Judges 12:1–7: Jephthah and the Ephraimites
In the last passage, Jephthah, his men, and the rest of the Gileadites defeated the Ammonites. However, in this chapter, the men of Ephraim come and challenge Jephthah; they’re angry because he didn’t ask them to come and help, when going into battle with the Ammonites. How angry? Angry enough that they threaten to burn down his house, with him in it.
But Jephthah tells them that he did call for their help—and they ignored him. So he took his life into his hands (verse 2), and went to fight the Ammonites, and the LORD gave him victory. So, he asks, why are you really here? (That’s a paraphrase.)
The answer might lie in verse 4; the Ephraimites had claimed that the Gileadites are just “renegades” from the tribes of Ephraim and Manasseh—in other words, this could be a longstanding feud between the people of Ephraim and the people of Gilead. In any event, the people of Gilead are angry enough that they not only defeat the Ephraimites, they also block the way back to Ephraim, so that the survivors can’t return home!
During this time, while they have the way blocked, any time someone from Ephraim tries to cross over, the Gileadites ask them to say the word “Shibboleth,” since the Ephraimites have trouble pronouncing that word. If they pronounce it “Sibboleth,” instead of “Shiboleth,” then the Gileadites know that the person is an Ephraimite, and kill him. (Verse 6 says that forty-two thousand Ephraimites are killed “at that time,” although it’s not clear (to me) if that means forty-two thousand are killed altogether, or killed just trying to get back home, and being caught in the “Shibboleth” trap.)
Altogether, we’re told that Jephthah leads Israel for six years, before passing on.
I find this use of the word “Shibboleth” to determine if a person is from Ephraim very interesting. Obviously the people in Gilead had a different way of speaking than the people of Ephraim, causing them to have trouble pronouncing the word in the “Gileadite” way. This event has brought the word “Shibboleth” into modern usage; a “Shibboleth” is now a general term for any usage of language that would indicate a person’s regional or social origins. (And, according to Wikipedia, it’s also used in a more general way, to refer to “any ‘in-crowd’ word or phrase that can be used to distinguish members of a group from outsiders—even when not used by a hostile other group.”