Judges 11-13: שבלת שמבלת

11 (cont.)

I got so bogged down in stupid analyzation in my last post that I didn’t even finish the chapter. There is one section of Jephthah’s story left, and it’s the most well known. (otherwise I’d just get on with it. There’s a long ways to go!)

So! Jephthah’s attempt at peaceful negotiation has failed. He has to resort to the ol’ standard, wanton slaughter. Getting God on his side, he makes a blunderously stupid vow:

11:30 If thou wilt deliver the Ammonites into my hands, then the first creature that comes out of the door of my house to meet me when I return from them in peace shall be the LORD’s; I will offer that as a whole-offering.’

So he effortlessly decimates the Ammonites (not much suspense in that department) and returns home. Guess what comes out of his front door to greet him?

His daughter. (Yeah. She counts as a “creature”.) To make the situation extra horrible, she comes out dancing with a tambourine- sickeningly innocent.

The intelligent thing to do would be say “Hey God, when I said ‘creature’, I obviously meant, like, a goat, or a chicken. Right? Obviously.” But apparently to Jephthah, a vow is a vow. Before carrying this order out, he agrees to let her “mourn her virginity” up in the hills for two months. With some mysterious “companions”. Then, obedient to his legalistic God, he kills his only daughter.

This story obviously raises a lot of moral questions, such as: Why did Jephthah obey his evil, evil God? The OSE editors delve into rare apologetics here. Sometimes the Bible is just so disgusting that they need to put some spin on the story. They explain the moral:

“The point of this pathetic story is that man cannot play fast and loose with God as Jephthah had done in his oath.”

Was that the original point of the story? Who knows. I don’t really have a handle on the Israelite morality system yet. (All I can tell is it’s nothing I’d want to ascribe to.) The tale itself seems to mainly serve as an explanation for a minor tradition, which is so minor it’s not mentioned anywhere else in the Bible:

11:40 It became a tradition that the daughters of Israel should go year by year and commemorate the fate of Jephthah’s daughter, four days in every year.


This chapter inexplicably begins with Jephthah embroiled in civil war between Gilead (his tribe) and Ephraim, the familiar neighbors. The Ephraimites are incredibly jealous that Gilead got to fight the Ammonites with them. Or something? Personally I think it’s all a crude device to link two completely unrelated stories.

12:4 Jephthah then mustered all the men of Gilead and fought Ephraim, and the Gileadites seized the fords of the Jordan and held them against Ephraim. When any Ephraimite who had escaped begged leave to cross, the men of Gilead asked him, ‘Are you an Ephraimite?’, and if he said, ‘No’, they would retort, ‘Say Shibboleth.’ (שבלת) He would say ‘Sibboleth’ (סבלת), and because he could not pronounce the word properly, they seized him and killed him at the fords of Jordan.

I love this story. An ancient bit of linguistics! It seems Gilead and Ephraim, despite being neighbors, spoke different dialects of Hebrew. Apparently the Ephraimites did not have the /ʃ/ (‘sh’) phoneme, but the Gileadites did distinguish /ʃ/ and /s/. It’s interesting (maybe?) to note that the Hebrew character ש (Shin) is used to represent both /ʃ/ and /s/; the distinction is made with a dot above on the left or right.

And what does shibboleth even mean? It is used exactly three times in the Bible (thank you, Interlinear Scripture Analyzer!) Here in Judges, in Psalm 69, and once in Job. In Psalm 69 it means “surge” (of water), in Job it means “ear” or “spike” of corn.

Anyway after this little story, Jephthah dies, and is given the familiar funerary passage. The chapter ends with super-brief mentions of two more judges, Elon and Abdon. Remember Jair and his 30 sons who rode 30 asses? Abdon has him beat: he had 40 sons and 30 grandkids, so a grand total of  70 asses got rode.


This chapter is a lead-in to the following three chapters, which are a collection of “folktales” regarding Samson, who you have probably heard of. (He’s strong!) Here we are given the story of his birth.

Samson’s parents are Manoah and… well… we aren’t given the wife’s name. Even though she plays equal role in the story. The unnamed wife is, like most mothers of Israelite folk-heros, mysteriously barren. And, again by trope, she is visited by an angel and promised a miracle super baby:

13:3 ‘You are barren and have no child, but you shall conceive and give birth to a son. Now you must do as I say: be careful to drink no wine or strong drink, and to eat no forbidden food; you will conceive and give birth to a son, and no razor shall touch his head, for the boy is to be a Nazirite consecrated to God from the day of his birth. He will strike the first blow to deliver Israel from the power of the Philistines.’

The references to the Nazirite vows are very similar to some Priestly law from Numbers 6:1-5. I’ve checked the Hebrew, and the two phrases translated as “no razor shall touch his head” actually use different words for “razor”. I’m going to use that factoid as an excuse to delve no further because after the last post the last thing I want to do is delve into a possible textual connection between Judges and Numbers. I’m sure the Nazarine Vow was just something people knew about.

BTW, the reference to “strong drink” is apparently why Mormons don’t drink coffee. Which frankly is their loss.

Anyway, wifey tells her husband about the vision, and he prays to the LORD, who answers his prayer and sends an “angel of the lord” down to her. The angel (whatever the fuck an angel really is) helpfully repeats the Nazirine vow for us, basically the third time we’ve heard it in half a page. They ask the angel its name, it replies:

13:18 How can you ask my name? It is a name of wonder.

FUN FACT: The KJV translation is rather different: “Why askest thou thus after my name, seeing it [is] secret?” The word translated as “wonder” or “secret” actually appears nowhere else in the Bible. So I’m pretty sure they’re just guessing at the meaning.

Anyway, they start to prepare Mr. Angel a whole-offering and the angel randomly bursts into flames. Manoah and wife are freaked out:

13:22 He said to his wife, ‘We are doomed to die, we have seen God [or a god]‘, but she replied, ‘If the LORD had wanted to kill us, he would not accepted a whole-offering and a grain-offering at our hands; he would now have let us see and hear all this.’

Honestly, I don’t see how this weird story has much to do with Samson. There is the possibility that the details about the Nazarine vow and Samson were tacked on. Who knows. In 1 Samuel we will see strong evidence of extensive tampering in a very similar birth story.

This entry was posted in Judges. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s