Warring Tribes

By Chuck Alley

Reading from Judges, 12:1-7

1 The men of Ephraim were called to arms, and they crossed to Zaphon and said to Jephthah, “Why did you cross over to fight against the Ammonites, and did not call us to go with you? We will burn your house down over you!” 2Jephthah said to them, “My people and I were engaged in conflict with the Ammonites who oppressed us severely. But when I called you, you did not deliver me from their hand. 3When I saw that you would not deliver me, I took my life in my hand, and crossed over against the Ammonites, and the Lord gave them into my hand. Why then have you come up to me this day, to fight against me?” 4Then Jephthah gathered all the men of Gilead and fought with Ephraim; and the men of Gilead defeated Ephraim, because they said, “You are fugitives from Ephraim, you Gileadites — in the heart of Ephraim and Manasseh.”

5 Then the Gileadites took the fords of the Jordan against the Ephraimites. Whenever one of the fugitives of Ephraim said, “Let me go over,” the men of Gilead would say to him, “Are you an Ephraimite?” When he said, “No,” 6they said to him, “Then say Shibboleth,” and he said, “Sibboleth,” for he could not pronounce it right. Then they seized him and killed him at the fords of the Jordan. Forty-two thousand of the Ephraimites fell at that time.

7 Jephthah judged Israel for six years. Then Jephthah the Gileadite died, and was buried in his town in Gilead.


Tribalism plagued Israel. From the time of Gideon and Jephthah in Judges, to the divided kingdom after Solomon, disunity could be triggered from any direction. When not threatened by an outside force, God’s people were good at making their own trouble.

Today, we in the Church seldom shed blood in our wars of separation. We use words rather than swords. Our warring “tribes” tend to be doctrinal, liturgical, or structural rather than genealogical. The spirit of hostility, however, can be much the same. We become jealous and fearful of the power, authority, or territory of others and lash out. And think of the “Shibboleths” we use, code words, to separate out the “real” Christians from the imposters, from those not on “my” side.

It’s not that there are no false Christians, or that there is never anything to disagree about. We certainly must use discernment. The problem is the issue of addiction to discord, and whether we secretly prefer jealousy and war to the harder task of being instruments of peace. Too often we claim that our internecine wars are “holy” wars. Yet God is one and the source of unity and not disunity.

In this age, the Church will always be beset by enemies from within and without. God’s holy will for his people is to present a unified witness of his nature to the world, and we are given a way of victory by Jesus Christ. Our call to unity does not wait for the perfect Church or Church leaders to enact it. We fight one battle, under one leader, with one enemy. That enemy would like to distract us in skirmishes against one another. That is familiar territory. Let’s take the unfamiliar field in the name of the Lord.

Chuck Alley is a retired Episcopal priest and an adjunct associate professor of anatomy on the medical faculty of Virginia Commonwealth University. He and his wife, Scottie, have three children and nine grandchildren.

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