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Bible Commentaries

Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers

Judges 7


1. The two camps. Judges 7:2-3. Gideon is bidden to dismiss all who are afraid. Judges 7:4-8. The remaining ten thousand are tested by the way in which they drink at the fountain of Harod, and only 300 are left. Judges 7:9-14. The Lord encourages Gideon by suffering him to overhear the narration of a dream in the camp of the Midianites, Judges 7:15-18. Gideon’s stratagem with lamps and torches. Judges 7:19-21. Panic and slaughter in the host of Midian. Judges 7:22-23. Their disastrous flight, and their pursuit by the Israelites. Judges 7:24-25. Capture of Oreb and Zeeb.

Verse 1

(1) Jerubbaal, who is Gideon.—Abraham, Sarah, Jacob, Joseph, Esther, Daniel, St. Paul, &c, are other instances of Scriptural characters who have two names.

Beside.—Rather, above. It would have been foolish and dangerous to encamp on the plain.

The well of Harod.—The name “Harod” means “trembling,” with an obvious allusion to the timidity of the people (chareed, Judges 7:3), to which there may be again an allusion in 1 Samuel 28:5. The name is here used by anticipation. It occurs here only, though two Harodites are mentioned in 2 Samuel 23:25; and the same fountain is obviously alluded to in 1 Samuel 29:1. From the fact that Gideon’s camp was on Mount Gilboa there can be little doubt that Harod must be identified with the abundant and beautiful fountain at the foot of the hill now known as Ain Jalûd, or “the spring of Goliath,” from a mistaken legend that this was the scene of the giant’s death; or possibly from a mistaken corruption of the name Harod itself. There is another reading, “Endor” (comp. Ps. 82:10).

By the hill of Moreh.—Bertheau renders it, “stretching from the hill of Moreh into the valley.” The only hill of this name which we know from other sources is that at Shechem (Genesis 12:6; Deuteronomy 11:30), but that is twenty-five miles south of Mount Gilboa. There can be no doubt that Moreh is here used for Little Hermon, now Jebel ed-Duhy. The Vulgate renders it “of a lofty hill,” perhaps to avoid a supposed difficulty. The word Moreh means “archer,” and Little Hermon may have been called “the Archer’s Hill,” from the bowmen of the Amalekites.

Verse 2

(2) The people that are with thee are too many for me.—This must have put the faith of Gideon to a severe trial, since the Midianites were 135,000 in number (Judges 8:10), and Gideon’s forces only 32,000 (Judges 7:4).

Lest Israel vaunt themselves.—See Deuteronomy 8:17.

Verse 3

(3) Whosoever is fearful and afraid.—This proclamation is in exact accordance with Deuteronomy 20:8 (and the other general directions in that chapter). It is there founded on the psychological observation that cowardice is exceedingly contagious, so that the presence of timid men in an army is a source of direct danger. The same rule was rigidly observed by the faithful Judas Maccabæus (1Ma. 3:56). Epaminondas, for the same reason, made the same proclamation before the battle of Leuctra. In this instance there was the further reason given in the previous verse. “The ancients had observed that even when there are many legions it is always the few that win the battle” (Tac. Ann. xiv. 36).

Depart early.—The Hebrew word tsaphar occurs here only. The Chaldee explains it by tsiphra, “in the morning;” and Abarband says that this injunction was given in order that they might not incur shame when they retired. The rendering “hastily” is explained to mean “like a bird” (tsippor). Keil, connecting it with an Arabic root, makes it mean “slink away by bye-paths.” It seems to involve a shade of contempt—“Let him take himself off.” (Trolle sich: Cassel.)

From mount Gilead.—This expression has caused great difficulty, but the Hebrew cannot mean “to mount Gilead,” nor yet “beyond mount Gilead.” The only tenable solution of the difficulty is, (1) to alter the text into “mount Gilboa” (Clericus), or from meehar, “from mount,” to maheer, “speedily” (Michaelis); or (2) to suppose that “mount Gilead” was a rallying-cry of the Manassites in general, for Gilead was a son of Abiezer (Numbers 26:30, where Jeezer is merely an error); and hence was derived the name “Gilead” of the trans-Jordanic district which fell to the half-tribe of Manasseh (Joshua 17:5-6). If this be a true conjecture, the phrase “let him depart from mount Gilead” means “let him leave the camp of Manasseh.” One more conjecture is that Gilead is an ancient name for Gilboa (Schwarz).

There returned of the people twenty and two thousand.—No detail could more decisively show the terror struck into them by the sight of the Midianite host. They looked on them with the same alarm with which the Greeks, before Marathon, used to gaze on the Persian dress. It must not, however, be supposed that all the defaulters went straight to their homes. Doubtless many of them took part in the pursuit which made the victory decisive.

Verse 4

(4) The people are yet too many.—A fresh trial of faith; but small numbers were essential for the method of victory by which God intended that the deliverance should be achieved.

Unto the water.—i.e., to the spring of Harod.

I will try them.—The LXX. render it (Cod. Vat.), “I will purge them,” as gold from dross, and this is the literal sense of the word (Isaiah 1:25; Isaiah 48:10).

Verse 5

(5) Every one that lappeth of the water with his tongue.—Josephus (Antt. v. 6, § 4) says that Gideon led them down to the spring in the fiercest heat of the noonday, and that he judged those to be the bravest who flung themselves down and drank, and those to be the cowards who lapped the water hastily and tumultuously. Theodoret also thinks that the Divine aid was shown by the fact that the greatest cowards were chosen. This may have been a Jewish legend (Hagadah); but it seems more reasonable to suppose that greater self-control would be shown by stooping and drinking the water out of the hand than by flinging themselves at full length to drink, which would be the natural instinct of a thirsty man. Rashi says that those who went down on their knees to drink were secret idolators, who had “bowed the knee to Baal” (1 Kings 19:18).

As a dog lappeth.—Some commentators fancy that this is an allusion to Egyptian dogs, who, out of fear for the Nile crocodiles, only venture to lap the water while they are running along the banks.

Verse 6

(6) That lapped, putting their hand to their mouth.—Literally, licked with their hand to their mouth.

All the rest of the peoplei.e., 9,700 men.

Verse 7

(7) Every man unto his place.—i.e., home, as in Numbers 24:11.

Verse 8

(8) So the people took victuals in their hand, and their trumpets.—The E.V. here differs from most of the ancient versions (e.g., the LXX., the Chaldee, the Vulgate, &c.), which render it, “And they (the 300) took the provisions and trumpets of the people (the 9,700) in their hands.” This is also the explanation of Rabbi Kimchi, Levi Ben Gerson, &c. Provisions would be scarce in the neighbourhood of so vast a host, and it would be the desire of all that the brave 300 should be well supplied. The reason for taking 300 rams’ horns would soon appear; and, indeed, but for this verse we might well wonder how each of the 300 came to have a horn of his own. Their “pitchers” were probably those in which the provisions had been carried.

Verse 9

(9) I have delivered it into thine hand.—Comp. Judges 4:14.

Verse 10

(10) To go down.—If thou fear to make the attack at once, without still further encouragement. Let it be borne in mind that the courage required by Gideon and his men was in many respects far beyond that of the much more vaunted 300 at Thermopylæ—(1) because they were to attack, not to defend; (2) because they were to attack a host in the plain, not to hold a narrow valley; (3) because they had not a large number of allies and attendants with them, as the 300 Spartans had (Grote’s Greece, v. 103, 121).

Phurah thy servant.—The name Phurah means “branch”; the word for “servant” is literally boy, but here means the armour-bearer. The classical reader will recall the night-raid of Diomedes and Odysseus into the camp of the Thracians at Troy (Il. x. 220, et seqq.).

Verse 11

(11)And thou shalt hear what they say.—This was the kind of omen known by the Jews as the Bath Kol, or “Daughter of a Voice.” For a similar instance see 1 Samuel 14:6 (Jonathan and his armour-bearer). The word is used in slightly different senses. Sometimes it means a voice from heaven (Matthew 3:17, &c): such voices from heaven are described in the Talmud; sometimes it means the first chance words which a man hears after being bidden to look out for them as a Divine intimation; sometimes it means an actual echo (see Hamburger’s Talmud. Wörterb., s.5).

It was one of the four recognised modes of Divine direction (viz., prophets, dreams, Urim, and the Bath Kol, 1 Samuel 28:6-15), but stood lowest of the four. It was also known to the Greeks, among whom the oracle sometimes bade a man to take as his answer the first casual words which he heard spoken on leaving the Temple.

The armed men.—Literally, ranks by, five, the word (chamooshim) rendered “harnessed” in Exodus 13:18, “armed” in Joshua 1:14. Probably here the word means “foreposts,” or “sentries”; and the Vulgate renders it “vigiliae.” The LXX. curiously render it “to the beginning,” (or in other MSS.) “to part of the fifty,” following a wrong punctuation.

That were in the host.—Probably “the host” was in some respects more like a temporary nomad migration, such as is so common among all wandering tribes. If so, it would not be by any means entirely composed of “armed men,” but would, like the Persians under Xerxes, trail with it a vast mass of camp followers, &c., who would probably be encamped in the centre with the baggage.

Verse 12

(12) Like grasshoppers.—Comp. Judges 6:5; Numbers 22:4-5.

Their camels.—Which constitute the chief wealth of Arab tribes. “The multitude of camels shall cover thee, the dromedaries of Midian and Ephah” (Isaiah 60:6).

As the sand.—See Joshua 11:4, and frequently in the Bible. (See Genesis 22:17; Isaiah 48:19, &c.)

Verse 13

(13) Behold, I dreamed a dream.—Since dreams, no less than the Bath Kol, were recognised channels for Divine intimations (Genesis 41:12; Numbers 12:6; 1 Samuel 28:6; Joel 2:28, &c.), Gideon would feel doubly assured.

A cake.—The Hebrew word tsalol (or tselil in the Keri, or margin) is a word which occurs nowhere else. Rabbis Kimchi and Tanchun derive it from tsalal, “he tinkled” (as in tselselim and other names for musical instruments), or “he overshadowed.” Neither derivation yields any sense. The Chaldee, Syriac, and Rashi render it “a cake baked on coals,” and so, too, the LXX. (since such is the meaning of magie), the Vulgate (panis subcinericius), and Josephus (maza krithinç); this seems to be the true sense. Ewald makes it mean “a dry rattling crust.” Niebuhr tells us that the desert Arabs thrust a round lump of dough into hot ashes, then take it out and eat it. (Arab., p. 52.)

Of barley bread.—Josephus helps us to see the significance of the symbol by adding, “which men can (hardly) eat for its coarseness.” It must be remembered that the Israelites had been reduced to such poverty by these raids that the mass of them would have nothing to subsist on but common barley bread such as that used to this day, with bitter complaints, by the Fellahîn of Palestine. Among the Greeks also barley bread” was proverbial as a kind of food hardly fit to be eaten, although such was the poverty which the Saviour bore for our sakes that it seems to have been the ordinary food of Him and His apostles (John 6:9). “A cake of barley bread” would, therefore, naturally recall the thought of the Israelites, who were no doubt taunted by their enemies with being reduced to this food; just as Dr. Johnson defined oats as “food for horses in England, and for men in Scotland.” Thus, in 1 Kings 4:28, the “barley” is only for the horses and dromedaries. “If the Midianites were accustomed to call Gideon and his band ‘eaters of barley bread,’ as their successors, the haughty Bedouins, often do to ridicule their enemies, the application would be the more natural” (Thomson, Land and Book, p. 447). Josephus makes the soldier say that, as barley is the vilest of all seed, so the Israelites were the vilest of all the people of Asia.

Tumbled.—Rather, was rolling itself.

Unto a tent.—Rather, into the tent, which doubtless means (as Josephus says) the tent-royal—the tent of Zebah and Salmanah.

Smote it.—Perhaps the dream involved that it also (as Josephus says) “threw down the tents of all the soldiers.”

Overturned it, that the tent lay along.—The latter words are involved in the first verb, and are only added for emphasis in accordance with the full picturesque Hebrew style. (Comp. “A bullock that hath horns and hoofs;” “I am a widow woman, and my husband is dead,” &c.) This leisurely stateliness of description is found again and again in the Bible. (See my Origin of Language, p. 168, and Brief Greek Syntax, p. 200.)

Verse 14

(14) This is nothing else save the sword of Gideon.—The sort of dread which revealed itself by this instant interpretation of the dream shows that Israel Was formidable even in its depression, doubtless because the nations around were well aware of the Divine aid by which they had so often struck terror into their enemies. The fact that this Bath Kol echoed the promise which Gideon had already received (Judges 7:9) would give it additional force.

Verse 15

(15) The interpretation thereof.—Literally, its breaking. The word is a metaphor from breaking a nut—enucleation.

Verse 16

(16) Into three companies.—See Judges 9:43. This division of the attacking force was a common stratagem. We find it in Job 1:17—“the Chaldæans made out three bands “—and it was adopted by Saul against the Ammonites (1 Samuel 11:11), and by David against Absalom (2 Samuel 18:2). (Comp. Genesis 14:15.)

A trumpet.—Hearing the sound of three hundred rams’ horns, the Midianites would naturally suppose that they were being attacked by three hundred companies.

Pitchers.—The Hebrew word is caddim, which is connected with our cask—the Greek, kados. They were of earthenware (Judges 7:19-20), (LXX., hydrias), and hence the Vulgate rendering (lagenas) is mistaken.

Lamps.—The LXX., perhaps, chose the word lampadas from its resemblance to lappîdîm—a principle by which they are often guided. Lampadas, however, here means not “lamps,” but (as the margin gives it) “firebrands,” or “torches.” The best illustration is furnished by a passage in Lane’s Modern Egyptians (I., Judges 4:0), where he tells us that the zabit or agha of the police in Cairo carries with him at night “a torch, which burns, soon after it is lighted, without a flame, excepting when it is waved through the air, when it suddenly blazes forth: it therefore answers the same purpose as our dark lantern. The burning end is sometimes concealed in a small pot or jar, or covered with something else when not required to give light.” These torches are simply of wood dipped in turpentine or pitch, which are not easily extinguished.

Verse 17

(17) Look on me.—He showed all the three hundred the way in which he wished them, at a given signal, to break the pitchers, wave the torches, and shout. The signal would be given by the one hundred whom he himself headed.

Verse 18

(18) The sword of the Lord, and of Gideon.—Literally, for Jehovah and for Gideon (LXX., Τῷ κυρίῳ καὶ τῷ Γεδεων; Vulg., clangite et conclamate Domino et Gedeoni), but the particle le often has the meaning of, as in “a Psalm to David,” which is found at the beginning of many Psalms. Our version here understands the word “sword” (chereb) from Judges 6:20, as is also done in some MSS. of the LXX. It is better to omit it. The watchword and war-cry, then, resembles that given by Cyrus to his soldiers—“Zeus, our ally and leader” (Cyrop. iii. 28). The mention of his own name was only for the purpose of terrifying the enemy (Judges 7:14).

Verse 19

(19) The middle watch.—The Jews anciently divided the night, from 6 P.M. to 6 A.M., into three watches (Exodus 14:24; 1 Samuel 11:11). The subsequent division into four watches of three hours each was borrowed from the Romans (Matthew 14:25; Mark 6:48). At the beginning of the middle watch—i.e., soon after 10 at night—would be the time at which the host would be buried in their first sleep.

They had but newly set the watch.—Literally, scarcely—or. “just in rousing they roused the watch.” The attack took place at the moment of confusion caused by changing the watch.

Verse 20

(20) The trumpets in their right hands . . .—Thus they were comparatively defenceless, though, if they had any armour at all, doubtless they could still hold the shield on the left arm, while the sword was girded on the thigh. The effect of the sudden crash and glare and shout upon the vast unwieldy host of the Bedouins may be imagined. Startled from sleep in a camp which, like Oriental camps, must have been most imperfectly protected and disciplined, they would see on every side blazing torches, and hear on every side the rams’ horns and the terrible shout of the Israelites. (Comp. Tac. Ann. i. 68.) The instant result was a wild panic, such as that which seized the camp of the Persians at Platæe. The first thought which would rise in their minds would be that there was some treachery at work among the motley elements of the camp itself. Even a well-disciplined camp is liable to these outbursts of panic. One such occurred among the Greeks in the camp of the Ten Thousand during their retreat. To shame these groundless alarms, Klearchus next morning caused a reward to be proclaimed for any one who would give information “who had let the ass loose;” and this seems to have been a standing joke to shame Greek soldiers from such panics (Xen. Anab. ii. 2, 20). Several stratagems similar to that of Gideon are recorded in history. Polyænus, in his book on the “Art of War,” tells us that Diœtas, when attacking Heræa, “ordered the trumpeters to stand apart, and sound a charge opposite to many quarters of the city; and that the Heræans, hearing the blasts of many trumpets from many directions, thinking that the whole region was crowded with enemies, abandoned the city.” Frontinus also tells us that the Tarquinians and Faliscans tried to frighten the Romans with torches, and Minucius Rufus terrified the Scordisci by trumpets blown among the rocks (Strateg. ii. 3). Hannibal on one occasion escaped from Fabius Maximus by tying torches to the heads of cattle, and having them driven about the hills. The Druids waved torches to repel the attack of Suetonius Paulinus on the island of Mona (Tac. Ann. xiv. 30). An Arab chief (Bel-Arab) in the eighteenth century used trumpets in exactly the same manner as Gideon did on this occasion, and with the same success (Niebuhr, Beschr. von Arabien, p. 304). Ewald alludes to similar stratagems in Neapolitan and Hungarian wars, the latter so recently as 1849 (Gesch. ii. 503).

Verse 21

(21) Ran, and cried, and fled.—They ran about to discover the meaning of the trumpet-blast. Their “cries” were either the wail of despair (Vulg., ululantes), or a number of confused shouts and words of command (LXX., esêmainan); their flight would be a natural result of the hopeless terror and confusion which prevailed. The word, however, in the Kethibh, or written text, is yanîsoo, which means “caused to fly”—i.e., “carried off their tents,” &c.

Verse 22

(22) Blew the trumpets.—They continued to blow incessantly, to add to the panic.

The Lord set every man’s sword against his fellow.—We have an exact parallel to this in the mutual slaughter of the Ammonites, Moabites, and Edomites, when stricken with a similar panic before the army of Jehoshaphat, in 2 Chronicles 20:21-22; and on a smaller scale in the camp of the Philistines at Gibeah (1 Samuel 14:0). The tremendous tragedy of their flight can only be appreciated by the vivid impression which it made on the national imagination (Isaiah 9:4; Isaiah 10:26). In Psalms 83:13-14, it is compared to the whirling flight of dry weeds before a rush of flame and wind, recalling the Arab imprecation, “May you be whirled like the akukb (‘wild artichoke,’ ‘a wheel,’ ‘a rolling thing’) before the wind, until you are caught in the thorns or plunged into the sea” (Thomson, Land and Book, Judges 36).

Beth-shittah.—It should be rather, Beth hash-shit-tah, “the house of the acacia”—a place named from the trees which are still abundant in that neighbourhood, just as we have such names as Burntash, Seven-oaks, Nine Elms, &c. (Comp. Abel-Shittim, Numbers 33:49; Joshua 21:0.) If Beth hash-shittah was the village Shultah, with which Robinson (Bibl. Reg., 3:219) identifies it, some of the host must have fled northwards. It is improbable that it was another name for Beth-shean, though the LXX. have Bethsead in some MSS. It is, however, by no means unlikely that some of the marauders would fly towards the fords of the Jordan near Bethshean (comp. Jos. Antt. v. 6, § 5), as others fled south to the fords near Succoth, which lay to the south of the Jabbok.

In.—Rather, towards, as in the margin.

Zererath.—Rather, Zererah. This is omitted in the Vulgate; the LXX. have the extraordinary reading Tagaragatha, or in some MSS. “and he led them.” The final th is no part of the name, but the mode of connecting the name with the particle of motion. Zererath is not again mentioned, but the distinction between the Hebrew letters r (ר) and d (ד) is so slight that the reading Zeredath may here be correct; and if so, it may be the Zeredath in Ephraim, which was the birthplace of Jeroboam (1 Kings 11:26), and the Zaretan of Joshua 3:16, 1 Kings 7:46, which is sixteen miles north of Jericho.

To the border.—Literally, as in the margin, to the lip, or brink, as in Genesis 22:17; Exodus 4:30. It does not, however, necessarily prove that Abel-meholah was on the edge of the Jordan valley.

Abel-meholah.—“The meadow of the dance.” It was in Ephraim, and was the native place of Elisha (1 Kings 19:16; see, too, 1 Kings 4:12). Eusebius and Jerome place it ten miles south of Bethshean, at Wady Maleb. Abel means “a moist, grassy meadow.”

Unto Tabbath.—Literally, upon Tabbath. The name seems to mean “famous,” but the site is unknown, unless it be the remarkable bank called Tubukhat Fahil,

Verse 23

(23) Out of Naphtali.—Doubtless these pursuers were some of those who had left Gideon’s camp before the victory. Those of Naphtali and Asher might pursue the flying Midianites northwards (if Beth-shittah is the same Shultah), and those of Manasseh might pursue those who fled southwards to the lower fords.

Verse 24

(24) Throughout all mount Ephraim.—He had not ventured to summon these haughty clansmen before his victory was assured.

Take before them the waters.—i.e., “intercept their flight unto Beth-barah and Jordan.” The “waters” are probably the marshes formed by streams which flow from the watershed of the hills of Ephraim into the Jordan.

Beth-barah.—“House of the waste,” not, as Jerome says, “of the well.” It can hardly be the Bethabara (house of the passage) of John 1:28, which seems to be too far south.

Verse 25

(25) Oreb and Zeeb.—The names mean “raven” and “wolf”: but these are common names for warriors among rude tribes, and there is no reason to look on them as names given in scorn by the Israelites. Such names are common among nomads. The capture of these two powerful sheykhs was the result of the second part of the battle, and was not accomplished without a terrible slaughter. See Psalms 73:9-12, where the word rendered “houses” of God should be “pastures” of God. It is remarkable that in this passage there seems to be almost an identification of the victories of Barak and Gideon, as though they were the result of one great combined movement. In the phrase “became as the dung of the earth” we see that tradition preserved a memory of the fertilisation of the ground by the dead bodies (see Note on Judges 4:16; Judges 5:21). The completeness of the victory is also ailuded to in Isaiah 60:4 : “Thou hast broken the yoke of his burden . . . as in the day of Midian”; and Isaiah 10:26. The brief narrative of Judges perhaps hardly enables us to realise the three acts of this great tragedy of Midianite slaughter—at Gilboa, the Fords, and Karkor.

Upon the rock Oreb.—Rather, at the raven’s rock. Only again mentioned in Isaiah 10:26 : “according to the slaughter of Midian at the rock of Oreb.” Reland identifies it with Orbo, near Bethshean.

To Gideon on the other side Jordan.i.e., beyond the Jordan (“trans fluenta Jordani,” Vulg.). This notice is given by anticipation, for Gideon’s crossing the Jordan is not mentioned till Judges 8:4. The words literally mean “from beyond the Jordan,” as the LXX. render them (apo peran), but this is idiomatic for “from one place to another,” as in Joshua 13:22, &c-

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Bibliographical Information
Ellicott, Charles John. "Commentary on Judges 7". "Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers". 1905.