what he and his people were able to accomplish without Ephraim’s help—“ When I saw that you would not deliver me, I took my life in my hands and crossed over against the sons of Ammon, and the Lord gave them into my hand…” (12:3a). While this might sound pious by the end of the statement, ultimately, Jephthah is couching a very personal, defensive, and self-serving presentation in holy language to mask his frustration.
Jephthah then asks, “Why then have you come up to me this day to fight against me?” (12:3b). It is an honest question given by an exhausted and grievous man who, perhaps, was looking forward to some relative normalcy following his victory over the sons of Ammon. However, as the reader has witnessed and as we have all grown to expect, in the Book of Judges, normalcy and peace is impossible in a nation that has forgotten God and his ways.
In this case Jephthah’s negotiating/verbal presentation did not do anything to assuage the wrath of Ephraim. Instead, the very next verse reveals that conflict ensues between these two groups—“Then Jephthah gathered all the men of Gilead and fought Ephraim; and the men of Gilead defeated Ephraim, because they said, ‘You are fugitives of Ephraim, O Gileadites, in the midst of Ephraim and in the midst of Manasseh.’…” (12:4). It appears what finally pushes Jephthah over the edge is a personal insult/attack. The Ephraimites call the Gileadites “fugitives…in the midst of Ephraim and in the midst of Manasseh” (12:4). This pejorative accusation was intended to touch an especially sore spot in Jephthah’s own experience. After all, remember, Jephthah was born of a harlot and for a time was ostracized by his own brothers! This is a verbal missile lodged by Ephraim targeting an especially insecure and sore spot in Jephthah’s life.
The escalation of this conflict follows the following trajectory: 1) Jealousy/feeling left out (just as in the case of the Ephraimites) leads to 2) a conflict on questionable/shaky grounds and 3) once reason/rationality is ignored 4) things devolve into personal attacks that leave very little room for peaceful resolution/restitution. Remember, these are fellow Israelites here! The real enemy—the sons of Ammon—have already been taken care of. This unfortunate episode ought to serve as a cautionary tale for us all who would either deliberately or accidentally find ourselves fighting the wrong enemy and/or inadvertently entering winless battles.
The fallout that ensues takes the following shape—“The Gileadites captured the fords of the Jordan opposite Ephraim. And it happened when any of the fugitives of Ephraim said, ‘Let me cross over,’ the men of Gilead would say to him, ‘Are you an Ephraimite?’…” (12:5a). Jephthah responds to the personal insult by capturing all the access points across the Jordan River, keeping the Ephraimites who had crossed the Jordan to pick a fight from returning to their land. The use of “fugitives” here turns the insult that Ephraim lodged Jephthah’s way back against them. Who are the fugitives now? Ephraim was away from home and now had no way of getting back! The only way to cross the Jordan River was by answering the questions at these new checkpoints correctly. The first of these questions was “are you an Ephraimite?”
“If he said ‘No,’ Then they would say to him, ‘Say now, “Shibboleth.”’ But he said, ‘Sibboleth,’ for he could not pronounce it correctly…” (12:5b-6a). At these checkpoints suspicious characters were commanded to say “Shibboleth.” Newly appointed Gileadite TSA agents knew that the Ephraimites pronounced this word “sibbolet” given the way certain words were pronounced in their region. It was a clever means of exposing those Ephraimites trying to head home by way of crossing the Jordan River.
Clever and devastatingly effective. Those mispronouncing the word were captured and killed with great efficiency—“Then they seized him and slew him at the fords of the Jordan. Thus there fell at that time 42,000 of Ephraim…” (12:6b). This conflict and the outcome historically significant for at least a couple of reasons. First, it serves to establish the Jordan River as a geographical and psychological barrier between eastern and western Israelites. It also reinforces a negative connotation toward the Ephraimites who are portrayed as the principal instigators of discord in Israel during this period. What we are beginning to see here is the makings of a civil war in Israel. By the time of Jephthah, Israel has become its own worst enemy. God’s silence is deafening and he appears content to let the nation destroy itself (Block, Judges, Ruth, 384). Again, what caused this slaughter and the seeds of civil war? A silly dispute that turned personal served as the principle catalyst of this great distress.
b. PRESENTATION #2: A Series of Successions-12:7-15
The end of Jephthah’s tenure is described in verse 7—“Jephthah judged Israel six years. Then Jephthah the Gileadite died and was buried in one of the cities of Gilead” (12:7). Jephthah’s cycle ends tragically—no children and civil war. Though God had proven silent throughout much of Jephthah’s leadership, he was never absent and kept the nation of Israel from totally destroying itself. In fact, the nation, miraculously endured.
What follows is an account of so-called minor judges. This brief list gives the reader a much-needed emotional break after Jephthah’s account. First on the list is Ibzan—“Now Ibzan of Bethlehem judges Israel after him. He had thirty sons, and thirty daughters whom he gave in marriage outside the family, and he brought in thirty daughters from outside for his sons. And he judged Israel seven years. Then Ibzan died and was buried in Bethlehem…” (12:8-10). The emphasis here on the number of children and intermarriage suggests that Israel was experiencing some level of unity and divine blessing during this period—stability and peace that extended, in Ibzan’s case in the southern region of Bethlehem.
Relative peace and unity also extended into the northern territory of Zebulun under Elon—“Now Elon the Zebulunite judged Israel after him; and he judged Israel ten years. Then Elon the Zebulunite died and was buried at Aijalon in the land of Zeubulun…” (12:11-12).
The same set of affairs continues in the centrally located area of Pirathon under Abdon—“ Now Abdon the son of Hillel the Pirathonite judged Israel after him. He had forty sons and thirty grandsons who rode on seventy donkeys; and he judged Israel eight years. 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…” (12:13-15).
A couple of things to point out of these quick accounts as the story of Judges moves forward. First, the numerous children given to these leaders stands in stark contrast to the one child that Jephthah had killed, once again highlighting just how tragic that sacrifice of his daughter proved. Second, these children were presumably born from numerous wives, suggesting that these leaders, like Gideon before them, had a harem. In other words, these leaders didn’t show concern at all for the law of God. Not only that, but the image of Abdon’s sons and grandsons riding on donkeys has a royal flavor to it.
2 Samuel 13:29b-“… Then all the king's sons arose and each mounted his mule and fled.”
2 Samuel 16:2-“Now when David had passed a little beyond the summit, behold, Ziba the servant of Mephibosheth met him with a couple of saddled donkeys”
The donkey’s in Judges 12 suggest that these leaders were at least posturing as dynastic rulers similar to the pagan nations that surrounded them (something that was not permitted by God) (Chisholm, Judges and Ruth, 367). Another thing to observe about these accounts is their personal nature. While these families may have proposed in the world’s eyes during this period, nothing is said about the national welfare of Israel. The Lord is sustaining this nation in spite of these adulterous, lawless, and self-important personalities and Israel is only hanging on, in God’s grace, by a thread.
Before we learn what God uses to break that thread in the next chapter of Judges, let us take time to reflect on what we might learn from this passage and apply to our lives today. Though we have not just defeated the sons of Ammon and may not be confronted by a disgruntled cousin because they were not a part of the war, jealousy, insecurity, and injured senses of self-importance continue to spoil relationships today. These factors and/or issues can birth conflicts that get irrational, personal, and even devastating. What is worse, such conflicts often target the wrong enemy—the people of God. Israel had much more important things with which to deal. There were much bigger fish to fry, fires to put out, problems to solve. The same is true today. With the pandemic and growing pressure facing the people of God today, it is inappropriate at least and near deadly at worst to allow these kinds of issues and infighting to infiltrate the church. As it was in the Judges so too is it today—God is the ultimate hero of the story and it is ultimately his glory that we all ought to seek. It is when we turn our eyes from this that we run the risk of causing division, strife, and heartache.