Is it “Shibboleth” or “Sibboleth”? The Gileadites came up with a clever test to distinguish between their friends and their enemies (12:1–6). Knowing that the rival Ephraimites spoke a slightly different dialect, they asked them to say the word “Shibboleth.” The Ephraimites pronounced the word with an “s” rather than a “sh” sound, thus making them easy to spot. Today, a “shibboleth” is a word or expression of belief that “insiders” use to determine who is an “outsider.” Thus, if a person doesn’t express his beliefs using just the right words, he may be rejected by a particular group.
Foolish vows. When Jephthah realized that his foolish vow could result in the death of his daughter (11:29–40), he could have broken the vow. For whatever reason, however, he chose not to break the vow.
Mount Gerizim and Mount Ebal make up the sides of the east-west pass into the Valley of Shechem. When Joshua conquered central Israel, he used these mountains as symbols, pronouncing blessings from Mount Gerizim and punishments from Mount Ebal (Josh. 8:30–35). Perhaps because of its historical importance, Jotham chose Mount Gerizim as the place to tell his prophetic story about the trees and the bramble bush (Judg. 9:7–21).
Crescents. Midianite kings often decorated their camels with gold or silver pendants in the shape of a crescent moon (8:21). They may have believed the crescents were magic, since many of Israel’s neighbors worshiped the moon. Crescents are mentioned in Isaiah 3:16–18 as part of the “finery” that the Lord will take away from the “daughters of Zion.”
The night watch. Watchmen were an important part of life in Bible times. They provided night-time protection both for soldiers in their tents and for ordinary people in their homes.
Camels at war? The Midianites were among the first to use camels in warfare (6:5). Their camels were most likely the single-humped dromedary, which could travel more than 150 miles (240 km) in one day. The two-humped Bactrian camel was slower but could carry more weight than the dromedary. It was therefore ideal for trade caravans. Camels could be dangerous and unpredictable. If they became angry, they could wreck an entire campsite.
Donkeys played many roles in the ancient Near East. They provided much of the heavy labor in agriculture and provided personal transportation. The number of donkeys a man possessed often determined his wealth. White donkeys were highly prized (5:10) because they were rare.