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Bible Commentaries

Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers
Judges 8

 

 

Introduction

VIII.

1-3. Gideon’s soft answer to the Ephraimites. Judges 8:4-5. Unfaithfulness of Succoth. Judges 8:6-9. And of Penuel. Judges 8:10-12. Victory over Zebah and Zalmunna. Judges 8:13-17. Gideon punishes Succoth and Penuel. Judges 8:18-21. He puts Zebah and Zalmunna to death. Judges 8:22-23. The Israelites offer him the kingdom. Judges 8:24-26. He requests the gift of the golden ear-rings of their prey; Judges 8:27. And makes an ephod, which becomes a snare to Israel. Judges 8:28-31. His last days, children, and death. Judges 8:32-35. Apostasy and ingratitude of Israel.


Verse 1

(1) The men of Ephraim.—The arrogance of this tribe was derived partly from its strength, and partly from the memories of their ancestor Joseph; from the double portion which Joseph had received in memorial of his pre-eminence; from the fact that Jacob, in his blessing, had preferred the younger Ephraim before his elder brother, Manasseh; and from the almost regal influence which had been so long exercised by their tribesman, Joshua. This arrogance was destined, as we shall see later, to bring on them a terrible humiliation (Judges 12:1). The complaint was fiercely urged, probably at the time when, by bringing the heads of Oreb and Zeeb (Judges 7:25), they had proved both their power and their fidelity to the national cause. What they wanted was the acknowledgment of their claims (their hegemony, as the Greeks would have called it) by all the tribes.

They did chide with him sharply.—Literally, with force or violence, as in 1 Samuel 2:16, so that the Vulg. renders it, jurgantes fortiter, et prope vim inferentes, “strongly reproaching him, and almost treating him with violence.”


Verse 2

(2) What have I done now in comparison of you?—Since Gideon was by no means a man of very placable and pacific disposition, we see the strong and noble self-control which this answer manifests. He was not in a condition, even had he wished it, to humble the fierce jealousy of this kindred tribe, as the more independent Jephthah, who was not so closely bound to them, did not scruple to do. He remembered that Zebah and Zalmunna were still safe; the Midianites were as yet by no means finally crushed. Patriotism as well as right feeling demanded that at such a moment there should be no civil discord.

Is not the gleaning . . .?—The answer has a proverbial sound. (Comp. Deuteronomy 24:21.) It here implies that Ephraim, by a mere subsequent and secondary effort, had achieved more (as yet) than Gideon himself had done, or perhaps that the two bloody heads which were their “gleaning” were better than the “vintage” of obscure thousands. In admitting this, in waiving all self-assertion, Gideon was setting an example of the spirit which is content to suffer wrong, and to take less than its proper due (elassousthai, Time. i. 77). Nor was there any irony or wilful sacrifice of truth in his remark, for there can be no doubt that the Ephraimites had wrought a splendid victory (Isaiah 10:26). The Chaldee renders it, “Are not the weak of the house of Ephraim better than the strong of the house of Abiezer?”


Verse 3

(3) Then their anger was abated towards him.—The soft answer turned away wrath (Proverbs 15:1). The word for anger is mach, “wind,” or “spirit”—anger expressed by fierce breathing through the nostrils, “the blast of the terrible ones” (Isaiah 25:4). (Comp. Ecclesiastes 10:4 : “If the spirit (ruach) of the ruler rise up against thee, leave not thy place; for yielding pacifieth great offences.”) “Gideon’s good words were as victorious as his sword.”—Bp. Hall.


Verse 4

(4) And Gideon came to Jordan.—This verse resumes the narrative of Judges 7:23. The intermediate verses are an episode, and they are only here introduced by anticipation, in order to close the notice about the tribe of Ephraim.

And passed over.—Literally, passing over; but the English Version is correct as to the meaning, and it may be regarded as certain that Succoth was to the east of Jordan.

Faint, yet pursuing.—It may be doubted whether the usual application of these words is accurate. The LXX. render them, “fainting and hungry,” and the Vulg., “and for weariness they could not overtake the fugitives.” Literally it is, faint and pursuing, where the and is explanatory. “Exhausted and pursuing,” 1 e., exhausted with pursuing (Keil). “In 1815 Mehemet All pursued the Arabs with such haste as to find himself without provisions, and had to be content with a few dates; but the result was a great success” (Ritter xii. 932).


Verse 5

(5) Unto the men of Succoth.—The name Succoth means “booths,” and the place was so named, or re-named, because of the “booths” which had been erected there by Jacob on his return from Padanaram (Genesis 33:17; Joshua 13:27). It was situated in the tribe of Gad, and is probably the Sukkot mentioned by Burckhardt as on the east of Jordan, south wards from Bethshean. The “valley of Succoth” is mentioned in Psalms 60:6; Psalms 108:7.

Loaves of bread.—The loaves are round cakes (ciccar). His request was a very modest and considerate one. He did not “requisition” them for forces, or for intelligence, or for any active assistance, because he might bear in mind that they on the east of Jordan would, in case of any reverse or incomplete victory, be the first to feel the vengeance of the neighbouring-Midianites. But to supply bread to their own hungry countrymen, who were fighting their battles, was an act of common humanity which even the Midianites could not greatly resent.

Unto the people that follow me.—Literally, which is at my feet, as in Judges 4:10.

Zebah and Zalmunna.—These were Emîrs of higher rank than the Sheykhs Oreb and Zeeb, though Josephus calls them only “leaders,” while he calls Oreb and Zeeb “kings.” Zebah means “a sacrifice,” perhaps one who had been consecrated by his parents to the gods of Midian. Zalmunna seems to mean “shadow of an exile,” or, according to Gesenius, “shelter is denied him”—an unintelligible name, but perhaps due to some unknown incident. They are called “kings of Midian” (malkai Midian), as in Numbers 31:8. Oreb and Zeeb are only called Sarim, the same title as that given to Sisera (Judges 4:2), and in the next verse to the elders of Succoth.


Verse 6

(6) Are the hands of Zebah and Zalmunna now in thine hand?—Literally, Is the fist (caph) of Zebah and Zalmunna now in thy hand (yad)? The general meaning, of course, is clear: “Are you so completely victor as to secure us from the vengeance of these kings?” (Comp. 1 Kings 20:11.) But what the exact shade of meaning is in this proverbial expression we do not know. Perhaps it is an allusion to the chained hands of captives. Nor do we know whether the tone of the elders of Succoth was one of derision or only of cowardice. In any case, they were guilty of inhumanity, want of faith, want of courage, and want of patriotism.

That we should give bread unto thine army.—They use the exaggerated term “army,” as though to magnify the sacrifice required of them. Gideon had only said “my followers.”


Verse 7

(7) And Gideon said.—Notice in this verse the mixture of heroic faith and barbarous severity. It was this courage and faith (Hebrews 11:32) which ennobled Gideon and made him an example for all time. The ruthlessness of the punishment which he threatened to inflict belongs to the wild times in which he lived, and the very partial spiritual enlightenment of an imperfect dispensation (Matthew 5:21; Matthew 19:8; Acts 17:30). It is no more to be held up for approval or imitation than his subsequent degeneracy; while, at the same time, Gideon must, of course, be only judged by such light as he had.

I will tear your flesh.—Rather, as in the margin, I will thresh (LXX., aloçso, which is better than the other reading, kataxano, “will card”; Vulg., conteram). It has usually been supposed that they were scourged with thorns, which would be terrible enough; but the verb here used is stronger, and seems to imply that they were “put under harrows” after thorns and briers had been scattered over them. That Gideon should inflict a retribution so awful cannot be surprising if we remember that David seems to have done the same (2 Samuel 12:31; 1 Chronicles 20:3; Amos 1:3). In this case, however, the torture was more terrible, because it was inflicted not on aliens, but on Israelites. It must be borne in mind that every man is largely influenced by the spirit of the age in which he lives, and that in the East to this day there is (1) far greater indifference than there is in Europe to the value of human life, and (2) far greater insensibility to the infliction of pain; so that the mere mention of punishments inflicted, even in this century, by such men as Djezzar and Mehemet Ali makes the blood run cold. It was only by slow degrees that (as we can trace in the writings of their prophets and historians) the Jews learnt that deeper sense of humanity which it was certainly the object of many precepts of the Mosaic Law to inspire. The defections of Succoth and Penuel were even worse than that indifference of Meroz which had called forth the bitter curse of Judges 5:23.

With the thorns of the wilderness.—These thorns (kotsim) are again mentioned in Hosea 10:8. Rabbi Tanchum could not explain what plant was meant. It is not impossible (as Kimchi suggests) that the form of the punishment was suggested by another wild play on words; for Succoth ( סֻכּוֹת), though it means “booths,” suggests the idea of “thorns” ( סכות),

Briers.—This word, barkanim, which the LXX. merely transliterate, occurs nowhere else. The Rabbis rightly understood it of thorny plants which grow among stones. Some modern Hebraists explain it to mean harrows formed of flints, deriving it from an obsolete word, barkan, “lightning” (see on Judges 4:6), and so meaning “pyrites.” In that case we must suppose that the elders were laid on some open area, and harrows set with flints driven over them.


Verse 8

(8) He went up thence to Penuel.—Penuel was also in the tribe of Gad, on the heights above the Jordan valley, on the southern bank of the Jabbok. The name means “face of God,” from Jacob’s vision (Genesis 32:30). It is again mentioned as a fortified town in 1 Kings 12:25, but the site has not been identified.


Verse 9

(9) When I come again in peace.—Comp. 1 Kings 22:27.

I will break down this tower.—If the strength of their citadel emboldened them to refuse food to Gideon’s fainting warriors, it would also have helped to protect them against the dreaded vengeance of Midian.


Verse 10

(10) In Karkor.—This was the scene of the third battle, or massacre. When they had reached this distant point they probably felt secure. Karkor means, “a safe enclosure,” and the Vulg., regarding it as an ordinary noun, renders it, “where Zebah and Zalmunna were resting.” Eusebius and Jerome identify Karkor with a fortress named Karkaria, a day’s journey north of Petra; but, from the mention of Nobah and Jogbehah in the next verse, this seems to be too far south. If so, it may be Karkagheisch, not far from Amman (Rabbath Ammon), mentioned by Burckhardt. It was, however, “at a very great distance” (Jos., Antt. viii. 6, § 5 from the original scene of battle.


Verse 11

(11) By the way of them that dwelt in tents.—He seems to have taken a wide circuit, through some nomad district, leaving the main road, which runs through Nobah and Jogbehah, so as once more to make up for his inferior numbers (for there were still 15,000 left of these children of the East) by surprise and stratagem.

Nobah.—In Gilead, belonging to the half-tribe of Manasseh (Numbers 32:42). It was originally called Kenath, but the name was altered in honour of a Manassite hero, who is otherwise unrecorded. Jewish tradition says that he was born in Egypt, and died during the passage of the Jordan (Seder Olam Rabba). The original name displaced its rival, for the site is now called Kenâwat.

Jogbehah.—In Gad (Numbers 32:34). It is not mentioned elsewhere, and has not been identified.

The host was secure.—They would have thought it most unlikely that the Israelites, with their mere handful of men, would pursue so large an army for so long a distance. They fancied themselves beyond the reach of pursuit because they miscalculated the energy and powers of Gideon, who, not improbably, once more attacked them by night.


Verse 12

(12) When Zebah and Zalmunna fled.—In Psalms 83:13-14, we, perhaps, find a reminiscence of the precipitancy of their flight, “like a wheel,” i.e., like a winged, rolling seed, and like stubble before a hurricane, and like a conflagration leaping through a mountain forest. (Dict. of Bible, s. v. Oreb; Stanley, i. 347.)

Discomfited.—Rather, as in the margin, terrified. It was the infliction of a second panic which enabled him to seize the two principal Emîrs.


Verse 13

(13) Before the sun was up.—If the rendering were certain, it would prove that he had made a night attack on Karkor; but it seems more probable that the words should be rendered “from the ascent of Heres,” or “of Hechares,” as in the LXX., Peshito, and Arabic. If so, it implies that he came round by some other road to attack Succoth. The word for “going up” is maaleh, as in Maaleh Ahrabbim, “the ascent of scorpions” (see Note on Judges 1:36), which is also applied to sunrise. (Genesis 19:15.) It cannot possibly mean “before sunset” (ehe die Sonne heraufgekommen war), as Luther renders it, following the Chaldee and various Rabbis. The ordinary word for “sun” is shemesh, not cheres; but the latter word occurs in various names (see on Judges 1:35; Judges 2:9), which makes it perhaps more probable that this also is the name of some place. It might, indeed, be prudent for Gideon to desist from further pursuit when the dawn revealed the paucity and exhaustion of his followers; and in poetic style (Job 9:7) cheres may mean “sun,” so that here the phrase might be an archaism, as cheresah is in Judges 14:18; but the preposition used (min) cannot mean “before.” Aquila renders it “from the ascent of the groves” and Symmachus “of the mountains;” but this is only due to a defective reading.


Verse 14

(14) Caught a young man.—Comp. Judges 1:24.

Described.—Marg. writ, i.e.: the boy wrote down their names (LXX., apegrapsato; Vulg., descripsit).

Threescore and seventeen.—Perhaps a sort of local Sanhedrin of Seventy (Numbers 11:16), with their presiding sheykhs. The number shows that Succoth was a place of considerable importance.


Verse 15

(15) That are weary.—The addition of these words enhances the guilt of these elders, though the exhaustion of Gideon’s force may have seemed to them a reason for alarm, lest their pursuit should end in rout.


Verse 16

(16) He taught.—Literally, made to know (Proverbs 10:9); but דע may be a misreading for ישׂ “he threshed,” as in Judges 6:7. (Vulg. contrivit atque comminuit.)

The men of Succoth.—i.e., the elders. Gideon would be well aware that in an Oriental city the mass of the people have no voice in any decision. Ewald takes it to mean, “By them (the slain elders) he taught the (rest of the) people of Succoth to be wiser in future.”


Verse 17

(17) Beat down the tower.—The importance of the place led to its re-fortification by Jeroboam (1 Kings 12:25).


Verse 18

(18) Then said he unto Zebah and Zalmunna.—They had been kept alive in order to answer the cowardly taunt of the elders of Succoth. There is nothing to show whether they were put to death at Succoth, as Josephus says, or taken to Ophrah (Antt. iv. 7, § 5). Perhaps Gideon reserved their death for the place where he had once lived with his brothers, whom they had slain.

What manner of men were they.—Literally, where (are) the men? Evidently this colloquy is only related in a shortened form, and Gideon’s enquiry is rather a taunt or an expression of grief (Job 17:15), to show them that he now meant to act as the goel, or blood-avenger of his brothers. Up till this time these great chiefs seem to have been led in triumph on their camels, in all their splendid apparel and golden ornaments; and they may have thought, with Agag, that the bitterness of death was passed.

Whom ye slew at Tabor?—We are left completely in the dark as to the circumstances of this battle, or massacre. In the complete uncertainty as to all the details of the chronology, it is not impossible that Gideon’s brothers—at least three or four in number—may have perished in Barak’s “battle of Mount Tabor,” or in some early struggle of this Midianite invasion, or in the first night battle (Judges 7:22).

As thou . . . so they.—A similar phrase occurs in 1 Kings 22:4.

Resembled the children of a king.—We learn from this reference that Gideon added to his other gifts that tall, commanding presence which always carried weight in early days (1 Samuel 10:24; 1 Samuel 16:6-7). In Iliad, iii. 170, Priam says: “One so fair I never saw with my eyes, nor so stately, for he is like a king” ( βασιλῆἰ γἀρ άνδρὶ ἔо ικεν).


Verse 19

(19) The sons of my mother.—Comp. Genesis 43:29.

As the Lord liveth.—Ruth 3:13; 1 Samuel 14:41. (Comp. Æn. xii. 949.)


Verse 20

(20) And he said unto Jether.—By the jus talionis. as well as by every other consideration of that time, Gideon, as the last survivor of all his kingly brothers, would hold himself justified in putting his captives to death. Jether also would inherit the duties of goel (Numbers 35:12; 2 Samuel 2:22, &c), and Gideon desired both to train the boy to fearlessness against the enemies of Israel (Joshua 10:24-25). to give him prestige, and to add to the disgrace of the Midianite kings. Again. Gideon must only be judged by the standard and the customs of his own day. (Comp. 1 Samuel 15:33, Samuel and Agag; 2 Samuel 1:15, David and the Amalekite.) The name Jether is another form of Jethro and means “pre-eminence.”


Verse 21

(21) Rise thou, and fall upon us.—They deprecated the pain and shame of falling by the irresolute hands of a boy.

For as the man . . . his strength.—Deuteronomy 33:25. “As thy days, so shall thy strength be.”

Ornaments.—Saharonim, “little moons,” crescent-shaped ornaments of gold and silver, still in common use to decorate animals. Isaiah 3:18, “round tires like the moon.” “Niveo lunata monilia dente” (Stat. Theb. ix. 689). After one of his battles Mohammed found a slain camel adorned with these lunulœ and with strings of emeralds. The Roman senators (for another reason) wore silver crescents on their shoes.


Verse 22

(22) Then the men of Israel.—Here begins the third great phase of the life of Gideon. which was characterised by his noblest act—the refusal of the kingdom—and his most questionable act—the setting up of a schismatic worship.

Rule thou over us.—The energy and success of Gideon had shown them the advantage of united action under one great leader; but they forgot that Gideon had received a special call from God. and that, as Gideon reminded them. God was their king. Yet no doubt the memory of Gideon deepened the wish which Samuel was afterwards commanded to grant (2 Samuel 8:5-7; 2 Samuel 12:12; 2 Samuel 12:17).


Verse 23

(23) The Lord shall rule over you.—Numbers 23:21; Deuteronomy 33:5; 1 Samuel 6:12. Gideon refused the splendid temptation of an hereditary crown, though, in strict accordance with Divine guidance, he was willing to be their judge ( Shaphat, as in Judges 10:2-3; Judges 12:7, &c.). Cassel compares the remark of Washington when he accepted the Presidency, because he would “obey the voice of the people.” saying that “no people could be more bound to acknowledge and adore the invisible hand which conducts the affairs of men than the people of the United States” (Marshall’s Life of Washington, 2:146). The day anticipated in Deuteronomy 17:14-20 had not yet come. Up to this point “we feel all the goodness of Gideon. There is a sweetness and nobleness mingled with his courage, something of the past greatness of Joshua, something of the future grace of David.” He reminds us in some respects of Henry Y. of England, and Henry IV. of France.


Verse 24

(24) I would desire a request of you.—Not unfrequently the magnanimity which has just stood firm under a great trial succumbs to a weaker one. His case did not exactly resemble that of Abraham (Genesis 14:21-23), but it would have been better for his glory if he had acted in a similar spirit.

The earrings of his prey.—Nezem means a ring which, sometimes at least, was worn, especially by women, in the nose (Genesis 24:47; Isaiah 3:21; Ezekiel 16:12; Job 42:11). In the absence of any regular currency, these gold rings served as a sort of coinage.

Because they were Ishmaelites.—“Ishmael-ites” and “Midianites” occur as convertible terms in Genesis 37:28.


Verse 25

(25) We will willingly give.—Literally, giving, we will give.

They spread.—Perhaps the true reading should be “he spread,” as in the LXX. (aneptuxe).

A garment.—Perhaps his own upper garment (Simlah), or “a large general’s cloke” (Ewald, Gesch. ii. 506).


Verse 26

(26) A thousand and seven hundred shekels of gold.—About seventy pounds of gold. This would imply a very large number of nose-rings or earrings (Genesis 24:22), and therefore a slaughter of many leading Midianites. It is analogous to the “three bushels of knights’ rings” which Mago carried to Carthage, and emptied upon the floor of the Carthaginian Senate, after the massacre of the Romans at Cannae (Liv. xxiii. 12).

Beside ornaments.—Rather, beside the golden crescents (Judges 8:21). Gideon seems to have gratified his love of vengeance, as goel, before he thought of booty.

And collars.—Marg., sweet jewels. Rather, and the eardrops (netiphoth, Isaiah 3:19). Wellsted, in his Travels in Arabia, says that the Arab women are accustomed to load themselves and their children with earrings and ornaments, of which he sometimes counted as many as fifteen on each side.

Purple raiment.—Comp. Exodus 25:4.


Verse 27

Verse 28

(28) Thus was Midian subdued.—This verse closes the second great epoch of Gideon’s life. The separate phrases occur in Judges 1:2; Judges 4:23-24; Judges 5:31. The remaining verses of the chapter furnish us with a few notices of the third and last period of his life.


Verse 29

(29) Jerubbaal.—The sudden reversion to this name may be significant. Baal had failed to “plead,” but nevertheless Gideon was not safe from idolatrous tendencies.


Verse 30

(30) Threescore and ten sons.—According to Oriental fashion, no account is taken of his daughters.

He had many wives.—It is clear that Gideon was a king in all but name. This is the most magnificent, but the least honourable, period of his career. In Deuteronomy 17:17 it had been said of the future king, “Neither shall he multiply wives to himself. . . . neither shall he greatly multiply to himself silver and gold.” Polygamy was only adopted on a large scale by rulers (Judges 10:4; Judges 12:9).


Verse 31

(31) His concubine that was in Shechem.—In Judges 9:18 she is contemptuously called his “maid servant.” The sequel (Judges 9:1-4) seems to show that she belonged to the Canaanite population of Shechem. If so, Gideon’s conduct in making her a concubine was as much against the Mosaic law as that of Solomon, though it may have had the same colour of worldly expediency. But it is probable that the requirements of the Mosaic law were much better known in the reign of Solomon, when the priests had once more become influential, than they were in this anarchical period. This concubine exercised an influence sufficiently important to cause the preservation of her name by tradition—Drumah (Jos. Antt. v. 7, § 1).

Whose name he called Abimelech.—For “called” the margin has set. The phrase is not the ordinary one, and perhaps implies that Abimelech (Father-king—“a king, my father”) was a surname given him by his father on observing his ambitious and boastful character. It seems more probable that the name was given by the Shechemites and his mother, and it may not have been without some influence for evil upon his ultimate career. The name has exactly the same significance as Padishah and Attalik, the title of the Khan of Bokhara (Gesenius). Being a well-understood dynastic title (Genesis 20; Psalms 34 title), it would be all the more significant. He was like a bad reproduction of Gideon, with the courage and energy of his father, but with none of his virtues.


Verse 32

(32) And Gideon . . . died.—Gideon died in peace and prosperity (Genesis 15:15; Genesis 49:29, &c), in a good old age (Job 5:26), but the evil seed which he had sown bore bitter fruit in the next generation.


Verse 33

(33) Turned again.—Ad vomitum recdierunt (Serarius) (Psalms 106:13; Psalms 106:21).

Went a whoring after Baalim.—It was shown again afterwards, in the reign of Ahab, how rapidly unauthorised symbols degenerate into positive idolatry. After all that had occurred it would have been impossible for a Jerubbaal to be a Baal-worshipper, but his little deflection from the appointed ritual soon became a wide divergence from the national faith.

Made Baal-berith their god.—Baal-berith means “Lord of the covenant.” The Hebrew will bear the meaning given it by some of the versions: “They made a covenant with Baal that he should be their god” (comp. Joshua 24:25, Heb.), but the E.V. is probably correct. Bochart vainly tries to represent Baal-berith as some female deity of Berytus.


Verse 34

(34) Remembered not the Lord their God.—According to Judges 9:46, they looked on Baal as their Elohim, and forgot that Jehovah was the one God. There was always this tendency to syncretism, as a half-way step towards idolatry. Zephaniah (Judges 1:5) mentions them “that swear by the Lord, and that swear by Malcham” (i.e., Moloch), and the Samaritans “feared the Lord and served their own gods” (2 Kings 17:33).


Verse 35

(35) Jerubbaal, namely, Gideon.—It is doubtful whether we should not join the two names (Jerubbaal-Gideon), as in the Vulgate. Both names may be here allusive. He had been the “hewer” of their enemies and a “pleader against Baal,” yet they were ungrateful to him, and apostatised to Baal-worship.

According to all the goodness which he had shewed unto Israel.—See Judges 9:17-18.

 


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Bibliography Information
Ellicott, Charles John. "Commentary on Judges 8:4". "Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/ebc/judges-8.html. 1905.

Lectionary Calendar
Tuesday, November 12th, 2019
the Week of Proper 27 / Ordinary 32
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