Monday, June 23, 2014

The Weird Civil War Between the Gileadites and the Ephraimites in Judges 12

As background for this section, this occurs after Jepthah beats the Ammonites in a great slaughter: 

1 And the men of Ephraim gathered themselves together, and went northward, and said unto Jephthah, Wherefore passedst thou over to fight against the children of Ammon, and didst not call us to go with thee? we will burn thine house upon thee with fire.
2 And Jephthah said unto them, I and my people were at great strife with the children of Ammon; and when I called you, ye delivered me not out of their hands.
3 And when I saw that ye delivered me not, I put my life in my hands, and passed over against the children of Ammon, and the Lord delivered them into my hand: wherefore then are ye come up unto me this day, to fight against me?
4 Then Jephthah gathered together all the men of Gilead, and fought with Ephraim: and the men of Gilead smote Ephraim, because they said, Ye Gileadites are fugitives of Ephraim among the Ephraimites, and among the Manassites.
5 And the Gileadites took the passages of Jordan before the Ephraimites: and it was so, that when those Ephraimites which were escaped said, Let me go over; that the men of Gilead said unto him, Art thou an Ephraimite? If he said, Nay;
6 Then said they unto him, Say now Shibboleth: and he said Sibboleth: for he could not frame to pronounce it right. Then they took him, and slew him at the passages of Jordan: and there fell at that time of the Ephraimites forty and two thousand. (Judges 12:1-6)

The Ephraimite complaint against Jepthah is similar to the one their people leveled against Gideon about a generation before—that he hadn’t asked for their help when going to fight the enemy.  “We’re so angry that you went to battle without us so that we couldn’t put our lives in danger too!”

The really odd thing in here is that they threaten to burn his house down with him in it.  The punishment they wish to inflict is out of all proportion to the “crime” they accuse him of.  It is better suited to someone hated, despised, and pariahed.  We must conclude they hate him.  Even weirder, this is a hero they are threatening.

Jepthah calls them on their bad argument.  He points out they didn’t get to participate because of their own behavior—“when I called you, ye delivered me not out of their hands” (v2).  It is unclear here whether Ephraim had been called and they refused to come, or whether they came and their help was not enough.  Either way, their outrage indicates something very ugly going on behind the scenes of Ephraimite leadership.

If they had been called and they refused to come, then they were lying to themselves about this supposed offense of Jepthah’s, trying to make themselves look braver than they really were, delaying until the danger was over when there would be no way to test their claims to courage.  There might have been some ruling men who decided to suppress the call, taking a wait-and-see approach.

Or, if they had come and their help hadn’t been effectual, Jepthah would certainly be right to leave them behind.

It is also possible that Jepthah was despised personally for his illegitimacy.  If his half-brothers prevented his inheriting, other parts of Israelite society might be uncomfortable with him eventually being made head of the Gileadites and garnering such respect.  (Remember Deuteronomy 23:2 says, “A bastard shall not enter into the congregation of the LORD; even to his tenth generation shall he not enter into the congregation of the LORD.”)

Still, however they felt about Jepthah, their charge is trumped up, and the thing they want to do about it is not even a suitable way of solving the problem, and is vicious.

Jepthah reminds the Ephraimites that he was the one who took the risk and the Lord delivered his people, and he asks them, “Wherefore then are ye come up unto me this day, to fight against me?” (v3)  He’s not satisfied with their reasons because they are so petty.

But the Ephraimites came with an army, obviously intending to fight, so Jepthah has to fight back.  And he does.

Jepthah isn’t the only one that comes in for abuse.  The Ephraimites also insult the Gileadites, saying, “Ye Gileadites are fugitives of Ephraim among the Ephraimites, and among the Manassites” (v4).  Don’t forget the Law of Moses provided for fugitive cities where accidental murderers could take refuge until the high priest died.  Calling the Gileadites “fugitives” labels them as miscreants living on the border where it is so lawless, as if they belong in a fugitive city because they must have all done something wrong to want to have someone like Jepthah to lead them.

Whether the Ephraimites were cowardly or incompetent fighters, it caught up with them because Jepthah and the Gileadites beat them.  (Someone should have told them it is stupid to pick a fight with a war hero and his peeps who know how to trust in the Lord.)  In the end, those accused of being “fugitives” made the Ephraimites into fugitives, and soon the proud Ephraimites denied they are Ephraimite to try to escape back over the river.

All in all, 42,000 Ephraimites die in their ridiculous pretext for image.  With that many men determined to mobilize under this weak reasoning (but not willing to help Jepthah against the enemy) this probably represented a cleansing of the Ephraimite line.

One thing I get from this story is that honor doesn’t (and shouldn’t) come without doing the work first.  Jepthah and the Gileadites hazarded their lives and had to trust the Lord in battle, and the Lord got the credit and honor for saving them, and they got the honor of being the instruments of it.    The Ephraimites pretended to be brave and made threats and talked lots of smack, but when pitted against the Gileadites, it became obvious who were the heroes. 

Are there any areas in our lives where we demand the respect without having done the work?  Sooner or later, we’ll run up against the real experts who will reveal how weak we really are.