Judges 8 The Conclusion of the Gideon Narrative

Picture of a Shofar made from the horn of a Greater Kudu By Olve Utne. This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.5 Generic license.CC BY-SA 2.5, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=208940

Judges 8: 1-3 Avoiding Intertribal Conflict

Then the Ephraimites said to him, “What have you done to us, not to call us when you went to fight against the Midianites?” And they upbraided him violently. 2 So he said to them, “What have I done now in comparison with you? Is not the gleaning of the grapes of Ephraim better than the vintage of Abiezer? 3 God has given into your hands the captains of Midian, Oreb and Zeeb; what have I been able to do in comparison with you?” When he said this, their anger against him subsided.

This brief conflict with the representatives of the Ephraimites shows the lack of unity among the tribes of Israel and the potential for conflicts that could lead to a war among the tribes. Gideon has come from Manasseh and in rallying the people to deal with the Midianite threat the Ephraimites were not included in the tribes called. This may have been an oversight, a deliberate snub, or a strategic decision by Gideon, but the Ephraimites interpretation of this lack of inclusion is both an insult and a decision which could result in their endangerment by fleeing Midianites which they were belatedly asked to contain or reprisals in the failure of Gideon’s attack. Their verbally violent upbraiding of Gideon may also reveal ongoing tensions between these two tribes which trace their lineage back to Joseph.[1] Gideon is able to avoid the conflict escalating by responding to the harsh words of Ephraim with self-deprecation of his accomplishments and his clan. Using a harvest metaphor of the gleanings (those left on the vine after harvest for the poor) and the harvested grapes themselves he indicates the leftovers of Ephraim are better than the completion of Manasseh reflected in their capture of the war leaders Oreb and Zeeb. Gideon is able to appease the anger of Ephraim and to continue his pursuit of the Midian remnant without having to fight with his fellow Israelites in Ephraim.

Judges 8: 4-21 The Conflict With Midian and Within Israel

4 Then Gideon came to the Jordan and crossed over, he and the three hundred who were with him, exhausted and famished. 5 So he said to the people of Succoth, “Please give some loaves of bread to my followers, for they are exhausted, and I am pursuing Zebah and Zalmunna, the kings of Midian.” 6 But the officials of Succoth said, “Do you already have in your possession the hands of Zebah and Zalmunna, that we should give bread to your army?” 7 Gideon replied, “Well then, when the LORD has given Zebah and Zalmunna into my hand, I will trample your flesh on the thorns of the wilderness and on briers.” 8 From there he went up to Penuel, and made the same request of them; and the people of Penuel answered him as the people of Succoth had answered. 9 So he said to the people of Penuel, “When I come back victorious, I will break down this tower.”

10 Now Zebah and Zalmunna were in Karkor with their army, about fifteen thousand men, all who were left of all the army of the people of the east; for one hundred twenty thousand men bearing arms had fallen.11 So Gideon went up by the caravan route east of Nobah and Jogbehah, and attacked the army; for the army was off its guard. 12 Zebah and Zalmunna fled; and he pursued them and took the two kings of Midian, Zebah and Zalmunna, and threw all the army into a panic.

13 When Gideon son of Joash returned from the battle by the ascent of Heres, 14 he caught a young man, one of the people of Succoth, and questioned him; and he listed for him the officials and elders of Succoth, seventy-seven people. 15 Then he came to the people of Succoth, and said, “Here are Zebah and Zalmunna, about whom you taunted me, saying, ‘Do you already have in your possession the hands of Zebah and Zalmunna, that we should give bread to your troops who are exhausted?'” 16 So he took the elders of the city and he took thorns of the wilderness and briers and with them he trampled[2] the people of Succoth. 17 He also broke down the tower of Penuel, and killed the men of the city.

18 Then he said to Zebah and Zalmunna, “What about the men whom you killed at Tabor?” They answered, “As you are, so were they, every one of them; they resembled the sons of a king.” 19 And he replied, “They were my brothers, the sons of my mother; as the LORD lives, if you had saved them alive, I would not kill you.” 20 So he said to Jether his firstborn, “Go kill them!” But the boy did not draw his sword, for he was afraid, because he was still a boy. 21 Then Zebah and Zalmunna said, “You come and kill us; for as the man is, so is his strength.” So Gideon proceeded to kill Zebah and Zalmunna; and he took the crescents that were on the necks of their camels.

Gideon has moved beyond the Jordan river into the territory of Gad in his pursuit of the remnant of the Midianites and Amalekites, but even though he still in land occupied by Israel he is not met with hospitality. Succoth is roughly four and a half miles east of the Jordan River and Penuel is an additional five and a half mile on their journey. The rejection of both towns of Gideon’s request likely had to do with a fear of reprisals from the Midianites if Gideon’s small force is unable to capture the leaders of the Midianite and Amalekite forces if they returned to the region. This refusal of hospitality and provisions demonstrates the lack of unity among the tribes and families and the draw of self-interest in a situation without any external security provided by the nation. Yet, Gideon declares the intention of revenge upon these two towns which have failed to assist him in completing his mission against the Midianite threat. Missed in the English translations of his threat to the people of Penuel is the irony that, “when I return in Shalom (peace-translated victory by NRSV) I will tear down this tower.” Gideon’s shalom will not be peaceful for Penuel or Succoth.

The identification of Karkor, where the remnant of the Midianite force assembled, is uncertain but one common identification is Wadi Sirhan, which would have forced Gideon to travel approximately eight two miles along the caravan routes. (Webb 2012, 255) This would also put the Midianites back into their territory and may indicate why they were not in a defensive posture, but rather left their encampment unguarded. They likely viewed pursuit by a previously unorganized and poorly equipped force over so large a distance impossible. Yet, Gideon proves to be a dogged pursuer and his bold action once again throws the remnant of the army into panic and allows him to capture the kings of the Midianites, Zebah and Zalmunna. Even with the previous reduction of the Midianite ‘army’ from one hundred thirty-five thousand to fifteen thousand, the capture of the kings and scattering of the army by a force of three hundred is an impressive feat. Yet, there is no indication in the text that God is active in Gideon’s guidance, pursuit, or victory.

In this brief time we have seen a transformation occur within Gideon from a reluctant judge who needed reassurance to an aggressive and even ruthless leader who views himself as the ‘mighty warrior’ that the angel of the Lord originally named him. (Judges 6: 12) Even the captured kings, Zebah and Zalmunna, remark that Gideon looks like a ‘son of a king’ but as a reader of this narrative we may wonder if these transformation in Gideon are a positive development. Gideon once threshed wheat, but now he threshes the leaders of Succoth with the thorns of the wilderness and briars. He once tore down the altar to Baal, but now he tears down the tower of Penuel and kills the men of the city. (Mobley 2005, 144)

The final scene may give us a motive for Gideon’s dogged pursuit since Gideon holds these two Midianite leaders responsible for the death of his brothers. If his brothers had been left alive these two kings may have been spared, but Gideon views their lives as payment for the loss of his family members. He gives his firstborn the honor[3] of executing these two kings. Jether proves unable to accept this honor since he is still young but he also acts as a reminder of who Gideon was: Gideon was once afraid and viewed himself as too young but no longer. The delegation of this task to the boy may also have been intended to humiliate these two kings, but when the task falls back to Gideon he ends the lives of these two kings and takes for his war trophies the crescents from the necks of the kings camels.

Judges 8: 22-35 The Golden Ephod and Backsliding into Idolatry

22 Then the Israelites said to Gideon, “Rule over us, you and your son and your grandson also; for you have delivered us out of the hand of Midian.” 23 Gideon said to them, “I will not rule over you, and my son will not rule over you; the LORD will rule over you.” 24 Then Gideon said to them, “Let me make a request of you; each of you give me an earring he has taken as booty.” (For the enemy had golden earrings, because they were Ishmaelites.) 25 “We will willingly give them,” they answered. So they spread a garment, and each threw into it an earring he had taken as booty. 26 The weight of the golden earrings that he requested was one thousand seven hundred shekels of gold (apart from the crescents and the pendants and the purple garments worn by the kings of Midian, and the collars that were on the necks of their camels). 27 Gideon made an ephod of it and put it in his town, in Ophrah; and all Israel prostituted themselves to it there, and it became a snare to Gideon and to his family. 28 So Midian was subdued before the Israelites, and they lifted up their heads no more. So the land had rest forty years in the days of Gideon.

29 Jerubbaal son of Joash went to live in his own house. 30 Now Gideon had seventy sons, his own offspring, for he had many wives. 31 His concubine who was in Shechem also bore him a son, and he named him Abimelech. 32 Then Gideon son of Joash died at a good old age, and was buried in the tomb of his father Joash at Ophrah of the Abiezrites.

33 As soon as Gideon died, the Israelites relapsed and prostituted themselves with the Baals, making Baal-berith their god. 34 The Israelites did not remember the LORD their God, who had rescued them from the hand of all their enemies on every side; 35 and they did not exhibit loyalty to the house of Jerubbaal (that is, Gideon) in return for all the good that he had done to Israel.

The people of this portion of Israel express a desire for someone to rule over them and the beginning of a dynasty. Gideon refuses this position and theologically provides the right answer by stating that, “the LORD will rule over you.”  Yet, the final actions of Gideon provide several questions for the attentive reader. Gideon’s father constructed an altar to Baal and an Asherah pole and presumably acted as a cultic leader of this worship of the Canaanite gods, and now his son constructs an ephod, an item associated with the priestly garments of the High Priest, which would allow him to divine the will of the God of Israel. There is no separation between political and religious leaders in the ancient world and Gideon’s household at Ophrah now becomes a place where the people will now prostitute[4] themselves to this golden ephod. There are strong echoes of the narrative of the Golden Calf (Exodus 32) in this scene where Aaron asks the people to bring him the golden earring and casts the image of a calf which the people bow down to. This will also be reflected in the crafting of an idolatrous ephod by Micah in Judges 17: 4-5) It is conceivable that the ephod provides a manner for Gideon to maintain control under the guise of religious trappings and act like a king without the title of a king, but paradoxically Jerubbaal (the one who contends with Baal) becomes the one who begins Israel’s backsliding back into idolatry and with his death the people again turn to Baal-berith.(Interestingly Baal-berith means lord of the covenant so this may an attempt to bring the characteristics of worship of Baal and the LORD together)

Deuteronomy when it speaks of the desired king (Deuteronomy 17: 14-20) indicates that the king is not to accumulate large amounts of gold or many wives, and although Gideon never takes the title of king he does both. The birth of seventy sons would be looked upon as a sign of great prosperity but it also points to a world where women are viewed as a commodity to be obtained and hoarded. In addition we learn, in a revelation important for the coming narrative, that Gideon has a son through a concubine in Shechem named Abimelech. Shechem is the location of Gideon’s judgment on the leaders who denied his forces bread and it is likely that this concubine was considered a spoil of war. (Deuteronomy 21:10-14) The name Abimelech means ‘my father is king’ and this may also indicate that Gideon’s declaration that he will not rule may not be completely accurate. The ambivalent ending of the chronicle of Gideon sets the stage for a dark chapter in Israel’s story and an early cautionary tale about the potential pitfalls of a dynastic reign.

[1] The narration of Israel (Jacob’s) blessing of his grandsons (by Joseph) and laying his right hand on the younger son (Ephraim) and the left on the older son (Manasseh) in Genesis 48:10-14 may reflect some of the resentment the tribe of Manasseh felt at the tribe of Ephraim’s larger and more influential role among the northern tribes. Ephraim becomes a shorthand for these northern tribes in later writings.

[2] Literally he taught (Hebrew yd’)

[3] In ancient warrior cultures the killing of a powerful foe was viewed as an occasion for honor rather than an unwelcome task.

[4] James Webb’s translation of Israel’s prostitution to the Ephod as “playing the harlot” does a striking job of capturing the language of Isaiah and other prophets about the people’s lack of religious fidelity to the LORD. (Webb 2012, 262)

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