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1. The story of Gideon 6:1-8:32
Paul Tanner pointed out that the Gideon narrative consists of five primary structural sections.
"The first section (Judges 6:1-10) provides the introduction and setting before Gideon’s debut, the second section (Judges 6:11-32) gives the commissioning of Gideon as deliverer of Israel, the third section (Judges 6:33 to Judges 7:18) presents the preparation for the battle, the fourth section (Judges 7:19 to Judges 8:21) recounts the defeat of the Midianite army, and the fifth section (Judges 8:22-32) records the conclusion to Gideon’s life after the victory over Midian. Yet thematic parallels exist between the first and fifth sections and between the second and fourth sections, thus giving the whole narrative a symmetrical pattern:
A’ 8:22-32" [Note: Tanner, p. 151.]
Other scholars divide the Gideon narrative into three parts: God’s punishment and deliverance of Israel (Judges 6:1 to Judges 8:3), Gideon’s punishment and subjugation of Israel (Judges 8:4-28), and Gideon’s legacy (Judges 8:29 to Judges 9:57). [Note: Block, Judges . . ., pp. 250-307. See also O’Connell, p. 139.]
"The history of Gideon and his family is related very fully, because the working of the grace and righteousness of the faithful covenant God was so obviously displayed therein, that it contained a rich treasure of instruction and warning for the church of the Lord in all ages." [Note: Keil and Delitzsch, p. 326.]
The defeat of the Midianites 7:19-8:21
Gideon’s defeat of the Midianites took some time and involved some conflict with the other Israelites.
The resentment of the Ephraimites 8:1-3
Gideon had not invited the men of Ephraim to join him when he recruited the tribes of Manasseh, Asher, Zebulon, and Naphtali (Judges 6:35). Presumably he did not invite them at the Lord’s command since he did not need more soldiers. The men of Ephraim took this omission as an insult (Judges 8:1). [Note: See John H. Paterson, "The Touchy Tribe," Toward the Mark 16:6 (November-December 1987):110-13.]
The leaders of this tribe protested Gideon’s action, ". . . less from any dissatisfied longing for booty, than from injured pride or jealousy, because Gideon had made war upon the enemy and defeated them without the co-operation of this tribe, which was striving for the leadership [in Israel]." [Note: Keil and Delitzsch, p. 351.]
". . . nothing is more common than for those who will not attempt or venture anything in the cause of God, to be ready to censure those who show more zeal and enterprise than themselves." [Note: Bush, p. 107.]
Gideon responded diplomatically and satisfied the Ephraimites (Judges 8:2). The "gleaning" of Ephraim refers to the lives and spoils the Ephraimites took from the fleeing Midianites, and the "vintage" of Abiezer refers to the Midianites that Gideon and his 300 men had defeated and slain. The Ephraimites’ victory was greater too in that they had killed two Midianite commanders, Oreb and Zeeb.
It is significant, however, that Gideon based his appeal on psychology rather than theology. Why did he make no reference to God’s direction of him or God’s provision of victory (cf. ch. 5)? Having participated in a great deliverance, Gideon seems to have begun to exclude the Victor from His own victory.
"When the plot resumes, something seems to have happened to the character of the hero. In chaps. 6-7 we have witnessed his transformation from a fearful private citizen to a fearless agent of God, willing to take on the enemy against all odds, not to mention a sensitive diplomat. But the portrait of the man the author paints in this chapter creates a radically different impression in the reader’s mind. If Judges 8:1-32 had been handed down without the literary context in which it is embedded, modern readers would reject Gideon as a tyrant, arbitrary in his treatment of the enemy and ruthless in his handling of his own countrymen. Instead of ’hacking’ and ’contending’ with the enemy, Gideon/Jerubbaal ’contends’ and ’hacks’ his own people." [Note: Block, Judges . . ., p. 287. Cf. Klein, p. 62.]
"Although appropriately faithful to God and humble in the presence of others in Judges 8:1-3, Gideon proves to be alarmingly self-assertive and prideful in Judges 8:4-21." [Note: McCann, p. 68.]
Gideon’s capture of the two Midianite kings 8:4-12
Succoth and Penuel (a variant of Peniel, cf. Genesis 32:30) were towns that stood on the east side of the Jordan beside the Jabbok River. The residents of these villages lived closer to the Midianites than most of the Israelites did, and they may have made an alliance with them. It is understandable that they did not want to jeopardize their security by assisting Gideon, who appeared to them to be much weaker than their Midianite neighbors.
"In these words [denying Gideon bread, Judges 8:6] there is not only an expression of cowardice, or fear of the vengeance which the Midianites might take when they returned upon those who had supported Gideon and his host, but contempt of the small force which Gideon had, as if it were impossible for him to accomplish anything at all against the foe; and in this contempt they manifested their utter want of confidence in God." [Note: Keil and Delitzsch, p. 352.]
A spirit of regionalism had developed in Israel since the days of Joshua. These Transjordanian Israelites showed no sense of brotherhood or national responsibility. Their lack of cooperation illustrates what both Moses and Joshua feared would happen to the Israelites who lived east of the Jordan River (Numbers 32:6-15; Numbers 32:20-27; Joshua 22:13-20). The seeds of national disintegration had germinated.
Denied provisions by these two Israelite towns, Gideon continued to pursue the remaining 15,000 Midianite soldiers (or 15 units) southeast. When he caught up with them he attacked by surprise (Judges 8:11). Perhaps the Midianites had not expected Gideon to pursue them so far, 20 miles east of the Jordan River. The Israelites presumably had not done so when the Midianites had conducted their yearly raids in the past. Gideon routed the remnant of the Midianite alliance and captured the two kings of Midian, Zebah and Zalmunna.
The punishment of Succoth and Penuel 8:13-17
The Ascent of Heres (Judges 8:13) appears to have been an inclined roadway or pass leading to that town, presumably in the Jabbok Valley near Penuel and Succoth. Gideon’s severe punishment of the men of these towns was just. They had selfishly refused to assist God’s appointed judge in His holy war for Yahweh’s glory and His people’s good. They had also shown contempt for the soldiers God had signally honored with supernatural victory. It was Gideon’s duty as a judge in Israel to punish these compromising and selfish cities. The severity of his punishment doubtless impressed the other Israelites with the seriousness of their offense. However, one cannot miss the contrast between Gideon’s impatience and ruthlessness with the Israelites and Yahweh’s patience and grace with His people.
"Gideon’s behavior could be justified if Penuel were a Canaanite city, but these were fellow Israelites! His character has been transformed again-he acted like a general out of control, no longer bound by rules of civility, let alone national loyalty." [Note: Block, Judges . . ., p. 293. See also McCann, p. 69.]
The execution of the Midianite kings 8:18-21
Gideon took his prisoners back to Ophrah where the following events evidently took place. The Midianite kings had apparently executed Gideon’s brothers sometime before the recent battle, perhaps during one of the Midianites’ previous raids. It seems that Gideon was unable to avenge his brothers’ deaths then due, most likely, to the Midianites’ superiority. Now Gideon had the upper hand.
Gideon appears to have been an imposing person physically. The Midianite kings said his brothers resembled him and looked like the sons of a king, perhaps poised and aristocratic in bearing. Another explanation is that the enemy kings hoped to gain Gideon’s favor by flattery, but this seems unlikely since Gideon recognized his brothers by their description (Judges 8:19). Gideon probably would not have applied the lex talionis as he did here if his brothers had died in battle. The Midianite kings had evidently murdered them.
It was a great disgrace to die at the hand of a woman or a youth in the ancient Near East. This implied that the person killed could not overcome his slayer. Gideon’s intent was to punish the kings with humiliation as well as death for their treatment of his brothers (Judges 8:20). However, Gideon’s young son was not ready for this adult work, so Gideon killed them himself (Judges 8:21). The crescent-shaped ornaments that Gideon took from the kings’ camels (Judges 8:21) were presumably gold and silver. The Arabians commonly wore these around their necks and used them to decorate their camels. These particular ornaments would have been very valuable since they belonged to kings.
"Such crescents are mentioned in the Bible only in this chapter and Isaiah 3:18, but crescent-moon-shaped ornaments have been found at many excavated sites in Palestine. They are widely used by Arab peoples up to the present day." [Note: Cundall and Morris, p. 120.]
With the execution of Zebah and Zalmunna and the destruction of their army, Midian’s domination of Israel ended. Though the seven years of this oppression were not as long as some of Israel’s other periods of discipline, this appears to have been an unusually oppressive subjugation.
Gideon’s compromise 8:22-28
The supernatural victory God had given His people elevated Gideon into national recognition. Some of the men of Israel invited Gideon to be their king and to begin a dynasty of rulers (Judges 8:22). Perhaps they were from the northern and western tribes, had participated in the battle, and were present at the execution of Zebah and Zalmunna.
Gideon wisely refused their flattering offer, but he failed to give credit to Yahweh for the victory (cf. ch. 5). God had made provision for an Israelite king in the Mosaic Law (Deuteronomy 17:14-20). Evidently Gideon believed Israel was better off under the current arrangement of judgeships whereby Yahweh, Israel’s true king, would raise up deliverers like himself when He saw fit (Judges 8:23). This was a wise decision, and it was in harmony with God’s will. Yet Gideon’s subsequent decision (Judges 8:24-27) belied his words: he led Israel back into idolatry, out of which he had just led them. Rather than following Moses as his role model, who though hesitant at first had proved faithful, Gideon followed the example of Aaron, who requested the people’s jewelry to make an idol (Exodus 32:1-6).
Gideon perceived in his popular appreciation by the Israelites an opportunity to do something that he may have believed would be a help to his people. Unfortunately it became a spiritual snare to them (cf. Judges 2:3). He decided to make an ephod (cf. Judges 17:5; Judges 18:14-20; Exodus 28:6-35).
". . . there are three possible alternatives [concerning what this ephod was]: that it was a garment after the pattern of the high-priestly ephod but with an unusual degree of gold ornamentation; that it was a replica of the high-priestly garment made of pure gold; or that it was a free-standing image [cf. 1 Samuel 2:28; 1 Samuel 14:3]." [Note: Ibid., p. 123.]
"The narrator does not reveal the nature of the image, but it seems most likely that he [Gideon] has reconstructed the shrine to Baal he earlier had torn down at Yahweh’s command (Judges 6:25-32). . . . Instead of himself, an image of God, clothed with the Spirit of Yahweh (Judges 6:34), Gideon created his own image and clothed it with pagan materials." [Note: Block, Judges . . ., p. 300.]
Gideon made this ephod from some of the jewelry the Israelites had taken from the Midianites. The writer called them "Ishmaelites" (Judges 8:24), a term that described loosely any trading nomadic group (cf. Genesis 37:25; Genesis 37:27-28; Genesis 39:1). [Note: See Kitchen, p. 119.]
The grateful Israelites willingly donated a large quantity of gold jewelry, ". . . between 40 and 75 pounds’ weight, depending on whether the light or heavy shekel was employed." [Note: Cundall and Morris, p. 122.] Gideon took this gold and had it fashioned into an ephod, which he displayed publicly in his hometown of Ophrah. Even though Gideon had professed to reject kingship, he was behaving more and more like a king (cf. Deuteronomy 17:17).
Whatever this ephod was, it became an object of worship and a spiritual stumbling block to the Israelites (Judges 8:27). Thus Gideon became the second official sponsor of idolatry in Israel, as far as we know, Aaron being the first. He was doing what was right in his own eyes (cf. Judges 17:6; Judges 21:25).
". . . the expression and all Israel played the harlot after it there (RSV) suggests that the form of worship inspired by his ephod was Canaanite in origin." [Note: Ibid., p. 123.]
"It is . . . probable that Gideon put on the ephod and wore it as a priest, when he wished to inquire and learn the will of the Lord. . . . The germs of Gideon’s error, which became a snare to him and to his house, lie unquestionably . . . in the fact that the high-priesthood had probably lost its worth in the eyes of the people on account of the worthlessness of its representatives [cf. 1 Samuel 1:3; 1 Samuel 2:22], so that they no longer regarded the high priest as the sole or principal medium of divine revelation; and therefore Gideon, to whom the Lord had manifested himself directly, as He had not to any judge or leader of the people since the time of Joshua, might suppose that he was not acting in violation of the law, when he had an ephod made, and thus provided himself with a substratum or vehicle for inquiring the will of the Lord. His sin therefore consisted chiefly in his invading the prerogative of the Aaronic priesthood, drawing away the people from the one legitimate sanctuary, and thereby not only undermining the theocratic unity of Israel, but also giving an impetus to the relapse of the nation into the worship of Baal after his death. This sin became a snare to him and to his house." [Note: Keil and Delitzsch, pp. 358-59. See also Baruch Halpern, "The Rise of Abimelek Ben-Jerubbaal," Hebrew Annual Review 2 (1978):84-88.]
"Perhaps it is easier to honour God in some courageous action in the limelight of a time of national emergency than it is to honour Him consistently in the ordinary, everyday life, which requires a different kind of courage. Gideon, who came through the test of adversity with flying colours, was not the first nor the last to be less successful in the test of prosperity." [Note: Cundall and Morris, p. 122.]
"I would even suggest we go ephod-making in the way we ignore God’s provision of the Lord’s covenant meal as the means of Christian renewal. We plan, organize, and concoct ’revivals,’ seminars, retreats, or encounters, or we pressure congregations to come forward and rededicate their lives to Christ. All the while we neglect what God has provided: the Lord’s Supper." [Note: Davis, p. 115.]
The final verse in this pericope (Judges 8:28) draws the account of Gideon’s defeat of the Midianites to a close. The land rested from oppression and war 40 years following his victory (ca. 1180-1140 B.C.). This is the last period of peace that the writer of Judges mentioned.
Later events in Gideon’s life 8:22-32
Even though the next events recorded (Judges 8:22-28) followed immediately the ones just reported (Judges 8:18-21), they had greater significance in later years than at that moment in history.
Gideon’s family 8:29-32
These verses wrap up the story of Gideon and introduce the story of Abimelech that follows (ch. 9).
Gideon enjoyed the fruits of his heroism for the rest of his life. He was wealthy enough to afford many wives who bore him 70 sons. In this respect Gideon lived like many ancient Near Eastern kings who normally married many wives and fathered many offspring. He followed pagan cultural customs and violated God’s will (Genesis 2:24). He not only accumulated much gold as a king (Judges 8:26), but he also collected many wives as a king (cf. Deuteronomy 17:17).
He also kept a concubine in Shechem, which the Canaanites controlled at this time (cf. Judges 9:2; Judges 9:28). His concubine appears from references in chapter 9 to have been a Canaanite. The Israelites were to eradicate the Canaanites, but their leader decided to marry one (cf. Exodus 34:15-16; Deuteronomy 7:3-4). The son this woman bore Gideon was evidently a young man of outstanding promise since Gideon named him Abimelech (lit. My father is king). This name may have been a cognomen (nickname) rather than a proper name given to him at birth (cf. Genesis 20:2; Genesis 26:1; et al.). In giving it Gideon may have hoped that this son might one day become the father of Israel’s first king. Alternatively it is possible that even though Gideon had formally refused the office of king, the people may have referred to him popularly as their king.
"The name of his son Abimelech (’my father is king’) probably does not mean that Gideon regarded himself as monarch. In personal names ’my father’ normally refers to God; so Gideon could have been reemphasizing the assertion of Judges 8:23 ["the LORD shall rule over you"]." [Note: Wolf, p. 434.]
However, the fact that Abimelech regarded himself as the successor to Gideon suggests that he understood the king in view to be Gideon (cf. Judges 9:2). Probably "Abimelech" reflects Gideon’s perception of his own status in Israel. Abimelech perpetuated and extended Gideon’s bad practices rather than his good theology. Gideon had said the right things but done the wrong things.
The sons of concubines usually did not partake of their father’s inheritances in the ancient Near East (cf. Genesis 16; Genesis 21:8-21). People considered them the heirs of, and members of, the family of their mother, but not their father. Abimelech, therefore, was different from Gideon’s other 70 sons.
Gideon eventually died, and his survivors buried him in his ancestral tomb (Judges 8:32).
"In relation to the book as a whole, Gideon receives attention as the focal point because he represents a significant shift in the ’quality’ of the judges that served Israel. A progressive deterioration begins with Othniel and continues through Samson. Othniel was almost an idealized judge, and Samson was a debauched self-centered individual. God used each judge, whether strong or weak, to accomplish His sovereign will and effect deliverance for the theocratic nation. Gideon, on the other hand, stands somewhere between these two extremes and represents the primary turning point from the ’better’ judges to the ’weaker’ ones." [Note: Tanner, pp. 152-53.]
2. Israel’s departure from Yahweh 8:33-35
After Gideon’s death, the Israelites again wandered from the Lord (cf. Judges 3:7; Judges 3:12; Judges 4:1; Judges 6:1; Judges 10:6; Judges 13:1). They even made a covenant with Baal in disobedience to God’s Law. "Baal-berith" (Judges 8:33) means "Baal of the covenant." Ironically Shechem, the town where the Israelites had twice renewed their covenant with Yahweh after they entered the land (Joshua 8; Joshua 24), became a site and center of this Baal worship (Judges 9:46).
"In line with common practice, the covenant-making function of Yahweh was simply transferred to Baal so that he, not Yahweh, was viewed as the god who made Shechem a holy place." [Note: Merrill, Kingdom of . . ., p. 169.]
Perhaps the site had been sacred to the Canaanites before the Israelites took it over and "converted" it. Now it was back in Canaanite hands. [Note: Martin Noth, The History of Israel, pp. 98-99.]
The Israelites in time forgot Yahweh and His many deliverances of them, as well as the family of Gideon, their hero who had proved that Baal could not contend for himself (Judges 8:35; cf. Judges 6:31-32).
"Gideon personifies the typical Israelite in the period of the judges. He is more than half Canaanite in his outlook. He does not know how to relate to God. He does not want to get involved in the Lord’s work. He is not beyond using his position for personal gain and influence.
". . . recognizing the deficiencies in the man thrusts into sharper relief the contrasting patience and mercy of God . . .
"Gideon is a man God used in spite of himself. He is a rough vessel if ever there was one. But God is determined to get His work done. In the absence of genuinely qualified leadership, He will use surprising vessels." [Note: Block, "Gideon . . .," p. 27.]
Most of the major judges in the Book of Judges lacked character that we would call "above reproach" (1 Timothy 3:2). God uses vessels unto dishonor as well as vessels unto honor to accomplish His work (2 Timothy 2:20-21). This in no way justifies ungodliness. It simply magnifies the sovereignty and grace of God in using rough material if He chooses to do so for His own purposes.
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Constable, Thomas. DD. "Commentary on Judges 8". "Dr. Constable's Expository Notes". https://www.studylight.org/
the Second Week after Epiphany