This story has always fascinated me:

Judges 12:4-6 (ESV)
4 Then Jephthah gathered all the men of Gilead and fought with Ephraim. And the men of Gilead struck Ephraim, because they said, “You are fugitives of Ephraim, you Gileadites, in the midst of Ephraim and Manasseh.” 5 And the Gileadites captured the fords of the Jordan against the Ephraimites. And when any of the fugitives of Ephraim said, “Let me go over,” the men of Gilead said to him, “Are you an Ephraimite?” When he said, “No,” 6 they said to him, “Then say Shibboleth,” and he said, “Sibboleth,” for he could not pronounce it right. Then they seized him and slaughtered him at the fords of the Jordan. At that time 42,000 of the Ephraimites fell.

I've been learning Spanish (for nearly 15 years) and there's a similar issue in that language with words beginning with "sp". If Mexico decided they wanted to keep out the gringos, they could probably ask us to say arroyo. So the story turns on a subtle pronunciation difference that would have been lost to time if it hadn't been recorded.

Does this story tell us anything about the date that it was written?

  • 3
    My Hebrew I professor used to read this narrative as an example of why proper pronunciation was vital in Hebrew studies.
    – Frank Luke
    Feb 3, 2012 at 20:07
  • I'm curious to see where you're going with this - clearly you have some idea, otherwise why the question. :)
    – Soldarnal
    Feb 3, 2012 at 22:21
  • Please don't tag questions that don't apply to the whole 'old testament' or 'tanakh' as such. It dilutes the effectiveness of the tag. The 'judges' tag tells us the location in the text. Feb 5, 2012 at 2:42
  • @Soldarnal: I had the idea that this would be helpful for dating the book since cultural touchstones like this tend to die out over time unless recorded. For instance, I'd never heard of Killroy until my grandfather saw the mark on the WWII memorial in Washington DC and told us about it. But I realized in answering my question, that it's not so helpful. Feb 8, 2012 at 1:30

1 Answer 1


For context, the Gileadites were the tribes of Reuben, Gad, and the half-tribe of Manasseh who chose to occupy the land on the opposite side of the Jordan from the rest of Israel. This region was called Gilead. The Ephraimites had crossed the Jordan in order to confront the Gileadites, but were defeated by their fellow Israelites. The passage in question says that the Gileadites held the fords of the Jordan and used a literal Shibboleth to identify who was trying to escape to their homes in Ephraim territory.

All theories about the composition of Judges hold that it was compiled from earlier sources sometime after Saul was established as king over Israel. Traditionally, Samuel was said to be the author. More recently, scholars hold that it (along with Deuteronomy, Joshua, Samuel and Kings) were redacted sometime after the destruction of the northern kingdom in 721 BCE.

Nobody disagrees that Judges included very old sources, such as The Song of Deborah. The Shibboleth story could originate quite close to the events it portrays, but we can't really learn much about the final compilation date from one story alone.

Interestingly, I looked up a passing reference to the story in the Encyclopedia Judaica (which required a trip to the library). According to Gershon Bacon:

There is an ancient ethnic joke about anyone from Ephraim who, when asked to say shibboleth, (Judg. 11:6) "said 'sibboleth,' for he did not prepare (Heb. yakin) to pronounce it right", even though his life depended on it.

He seems to imply that this counts as a sort of literary flourish that results from careful editing, rather than a carefully preserved bit of linguistics as I'd imagined the story to be.

  • 1
    "He seems to imply that this counts as a sort of literary flourish that results from careful editing, rather than a carefully preserved bit of linguistics as I'd imagined the story to be." Like you, I'd conclude the opposite as he does. There are parts of the Pentateuch (which Judges is not, but bear with me) that show themselves to be older. For instance, Gen 1 contains a few nouns with case endings, which faded from Hebrew long ago. Ex 15 is similar but the passages before and after lack them. It would be like a modern book having 3 paragraphs in KJ English in the middle of a chapter.
    – Frank Luke
    Feb 13, 2012 at 19:24
  • 1
    That doesn't say "editing" to me. It says "preserved."
    – Frank Luke
    Feb 13, 2012 at 19:25
  • @Frank: It just so happens that I'm reading Cratylus, which is a Platonic dialogue where Socrates speculates endlessly about the etymology of certain words. It's remarkably speculative and reminds me of the shibboleth story. With that perspective, I can imagine either possibility: preserved or speculative linguistics. (But I agree that there is very old material poking up throughout the Tanakh.) Feb 13, 2012 at 20:03
  • Written is one thing, first told is another, brought into the current text is yet something else. Judges 18 speaks of Moses' descendants acting as priests in Dan "until the captivity of the land," so the current text clear dates to at least the time of the Babylonian captivity, and it's not easy to tell how the narrator dealt with the stories that were first handed down orally, then written, and finally compiled. Feb 13, 2023 at 21:46

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