Based on Judges 12.
The Judges were rulers of Israel in the years after the twelve tribes first settled in Canaan – impossible to date securely, but the 13th century BC is conventional. They fought to hold off invasion by neighbouring kingdoms, such as Midian, Moab and Ammon, but their task was not made any easier by rivalries and suspicions within their own nation.
JEPHTHAH lived in Gilead on the east bank of the Jordan.* When the Kingdom of Ammon, which lay still further east, made an assault on Israel, he emerged as a great warrior. But the elders of the tribe of Ephraim resented Gilead going it alone, as they saw it, and though Jephthah reminded them that they had ignored his pleas for help, still they vowed to destroy his home and family. Soon Gilead and Ephraim were at war.
Ephraim lay west of the Jordan, so the river crossings were strategically vital, and any Ephraimite stranded on the east had to pass Jephthah’s sentries. At first, the sentries challenged them with, “Are you Ephraimite?”, to which they very sensibly replied, “No”, and escaped to fight again. But then the sentries switched to, “Say ‘Shibboleth’”.* Ephraimite dialect had no sound like ‘sh’, so the fugitives could only manage to say “Sibboleth”. Jephthah’s men immediately identified the enemy, and forty-two thousand Ephraimites were caught that way.
* Gilead was the mountainous region to the east of the River Jordan, and covered the lands of three tribes (south to north): Reuben, Gad, and the eastern part of Manasseh. Today it lies in the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan. See A Map of the Twelve Tribes of Israel at Wikimedia Commons.
* Hebrew for ‘stream’. In common parlance, a ‘shibboleth’ is any word or idea that can be used as a test to separate the ‘in’ group from the ‘out’ group. For example, “Operatives at the BBC had to sit down and fan themselves to recover from the shock of a minister questioning the shibboleth of wind power” Daily Mail.
Based on Judges 12.