Here are some notes on the Gideon Narrative in Judges 6-8.
The Gideon story opens with the familiar refrain of Israel doing evil and God handing them over to their enemies (6:1-6). This time it is the Midianites whom God uses to oppress Israel. Midian deals harshly with God’s people for seven years. Verse six emphasizes the hardship and impoverished condition of God’s people under Midian and states that Israel again called out to the Lord for help.
In response to Israel’s cry for help, a new element is introduced into the plot of Judges—God sends a prophet (6:7-10). The unnamed prophet reminds God’s people of their deliverance from Egypt while they were yet slaves as well as God’s gift of the land. The prophet ends by rebuking God’s people for not listening to God’s expectation of exclusive worship and service. God’s people have lived unfaithfully by serving other gods and goddesses. This paragraph is important as it highlights the issue of idolatry as the chief sin of God’s people during the period of the Judges. It will come into play again at the end of the Gideon story.
In 6:11-24, LORD calls Gideon into his service. This is the most extended call narrative that we’ve encountered in Judges thus far. In these verses, we find a reluctant Gideon. In 6:13, Gideon questions the presence and protection of the LORD in light of the oppression of Midian. In 6:15, Gideon expresses his lack of qualifications and his weaknesses. Then in 6:17, Gideon asks for a sign from the LORD to confirm his call. The LORD answers all of Gideon’s concerns. In 6:14, he commissions Gideon to deliver Israel from Midian. In 6:16, God guarantees that his presence will accompany Gideon (cf. Exod 3:12 and Josh 1:9). Finally in 6:19-24, God consumes with fire an offering that Gideon presents to the LORD. This action leads Gideon to recognize that it is indeed the LORD who has commissioned him to deliver Israel.
In 6:25-33, the LORD instructs Gideon to begin the work of deliverance by purging his family and hometown of Baal worship. The heart of Israel’s sin was idolatry so Gideon’s first blow is not against Midian but against Baal worship. The LORD orders Gideon to destroy Baal’s altar as well as cut down the sacred pole next it. The sacred pole would likely have been a symbol representing Baal’s female partner, the goddess Asherah. After Gideon destroys these objects of idolatry, he is to build an altar to the LORD. This action initially angers his town but ultimately serves to rally the people to the LORD by demonstrating Baal’s weakness. Gideon receives the name “Jerubaal” which means “Let Baal contend.” The idea being that if Baal is indeed a god, then he should be able to contend with Gideon on his own. This action sets the stage for the larger work of delivering Israel from Midian.
In Judges 6:33-40, we learn that the Midianites and their allies have encamped in the Jezreel Valley in northern Israel. This valley was an important trade route in the ancient world. Verse 34 tells us that the Spirit of God takes possession of Gideon (cf. 3:10). This is a fascinating statement. It suggests that Gideon is empowered supernaturally. This is evident by the fact that he is then able to call a large force of Israelites to follow him against Midian (verse 35).
But astonishingly, the spirit does not prevent Gideon from demonstrating his reluctance and hesitancy to serve on the mission (6:36-40). He twice asks God for another sign by use of a fleece. First, he asks for a wet fleece, which God obliges. Then, he asks God for a dry fleece with dew all around it. God does not become angry with any of Gideon’s request for assurance. This is an important fact to note. God repeatedly throughout Scripture demonstrates a willingness to equip those whom he calls.
Our printed text is preceded by an introductory verse (7:1). It informs us that Gideon has mustered an army and that they have followed him and encamped just south of the Midianites. It is here that the LORD must have astonished Gideon by announcing that he had too many soldiers! God is concerned that with so large an army, Israel would get credit rather than God. It is critical to avoid any reading of this verse that would suggest that God is vain or selfish. Israel has been oppressed because of her idolatry. The only reason that so large an army has been mustered lies in the LORD’s empowering Gideon with the Spirit. It is critical for Israel’s life as God’s people to understand that God is the only true and dependable source of strength (cf. Deut 8:17-20). God was the guardian and deliverer of Israel. Israel’s strength and security in the world depended solely on God and not on its own abilities. It would have been folly for Israel to have beaten Midian simply because Israel had a massive army. This is how the world wins military victories. It is not so in God’s economy. In the Bible, a boy slays an armored giant with a rock (1 Sam 17) and one man slays 600 with an oxgoad (Judges 3:31). God’s people win victories by the power of God rather than human might.
In verses 3-4, God provides a way to reduce the troops from the amassed number of 32,000. First,
God tells Gideon to release any who are afraid. Since war has always been barbaric and horrifying, it is unsurprising that Gideon’s ranks shrink by 22,000 to 10,000 as 2 of every 3 men leave the camp out of fear of battle. This is not enough of a reduction for God so God adds a second force reduction plan. He instructs Gideon to take the remaining men to get a drink of water. While they are drinking, God will select those who will stay from those who will go. The battle is the LORD’s so he will chose his own army.
God chooses 300 out of the 10,000 remaining soldiers by picking the men who got on their bellies and lapped water like dogs. In other words, God chose the one’s who drank in the most foolish and defenseless fashion. Yet this is how God works. He uses the weak and foolish to testify to the world of his power and might (cf. 1 Cor 1:26-31). Gideon sends the rest home but keeps their jars and trumpets.
In verses 9-12 God orders Gideon to attack. He also anticipates Gideon’s own fear of having only 300 men so he instructs Gideon to take Purah his servant to the Midianite camp to listen. Gideon does this. He is confronted by a massive camp filled with countless numbers of warriors.
Gideon arrives at the Midianite camp just in time to hear a soldier sharing the contents of his dream with another. He dreamed of a large loaf of barley bread smashing into the camps of Midian and knocking over a tent. His colleague interprets this as a prophetic announcement of a God inspired victory by Gideon over Midian. Upon hearing this, Gideon worships God, returns to his camp, and exhorts his 300 men to rise to attack Midian. He announces, The LORD has given the army of Midian into your hand. Notice God’s grace at work in these verses. Gideon has already demonstrated tentativeness in his response to God’s call (see 6:11-24 and 6:36ff). God now fully empowers him by leading him to overhear just the right Midianites.
Gideon wins a tremendous victory over Midian. These verses recount a God empowered rout of Israel’s oppressors. Gideon and three hundred men terrify the Midian camp by attacking at night. They mimic a much larger force by breaking 300 jars, lifting high 300 torches, and blowing 300 trumpets from all sides of the Midianite camp. This led to total victory as the horrified Midianites literally killed each other in the God induced confusion. Yet notice Gideon’s prescribed battle cry: For the LORD and for Gideon (v. 18). This is a subtle shift that suggests that Gideon may be losing sight of his utter dependence on God.
In verses 24-25, Gideon calls out the men of Ephraim to help finish off the remaining Midianites. The Ephraimites capture and kill two of Midian’s captains.
Gideon story shifts in these verses to a more ominous ending. In these verses we have a mixture of Gideon’s success in completely defeating the Midianites including capturing and executing its two kings: Zebah and Zalmunna (8:10-12 and 8:18-21) and tales of conflict with the Ephraimites (8:1-3) and the city of Succoth (8:4-9 and 13-7). Succoth refuses to provide food to Gideon’s exhausted force of 300 men. After capturing Zebah and Zalmunna, Gideon returns to Succoth and kills the men of the city in retaliation for not aiding him. The conflicts of Gideon point to the concluding verses of his narrative in which his memory is marred by his ill-advised actions.
Stunningly, Gideon’s narrative ends badly. He accomplished much and delivered Israel from Midian, but just as Gideon’s story began with Israel in idolatry. It will likewise end on the same note.
In the aftermath of Gideon’s victories, the Israelites desire for Gideon and his descendents to rule over them (v. 22). In verse 23, Gideon declines this offer and actually affirms a core truth to the Israelites: The LORD will rule over you. God is Israel’s true king (Exod 15:18). Gideon is wholly correct in rebuking the people.
But Gideon immediately moves from hero to goat. In verses 23-25, Gideon creates a plan of gaining wealth for himself by asking the Israelites to each give him one gold earring that they had taken in spoils from the defeated Ishmaelites (part of the forces of Midian). The Israelites happily give him gold earrings.
This part of the narrative is similar to Exodus 32:1-6 in which Aaron crafts a golden calf out of the gold earrings of the Israelites. In the book of Judges, Gideon builds an ephod. In the Old Testament, an ephod was a religious image or object used by priests (cf Exod 28:15-30). Gideon may have declined political power by refusing kingship but he grabs religious/spiritual authority by making an ephod. This decision is disastrous for God’s people. Gideon places the ephod in his hometown of Ophrah, and it became a catalyst for God’s people again turning to idolatrous practices. At the beginning of his story, Gideon begins a purge of Baal worship from Israel by destroying Baal’s altar in his hometown. Ironically, this final act serves as the source of God’s people’s renewed disobedience. The land had rest for forty years (verse 28) but Israel was already back to its evil ways before Gideon’s death.
Gideon’s (Jerubaal’s) death is reported along with several final events in his life. Gideon took many wives and concubines in his later years that produced 70 sons. One of these sons of a concubine was named Abimelech. Abimelech will serve as a model for a wicked and illegitimate ruler in Judges 9. Verses 33-35 end Gideon’s story by indicating that rebirth of Baal in the immediate aftermath of Gideon’s death as well as a failure of God’s people to remember the saving power of God. Moreover, even Gideon’s contribution was discounted as Israel returned to its sins.