Monday, May 19, 2008

Civil War Doesn't Take Much in Israel: Judges 12

This post is part of a revolutionary Bible commentary by the Church of the Orange Sky.

That crack about thirty sons riding thirty donkeys and owning thirty towns has been trumped! Ibzan of Bethlehem becomes judge; he has thirty sons and thirty daughters, and uses his sons to get thirty daughters-in-law. And then, even better, there's Abdon of Hillel, who has forty sons and thirty grandsons, who rude on seventy donkeys. I'm convinced we're missing some puns here. But more importantly....

It's Jephthah again! He gets a second section because this is a fundamentally different story than the last one. Also disturbing, but in quite a different way.

Once again, the Israelites' out-of-control warmongering turns inward. The Ephraimites didn't get to go with Jephthah to the battle against the Ammonites, and they're hopping mad about it. Tensions escalate quickly and the Ephraimites tell Jephthah that they intend to "burn down your house over your head." Jephthah says this is ridiculous, but his Gileadites mobilize their forces anyway and the two sides start to fight.

The fighting soon becomes a massacre. Ambushing enormous numbers of Ephraimites at some strategic fords of the Jordan river, the Gileadites kill a stunning 42 000 Ephraimites. It's a hideous slaughter considering that these are fellow Israelites and the initial offence was that they didn't get to join a raiding party.

Adding insult to dishonour is that the author of Judges records some ridiculous tales about hunting down Ephraimites based on their accents. See, it turns out that they can't pronounce "Sh" properly. So Jephthah's forces start challenging everyone along the Jordan to say "Shibboleth." If the challenged man answers with "Sibboleth" instead, he's instantly executed as a suspected Ephraimite.

Unless the Israelites have somehow developed notably different regional accents by now (which I suppose is at least possible), this basic test makes about as much sense as identifying German Jews by measuring their noses. The level of violence done here is truly appalling.

Once again, there is no one righteous in Judges - and perhaps this is the point. The Ephraimites are irrationally upset over missing out on holy war with the Ammonites. They threaten to attack the Gileadites. In response, the Gileadites massacre all the Ephraimites they can find. Despite the fact that Jephthah is supposedly the "judge" of all Israel, clearly the Israelites feel no particular loyalty or kinship with one another. They kill the Ephraimites at least as zealously as they do non-Israelites - and they ever make silly linguistic jokes about it, too.