Judges 12:6 Parallel Verses [⇓ See commentary ⇓]

Judges 12:6, NIV: 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.

Judges 12:6, ESV: they said to him, “Then say Shibboleth,” and he said, “Sibboleth,” for he could not pronounce it right. Then they seized him and slaughtered him at the fords of the Jordan. At that time 42,000 of the Ephraimites fell.

Judges 12:6, KJV: 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 12:6, NASB: then they would say to him, 'Just say, ‘Shibboleth.’?' But he said, 'Sibboleth,' for he was not prepared to pronounce it correctly. Then they seized him and slaughtered him at the crossing places of the Jordan. So at that time forty-two thousand from Ephraim fell.

Judges 12:6, NLT: they would tell him to say 'Shibboleth.' If he was from Ephraim, he would say 'Sibboleth,' because people from Ephraim cannot pronounce the word correctly. Then they would take him and kill him at the shallow crossings of the Jordan. In all, 42,000 Ephraimites were killed at that time.

Judges 12:6, CSB: they told him, "Please say Shibboleth." If he said, "Sibboleth," because he could not pronounce it correctly, they seized him and executed him at the fords of the Jordan. At that time forty-two thousand from Ephraim died.

What does Judges 12:6 mean? [⇑ See verse text ⇑]

The men of Ephraim badly miscalculated their chances of defeating the fighters of Gilead in battle. The tribe sent armed men across the Jordan River, armed and ready for battle, claiming anger over not being called to fight against Ammon (Judges 12:1–4). After being countered, and escalating the situation with insults, the Ephraimites are quickly and thoroughly defeated by Jephthah and the Gileadites (Judges 12:5).

The survivors of the battle scatter and attempt to head for crossing points at the Jordan River. Their intent is to escape back home. Unfortunately for them, Gilead soldiers have taken control of the fords, and proceed to kill off Ephraim invaders one-by-one as they try to cross over.

One might expect a fleeing soldier to lie and claim he is not one of Ephraim's warriors. How, then would the Gileadite soldiers know who to believe? Their solution is a pronunciation test: demanding the man say a specific word. The word they choose is transliterated—meaning spelled out in another alphabet but not translated—into English as "shibboleth." This word is normally translated in passages such as Genesis 41 to refer to heads of grain (Genesis 41:5–7). Apparently, the people of Gilead and the people of Ephraim pronounced this word very differently. The key syllable seems to be the opening sound: either pronounced with a "sh" sound, or a "th," compared to a hard "s" sound. In any case, those who could not say it correctly were quickly killed on the spot.

This biblical incident gave rise to English using the term "shibboleth" as a figure of speech. In that use, it refers to a custom, practice, or view, which distinguishes a particular group of people. At other times in history, soldiers and guards have used difficult-to-pronounce words as tests attempting to distinguish native speakers of that language.

Judges reports a devastating Ephraimite death toll in this brief civil war. As in other parts of Scripture, the term 'eleph is used, which can either mean "thousands," or "divisions" or "clans" (Judges 6:15). Some of the largest armies of the ancient world numbered in the hundreds of thousands, so for a single tribe to lose more than 40,000 men would imply an enormous Israeli army. Whether it was forty-two divisions of soldiers, or a literal 42,000 men, this would have been a huge loss for the tribe of Ephraim.

Loss of life in this incident is especially tragic given that the conflict was so foolish. Jephthah's utter victory would have established his reputation for power in the region, but the number of dead may also have revealed an utter lack of mercy.