Ibzan, Elon, and Abdon
8 Ibzan of Bethlehem judged Israel after Jephthah. 9 He had thirty sons and thirty daughters. He sent his thirty daughters in marriage to men outside the tribe and brought back thirty wives for his sons from outside the tribe. Ibzan judged Israel seven years, 10 and when he died, he was buried in Bethlehem.
Which Bethlehem was Ibzan from? When the Bethlehem that is in Judah is described, there is usually some mention of either Judah its region (Matthew 2:1), Ephrathah its other name (Micah 5:2), or either David or Jesse, its famous residents (Luke 2:4; 1 Samuel 16:1; John 7:42). This is especially the case elsewhere in Judges (Judges 17:7,9, 19:1,2,18). The Bethlehem mentioned here that was Ibzan’s home has no such descriptive, and so it seems most likely that it was the other Bethlehem, the one up north in Galilee, not all that far from Nazareth, which at this time would have been more well known. That would make Ibzan from either Zebulun or Asher.
Ibzan’s name is spelled so that it could also be pronounced Ivzan. That’s easier to say for some people, and would be perfectly acceptable. The meaning of his name is unknown, but it might be related to the town called Ebez (Joshua 19:20). The Talmud (Bava Bathra 91a) makes the fantastic claim that Ibzan was in fact Boaz, and that he was from the Bethlehem that is in Judah. The Talmud also invents a detail, that he consummated his marriage with Ruth on the night before he died. These things have no basis. Josephus was certainly influenced by the Talmud, claiming that Ibzan was from Bethlehem in Judah (Anitquities V,vii,13)
It was not his military success for which he was remembered, and so there is no exciting war story here for Ibzan. Instead, we have a description of his family. What was Ibzan trying to accomplish by marrying his children to people from “outside”? The term “outside” (there is no “tribe” or “clan” in the Hebrew text) is hutz (חוּץ), which can simply mean outside one’s home (Leviticus18:9), outside one’s town (Numbers 35:4), outside the earth itself (Job 18:17), or even further outside, apart from God (Ecclesiastes 2:14). Here the context suggests that Ibzan was finding husbands and wives for his children from outside his tribe.
He may have done this for one or both of two reasons. He may simply have been trying to extend his influence over more of Israel in order to solidify his power and authority. Or he may have been trying to unite the tribes through these family ties in order to put an end to the kind of racism and bigotry that got 42,000 Ephraimites slaughtered on the other side of the Jordan.
The Hebrew verb translated “sent” is another repetitive piel verb, showing that this was Ibzan’s regular pattern or habit, to send each daughter away, “outside,” to get a husband away from Bethlehem and probably outside of Zebulun and Asher. Then he would “bring” in (a causative hifil verb) girls from “outside” for his sons, creating new ties with still more outside villages and tribes. In this way, as many as sixty clans and families of Israel had connections with Ibzan. Perhaps this unification had something to do with the generally united attitude of the tribes when the Ammonite crisis came after Ibzan’s death.
With a judgeship of only seven years, Ibzan’s term seems unimportant, a mere blip on the timeline. But this attempt at unification—whatever his motive—may have played a very important role in the political structure of Israel in the very near future, bringing as many as sixty families or clans together when the cry went up for a king.
Sometimes people compare Ibzan’s blessed life to Jephthah’s seemingly cursed life, and they wonder why. Why would God lift one man up and seem to throw another man down? In Jephthah’s case, we have a man who made a vow and who kept it. This was not God’s doing, but Jephthah’s. When Herod killed the babies of Bethlehem (Matthew 2:16-18; Jeremiah 31:15), it was not God striking them dead because some parents were better believers than others. They suffered because of Herod’s sin. Sometimes the sins of others will cause you and me to suffer. God invites us to pray to him for help, and he will send help in some form, although we don’t always recognize it when it comes. Jephthah’s victory was staggering and spectacular; but his one daughter had no children, and his family line ended there and then. Ibzan has no victory recorded at all, and his story can be told in three verses, but his sixty children were a family legacy that continued long after his time, and his descendants may still be living today. The Lord gives to all, and the Lord takes away from all. Blessed is the name of the Lord.
Pastor Timothy Smith
Pastor Smith serves St. Paul’s Lutheran Church in New Ulm, Minnesota. His wife, Kathryn, attended Chapel from 1987-1990 while studying Secondary Education (Theater and Math) at UW-Madison. Kathryn’s father, John Meyer, was also the first man to serve as a Vicar at Chapel.