Summary: If the Ephraimites had known in advance what the password was, they would have rehearsed it until they could pronounce it correctly.
WHAT IS YOUR “SHIBBOLETH”?
“The Gileadites seized the fords of the Jordan before the Ephraimites arrived. And when any Ephraimite who escaped said, "Let me cross over," the men of Gilead would say to him, "Are you an Ephraimite?" If he said, "No," then they would say to him, "Then say, ’Shibboleth’!" And he would say, "Sibboleth," for he could not pronounce it right. Then they would take him and kill him at the fords of the Jordan. There fell at that time forty-two thousand Ephraimites.” Judges 12:5-6
What brought about the situation that caused one group of Israelites to slay another group of Israelites? The search for the answer brings us to the story of Jephthah. The account of this “mighty man of valor” is found in Judges, chapter eleven and the first half of chapter twelve.
We understand the crisis Israel was facing at this time we need to turn to Judges, chapter ten. Here we are told of Israel’s great backsliding. Israel had turned to worshipping Baal and Ashtoreth as well as many other pagan gods of Canaan and Syria. God punished Israel by allowing the Ammonites to trouble Israel greatly. In their great distress, Israel pleaded to God for mercy and God heard their cry. In every dire circumstance, God always raises up someone to “stand in the gap”. In this situation it was Jephthah.
Jephthah’s early life was exceedingly difficult. He was the son of a harlot by his father Gilead. It seems that Gilead was not very protective of his ill-born son. When Gilead’s sons who were born to his wife grew up, they drove Jephthah from the home.
Jephthah fled to the land of Tob, a wilderness area east of the Jordan. An outcast from the only family he knew contributed to his falling into bad company. The NKJV tells us that “worthless men banded together with Jephthah and went out raiding with him.” It was in this setting that the leaders of Gilead went to Jephthah and implored him to return to Gilead and lead an effort to defend Israel against Ammon.
Jephthah secured their pledge that he would become leader of the Gileadites if he would lead the battle against Ammon. The elders kept their word and Jephthah became leader and commander of the Gileadites, which in that instance, equated to being leader of all Israel in its struggle against Ammon.
God gave Israel a great victory over the Ammonites. But all was not peaceful in Israel. The tribe of Ephraim blamed Jephthah of not including them in the army of Israel. The leaders of Ephraim threatened Jephthah saying, “We will burn your house down on you with fire!” Jephthah reasoned with them explaining that he had invited all Israel to join forces to fight Ammon and that Ephraim did not volunteer to help.
Jephthah was unable to assuage their anger. A battle ensued between the forces of Israel under Jephthah and the men of Ephraim. Ephraim was defeated and fled toward the Jordan River in an escape attempt. Jephthah’s forces guarded the fords of the Jordan to prevent the escape of the Ephraimites. Our text tells us how Jephthah’s men confronted the Ephraimites and the tragic consequences that resulted.