The Ephraimite forces were called out, and they crossed over to Zaphon. They said to Jephthah, “Why did you go to fight the Ammonites without calling us to go with you? We’re going to burn down your house over your head.” Jephthah answered, “I and my people were engaged in a great struggle with the Ammonites, and although I called, you didn’t save me out of their hands. When I saw that you wouldn’t help, I took my life in my hands and crossed over to fight the Ammonites, and the Lord gave me the victory over them. Now why have you come up today to fight me?” Jephthah then called together the men of Gilead and fought against Ephraim. The Gileadites struck them down because the Ephraimites had said, “You Gileadites are renegades from Ephraim and Manasseh.” The Gileadites captured the fords of the Jordan leading to Ephraim, and whenever a survivor of Ephraim said, “Let me cross over,” the men of Gilead asked him, “Are you an Ephraimite?” If he replied, “No,” they said, “All right, say ‘Shibboleth.’ ” If he said, “Sibboleth,” because he could not pronounce the word correctly, they seized him and killed him at the fords of the Jordan. Forty-two thousand Ephraimites were killed at that time. Jephthah led Israel six years. Then Jephthah the Gileadite died and was buried in a town in Gilead. – Judges 12:1-7
This verse is appropriate for Halloween…it is really scary on many levels. Judges just moved right up there with Leviticus in terms of confusing and hard to understand books of the bible for me. There are so many “—ites” killing each other that I am losing track. I feel like I need to diagram the destruction to even understand who is fighting with who and, more importantly, why they are fighting. There seems to be a preoccupation with saving face, seeking revenge, and exacting retribution. How can the same God be in favor of burning people alive in their homes and allow himself to be flogged and nailed to a cross?
It seems there are at least two possibilities: 1) God really does have these two natures that would allow burning and blessing; or 2) these people are very confused about what God is leading them to do and say. I believe that there are consequences to actions we take on earth, and some of these consequences may seem really harsh from an earthly perspective, but directing someone to burn someone else alive just seems beyond justice no matter what the offence. There is a point where we must love them all and let God sort them out.
The last part of the verse is equally horrifying and confusing. The Gileadites were parked at the Jordan River, the entrance to the Promised Land, and they were engaged in extreme racial profiling. Anyone not able to pronounce “Sibboleth” was immediately branded an Ephraimite and condemned to death. 42,000 Ephraimites were killed this way. The Gileadites became the self appointed gatekeepers for the Promised Land. I find it hard to believe this is what God intended when He led the Israelites to cross over the Jordan. Although I have never killed someone for the way they pronounced a word I did have an experience when I was in first grade that sticks with me to this day.
A friend and I were both in first grade and feeling like big wheels because we had graduated from kindergarten. We were bored one recess and did something really stupid. To be honest I cannot recall whose idea it was but we decided to assert our new found position of power (as first graders) by standing in front of one of the entrances to the playground. My friend and I appointed ourselves gatekeepers and kept all the kindergarten kids from getting to school. Our reign of terror did not last long and we both found ourselves in the vice-principal’s office up to our ears in well-deserved trouble.
I have reflected on this day many times and it has made me keenly aware of bullies and how they behave. Fortunately my brush with ” bulliehood” made me choose a path to avoid playing that role ever again, and it gave me a heart for those on the receiving end of bullying. The past several chapters of Judges, including this section, seem brim full of bullies. People and groups who feel they are more powerful than other people and groups. People who apply a litmus test to see who is like them and who is not. I am confident God is not a bully, and I find it hard to believe he would be leading these people to become bullies in His name.
I think sometimes we as Christians and our churches can take on the character of a bully when we meet those who are different than us with condemnation rather than love. God wants us to speak the truth in love to be sure, but we need to be careful that we do not become gatekeepers for His glory.
Prayer: God help us to meet those who are different from us with blessings rather than blades of condemnation.