Judges 12 Jephthah’s Ignoble End and Three Minor Judges

The Return of Jephtha, by Giovanni Antonio Pellegrini

Judges 12: 1-7 Intertribal Conflict Under Jephthah

1 The men of Ephraim were called to arms, and they crossed to Zaphon and said to Jephthah, “Why did you cross over to fight against the Ammonites, and did not call us to go with you? We will burn your house down over you!” 2 Jephthah said to them, “My people and I were engaged in conflict with the Ammonites who oppressed us severely. But when I called you, you did not deliver me from their hand. 3 When I saw that you would not deliver me, I took my life in my hand, and crossed over against the Ammonites, and the LORD gave them into my hand. Why then have you come up to me this day, to fight against me?” 4 Then Jephthah gathered all the men of Gilead and fought with Ephraim; and the men of Gilead defeated Ephraim, because they said, “You are fugitives from Ephraim, you Gileadites — in the heart of Ephraim and Manasseh.”1 5 Then the Gileadites took the fords of the Jordan against the Ephraimites. Whenever one of the fugitives of Ephraim said, “Let me go over,” the men of Gilead would say to him, “Are you an Ephraimite?” When he said, “No,” 6 they said to him, “Then say Shibboleth,” and he said, “Sibboleth,” for he could not pronounce it right. Then they seized him and killed him at the fords of the Jordan. Forty-two thousand of the Ephraimites fell at that time.

7 Jephthah judged Israel six years. Then Jephthah the Gileadite died, and was buried in his town in Gilead.

The group of tribes and clans collectively known as Israel is unravelling. The tribe of Ephraim occupied the central hill country of northern Israel and by location and population they were one of the more powerful tribes. It is telling that northern Israel will often be referred to as Ephraim in later writings just as southern Israel is associated with Judah. Throughout the book of Judges, the role of Ephraim has been another barometer of the health of the confederation of tribes: initially under Ehud and Barak[1] Ephraim willingly goes forth to fight alongside other tribes, under Gideon they complain that they are not summoned until after the Midianites are scattered and fleeing yet Gideon is able to appease them, here they come with an armed force to confront Jephthah. The LORD may have delivered the Ammonites into Jephthah’s hands but here the God of Israel remains silent in this internal conflict.

We have seen conflict erupt inside Israel under Gideon and Abimelech, and now it expands dramatically in this conflict between the people of Gilead and the people of Ephraim. The Ephraimites leaders and their armed followers who boast that the people of Gilead are ‘fugitives’ or ‘renegades’ of Manasseh and Ephraim quickly find the tables turned as they are cut-off from their homes when Jephthah’s followers capture the fords of the Jordan River and strand the Ephraimite combatants on the eastern side. The difference in regional dialects becomes a tool of terror as Ephraimites attempting to flee home are captured and butchered at the river crossings. The loss of forty-two thousand Ephraimites at the hands of fellow Israelites is a slaughter of heartbreaking proportions. The tribes of Israel prove that the greatest threat to their continued existence is internal, and that the tribes are dangerously close to entering into a civil war where the tribes threaten the continued existence of one another.

Jephthah as a judge does not compare favorably when placed next to the preceding judges. His time judging Israel is shorter than anyone except Abimelech. He was an unexpected judge because of his heritage as a child of a prostitute which was forced to flee his homeland and his previous life as a bandit and raider. He is successful in leading the people of Gilead to victory over the Ammonites, but he is unable to manage conflicts between tribes and is responsible for the death of forty-two thousand Israelites of his neighboring tribe. One curious final note is that he is buried literally ‘in the towns of Gilead.”[2] There is a rabbinic tradition that Jephthah died of a debilitating illness that caused his limbs to drop off and be buried in different cities of the territory of Gilead (Hattin, 2020, p. 139)and perhaps they perceived a sort of poetic justice for one whose twisted act of devotion caused the dismemberment of his own family and division among the tribes of Israel. Regardless of how Jephthah dies and is buried, his short divisive reign as a judge of Israel demonstrates how perilous the future is for the tribes of Israel.

Judges 12: 8-15 The Final Three Minor Judges

8 After him Ibzan of Bethlehem judged Israel. 9 He had thirty sons. He gave his thirty daughters in marriage outside his clan and brought in thirty young women from outside for his sons. He judged Israel seven years. 10 Then Ibzan died, and was buried at Bethlehem.

11 After him Elon the Zebulunite judged Israel; and he judged Israel ten years. 12 Then Elon the Zebulunite died, and was buried at Aijalon in the land of Zebulun.

13 After him Abdon son of Hillel the Pirathonite judged Israel. 14 He had forty sons and thirty grandsons, who rode on seventy donkeys; he judged Israel eight years. 15 Then Abdon son of Hillel the Pirathonite died, and was buried at Pirathon in the land of Ephraim, in the hill country of the Amalekites.

The final set of minor judges provide a transition between the story of Jephthah and the story of Samson. In contrast to Shamgar and Tola they do not deliver Israel from any threat (internal or external). Ibzan, Elon, and Abdon judge for much shorter durations as well, time periods similar to Jephthah’s. Ibzan is noted for his large extended family which he arranges marriages for beyond his clan (presumably for economic prosperity and power). The final three judges come from different regions in Israel and may have had overlapping times where they exercised power- Bethlehem is in the south near Jerusalem, Zebulun is in the north of Israel, while Ephraim is in the middle. Elon who judges the longest has no mention of family, only that he judged ten years and was buried in Aijalon. Abdon is again highlighted for the size of his family and like Jair the Gileadite his sons and grandsons ride donkeys. The acquisition of large families with wealth and power may serve as effective leaders in times of relative peace, but like the sons of Jair they will prove ineffective when the next military threat arises because of the inability of the people to live faithfully to their covenant with the LORD the God of Israel.[3]

[1] Although not mentioned in the narrative of Judges 4, Ephraim has an active role according to the song of Deborah and Barak in Judges 5:14.

[2] The noun for towns is plural in Hebrew.

[3] The theological perspective of the book of Judges is that Israel’s oppression by external enemies is directly correlated to their pernicious propensity to adopt the practices of the surrounding peoples and to worship their gods.

1 thought on “Judges 12 Jephthah’s Ignoble End and Three Minor Judges

  1. Pingback: The Book of Judges | Sign of the Rose

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