Friend or Foe?


The Bible tells the story of a battle in which Israel was involved. After the war a most unusual sign was used to determine who was friend or foe.

The Ammonites had declared war on Israel. They were determined to get control of some land they were accusing Israel of having taken from them. Israel began looking for a leader, and finally decided to make a man named Jephthah captain over their armies.

As Jephthah took control of the situation he first tried negotiating with the Ammonites. He reminded the king of the history of how the land was actually obtained in the first place. When it was apparent that the Ammonites were going to fight anyway, Jephthah recruited all the help that he could. With a prayer in his heart and making a solemn vow to God, he led his army to battle.

When the war was finished, Jephthah had won a resounding victory. Jephthah was then made a judge over Israel.

A strange thing happened after the war, however. Things were just beginning to settle back to normal when a messenger from the tribe of Ephraim, one of the tribes of Israel, gave Jephthah a terrible message.

"Why didn't you call us to help you fight the Ammonites?" they challenged. "Since you didn't, we're going to burn your house down on top of you." This was no idle threat. The men of Ephraim were irate. They had banded together to attack the city of Gilead, where Jephthah lived. It is very likely that they were jealous because they had not been able to enrich themselves with the spoil from the battle with the Ammonites.

Jephthah responded immediately defending his actions and setting the record straight. He reminded them that he had called them to come and help him fight the Ammonites at a time when he needed them desperately. They had flatly refused to help! "Since you didn't come," he continued, "I had no choice but to take my life in my hands. We had to go and fight the Ammonites with a much smaller army than we needed, but the Lord was with us. What grounds do you have for fighting against me?" he questioned. He probably would have felt justified in attacking the Ephraimites because of their refusal to help in a time of need.

The Ephraimites were unimpressed. They were prepared for war. Jephthah quickly marshaled his men, the Gileadites, to defend themselves against the Ephraimites. Again Jephthah was victorious. The Ephraimites fled for their lives.

When the Ephraimites fled, the Gileadites strategically placed themselves at the river crossings where the Ephraimites would have to cross to get back to their homes. Before allowing any man to cross the river they would ask. "Are you an Ephraimite?"

Naturally, no Ephraimite would want to answer "yes" for fear of losing his life, so even if the answer was "no" the Gileadites had one more question that had to be answered before anyone was allowed to cross the river.

It was a very simple question, but the answer would invariably reveal the true identity of the person being questioned. The man would be asked to repeat the word "Shibboleth," a word meaning "river." The Ephraimites had a little quirk in their speech which was either a difference in dialect, or a minor speech impediment like a lisp that they had inherited. They could not pronounce the sound "sh." Instead of saying "Shibboleth," an Ephraimite would always say "Sibboleth." By this ingenious but simple test, any Ephraimite crossing the river would be identified. The test worked. The Ephraimites were not allowed to escape.

If you think about the sign that the Gileadites were looking for, it is a very unusual and significant one. The Ephraimites were not destroyed because they said "Sibboleth." The problem was not that they had a lisp. The word "Sibboleth" only revealed who they were. They were destroyed because of who they were. They were destroyed because of what they had done.


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