What does Judges chapter 12 mean?Jephthah is judge over Israel (Judges 11:11). His life is marked by misery and violent success in battle. With the Lord's help, Jephthah and the people of Gilead and Manasseh have thoroughly defeated the Ammonites who were oppressing them from the east (Judges 11:32–33). However, Jephthah foolishly bound himself to a vow to the Lord that required him to offer his daughter, his only child, as an offering (Judges 11:30–31; 34–35).
Now Jephthah and Gilead are confronted by a surprising enemy with unclear motives. The men of Ephraim, who live to the west of the Jordan River, cross over, armed for battle. They demand to know why they were not asked to be included in the fight against the Ammonites. Before even hearing a response, they threaten to burn Jephthah's house down with him in it (Judges 12:1).
Jephthah's response is simple: The Ammonites had oppressed the people of Gilead for years (Judges 10:7–8, 17–18; 11:4). Clearly, the Ephraimites weren't eager to fight until now. Jephthah claims he had called on Ephraim, but this might be a reference to their earlier indifference. Left with no other options, Jephthah says he risked his own life, attacked the Ammonites with his own people, and the Lord gave victory (Judges 12:2–3).
Were the men of Ephraim truly angry they had not been given the chance to participate in the war? Were they expressing wounded pride and honor? Or were they using this as an excuse for aggression and expansion? Not only did they cross the Jordan armed for battle, and threaten to kill Gilead's leader, but they also taunt the people of Gilead. Calling them "fugitives of Ephraim" implies the people have no right to this territory. In any case, Jephthah takes the threat seriously. He gathers his fighting forces and successfully attacks the invading Ephraimites army (Judges 12:4).
The survivors of Ephraim's army scatter and attempt to run for home. Unfortunately, for them, the men of Gilead have captured the crossing points of the Jordan River (Judges 3:28). They capture soldiers of Ephraim, one by one, as they attempt to cross over. Those they can identify are immediately killed. Those who claim not to be from Ephraim are subjected to a language test. Gilead's men force the fleeing soldiers to pronounce the Hebrew word "shibboleth." Those from Ephraim are betrayed by their regional accent, and the Gilead soldiers slaughter them (Judges 12:5–6).
After Jephthah's death, three more judges are established in Israel. Along with Shamgar (Judges 3:31), Tola (Judges 10:1), and Jair (Judges 10:3), these are sometimes called "minor" or "secondary" judges since so little is known about them. Ibzan judges for seven years, from Bethlehem, and has thirty sons and thirty daughters. He expands his influence and power by marrying all his children to spouses outside his own clan. The most obscure judge of the Bible is Elon the Zebulunite, who judges Israel for ten years before dying and being buried in Zebulun. Abdon, the son of Hillel is from the town of Pirathon in the Ephraim hills, also described as the hill country of the Amalekites for unknown reasons. Abdon's wealth and far-reaching influence are signaled by the fact that he has forty sons and thirty grandsons, each with his own donkey. Abdon serves as judge for eight years (Judges 12:7–15).
Next, Israel will begin another cycle of sin, oppression, calls for mercy, and rescue (Judges 2:16–19).
The upcoming chapters contain the story of perhaps the most famous of all the judges: Samson.