“Now Jephthah the Gileadite was a mighty warrior, but he was the son of a harlot.” (Judges ch11 v1)
In Jephthah’s early life, he was something of an outlaw. His legitimate brothers expelled him from the house because of his birth. So he dwelt in
the land of Tob and “worthless fellows” collected round him and went raiding with him (probably against other nations). David had led the same
kind of life, while Saul reigned.
His fortunes turned when the elders of Gilead were looking for someone to defend the land against the Ammonites, and decided that the skills of
Jephthah could be put to good use. They called him back to Mizpah to be their commander and also “our head over all the inhabitants of Gilead”.
When the spirit of the Lord fell upon him, he gathered the manpower of the eastern bank tribes and crushed the Ammonites with great slaughter.
This outcome brought in the tribe of Ephraim. Ephraim were the “boss” tribe of Israel in the Judges period. They thought of themselves as the true
Israel when they broke away from David’s kingdom, and they still thought of themselves as the true Israel in the days when they were calling
themselves the Samaritans.
The geography is important. Gilead and the Ammonites were on the east side of the Jordan. Ephraim were on the west side. Ephraim’s close brothers
Manasseh straddled the Jordan a little further north, with a “half-tribe” on each side.
The Ephraimites had a low opinion of the Gilead people, who were not of the house of Joseph; “You are fugitives of Ephraim, you Gileadites, in the
midst of Ephraim and Manasseh” (ch12 v4). That is, their population was swelled by outlaws and debtors who had escaped from across the Jordan (like
characters in Huckleberry Finn “lighting out for the Territory”). Alternatively, the Hebrew phrase might mean “You always run away from us when
we fight you”.
Ephraim were affronted by Jephthah’s campaign because they had not been invited to take part. I suspect this grievance was really about not getting
a chance to share in the spoils of victory. They crossed the Jordan to look for vengeance, but this time Ephraim found themselves the defeated
The ”shibboleth” episode is confusing, unless we follow the geography closely. The Ephraimites were scattered, on the wrong side of the river, and
they wanted to get home. Instead of pursuing them directly, the Gileadites had gone straight to the Jordan fords (“we’ll cut them off at the
pass”) and now controlled the escape routes.
Nobody was allowed to cross in safety unless they could say “shibboleth”, and the Ephraimites could only say “sibboleth”. So they died in
large numbers. The “sh” sound has a secure place in the classic version of Hebrew, so this may be the difference between the “sons of Leah”
dialect of Gilead and Judah, and the “house of Joseph” dialect prevailing in the hill country.
That is the origin of “shibboleth” as a metaphor meaning “test statement used to confirm that somebody is on the right side”. More frequently
nowadays, perhaps, in the term “outworn shibboleth”. When I first began reading newspapers, politicians, or especially Labour Party politicians,
seemed to be using it all the time. I haven’t seen it for years. Maybe it’s become an outworn shibboleth.
edit on 22-5-2020 by DISRAELI because: (no reason given)