Judges 12:5, 6: The Shibboleth

Verse 5:[1] And the Gileadites took the (Josh. 22:11; Judg. 3:28; 7:24) 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…


[And they occupied, etc.; Hebrew, and Gilead seized (occupied [Vatablus], seized beforehand [Septuagint]) the passages of Jordan, לְאֶפְרָיִם] To Ephraim itself (Pagnine, Montanus); of Ephraim itself (Septuagint, similarly the Syriac); over which the sons of Ephraim had been wont to cross (Arabic); before Ephraim (Tigurinus); against the Ephraimites (Junius and Tremellius). He occupied the crossing, that is, with the victory won, lest they be able to escape into their own land: that is to say, He blocked the passage to them through the fords of Jordan (Vatablus).


[And when one came thither…fleeing, כִּ֣י יֹאמְר֞וּ פְּלִיטֵ֤י אֶפְרַ֙יִם֙] That (when [Malvenda]) were saying the escaped of Ephraim (Montanus), the fugitives of Ephraim (Pagnine, similarly Munster), those that had escaped of Ephraim (Septuagint, similarly Jonathan, Syriac, Tigurinus). The same words that were in the preceding verse. That is to say, When they had arrived thither, they were not now derisively called the fugitives of Ephraim, but actually were fugitives, and on account of that were to be ridiculed deservedly in turn (Bonfrerius).


Those Ephraimites which were escaped; Hebrew, the fugitives of Ephraim, as before; for the Hebrew words are the same; which may make the latter exposition of the foregoing words more probable, to wit, that it is not the Gileadites, but the Ephraimites, who are there as well as here so called, because they are smitten before Jephthah, and fled from him.


[I am not] For they knew that it was not safe to admit this (Bonfrerius).


If he said, Nay; to avoid the present danger.


Verse 6:[2] Then said they unto him, Say now Shibboleth (which signifieth a stream, or, flood,[3] Ps. 69:2,[4] 15;[5] Isa. 27:12[6]): 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.


[Say, Shibboleth…whoever was responding, Sibboleth] This happens everywhere, inasmuch as some nations are not able to pronounce certain words by certain letters, or only with difficulty (Menochius, similarly Estius). Thus the Flemings test whether one be a Gaul or not: Pronounce, say they, ach ten tachtentich (that is, eighty-eight); for the Gauls, not being able to pronounce the aspiration of Ch, say smoothly, act en tactentic (Lapide). Whether these things happen by usage, or from the air, water, and diverse appearance of the heavens; or, which I would prefer, from the separations of tongues arising at Babel,[7] which, as the complete and greatest happen between nation and nation, so in each nation the inchoate are discerned (Martyr). It often happens that diverse provinces or cities of the same region, speaking the same language, differ among themselves in the manner of pronunciation, and are thus distinguished. Among the Israelites there were various dialects: for the Galilean Apostles were discerned by their own dialect, Matthew 26:73; Acts 2:7, 8 (Bonfrerius). Moreover, שִׁבֹּלֶת signifies either an ear of grain; thus the Vulgate and Septuagint (that is, in the Royal Codex; but the Basilean Codex has, a sign, as if the Gileadites said no other thing than, Say the sign, that is, the military sign, that is, the word established by which they alone are to be distinguished from others): or, a channel of waters, or the flowing of a river (Vatablus, Junius, Piscator, Hebrews in Drusius). Therefore, they were proving them by a thing present (Vatablus). Because the Ephraimites were asking that they might be permitted to pass over the river of Jordan, they were saying to them, Say, I shall pass over the Shibboleth/river (Lyra).


[He answered, Sibboleth] A word corrupted by a speech impediment of the Ephraimites, of itself signifying nothing (Junius, Piscator).


[Not being able to express, וְלֹ֤א יָכִין֙ לְדַבֵּ֣ר כֵּ֔ן] And he was not preparing thus to speak (Montanus, Septuagint); he was not able rightly to speak so (Pagnine). Verbatim: he was not regulating; that is, he was not pronouncing exactly as it was set forth to him (Vatablus). And he was not prepared to speak rightly (Jonathan). He would not compose himself to speak correctly; namely, because he was ordered to pronounce immediately and without thought (Junius and Tremellius). Verbatim: he will not prepare, will not be apt, will not accomplish, to speak thus (Malvenda).


Shibboleth signifies a stream or river, which they desired to pass over; so it was a word proper for the occasion, and gave them no cause to suspect the design, because they were required only to express their desire to go over the Shibboleth or river. He said Sibboleth. It is well known, that not only divers nations, but divers provinces, or parts of the same nation, who use the same language, differ in their dialect and manner of pronunciation. He could not frame to pronounce it right, or rather, he did not frame or direct himself to speak so, or to speak right, that is, so as he was required to do it. The Hebrew text doth not say that he could not do it, but that he did it not, because he, suspecting not the design of it, uttered it speedily according to his manner of expression.


[And fell…thousands, וַיִּפֹּל] And it fell, understanding, a number[8] (Vatablus).


At that time; not in that place, at the passages of Jordan, but in that expedition, being slain either in the battle, or in the pursuit, or at Jordan.

[1] Hebrew: וַיִּלְכֹּ֥ד גִּלְעָ֛ד אֶֽת־מַעְבְּר֥וֹת הַיַּרְדֵּ֖ן לְאֶפְרָ֑יִם וְֽ֠הָיָה כִּ֣י יֹאמְר֞וּ פְּלִיטֵ֤י אֶפְרַ֙יִם֙ אֶעֱבֹ֔רָה וַיֹּ֙אמְרוּ ל֧וֹ אַנְשֵֽׁי־גִלְעָ֛ד הַֽאֶפְרָתִ֥י אַ֖תָּה וַיֹּ֥אמֶֽר׀ לֹֽא׃


[2] Hebrew: וַיֹּ֣אמְרוּ לוֹ֩ אֱמָר־נָ֙א שִׁבֹּ֜לֶת וַיֹּ֣אמֶר סִבֹּ֗לֶת וְלֹ֤א יָכִין֙ לְדַבֵּ֣ר כֵּ֔ן וַיֹּאחֲז֣וּ אוֹת֔וֹ וַיִּשְׁחָט֖וּהוּ אֶל־מַעְבְּר֣וֹת הַיַּרְדֵּ֑ן וַיִּפֹּ֞ל בָּעֵ֤ת הַהִיא֙ מֵֽאֶפְרַ֔יִם אַרְבָּעִ֥ים וּשְׁנַ֖יִם אָֽלֶף׃


[3] שִׁבֹּלֶת, related to the root שׁבל, to flow.


[4] Psalm 69:2: “I sink in deep mire, where there is no standing: I am come into deep waters, where the floods (וְשִׁבֹּלֶת) overflow me.”


[5] Psalm 69:15: “Let not the waterflood (שִׁבֹּלֶת) overflow me, neither let the deep swallow me up, and let not the pit shut her mouth upon me.”


[6] Isaiah 27:12: “And it shall come to pass in that day, that the Lord shall beat off from the channel (מִשִּׁבֹּלֶת) of the river unto the stream of Egypt, and ye shall be gathered one by one, O ye children of Israel.”


[7] Genesis 11:1-9.


[8] That is, a number fell.

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Dr. Steven Dilday holds a BA in Religion and Philosophy from Campbell University, a Master of Arts in Religion from Westminster Theological Seminary (Philadelphia), and both a Master of Divinity and a  Ph.D. in Puritan History and Literature from Whitefield Theological Seminary.  He is also the translator of Matthew Poole's Synopsis of Biblical Interpreters and Bernardinus De Moor’s Didactico-Elenctic Theology.

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