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Bible Commentaries
Judges 8

Layman's Bible CommentaryLayman's Bible Commentary

The Rout of Midian (7:16-8:3)

Gideon divided his 300 men into three companies and planned a night surprise attack in which he intended to rout the enemy by fear and panic rather than by armed force. He equipped each of his men with a trumpet and with a jar in which a torch could burn. The point of the strategy was the element of surprise and the psychological effect of the sudden noise of the trumpets and the blaze of light from the torches.

The Hebrew division of the night was into three watches of four hours each. Gideon and his men arrived at the beginning of the middle watch and, at the given signal, carried out their strategy. The panic that ensued was made worse by the thick darkness. Unable to distinguish friend from foe, the Midianites turned on one another and fled in confusion. The three places mentioned in their line of flight are not easily identifiable, but apparently two lay to the east and one to the west of the Jordan. The rout was complete, and at this point the men of Naphtali and Asher appear to have joined the forces of Manasseh. Ephraim came also at the summons of Gideon, sealing up the Jordan crossings and killing two Midianite leaders, Oreb ("raven") and Zeeb ("wolf") whose heads were brought to Gideon beyond Jordan.

The resentment of the Ephraimites at being summoned so late is a reminder of the prominent position occupied by Ephraim in the tribal and political structure. Belonging to the Josephite group, they occupied a strategic position in the hill country, were prominent in the original invasion, and possessed the central shrine at Shiloh. To political and religious prestige we must add the point that later arrival on the battle scene could only mean lesser spoils of war. By diplomatically minimizing his own efforts and magnifying the contribution of the Ephraimites, Gideon managed to appease the disaffected tribe. He pointed out the fact that to them belonged the glory of capturing the Midianite chieftains, and either quoted or formulated a proverb in amelioration of their resentment — "Is not the gleaning of the grapes of Ephraim better than the vintage of Abiezer?", a saying which magnified them at the expense of his own tribe.

Verses 4-21

The Pursuit Beyond Jordan (8:4-21)

Gideon and his three hundred men pursued the fleeing Midianites across Jordan, weary though they themselves were. They expected help, especially provisions, from their Israelite brethren across Jordan, but found that the men of Succoth and Penuel, two cities on the River Jabbok (see Gen. 33:17 and 52:30-31), refused it. These Israelites appear to have been skeptical of any success attending Gideon’s pursuit, probably assuming that the Midianite camel bands would just fade away into the desert fastnesses and it would be beyond Gideon’s skill to hunt them out. Undoubtedly, however, there was also some fear of Midianite retaliation, for these Israelites lived on the wrong side of Jordan, in close proximity to the desert and its nomads. We may even see here a reflection of the apathy and indifference with which Deborah had earlier charged the Gileadites. Gideon persisted in his pursuit, leaving the discipline of these non-co-operative Israelites until his return.

The different names of the chieftains of the Midianites could indicate that we have here a second tradition. Actually this need not be the case. Nomads would be at best a loose confederation of tribes and would have many tribal chiefs. Gideon caught up with his fleeing foes at Karkor to the east of the Dead Sea. The number of the fallen indicates how severe the rout had been. Gideon appears to have followed the Midianites by a caravan route east of two trans-Jordanian cities. He caught the Midianites off their guard, and pursued and captured their kings.

Gideon now returned to deal with his own non-co-operating kinsfolk. The reference to "the ascent of Heres" is obscure and the way of return cannot be identified. As he approached Succoth, he captured a young man of the town, from whom he secured the names of the officials and elders. On his arrival at the city Gideon threw back the taunt of the citizens in their face, and "taught" (literally, "threshed") their leaders by thorns and briers. Some suggest that this meant death by torture. The fact that the young man of Succoth "wrote" the names of the city fathers is a reminder that the Hebrews were already practiced in the art of writing, and that we must be careful about describing them as a primitive people. They had already many marks of culture, and were living in the midst of a Canaanite civilization in which writing was an accepted art. Gideon also dealt with Penuel, wrecking its tower and slaying the men of the city. The lex talionis (the law of retaliation which stipulated "an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth"), in all its relentlessness, governed Hebrew thought in this matter, and possibly here an even cruder spirit of revenge is to be seen.

We come now upon a more fundamental principle in Israelite life, that of blood revenge. Gideon’s ruthless pursuit of the two kings had this motive behind it as well as the major concern of delivering Israel. We learn now that the campaign had a blood feud at its center. Zebah and Zalmunnah had slain Gideon’s brothers at Tabor, and it was knowledge of this dastardly deed that lay behind his treatment of them. Although desiring to spare them, he declared that this deed spelled their doom. In the end, when his son proved fainthearted, Gideon slew the kings himself. The latter seem coldbloodedly to acknowledge his right to execute them, and to rejoice that, instead of being disgraced by death at the hands of a boy, they were to be slain by the Israelite hero himself. Gideon took as spoil the "crescents" on the camels, of the type still worn today to ward off the "evil eye," and in those days also worn by women as ornaments (see Isaiah 3:18).

We find it difficult to understand, much less condone, this savage act. Nobility of character could have been shown by Gideon in magnanimity toward his victims, and his attitude is not improved by the brutal request he made of his son. We have to remember that Israel was in a historical process of divine encounter, in which its lower standards of morality and its misunderstanding of the divine will were being challenged and corrected by successive divine interventions. Man was not yet ready for the full revelation of the Incarnation.

Verses 22-35

Kingship and the Ephod — the Closing Summary (8:22-35)

Gideon’s success led Israel, or at least the portion of it particularly affected by his triumph, to turn its mind to the thought of kingship. For the first time in Israel’s history, we have an attempt to establish an hereditary monarchy. Gideon’s strength and leadership singled him out as the focal point of Israel’s hope. He was manifestly one on whom the Spirit of the Lord had come, and the future of the people seemed bound up with him. Gideon’s refusal of the kingship for himself and his son was accompanied by an affirmation of Israel’s traditional position. Hitherto and throughout the period of the judges, Israel was a theocracy ruled over directly by God, who used certain distinctive personalities at appropriate times to effect his kingly rule. As we shall see subsequently in First Samuel, this tradition persisted long, even though the desire for a human monarch was growing along with it. Hosea reflected this tradition in the eighth century B.C. when he declared that God gave Israel a king in his anger and took him away in his wrath (Hosea 13:10-11). In this tradition, the earthly kingship was a sign of sin and rebellion against the kingly rule of God himself. This was echoed in Gideon’s words. He would not usurp the rights of God who had empowered him.

Gideon, on his part, made a request of his followers for the golden earrings taken as spoil from the Midianites. With these he made an ephod and set it up in his native city of Ophrah. The word "ephod" had a diversity of meanings in Old Testament times. Later it seems to have meant either a priestly vestment or an appurtenance holding the Urim and Thummim (the objects used in the casting of sacred lots) and thus possessing oracular significance. Here, however, it seems to mean an image and thus an idol. It may have been a vestment so heavily weighted with gold that it stood erect, but "idol" seems much more consonant with the fact that Gideon is said here to have initiated an evil tradition, so that the citizens of Ophrah "played the harlot after it," a phrase used to describe idolatrous worship. The making of graven images was expressly forbidden in wilderness days, according to the Mosaic Decalogue. In this story we find at least one source of idolatry, to which a pagan Canaanite environment may well have contributed. The making of this ephod was regarded as the cause of the disaster which subsequently overtook Gideon and his family, as the term "a snare" indicates.

The chapter closes with an account of Gideon’s family in which Abimelech is introduced as his son by his concubine in Shechem. Gideon died at a ripe old age, and, after his death, the cycle of paganism and Baal worship returned once more in the life of Israel. If the resurgence of paganism at this point was a new phase, then it may be that the use of the ephod during Gideon’s lifetime was not a form of pagan worship, but that the ephod was regarded as a visible sign of God’s presence. We notice the mention of Baal-berith, "Lord of a covenant," who was the local deity of the Canaanites at Shechem. The Israelites forgot God and even forgot their debt to Gideon, for they failed to show kindness to his family.

Bibliographical Information
"Commentary on Judges 8". "Layman's Bible Commentary". https://studylight.org/commentaries/eng/lbc/judges-8.html.
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