Gideon became a judge in Israel at a crucial time in the history of the nation. The book of Judges never called Gideon a shophetim, a judge. Gideon was a military leader who led the forces of Israel to liberate the land from the oppression of the Midianites. At the end of his work, Gideon was able to subdue the Midianites and free the land from the Midianite yoke.
Gideon the Judge
God called Gideon to an almost impossible task. He was called to fight against the Midianites who were raiding the annual harvest of the people of Israel and causing great distress in the community. Gideon was the son of Joash. He was from the clan of Abiezer, one of the clans in the tribe of Manasseh. He was a native of Ophrah, a place located in the Jezreel Valley.
The name Gideon means “hewer, slasher” (Boling 1992: 1013). Because of his action in demolishing the altar of Baal, Gideon was called Jerubbaal, a name that means “Let Baal contend against him” (Judges 6:32).
In the KJV of 2 Samuel 11:21, Gideon’s name appears as Jerubbesheth. Jerubbesheth is a distorted form of Jerubbaal. This alternative form for the name Jerubbaal is a rejection of the name that mentions the Canaanite god Baal. The variant name is formed with the word Besheth, a form of the Hebrew word bosheth, a word that means “shame.” The distortion of the name indicates that the writer of 2 Samuel believed that the worship of Baal was not acceptable in Israel, and Israelite names that used the name Baal were changed to reflect the rejection of Baal in the religion of Israel.
During the days of Gideon, the Midianites, together with the Amalekites, invaded the central area of Palestine and subjugated the land for seven years. Most of the people affected by this invasion were people from the tribe of Manasseh and from the tribe of Ephraim. This is the reason that when the call came to unite and fight against a common enemy, the warriors who came to battle came from Manasseh and from Ephraim (Judges 7:24–8:3).
Gideon was called and endowed with the Spirit of God to deliver Israel from the oppressive situation imposed upon the people by the Midianites and their allies. The story of Gideon ends when the writer of the book of Judges says that the enemy was defeated, and the land rested for forty years (Judges 8:28).
As the leader of the army, Gideon had to deal with people who disagreed with him. He tried to avoid a civil war between the tribes of Manasseh and Ephraim. Gideon had to work hard to unite two different tribes to fight against a common enemy.
The Sins of Israel
The story of Gideon contains two interrelated themes. One theme is the designation of a leader to deliver the nation from the oppressive hands of foreign invaders which was discussed above. The second theme is the struggle between two religions, the religion of Yahweh and the religion of Baal.
The problem Israel was facing was not a military threat, even though the military threat was real. The real problem Israel was facing was a spiritual problem. Israel’s problem was their violation of the covenant and their broken relationship with Yahweh because of their apostasy. Israel was lost and it needed to be saved. God told Gideon, “Go in the strength you have and save Israel” (Judges 6:14 NIV).
The defeat of the Canaanites during the time of Deborah and Barak brought forty years of peace to Israel (Judges 5:31), but the apostasy of Israel continued after the death of Deborah and Barak. The story of Gideon begins forty years after the defeat of Sisera (2008:175). It begins with the statement that the people of Israel “did what was evil in the sight of the LORD.” As a result of Israel’s apostasy, “the LORD gave them into the hand of Midian seven years” (Judges 6:1). When the people cried for help, God, in his mercy, decided to rescue Israel again from the hands of their enemies, this time by the hands of Gideon.
When the Lord commissioned Gideon to fight against the Midianites, Gideon’s first act was to purify the religion of Israel from Canaanite religious practices. God told Gideon, “Take your father’s bull, the second bull seven years old, and pull down the altar of Baal that belongs to your father, and cut down the sacred pole that is beside it” (Judges 6:25).
The cult of Baal was sponsored by Joash, Gideon’s father. The author of the book of Judges mentions three objects associated with Canaanite religion: “the oak at Ophrah, which belonged to Joash the Abiezrite” (Judges 6:11), the altar to Baal, and the Asherah.
The oak was associated with the giving and receiving of oracles. Near Shechem (Judges 9:37) there was an oak tree called “the Diviners’ Oak” (RSV) or “the soothsayers’ tree” (NIV). Baal was the god who sent the rain which provided the fertility of the land. Asherah was a Canaanite goddess of fertility and the consort of El, the chief god in the Canaanite pantheon. Asherah was the mother of the Canaanite gods. Asherah appears in the Old Testament as the name of the goddess and as the name of her wooden cultic symbol. The NRSV calls this cultic symbol “the sacred pole,” the NIV calls it “the Asherah pole,” and the KJV calls it “the grove.”
Because of their apostasy, the people of Israel were oppressed by the Midianites and as a result, they were condemned to live in fear of their enemies, living in dens and caves like animals. Their produce was destroyed, and their livestock carried away by the enemies (Judges 6:2-4). The sheep, the ox, and the donkey represented the material wealth of the people. The loss of these animals was a hard blow to the economic life of the community.
One of the curses of the covenant that God established with Israel on Mount Sinai says that when Israel abandoned God, Israel would suffer the consequences of its rebellion. One of the curses was the invasion of the land. As a punishment for Israel’s apostasy, Yahweh would send “a grim-faced nation showing no respect to the old or favor to the young. It shall consume the fruit of your livestock and the fruit of your ground until you are destroyed, leaving you neither grain, wine, and oil, nor the increase of your cattle and the issue of your flock, until it has made you perish” (Deuteronomy 28:50-51). Because of Israel’s unfaithfulness to Yahweh and because of their apostasy, the curses of the covenant had been invoked against Israel.
The War Against the Midianites
Because of the apostasy of Israel, “the LORD delivered them into the hands of the Midianites for seven years” (Judges 6:1). The Midianites, however, did not come alone: “all the Midianites and the Amalekites and the people of the east came together, and crossing the Jordan they encamped in the Valley of Jezreel” (Judges 6:33).
The Midianites and their allies came up with their livestock and their tents. They were so many that the writer of Judges compared them with swarms of locusts. They are compared to locust because of the great devastation they caused. The number of men and camels was so large that it was impossible to count them. The Midianites protected their camp sites by posting armed guards during the night (Judges 8:19). According to Judges 8:10, the combined army of the Midianites numbered 135,000 men. Although this number may be exaggerated, this number provides a glimpse of the threat posed by the Midianites. Gideon was called to fight against all odds.
The Midianites were a seminomadic people who lived in western Arabia. Jethro, Moses’s father-in-law, was the priest of Midian (Exodus 3:1). The Midianites were the descendants of Abraham through his wife Keturah (Genesis 25:1-2). The Midianiates were the people who sold Joseph to work as a slave in the house of Potiphar, one of Pharaoh’s officials (Genesis 37:28).
Amalek was a grandson of Esau, Jacob’s son. The Amalekites were one of the “clans of Eliphaz in the land of Edom” (Genesis 36:15, 16). The Amalekites were one of Israel’s traditional enemies. Exodus 17:8–13 describes the unprovoked attack of the Amalekites against Israel at Rephidim. During the time of the judges, the Amalekites allied themselves with Eglon king of Moab. Together they defeated Israel and took possession of Jericho, “the city of palms” (Judges 3:13).
As for “the people of the east,” scholars are divided on whether they represent a third group of invaders. After Abraham had children with Keturah, Abraham sent them away: “But to the sons of his concubines Abraham gave gifts, while he was still living, and he sent them away from his son Isaac, eastward to the east country” (Genesis 25:6). One of the sons Abraham sent east was Midian. In Judges 8:10, the Midianite and the Amalekite warriors were called “the army of the people of the east.” Thus, some scholars identify the Midianites and the Amalekites as the easterners who invaded Israel. Others identify the people of the east with the Kedemites or with unknown clans from the east.
According to Malamat, the Midianites were able to oppress the people of Israel because of the victory of Deborah and Barak against the Canaanites who were led by Sisera and his chariot forces (Judges 4:1-24). Because of the defeat of the Canaanites, Israel did not have the means to defend the northern part of the land.
In addition, the people of Israel did not have a central government which could unite the tribes to fight against a common enemy nor did they have the kind of army capable of fighting the people who had joined the Midianites. With the absence of the heavily armed forces of the Canaanites, Israel was unable to defend the northern part of the country, making the nation vulnerable to foreign invasions.
The danger posed by the invasion of this foreign army was that most people in Manasseh lived in unwalled settlements, farming and raising small cattle. These villages did not have the protection of a standing army. For this reason, the inhabitants of these settlements were afraid and as a result they hid in caves or fled to the hills leaving their fields without any protection.
The people of Israel were so appreciative of the leadership of Gideon that they asked him to be a king over them. The people said to Gideon, “Rule over us, you and your son and your grandson also; for you have delivered us out of the hand of Midian.” In response, Gideon said to them, “I will not rule over you, and my son will not rule over you; the LORD will rule over you” (Judges 8:22-23).
Gideon was a mighty warrior, but a humble man. He refused the honor bestowed upon him. He rejected being a king in Israel because he recognized that the true king of Israel was Yahweh. Although Gideon was able to conquer the Midianites and bring a long period of peace to Israel, in the end, the spiritual problem of Israel remained.
After the death of Gideon, “the Israelites relapsed and prostituted themselves with the Baals, making Baal-berith their god. The Israelites did not remember the LORD their God, who had rescued them from the hand of all their enemies on every side; and they did not exhibit loyalty to the house of Jerubbaal (that is, Gideon) in return for all the good that he had done to Israel” (Judges 8:28-35). The reason for Israel’s apostasy was because “In those days there was no king in Israel; all the people did what was right in their own eyes” (Judges 21:25).
The solution to the spiritual problem of Israel had to wait until the coming of the Great King of Israel.
A Video Presentation
Each of my next four posts will include a video of the sermon my pastor, Jeff Griffin, Senior Pastor of The Compass Church in Naperville, Illinois will preach on the work of Gideon as a judge in Israel. Each sermon will deal with the impossible odds Gideon faced in accomplishing his mission. In describing the many challenges Gideon faced, Jeff wrote,
Do you like betting against all odds? Most of us avoid those challenges where victory is unlikely. Surprisingly, God loves a long shot. When we’re in over our heads, we desperately rely on him. When unexpected victory comes, we give him the credit.
I hope you will join Jeff and me in this series of posts and sermons on the life of Gideon.
NOTE: For a complete list on all the studies on Gideon, visit my post, “Studies on Gideon.”
Claude F. Mariottini
Emeritus Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary
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Boling, Robert G. “Gideon,” ed. David Noel Freedman, The Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary (New York: Doubleday, 1992), 1013–1015.
Endris, Vince, “Yahweh versus Baal: A Narrative-Critical Reading of the Gideon/Abimelech Narrative,” Journal for the Study of the Old Testament 33 (2008): 173-195.
Malamat, Abraham, “The War of Gideon and Midian: A Military Approach,” Palestine Exploration Quarterly 85 !953): 61-65.