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When More is Less - Or - What Happened to Gideon? (Judges 7:23-8:32)

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23 Israelites from Naphtali, Asher, and Manasseh answered the call and chased the Midianites.

24 Now Gideon sent messengers throughout the Ephraimite hill country who announced, “Go down and head off the Midianites. Take control of the fords of the streams all the way to Beth Barah and the Jordan River.” When all the Ephraimites had assembled, they took control of the fords all the way to Beth Barah and the Jordan River. 25 They captured the two Midianite generals, Oreb and Zeeb. They executed Oreb on the rock of Oreb and Zeeb in the winepress of Zeeb. They chased the Midianites and brought the heads of Oreb and Zeeb to Gideon, who was now on the other side of the Jordan River.

1 The Ephraimites said to him, “Why have you done such a thing to us? You did not summon us when you went to fight the Midianites!” They argued vehemently with him. 2 He said to them, “Now what have I accomplished compared to you? Even Ephraim’s leftover grapes are better quality than Abiezer’s harvest! 3 It was to you that God handed over the Midianite generals, Oreb and Zeeb! What did I accomplish to rival that?” When he said this, they calmed down.

4 Now Gideon and his three hundred men had crossed over the Jordan River, and even though they were exhausted, they were still chasing the Midianites. 5 He said to the men of Succoth, “Give some loaves of bread to the men who are following me, because they are exhausted. I am chasing Zebah and Zalmunna, the kings of Midian.” 6 The officials of Succoth said, “You have not yet overpowered Zebah and Zalmunna. So why should we give bread to your army?” 7 Gideon said, “Since you will not help, after the Lord hands Zebah and Zalmunna over to me, I will thresh your skin with desert thorns and briers.” 8 He went up from there to Penuel and made the same request. The men of Penuel responded the same way the men of Succoth had. 9 He also threatened the men of Penuel, warning, “When I return victoriously, I will tear down this tower.”

10 Now Zebah and Zalmunna were in Karkor with their armies. There were about fifteen thousand survivors from the army of the eastern peoples; a hundred and twenty thousand sword-wielding soldiers had been killed. 11 Gideon went up the road of the nomads east of Nobah and Jogbehah and ambushed the surprised army. 12 When Zebah and Zalmunna ran away, Gideon chased them and captured the two Midianite kings, Zebah and Zalmunna. He had surprised their entire army.

13 Gideon son of Joash returned from the battle by the pass of Heres. 14 He captured a young man from Succoth and interrogated him. The young man wrote down for him the names of Succoth’s officials and city leaders – seventy-seven men in all. 15 He approached the men of Succoth and said, “Look what I have! Zebah and Zalmunna! You insulted me, saying, ‘You have not yet overpowered Zebah and Zalmunna. So why should we give bread to your exhausted men?’” 16 He seized the leaders of the city, along with some desert thorns and briers; he then “threshed” the men of Succoth with them. 17 He also tore down the tower of Penuel and executed the city’s men.

18 He said to Zebah and Zalmunna, “Describe for me the men you killed at Tabor.” They said, “They were like you. Each one looked like a king’s son.” 19 He said, “They were my brothers, the sons of my mother. I swear, as surely as the Lord is alive, if you had let them live, I would not kill you.” 20 He ordered Jether his firstborn son, “Come on! Kill them!” But Jether was too afraid to draw his sword, because he was still young. 21 Zebah and Zalmunna said to Gideon, “Come on, you strike us, for a man is judged by his strength.” So Gideon killed Zebah and Zalmunna, and he took the crescent-shaped ornaments which were on the necks of their camels.

22 The men of Israel said to Gideon, “Rule over us – you, your son, and your grandson. For you have delivered us from Midian’s power.” 23 Gideon said to them, “I will not rule over you, nor will my son rule over you. The Lord will rule over you.” 24 Gideon continued, “I would like to make one request. Each of you give me an earring from the plunder you have taken.” (The Midianites had gold earrings because they were Ishmaelites.) 25 They said, “We are happy to give you earrings.” So they spread out a garment, and each one threw an earring from his plunder onto it. 26 The total weight of the gold earrings he requested came to seventeen hundred gold shekels. This was in addition to the crescent-shaped ornaments, jewelry, purple clothing worn by the Midianite kings, and the necklaces on the camels. 27 Gideon used all this to make an ephod, which he put in his hometown of Ophrah. All the Israelites prostituted themselves to it by worshiping it there. It became a snare to Gideon and his family.

28 The Israelites humiliated Midian; the Midianites’ fighting spirit was broken. The land had rest for forty years during Gideon’s time. 29 Then Jerub-Baal son of Joash went home and settled down. 30 Gideon fathered seventy sons through his many wives. 31 His concubine, who lived in Shechem, also gave him a son, whom he named Abimelech. 32 Gideon son of Joash died at a very old age and was buried in the tomb of his father Joash located in Ophrah of the Abiezrites (Judges 7:23-8:32).2

Introduction

A couple of years ago my wife and I began to smell something unpleasant in the vicinity of our family playroom – a small room stacked with toys through which one must pass to enter or exit the house from the back door. We looked around, but did not find anything suspicious (although in a playroom for grandchildren, there are lots of possibilities). As time passed, the smell became stronger and stronger, not only in intensity but in plain old-fashioned foulness. Something had to be done. Searching did not seem to produce the culprit, until one day it occurred to me to look in the “play refrigerator,” one of several toy kitchen appliances. When I opened the door, I got a full dose of that foul smell. There was only one thing inside, a cup of milk that had been there for at least two weeks. Trust me, it was ripe!

Reading the story of Gideon reminds me of our experience with that foul smelling glass of milk hidden away in a play refrigerator. Initially, everything appeared to be going great. God had worked in Gideon’s life so that he secretly destroyed his father’s Baal altar and the Asherah pole that accompanied it, building in its place an altar to Israel’s God and sacrificing a bull as an offering, with wood supplied by the Asherah pole. In so doing, Gideon expressed faith in God while mocking the Canaanite gods he and his family had been worshipping.

It took a good bit of convincing for Gideon to believe that God would actually use him to deliver the Israelites from their oppression by the Midianites – a two-stage test by means of Gideon’s fleece, and confirmation that came from overhearing the conversation of two Midianite warriors. When the Spirit of the LORD came upon Gideon, he blew the trumpet, calling for his fellow-Israelites to assemble for war with the Midianites. God reduced this army of 32,000 to a mere 300 unarmed men because He wanted to make it clear that He had accomplished Israel’s deliverance just as He had promised. In the battle, the Midianites turned on themselves, so that they were killed by “friendly fire” as it were. The Midianites turned tail and ran for home, with Gideon and his 300 men in hot pursuit.

This is the point at which our text takes up the account, and it is also the point at which something begins to smell foul. In the closing verses of chapter 7, Gideon calls for help from several Israelite tribes. So far as we are told, the only result is the capture and execution of two Midianite generals and a potentially explosive argument between the tribe of Ephraim and Gideon. “Why,” I had to ask, “was it necessary for Gideon to summon his fellow Israelites to help him when the battle was nearly over, and when God had sent nearly all of those who had assembled earlier to their tents (or home)?”

Gideon and his 300 weary soldiers continue to pursue what is left (15,000 men) of the eastern coalition (originally 135,000 men3) deep into enemy territory. In the course of his pursuit, he passes through two Israelite towns, Succoth and Penuel.4 When asked for bread, the leaders of these towns refuse to assist Gideon in this way, fearing that Gideon will not be victorious, and thus bringing the retaliation of the Midianites. Gideon continues his pursuit, but threatens to punish the men of these cities for their lack of support when he returns victorious over the Midianites. And so he does return, at which time he deals harshly with his fellow-Israelites. He gives the leaders of Succoth a beating they won’t forget, and he tears down the tower at Penuel, killing the men of the city. This, too, has a smell; indeed, it has a stronger smell than Gideon’s call for help from his fellow Israelites.

Like finding that cup of milk in the play refrigerator, we discover a most surprising revelation when we come to Gideon’s dealings with the two Midianite kings, Zebah and Zalmunna. We’ll see what this surprise revelation is when we come to this part of the account later in the message.

Lest anyone be inclined to think that the story of Gideon will end with a “happily ever after,” we need only read about the “ephod” which Gideon made and then placed in his home town of Ophrah, which the Israelites came to worship. Here is a smell so strong no one can ignore or deny it. Something has gone terribly wrong with Gideon, and it is our task to discover what that was. So let us look to God’s Word and to His Spirit to teach us important truths from this disturbing text.

“Help” arrives, but does it Help?

Judges 7:23-8:3

23 Israelites from Naphtali, Asher, and Manasseh answered the call and chased the Midianites. 24 Now Gideon sent messengers throughout the Ephraimite hill country who announced, “Go down and head off the Midianites. Take control of the fords of the streams all the way to Beth Barah and the Jordan River.” When all the Ephraimites had assembled, they took control of the fords all the way to Beth Barah and the Jordan River. 25 They captured the two Midianite generals, Oreb and Zeeb. They executed Oreb on the rock of Oreb and Zeeb in the winepress of Zeeb. They chased the Midianites and brought the heads of Oreb and Zeeb to Gideon, who was now on the other side of the Jordan River.

1 The Ephraimites said to him, “Why have you done such a thing to us? You did not summon us when you went to fight the Midianites!” They argued vehemently with him. 2 He said to them, “Now what have I accomplished compared to you? Even Ephraim’s leftover grapes are better quality than Abiezer’s harvest! 3 It was to you that God handed over the Midianite generals, Oreb and Zeeb! What did I accomplish to rival that?” When he said this, they calmed down (Judges 7:23—8:3).

As I mentioned earlier, one has to wonder why Gideon called for help from his fellow Israelites. The major battle has been fought and won by God, thus delivering His people from Midianite oppression. What follows this victory is merely a “mop up” operation. The vast majority of those who volunteered for service in chapter 6 (verses 34-35) were sent back and did not engage in the main battle (7:1-8). We should also note that whatever the reason for the first general call to war, it was prompted by the Spirit of the LORD who came upon Gideon (6:34). There is no indication in chapter 7 that God ordered Gideon to summon other Israelite tribes (such as Ephraim) to battle. Why are extra Israelite forces needed now?

I believe that it would not have been difficult for Gideon to rationalize his decision to call for assistance. He might appeal to the example set by Deborah and Barak (as is evident in chapters 4 and 5), whose example and exhortation prompted Israelites from different tribes to join in their battle for freedom from their Canaanite oppressors. Gideon might also argue that since the major battle has already been fought and won, this gathering of additional forces is merely for “cleanup” purposes. Furthermore, it appeared that the 15,000 Midianite troops who remained were getting away. If volunteers could block the remnant of the eastern coalition from crossing the Jordan and returning home, they could be killed. The Ephraimites in particular were within reach of the Jordan River. They, better than others, could stop the retreat of the enemy.

But in the absence of a specific command from the LORD (or compulsion of the Spirit) to engage in the battle, one must ask why the guiding principle God set down earlier would not apply here:

2 The Lord said to Gideon, “You have too many men for me to hand Midian over to you. Israel might brag, ‘Our own strength has delivered us.’ 3 Now, announce to the men, ‘Whoever is shaking with fear may turn around and leave Mount Gilead.’” Twenty-two thousand men went home; ten thousand remained (Judges 7:2-3).

Added to this is the argument between Ephraim and Gideon recorded for us in the first three verses of chapter 8. So far as our author informs us, Ephraim’s participation contributed little more than the heads of two Midianite generals (or commanders). The Ephraimite blockade may have prevented some of the eastern coalition from crossing the Jordan and making their way home. More than anything, it became a source of contention between Ephraim and Gideon, a contention which could (as it later did) result in war between these Israelites.

What is important to note is the central issue of Gideon’s argument with Ephraim: glory. The dispute is really over the question, “Who gets the glory for the defeat of the Midianites; Ephraim or Gideon (and his clan, the Abiezrites)?” It is really not surprising to find Ephraim here as a glory seeker, because it will happen again in chapter 12:

1 The Ephraimites assembled and crossed over to Zaphon. They said to Jephthah, “Why did you go and fight with the Ammonites without asking us to go with you? We will burn your house down right over you!” 2 Jephthah said to them, “My people and I were entangled in controversy with the Ammonites. I asked for your help, but you did not deliver me from their power. 3 When I saw that you were not going to help, I risked my life and advanced against the Ammonites, and the Lord handed them over to me. Why have you come up to fight with me today?” (Judges 12:1-3)

In chapter 12, Jephthah called to the Ephraimites for help, and they failed to come and so Jephthah had to go to battle on his own. And yet they are angry because Jephthah had the honor of being victorious over the Ammonites. The men of Ephraim end up doing battle, not with the Ammonites, but with Jephthah and his forces. The Ephraimites don’t deserve any glory, and yet they are angry when Jephthah wins without them to share in the glory.

Here in our text, as in chapter 12, what Ephraim needs is a rebuke. Jephthah gave him that and more in chapter 12, but Gideon responds in a disappointing way. Some commentators commend Gideon for giving Ephraim a “soft” answer (as we find in Proverbs 15:1), but this is not a time for a soft answer. Gideon’s answer is too soft; he is talking like a politician nearing an election. He is working too hard to appease Ephraim, when a rebuke is what is required. In my opinion, his answer should have gone something like this:

“Ephraim, you need to understand that it was the Spirit of the LORD that prompted me to blow the trumpet, summoning other Israelite tribes to battle. Now I am not at fault because either you did not respond to that call or God did not include you in the call. And besides this, even though many came to join the battle, God reduced the size of my army from 32,000 Israelites to 300. He did this because He did not want you or me – or anyone else for that matter – to take credit for the victory He would win for us. The glory belongs to God alone, so you need to see that all of this talk about glory is completely out of order. If you have a grievance, you’d better take that up with God, and I’d recommend a great deal of humility on your part if you do.”

Gideon’s War with Two Cities and Two Kings

Judges 8:4-21

4 Now Gideon and his three hundred men had crossed over the Jordan River, and even though they were exhausted, they were still chasing the Midianites. 5 He said to the men of Succoth, “Give some loaves of bread to the men who are following me, because they are exhausted. I am chasing Zebah and Zalmunna, the kings of Midian.” 6 The officials of Succoth said, “You have not yet overpowered Zebah and Zalmunna. So why should we give bread to your army?” 7 Gideon said, “Since you will not help, after the Lord hands Zebah and Zalmunna over to me, I will thresh your skin with desert thorns and briers.” 8 He went up from there to Penuel and made the same request. The men of Penuel responded the same way the men of Succoth had. 9 He also threatened the men of Penuel, warning, “When I return victoriously, I will tear down this tower.”

10 Now Zebah and Zalmunna were in Karkor with their armies. There were about fifteen thousand survivors from the army of the eastern peoples; a hundred and twenty thousand sword-wielding soldiers had been killed. 11 Gideon went up the road of the nomads east of Nobah and Jogbehah and ambushed the surprised army. 12 When Zebah and Zalmunna ran away, Gideon chased them and captured the two Midianite kings, Zebah and Zalmunna. He had surprised their entire army.

13 Gideon son of Joash returned from the battle by the pass of Heres. 14 He captured a young man from Succoth and interrogated him. The young man wrote down for him the names of Succoth’s officials and city leaders – seventy-seven men in all. 15 He approached the men of Succoth and said, “Look what I have! Zebah and Zalmunna! You insulted me, saying, ‘You have not yet overpowered Zebah and Zalmunna. So why should we give bread to your exhausted men?’” 16 He seized the leaders of the city, along with some desert thorns and briers; he then “threshed” the men of Succoth with them. 17 He also tore down the tower of Penuel and executed the city’s men.

18 He said to Zebah and Zalmunna, “Describe for me the men you killed at Tabor.” They said, “They were like you. Each one looked like a king’s son.” 19 He said, “They were my brothers, the sons of my mother. I swear, as surely as the Lord is alive, if you had let them live, I would not kill you.” 20 He ordered Jether his firstborn son, “Come on! Kill them!” But Jether was too afraid to draw his sword, because he was still young. 21 Zebah and Zalmunna said to Gideon, “Come on, you strike us, for a man is judged by his strength.” So Gideon killed Zebah and Zalmunna, and he took the crescent-shaped ornaments which were on the necks of their camels (Judges 8:4-21).

The incident with the Ephraimites is a temporary interruption in the author’s account of Gideon’s ongoing pursuit of the Midianites and their eastern allies. In verse 4, we return once again to Gideon and his 300 men5 in hot pursuit of the remaining 15,000 enemy warriors who are making a hasty retreat to their own territory. Gideon and his men are weary and hungry. Because they were intent on overtaking the Midianite warriors, they did not stop to rest or to eat a good meal. And now, it would seem, they are tired and entirely out of provisions. Here, someone must have thought, was a time for the Israelites living in the vicinity to come to their aid.

Gideon was in for a big disappointment if he believed that the Israelites in the Transjordan towns of Succoth and Penuel were going to be of help. Gideon’s request for food was first denied by the leaders of Succoth and then by the people of Penuel. Whether or not the Israelites of Succoth and Penuel meant their response as an insult, Gideon certainly took it that way. But taking their words at face value, we know why the men of these two cities responded as they did: they were afraid that Gideon could not win, and thus by helping Gideon, they would side with him and become the first recipients of any Midianite retaliation. This greatly angered Gideon who promised to return a victor, and when he did, he promised to punish the men of these cities for mocking him and refusing to give him food. Notice that there is only one passing reference to God in verse 7; other than this, it is a very secular event.

It is especially important to note the wording of verse 9:

So he spoke also to the men of Penuel, saying, "When I return safely, I will tear down this tower" (NAU, emphasis mine).

He also threatened the men of Penuel, warning, "When I return victoriously, I will tear down this tower" (NET Bible, emphasis mine).

So he said to the men of Peniel, "When I return in triumph, I will tear down this tower" (NIV, emphasis mine).

He also told the men of Penuel, "When I return in peace, I will tear down this tower!" (CSB, emphasis mine; so also ESV, KJV, NKJV)

The rendering “in peace” is the most literal translation and also the best choice of words in my opinion. It is true that returning “in peace” also implies “victory” or “triumph,” but the Scriptures make a clear distinction between events occurring “in peace” and those happening “in a time of war.” Consider this crucial distinction as it pertains to the death of Abner:

20 When Abner, accompanied by twenty men, came to David in Hebron, David prepared a banquet for Abner and the men who were with him. 21 Abner said to David, “Let me leave so that I may go and gather all Israel to my lord the king so that they may make an agreement with you. Then you will rule over all that you desire.” So David sent Abner away, and he left in peace. 22 Now David’s soldiers and Joab were coming back from a raid, bringing a great deal of plunder with them. Abner was no longer with David in Hebron, for David had sent him away and he had left in peace. 23 When Joab and all the army that was with him arrived, Joab was told: “Abner the son of Ner came to the king; he sent him away, and he left in peace!” (2 Samuel 3:20-23, emphasis mine)

So Joab and his brother Abishai killed Abner, because he had killed their brother Asahel in Gibeon during the battle (2 Samuel 3:30, emphasis mine).

To remind you of the background of the Scriptures cited here, some of David’s men were engaged in battle with some of Saul’s son’s (Ishbosheth’s) forces, led by Abner. Abner was being pursued by Asahel, the brother of Joab and Abishai. Abner tried to persuade Asahel to turn back, but he would not, and so Abner killed him. Remember that this killing was during a battle, so it was not considered murder.

In Joab’s mind, family ties overruled the law, and thus he looked upon the death of his brother Asahel as murder. And so we find that he resolved to be his dead brother’s avenger. Somewhere, somehow, he would kill Abner. The opportunity came when Abner was invited to Hebron to meet with David. Three times the author informs the reader that Abner came “in peace.” This was because Abner came for the purpose of negotiating the reunification of the 12 Israelite tribes. This was not a time of war; indeed, Abner was assured of David’s protection. When Joab killed Abner, it was not in war, but in a time of peace. Thus, it was murder, and David made it clear that he had no part in it.

Do you see the relevance of this incident to Gideon’s actions in our text? This will become clear as we continue to walk through this narrative. Gideon presses on in his pursuit of the Midianite warriors, taking what appears to be a more “off the main road” route. Coming upon the Midianites in this manner, he caught them unaware, and they were not prepared for battle. The two kings, Zebah and Zalmunna, fled in the confusion, but Gideon pursued and captured them.

Gideon now returns to Succoth and Penuel a different way. It appears that this was the more well-known and well-traveled route to the two Israelite cities. As promised, Gideon punished the men of both cities. Before he reached Succoth, Gideon captured a young man from the city and “persuaded” him to write down the names of all 77 of the city’s leaders. Gideon then entered the city, gathered the 77 leaders and punished them by means of a painful threshing with desert thorns and briars. This was precisely what he had threatened he would do to the men of Succoth. But when Gideon returned to Penuel, his retaliation was even more severe than what he had threatened. Gideon tore down the tower of Penuel and killed the men of the city.6 The question which the author surely wants us to ask is this: Was Gideon dealing more harshly with his fellow Israelites than he should have? Put differently, did Gideon rightly treat his fellow-Israelites as though they were his enemies?

For me, the wonder of it all is the realization that only two chapters (and just a few days) earlier Gideon was the one filled with fear, who needed confirmation that God would deliver Israel from the Midianites through him. So why is he now so harsh in his dealings with the men of Succoth and Penuel? Why does he have no compassion for those who have little faith in his ability to save Israel? These folks did not receive all the confirmation from God that Gideon did. All they see is 300 tired and hungry warriors in pursuit of 15,000 Midianites. What has changed Gideon into such a hostile and violent man?

Having dealt harshly with the men of Succoth and Penuel, our author now focuses our attention on the two Midianite kings – Zebah and Zalmunna – who sought to escape from the hand of Gideon but were captured deep in their own territory. Gideon now interrogates these two kings, asking a question that would never have occurred to the reader, coming completely “out of the blue”: “Describe for me the men you killed at Tabor” (8:18a)? Where did this come from? And if the question catches the reader entirely off guard, the answer is even more amazing: “They said, ‘They were like you. Each one looked like a king’s son’” (8:18b). And now for the biggest shock of all: Gideon declares that the men whom they killed at Tabor, the men who looked like the sons of a king, were actually his brothers – not his fellow-Israelites mind you, but his blood brothers – the sons of his mother (8:19).

Here is something that is entirely new and unexpected by the reader, something the author has withheld until this moment, late in the account. At some point in the not-too-distant past,7 these Midianite kings had been responsible for the execution of several men who appeared to them to be of royal blood. Zebah and Zalmunna recognized the resemblance (if not in looks, at least in their demeanor) between the men they killed and Gideon. Gideon now removes any doubt by revealing that the princely men who were killed were indeed his blood brothers, the sons of his mother.

This revelation changes the way that I now read Gideon’s response to the Angel of the LORD in chapter 6:

Gideon said to him, “But Lord, how can I deliver Israel? Just look! My clan is the weakest in Manasseh, and I am the youngest in my family” (Judges 6:15).

I do not doubt Gideon’s statement about being the youngest in his family. It appears that Gideon’s older brothers went off to fight the Midianites at Mount Tabor and were killed. Being the youngest, Gideon (somewhat like David in 1 Samuel 17:12-16) remained behind and did not engage the Midianites in battle. It is possible that he (like David) went to visit his brothers on the battlefront. He might even have witnessed their death. Regardless of these minor details, we can safely assume that Gideon suspected (if he did not know for a fact) that these two kings were responsible for the death of his brothers.

This new revelation to the reader explains a great deal. Even though their death was “in war,” he purposed to avenge his brothers’ deaths. This might explain why he called in men from other tribes, including Ephraim, to prevent their escape across the Jordan. It could even explain why he sought to bolster the egos of the Ephraimites by minimizing God’s role in Israel’s recent victory and by overstating the role they played in all these things. It would explain why Gideon was intent upon pursuing these kings deep into their own territory. Likewise, it would explain why Gideon was so harsh with his fellow Israelites living in Succoth and Penuel – they were hindering him from catching up with those he intended to kill. It may also explain why Gideon indicated to these kings that, had they allowed his brothers to live, he would have let them live. If this is a “family feud,” where vengeance is sought, then we can understand why Gideon would attempt to involve his young (and hardly ready for war) son, by instructing him to kill these two kings. Finally, it helps us to understand why the Israelites offered to make Gideon their king in the verses we are about to consider.

A Royal Offer – But is it Declined?

Judges 8:22-32

22 The men of Israel said to Gideon, “Rule over us – you, your son, and your grandson. For you have delivered us from Midian’s power.” 23 Gideon said to them, “I will not rule over you, nor will my son rule over you. The Lord will rule over you.” 24 Gideon continued, “I would like to make one request. Each of you give me an earring from the plunder you have taken.” (The Midianites had gold earrings because they were Ishmaelites.) 25 They said, “We are happy to give you earrings.” So they spread out a garment, and each one threw an earring from his plunder onto it. 26 The total weight of the gold earrings he requested came to seventeen hundred gold shekels. This was in addition to the crescent-shaped ornaments, jewelry, purple clothing worn by the Midianite kings, and the necklaces on the camels. 27 Gideon used all this to make an ephod, which he put in his hometown of Ophrah. All the Israelites prostituted themselves to it by worshiping it there. It became a snare to Gideon and his family. 28 The Israelites humiliated Midian; the Midianites’ fighting spirit was broken. The land had rest for forty years during Gideon’s time. 29 Then Jerub-Baal son of Joash went home and settled down. 30 Gideon fathered seventy sons through his many wives. 31 His concubine, who lived in Shechem, also gave him a son, whom he named Abimelech. 32 Gideon son of Joash died at a very old age and was buried in the tomb of his father Joash located in Ophrah of the Abiezrites (Judges 8:22-32).

We are not told exactly when it was that the men of Israel asked Gideon to be their king, but it would seem that it was not long after the victory over the Midianites. What they are really proposing is that Gideon accept the position of being their king and that his ruling over Israel would result in a dynasty. This would assure the Israelites of a strong military leader as well as a continual line of succession. One cannot read this request without thinking ahead to 1 Samuel 8, where the Israelites demanded that Samuel appoint a king for them, a man who would go before them into battle.

4 So all the elders of Israel gathered together and approached Samuel at Ramah. 5 They said to him, “Look, you are old, and your sons don’t follow your ways. So now appoint over us a king to lead us, just like all the other nations have.” 6 But this request displeased Samuel, for they said, “Give us a king to lead us.” So Samuel prayed to the Lord. 7 The Lord said to Samuel, “Do everything the people request of you. For it is not you that they have rejected, but it is me that they have rejected as their king. 8 Just as they have done from the day that I brought them up from Egypt until this very day, they have rejected me and have served other gods. This is what they are also doing to you.” . . . 19 But the people refused to heed Samuel’s warning. Instead they said, “No! There will be a king over us! 20 We will be like all the other nations. Our king will judge us and lead us and fight our battles” (1 Samuel 8:4-8, 19-20, emphasis mine).

On the surface, it would appear that Gideon (rightly) rejected this offer. He seems to do this in very plain words: “I will not rule over you, nor will my son rule over you. The Lord will rule over you” (Judges 8:23). “Good for Gideon,” we think. And so we continue to think of him as a hero, looking at his recent conduct as a momentary lapse in conduct and character. But in just a moment (just a couple of verses, actually), our optimism regarding Gideon will go up in flames when we read that he created an ephod that he then set up in his home town as an object of worship. No, something bad happened to Gideon after the miraculous victory God achieved using Gideon and his 300 men. It is my contention that this negative change in Gideon persisted for the rest of his life, for nearly forty years (8:28).

Along with others,8 it seems to me that Gideon’s refusal to be Israel’s king is the right answer theologically speaking, but that in reality he hypocritically lived a king’s life. Consider the following observations from the text.

First, the two kings – Zebah and Zalmunna – told Gideon that the men they killed on Mount Tabor were men who behaved liked royalty (8:18). Gideon’s brothers acted like the sons of a king. Did these men have royal blood? If so, then so did Gideon. And whether or not they had royal blood, they acted as though they were royalty. Thus, the Midianite kings concluded that Gideon, like his brothers, was acting like a king.

Second, for all intents and purposes, Gideon had a harem. The average Israelite did not have “many wives” and “seventy sons,” along with a concubine (8:30-31). Even David did not rival Gideon in this regard.

Third, Gideon virtually collected a “tax” when he accepted the “gift” from his soldiers in verses 24-27. This is kingly business.

Fourth, Gideon’s establishment of a new object of worship in his home town is something that a king could do. Later in Israel’s history, Jeroboam will establish a counterfeit religion when Israel becomes a divided kingdom.9 Gideon’s “ephod” becomes an idol that the Israelites worship. Ironically, this ephod is set up in Gideon’s home town of Ophrah, the very place where Gideon had torn down the altar of Baal and the sacred Asherah pole.

I should add that there is a great deal of discussion among students of the Bible as to just what this “ephod” looked like. We know from Scripture that in Exodus 28, God gave Moses the plans for the “ephod” which the high priest would wear. It was made of solid gold, royal cloth, and precious stones,10and was somehow used to discern the will of God.11 Later on in the Book of Judges, Micah will hire a Levite to be the family “priest,” and the religion he facilitates involves graven images, idols, and an ephod.12 One cannot help but wonder how much like Gideon’s “ephod” the “ephod” of Micah was.

What irony I find in all of Gideon’s “ephod” business. It would seem to me that the pagan “ephods” of Gideon and Micah would not only be objects of worship, but means of discerning the will of God (or, more likely, the gods). Isn’t it ironic that Gideon, the man who needed so much instruction and confirmation regarding God’s will for him, would make an ephod for others to worship so that they could know the will of the gods? Does Gideon still feel he needs some “crutch” so that he can be sure of the divine will, especially if that “will” is not the will of the LORD?

Fifth, while Gideon appears to have declined to be Israel’s king, this seems to be contradicted by his choice of a name for one of his sons. One of Gideon’s sons (whom we shall meet in chapter 9) is “Abimelech.” This name is a compound word, made up of the word “abi” which means “my father,” and “melek” which means “king.” And so the name “Abimelech” means “my father is king.” Now isn’t it a strange thing for Gideon to name his son “my father is king” if he has declined this title and office?

It is not just Abimelech who desired to rule over Israel. It seems to be the assumption of all Israel that Gideon’s seventy sons would “rule” over them:

1 Now Abimelech son of Jerub-Baal went to Shechem to see his mother’s relatives. He said to them and to his mother’s entire extended family, 2 “Tell all the leaders of Shechem this: ‘Why would you want to have seventy men, all Jerub-Baal’s sons, ruling13 over you, when you can have just one ruler? Recall that I am your own flesh and blood.’” 3 His mother’s relatives spoke on his behalf to all the leaders of Shechem and reported his proposal. The leaders were drawn to Abimelech; they said, “He is our close relative.” 4 They paid him seventy silver shekels out of the temple of Baal-Berith. Abimelech then used the silver to hire some lawless, dangerous men as his followers. 5 He went to his father’s home in Ophrah and murdered his half-brothers, the seventy legitimate sons of Jerub-Baal, on one stone. Only Jotham, Jerub-Baal’s youngest son, escaped, because he hid. 6 All the leaders of Shechem and Beth Millo assembled and then went and made Abimelech king by the oak near the pillar in Shechem (Judges 9:1-6, emphasis mine).

My point here is that not only all of Gideon’s sons expected to rule over Israel, but all Israel expected this as well. Gideon did not do a very good job of insuring that his descendants would not rule over Israel.

All of this leads me to conclude that Gideon has had a major moral and spiritual meltdown as a result of the victory God gave Gideon and his 300 men. D.I. Block puts it this way:

“Since Gideon launched his pursuit of Zebah and Zalmunna in 8:4, his behavior has followed the typical pattern of oriental kings: (1) he treated his subjects/countrymen ruthlessly (vv. 5-9, 12-17); (2) his actions were driven by a personal agenda rather than theological or national ideals; (3) he reacted to the death of his brothers as if they were royal assassinations requiring blood vengeance; (4) he made ridiculous demands on his people (v. 20); (5) he claimed for himself the symbols of royalty taken from the enemy. As already suggested, coming after this series of events, it appears the Israelite offer of kingship to Gideon simply seeks to formalize de jure what is already de facto.”14

Citing L.R. Klein,15 Block16 summarizes,

“The coward has become confident; he directs far-flung mopping up operations which are effectively carried out. But the voice of the LORD is stilled, not to be heard for the balance of Gideon’s narrative. And the spirit of the LORD, which brought the courage to fight a far greater military force, seems to slip from Gideon’s shoulders in the process.”

Conclusion

As we reflect on our text and its implications, consider the following thoughts.

If “All’s well that ends well,” then all is not well with either Gideon or Israel. As I was thinking back over the life of Gideon, it occurred to me that Gideon started out like Moses and ended like Aaron. Moses began his ministry with a great deal of self-doubt. Even though God Himself spoke to Moses, indicating that he was the one to deliver the Israelites from their bondage, Moses took a great deal of convincing. So did Gideon. And yet when the story of Gideon ends, we read that he made an ephod that the Israelites worshipped. That sounds more like Aaron, who fashioned a golden calf17 for the Israelites to worship. How sad that Gideon would begin by tearing down the heathen altar of Baal in his home town of Ophrah only to set up another object of worship at the end of the account of his life and ministry.

Gideon reminds us how easy it is to stumble and to fall, and few there are who truly “finish well.” That is what makes me so sad when I read about Gideon – he did not finish well. And we should be warned when we realize that many of those who once did well did not finish well. This would include people like David, his son Solomon, and Hezekiah as just a few examples. It does not get easier and easier to live the Christian life as you get older; it gets harder. How important it is to recognize our weakness and to cling to our Lord throughout our lifetime, so that we may finish well.

Gideon illustrates the devastating consequences of fostering a spirit of bitterness and revenge. We can see in our text that Gideon’s obsession with vengeance prompted him to act rashly. It may well have been his desire for revenge that prompted Gideon to call in extra troops, when God had just reduced the number of warriors to assure that He received the glory for the victory He promised. Gideon’s desire for revenge might also have prompted him to deal harshly with his fellow-Israelites in Succoth and Penuel. It might even have caused him to pursue the Midianites deep into enemy territory. Gideon’s appetite for revenge was not beneficial, either to Gideon or to the nation Israel. We would do well to learn from Gideon’s experience to deal with our anger quickly and decisively.18 Organizations like the Peacemaker Ministries19 seek to help Christians do this.

How quickly and easily men are able and willing to take credit for what God has done. God picked a fearful man like Gideon and then reduced his warriors to 300 unarmed men so that it would be abundantly clear that the victory was the Lord’s. How well Gideon knew this as he went into battle, but after the major battle was won, there was almost no mention of God, and there was far too much emphasis on the glory of men. The heated interchange between Gideon and the Ephraimites is but one example of men wanting the glory which belongs only to God.

Christians (and particularly Christian leaders) need to recognize the dangers inherent in ministry that is carried out by means of the gifts and power of the Holy Spirit. Block says it well when he writes,

“Fourth, those who are called to leadership in the kingdom of God face constant temptation to exchange the divine agenda for personal ambition. Ironically, the more impressive one’s achievement for God, the greater the temptation. Having won deliverance for his people with a spectacular victory over the Midianites, Gideon began to act like it had been achieved with the ‘sword of Gideon’ rather than the ‘sword of the LORD’”20 (emphasis mine).

Sometimes God finds it necessary to give us a “thorn in the flesh”21 to remind us of our weakness and of our need for His strength. Better that than the arrogance of assuming that some achievement was due to our inherent strengths. Christian leaders can point men to God and encourage them to serve, knowing that God gives strength to the weak. But we can also become puffed up by the success that was not ours in the first place.

If “less is more” then it may also be true that “more is less.” By “more,” I am thinking of more money, more status, or more success. The “more” God gave to Gideon, the less he felt that he needed God and the farther from dependence upon God he drifted. There have been times in my life (very few, in fact) when it appeared that there was a chance that I might be given “more.” It didn’t happen, and in reflecting on this, I’m grateful. I fear that I know myself well enough to realize that “more” would have affected me as it did Gideon. I have come to see that “more” can mean “more temptation and opportunity to drift from God.” God may withhold certain things (“more”) from me to prevent me from sinning against Him. (Many of the sins I don’t commit may be prevented by my lack of means to commit them.) Thank God for “less.”

We need good theology in order to rightly interpret history. I could not help but think of the contrast between the “Song of Deborah” in Judges 5 and this epitaph regarding Gideon in chapter 8. Barak, like Gideon, was reluctant to trust God to deliver Israel under his leadership. Likewise, both Barak and Gideon went to battle when victory was humanly impossible. God gave the victory to both men in a way that made it clear that the victory was His doing. But the outcome of these two battles was greatly different. In the case of Deborah and Barak, victory over Sisera and Hazor and their iron chariot-equipped army was followed up by Deborah’s song. In this song, the battle was seen from a divine point of view. God was praised for His victory over the enemy and for the fact that this greatly encouraged the Israelites to unite and join in the battle. Along the highways and byways of Israel, this song of praise to God was sung so that God was praised as the true hero, while recognition was also given to a humble woman (Jael) who used her position and the unlikely tools at her disposal to kill the captain of the enemy army. Deborah’s song kept people thinking rightly about the victory God had won. Her song helped the Israelites to view their experience theologically.

It is so sad to observe how different the outcome was of the battle of Gideon and his 300 unarmed men. Other Israelites joined in the battle, but it appears that they should not have been asked to do so, and some (at least the Ephraimites, if not all) joined in for the glory they might gain. Almost immediately after their victory over the Midianites, Gideon and his fellow Israelites began to revise history and to make Gideon the hero, inviting him to be their king from that moment on. The name of God is hardly mentioned after this, and Gideon will make an ephod which will become an object of worship. After he is gone, the nation will forsake God entirely for another God and another covenant.22

Apart from God, men can fall so far, so fast, and not even realize it at the time. I was reminded of what the author says of Samson in chapter 16:

She [Delilah] said, “The Philistines are here, Samson!” He woke up and thought, “I will do as I did before and shake myself free.” But he did not realize that the Lord had left him (Judges 16:20, emphasis mine).

I wonder when the Spirit of the LORD left Gideon. It is hard to believe that He did not. The Spirit came upon Gideon powerfully in his weakness (6:34), but He seems to be long gone when Gideon feels and acts as though he is strong.

What happens to Gideon (and to many others in the Bible, and in history, and today) is something like what happens on the roller coaster at the State Fair of Texas. When everyone is safely strapped in, the cars are linked to a mechanism that slowly draws the cars to a high point, and this is followed by a heart-thumping rapid descent to be repeated several more times. It seemed to take forever to convince Gideon that he could trust God to deliver Israel under his leadership. But once Gideon acted in faith, a great victory was won. But this success made him feel strong and self-sufficient, which eventually becomes evident. As we read chapter 8, we are not quite sure what to think of Gideon’s decision to summon his fellow-Israelites to battle, or of his zeal to pursue the remnant of the eastern coalition deep into enemy territory, or of his severity in dealing with his fearful fellow-Israelites in Succoth and Penuel. But then we come to the end of the story, and to Gideon’s ephod, and suddenly it all begins to make sense. Gideon has been in a spiritual decline, and we hardly even knew it. I suspect that the same was true for Gideon.

Gideon will live for many more years, and Israel lived in peace for those forty years (8:28). But this is the last time we will be told that the Israelites lived in peace. As we read in chapter 2,23 after the death of their deliverer, the Israelites went from bad to worse. Earlier in the Book of Judges, the Israelites were seduced to follow foreign gods by the Canaanites among whom they were living. But now it is Israel’s leader – Gideon – who makes an ephod that the Israelites come to worship.24 After his death, it will only get worse. Now, corruption comes from inside Israel. Soon (chapter 9) oppression will come from within as well. But for the grace of God, Israel should not even exist.


1 Copyright © 2009 by Robert L. Deffinbaugh. This is the edited manuscript of Lesson 9 in the series, The Dark Days of Israel’s Judges, prepared by Robert L. Deffinbaugh on October 11, 2009. Anyone is at liberty to use this lesson for educational purposes only, with or without credit.

2 Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the NET Bible. The NEW ENGLISH TRANSLATION, also known as THE NET BIBLE, is a completely new translation of the Bible, not a revision or an update of a previous English version. It was completed by more than twenty biblical scholars who worked directly from the best currently available Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek texts. The translation project originally started as an attempt to provide an electronic version of a modern translation for electronic distribution over the Internet and on CD (compact disk). Anyone anywhere in the world with an Internet connection will be able to use and print out the NET Bible without cost for personal study. In addition, anyone who wants to share the Bible with others can print unlimited copies and give them away free to others. It is available on the Internet at: www.netbible.org.

3 We arrive at this number thanks to Judges 8:10. There, we are told that an enemy force of 15,000 remained and that 120,000 had been killed.

4 Some translations like the NIV render it Peniel.”

5 I do find it interesting that after Ephraim’s strong complaint that Gideon has not allowed him to participate fully in his battle with the Midianites, we find only Gideon and his 300 men in pursuit. Where is Mr. Tough Guy (Ephraim) when he is needed? On his way back home? I’m not impressed.

6 It is difficult to tell whether Gideon killed the men of Penuel by destroying the tower, or whether he destroyed the tower and then focused his wrath on the men of the city. Either way, Gideon did more to these men than he threatened. Gideon’s anger and desire for revenge has gotten the best of him.

7 Though this may not have occurred in this particular attack, but perhaps took place during an earlier military campaign. For one thing, Mount Tabor, though not far away from the Hill of Moreh, is not specifically mentioned in our account. For another, if Gideon’s son is old enough to accompany his father in this pursuit, then it would seem that Gideon would have been old enough to go to war with his brothers (unless, of course, he – like those he sent home from the battle – was too fearful to fight).

8 See especially D.I. Block, Judges, Ruth (NAC 6; Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 1999), pp. 296-301; K. Lawson Younger Jr., Judges and Ruth (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 2002), pp. 203-210.

9 See 1 Kings 12:25-33.

10 See Exodus 39:1-7.

11 See 1 Samuel 23:6-13; 30:7-9.

12 See Judges 17:1-13; 18:14-20.

13 The terms “ruling” and “ruler” are essentially the same word as we find in 8:22, where the men of Israel asked Gideon to “rule” over them.

14 D.I. Block, Judges, Ruth (NAC 6; Nashville: Broadman &Holman, 1999), p. 299.

15 L. R. Klein, The Triumph of Irony in the Book of Judges. JSOT Sup 68 (Sheffield: Almond Press, 1987), pp. 57-58).

16 Block, p. 284.

17 In both cases – the golden calf and the ephod – the materials that were used came from the enemy that God defeated.

18 See Romans 12:16-21; Ephesians 4:26. Granted, Gideon’s anger is toward the enemies of Israel, but we would do well to consider how God brought about justice in the case of the murder of Gideon’s sons in Judges 9.

19 http://www.peacemaker.net/site/c.aqKFLTOBIpH/b.958123/k.CB70/Home.htm

20 D. I. Block, Judges, Ruth, p. 308.

21 See 2 Corinthians 12:7.

22 See Judges 8:33.

23 Judges 2:19.

24 Judges 8:27.

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