Critical Analysis of a Jewish Leader: Gideon the Judge
Gideon, son of Yoash,
was the fifth Judge of the Jewish people, in the time period between the death
of Joshua and the eventual rise of the kings of Israel. The story of Gideon
is not as well-known as that of Samson, Deborah or Samuel, yet his successes
and failures in leading the Jewish People portend many of the same successes
and failures that have occurred throughout Jewish history, especially since the
establishment of the Third Jewish Commonwealth (in the form of the modern State
of Israel) in the biblical Land of Israel. As the decisions of our
present and future leaders will affect the destiny of the Jewish people and its
future generations, it is incumbent upon us to analyze and understand, to the
smallest detail, the decisions and actions, whether for Good or for Bad, of our
past leaders. This is not done for the sake of defamation or disrespect,
rather purely for the sake of educating our present and future leaders so that
they will not repeat historic and tragic transgressions against the G-d of
Before a discussion of Gideon may begin, the period of the Judges as a whole must be explained. Beginning with the death of Joshua and the Elders, there was no official, unanimously-approved national leader of the Jewish people. The result of this chaos is discussed in the first chapter of the Book of Judges, as each tribe acted individually to complete the conquest of its own portion of the Land of Israel. Consequently, as has unfortunately occurred so often during our history as a nation, after initial victories, “Jeshurun became fat …” (Deut. 32:15), and -- following their establishment of control over most of the Land -- the Children of Israel lost their desire to continue fighting. Numerous Hebrew tribes are mentioned as lacking any inclination to expel the entirety of the Canaanite nations from their midst, despite the clear Directive, and Promise of Success, from G-d.
In warning the Jewish people of the disaster they were bringing upon themselves, an Angel of G-d informs the Jewish people, in G-d’s Name:
I brought you up from Egypt and I brought you to the Land that I swore to your forefathers. And I said, “I shall never annul My Covenant with you, but you shall not seal a covenant with the inhabitants of this Land; you shall break apart their altars.” But you did not hearken to My Voice! What is this that you have done? So I also said, “I shall not chase them out before you, and they will be unto you [as thorns in your] sides, and their gods will be a trap for you." (Judges 2:1-3)
A chance to secure physical and spiritual isolation, and therefore purity and holiness --Kiddush HaShem (Sanctification of G-d’s Name) -- in the Land of Israel was squandered by the Jewish People, who were subsequently punished for this Chillul HaShem (Desecration of G-d’s Name) for many generations.
The Book of Judges is careful to point out, however, that, throughout all the days of Joshua and the Elders who led the Jewish people in the period immediately following his death, the Nation of Israel served G-d fully. They continuously strived to remove the Canaanite nations and their idolatrous practices from the Land of Israel, but those tasks still remained unfinished at their death and would require completion by the next generation. It was when that first generation passed away that problems began to arise:
That entire generation, as well, was gathered in to its forefathers. A new generation arose after them that did not know HaShem, or the Deeds that He had performed for Israel. (Judges 2:10-11)
A particularly tragic aspect of our national history that is at the forefront of Gideon’s story is our inherent need to personally witness G-d’s Miracles in order to have practical faith in Him. It is as if we are brazenly proclaiming to G-d, the Master of the Universe, that -- despite the many Wonders that He performed for our ancestors -- for us to trust in Him (and thereby actually conduct ourselves in accordance with His Will), we will first need to see tangible proof of His Existence and Power. This construct is detrimental to the Jewish people; for if proof must always precede faith, then the latter concept ceases to exist. And so the demand for proof anew has been one of our nation’s stumbling blocks throughout our long history.
Indeed, as a new generation of Jews arose in the Land of Israel, who remembered not the Miracles that G-d had performed for His People in prior generations, so too -- midah k’neged midah (measure for measure) -- a new generation of Gentiles arose, who remembered not the invincibility of a Jewish Nation fighting in the Name of the G-d of Israel. They had never ceased lusting for vengeance against the Jewish people, but now they were no longer afraid, nor even hesitant, to attack G-d’s Chosen Nation. These factors combined to create the following pattern which characterized the period of the Judges (see Judges 2:12-21):
1. The Children of Israel, living in proximity to the remnants of the Canaanite nations and being strongly influenced by them, stray from G-d and begin to worship false gods.
2. G-d punishes the Jewish people by allowing a foreign nation to subjugate them.
3. The Children of Israel cry out to G-d to save them from their oppressor.
4. G-d anoints a Judge to lead the Jewish people and to save them.
5. The Jewish people return to serving G-d under the leadership of the Judge.
6. The Judge dies, and there is no one to fill the leadership void. (Unlike the Davidic kingship, the judgeship was not a hereditary position. Rather, G-d would appoint anew the person that He would deem most fit to lead the Jewish people during that time.)
7. The Children of Israel forget G-d, and begin worshipping false gods once again.
At this point, the destructive cycle is quite clear; yet it occurs over and over throughout the period of the Judges. After describing this vicious cycle, Scripture goes on to explain G-d’s Purpose:
In order to test Israel through them [the remnants of the Canaanite nations remaining in the Land of Israel]: Are they observing the Ways of HaShem, to follow them as their forefathers observed, or not? So HaShem let those nations remain, without driving them out quickly, and He did not deliver them into Joshua’s hand. (Judges 2:22-23)
Thus begins the period of the
Judges, with G-d’s clear Intention being to continually test His Beloved
People, to challenge them to overcome the burden left behind by previous
generations who did not drive out the inhabitants of the Land. Each
generation stumbled in this task, falling victim to the temptations and
influences of these inhabitants and the nearby nations. Yet, as foretold
at the start of the Book of Judges, whenever a generation would stumble and
then receive its due punishment at the hands of the nearby Gentile nations, G-d
would inevitably send His Agent, the Judge, to lead the Jewish people to
physical victory and spiritual return to G-d. Lest we think, however,
that G-d chooses to save and redeem us because of our own merit, the Prophet
Ezekiel warns us: “I do this not for your sake, O House of Israel, but for
My Holy Name’s Sake, which you have profaned among the nations.” (Ezek.
36:22). As Israel is G-d’s earthly emissary to the nations of the World,
the Jewish State’s fate and well-being, successes and failures, contribute
directly to the Gentile nations’ fear and respect -- or lack thereof -- for the
G-d of Israel. When Israel is subjugated by a foreign power, the Gentile
nations mistakenly believe that this demonstrates the supremacy and domination
of their false gods over the G-d of
And He said to Abram, "Know with certainty that your offspring shall be aliens in a Land not their own; they [the Jewish people] will serve them [that nation], and they [that nation] will oppress them [the Jewish people] for 400 years. But also the nation that they shall serve, I shall judge, and afterwards they [the Jewish people] shall leave with great wealth." (Genesis 15:13-14).
G-d uses the Gentile nations only as a tool in punishing His Chosen Nation for their failings; but He never has, and never will, abandon His Beloved People.
Finally, before an in-depth discussion of any portion of the Hebrew Bible may begin, it must be expressed that one of the many premises of this commentary is the belief that Scripture does not waste words. There are no mistakes. If a particular word is used, or a certain episode included, it is certainly meaningful and important; and as always, there is a lesson to be learned.
PRELUDE TO THE ANNOINTMENT OF GIDEON
With this understood, the Book of Judges finishes the story of Deborah (the Judge and Prophetess) by informing us that there was peace in the Land of Israel for 40 years during her rule: ". . . And the Land was tranquil for 40 years." (Judges 5:31).
When the story of Gideon opens, we are first informed that the Children of Israel have begun to stray from G-d:
Children of Israel did what was Evil in the Eyes of HaShem,
so HaShem delivered them into the hand of Midian [for] seven years. The hand of Midian grew powerful over Israel. In the face of Midian, the Children of Israel made for themselves the
dugouts that are in the mountains, and the caves and strongholds. It
happened that whenever Israel would sow, Midian would
ascend – as well as Amalek and the people of the East
– and they would overrun it. They would encamp against them and destroy
the produce of the Land, until the approach to Gaza. They would leave no
AN ANGEL OF G-D, AND THEN G-D HIMSELF, SPEAKS TO GIDEON
Angel of HaShem came and sat under the elm tree in Ofrah, that belonged to Yoash,
the Abiezrite. His son, Gideon, was threshing wheat
at the winepress, to hide it from Midian. The
Angel of HaShem appeared to him, and said to him,
"HaShem is with you, O mighty hero!" Gideon
said to him, "I beg you, my lord, if HaShem is
with us, why has all this happened to us? And where are all His Wonders
of which our forefathers told us, saying, 'Behold, HaShem
brought us up from
We are first introduced to Gideon, already chosen to be the leader of the Jewish people, as he is being sought out by an Angel of G-d. When the Angel appears to Gideon, the first thing he proclaims is: “G-d is with you, O mighty hero”. G-d’s Purpose, from the start, is to demonstrate to Gideon the simple concept expressed in Psalms 20:8: "Some with chariots, and some with horses, but we, in the Name of the Lord our G-d, call out."
Gideon’s primary shortcoming as a leader is his consistent lack of practical faith in G-d’s Ability to save and protect the Jewish people. G-d had intended to preempt this fear by blessing Gideon at the very outset. Nevertheless, Gideon’s initial response to the Angel demonstrates the collective skepticism of every generation of Jews since the Exodus from Egypt. People tend to reject that which is intangible in favor of that which is tangible. Gideon has faith in G-d; yet it is a theoretical faith only. He understands that the G-d of Israel exists; however, he does not initially trust -- especially after being under subjugation to the Midianites for the past seven years -- that G-d is presently willing and able to exercise His Power to put an end to the servitude and humiliation of the Jewish people. He does accept that, in the Past, G-d performed miracles for His People, but it is clear to Gideon that, in the Present, G-d has abandoned His Children. In order to silence Gideon’s doubts, G-d Himself now rebuts Gideon, declaring that He is, indeed, sending Gideon as His Messenger to save the Jewish People. In response, Gideon tries to disarm G-d’s rebuttal with an excuse, explaining how he is surely neither worthy nor able to lead the Jewish people. However, Gideon’s excuse is repudiated by the Promise that, nonetheless, G-d will be with him. Once the shields of Doubt and Excuse are denied to him by the Words of G-d, Gideon is confronted with a test, the first of many with which G-d will confront him. Shall he trust in G-d’s clear and unmistakable Promise of Divine Protection, thereby demonstrating true, practical faith in the G-d of Israel, or does he still require a tangible proof of G-d’s Power in order for him to truly believe? In failing this very first test, Gideon reverts to one of the root causes of national Jewish failure, namely the national Jewish leadership’s lack of practical faith in God’s Power and Promises. Accordingly, he requests proof from G-d in the form of a Sign. In order to satisfy Gideon’s hunger for tangibility, G-d decides to perform this Wonder for Gideon through the agency of His tangible representative, the Angel.
So Gideon went inside and prepared a young goat, and matzot from an ephah of flour. He put the meat in a basket and put the broth in a pot. He brought it out to him [the Angel] beneath the elm, and presented it. The Angel of G-d said to him, "Take the meat and the matzot and place them on that rock, and pour out the broth [onto it]" -- and he did so. The Angel of HaShem stretched out the edge of the staff that was in his hand and touched the meat and the matzot. A flame went up from the rock and consumed the meat and the matzot. Then the Angel of HaShem left [from before] his eyes. Gideon realized that it had been an Angel of HaShem! Gideon said, "Alas, my Lord HaShem, because I have seen an Angel of HaShem face to face…!" HaShem said to him, "Peace to you. Do not be afraid; you will not die!" Gideon built an altar there to HaShem, and called it, "HaShem [is the source of] Peace." Until this day it is at Ofrah of the Abiezrite. (Judges 6:19-24)
The Angel does something quite strange here. He orders Gideon to place his offering to G-d on a rock, and to take the soup and spill it on the offering. The Sages explain that this allowed for an even greater miracle to take place, for not only did a fire arise and consume the offering, but it consumed the offering while it was drenched with liquid. While this was indeed a greater miracle, the explanation of the Sages discusses only what was accomplished, rather than why it was necessary. Surely, any magnitude of miracle ought to have sufficed to convince Gideon of God’s Power; and, consequently, fire arising out of a rock to consume an offering, wet or dry, should have been more than enough to satisfy Gideon. So the question remains: why did G-d feel it necessary to create the greater miracle? In my opinion, the answer is that G-d wished to chastise Gideon for his lack of practical faith in His Promise of Victory by performing a feat which even the skeptical Gideon would not be able to doubt. Indeed, we are informed that only after seeing this miracle did Gideon actually believe in G-d as a practical matter, having realized that he had actually been interacting with His Angel. Yet, HaShem goes a step further and promises Gideon: “Peace to you. Do not be afraid; you will not die!” This Declaration from G-d, in my opinion, carries a double message. The primary message is that G-d will protect Gideon from any who will try to harm him when he goes out to lead the Jewish People. The secondary message, however, hints at a more immediate fear Gideon had at that particular moment. Perhaps, after having realized that he had indeed argued with an Angel of G-d, Gideon truly and honestly feared for his life. Thus, his declaration: “Alas, my Lord HaShem, because I have seen an Angel of HaShem face to face...!” might have been one of fear rather than of wonder. G-d, therefore, reassured him that there was no reason to fear; on the contrary, G-d was bestowing upon him His Promise of Protection.
One last issue arises: Since Gideon had been talking directly with G-d Himself prior to preparing the tribute, why would Gideon be overawed and/or afraid from having dealt with His Angel -- a subordinate (albeit magnificent) being? In my opinion, the answer is that Gideon did not know that the rebutting Voice belonged to G-d, because G-d did not overtly display His Presence to Gideon. Instead, G-d spoke to Gideon through the guise of the Angel, and skeptical Gideon initially believed that the Angel was nothing more than a man advocating a foolhardy rebellion against Midian. Although Gideon belatedly realized that the man was, in fact, an Angel, he did not know that the Voice that had emanated from the Angel prior to his preparation of the tribute was G-d’s Voice. Had he known that, he would surely have exclaimed his shame and fear over having spoken to G-d Himself with such skepticism.
At this point, Gideon builds an altar as an open display of his devotion to G-d. As will be seen shortly, G-d, however, decides to test Gideon’s new-found practical faith. Why does G-d need to test Gideon now that he has practical faith? The answer can be found in the manner in which Gideon gained his practical faith. G-d will test Gideon much the same way that Gideon tested G-d -- via midah k’neged midah (measure for measure). G-d’s Word was not enough for Gideon; instead a practical demonstration was required to convince him. So too, Gideon’s word (i.e., his newfound practical faith) is not enough for G-d, and instead a practical demonstration is required. In addition, G-d never challenges a person with a temptation he is unable to overcome, as we learn from G-d’s discussion with Cain following His Rejection of Cain’s offering and His Acceptance of his brother Abel’s offering: "And HaShem said to Cain, ‘Why are you annoyed, and why has your countenance fallen? Surely, if you improve yourself, you will be forgiven. But if you do not improve yourself, Sin rests at the door. Its desire is toward you, yet you can conquer it.’" (Genesis 4:6-7). Thus, despite Gideon’s practical faith at this juncture, G-d desired to test him, and in so doing, to strengthen him in preparation for the leadership role that he would soon undertake.
FIRST TEST OF FAITH -- DEFYING HIS OWN PEOPLE
It happened that night that HaShem said to him, "Take the young bull that belongs to your father and the second bull, which is seven years old, and break apart the altar of the Baal that belongs to your father, and cut down the Asherah-tree that is near it. Then build an altar for HaShem, your G-d, atop the strong rock, on a level place. Take the second bull and offer it up as an elevation-offering, using the wood of the Asherah-tree that you will cut down." Gideon took ten men from among his servants, and did as HaShem spoke to him; but since he was afraid to do it by day, because of his father’s household and the people of his City, he did it at night. The people of the City arose early in the morning; and, behold, the altar of the Baal had been broken and the Asherah-tree that was near it had been cut down, and the second bull had been offered up on the newly built altar! Each man said to his fellow, "Who did this thing?" They searched and sought, and they said, "Gideon, son of Yoash did this thing!" The men of the City then said to Yoash, "Bring out your son and he shall die, because he has broken the altar of Baal and because he has cut down the Asherah-tree that was near it." Yoash said to all who were standing near him, "Will you take up the Baal’s grievance? Will you save it [the Baal]? Whoever aggrieved it [the Baal] should die by morning; [because] if it [the Baal] is a god, it will take up its grievance against him, for breaking its altar." On that day he [Yoash] renamed him [Gideon] Jerubaal, saying, "Let the Baal take up the grievance against him [Gideon] for breaking its altar." (Judges 6:25-32)
Upon receiving, for the fourth time, a Promise of Divine Protection, Gideon is commanded by G-d to commit public suicide -- by destroying the altar of Baal and the cultic Asherah tree that are in the Jewish, but idolatrous, City of Ofrah and by building, in their place, an altar to HaShem in the midst of the City, upon which Gideon will slaughter his father’s seven-year-old bull as an offering to HaShem. Why is Gideon instructed to kill the seven-year-old bull, but not the young bull? In my opinion, the answer is as follows: The destruction of the seven-year-old bull is intended to symbolize the impending destruction of Midian’s seven-year domination over Israel, while the salvation of the young bull is intended to symbolize the salvation of and a new beginning for the Children of Israel. Nonetheless, this was a daunting task, with much risk involved. In fact, the person who does these things would seemingly need a miracle to survive the predictable adverse public reaction.
The first question which arises is the following: Why does G-d instruct Gideon to purposely endanger his own life, essentially forcing Gideon to become entangled in a situation where he must seemingly rely upon a miracle for salvation? Is there no other test which G-d can use to measure Gideon’s practical faith? The answer is a resounding No. Only in situations where there is no choice but to rely on G-d, and G-d alone, can true, practical faith be measured. However, relying upon G-d is not the same thing as relying upon a miracle. On the contrary, they are the antithesis of each other. The term “relying upon a miracle” would describe the situation in which Gideon, having only theoretical faith in G-d, refrained from acting at all and, instead, merely waited for G-d Himself to destroy the offending altar and to raise in its place an altar of His Own. Such a miracle would have rendered Gideon’s heretofore dangerous task completely unnecessary. Clearly, G-d does not want Gideon to rely upon a miracle. Rather, G-d -- seeking to test whether Gideon actually has practical (in addition to theoretical) faith in Him -- wants Gideon to actually rely upon Him, and only upon Him. What does this mean? It means that G-d expects Gideon to perform his assigned task without delay, while having faith and trust in Him that He will do His Part at the appropriate time and place according to His Plan. Here G-d is teaching Gideon an important lesson. As a leader of the Jewish people, Gideon must first perform the necessary but dangerous tasks, thereby creating Kiddush HaShem, and only then expect Divine Assistance. By this point, Gideon has received several clear and direct reiterations of G-d’s Promise of Divine Protection. Consequently, he has nothing to fear; for, no harm can come to him. Therefore, this test of Gideon’s newfound practical faith in G-d should be, in reality, no test at all; for if Gideon truly has faith in G-d’s Promise of Protection, then there is no real danger to his life in fulfilling G-d’s Command to destroy the Baal’s altar and to replace it with G-d’s altar.
The second question which arises is equally important. Why does G-d command Gideon to build an altar to Him, when Gideon has already built an altar to Him (see Judges 6:24)? Logic dictates that, apparently, the altar Gideon had already built did not fit G-d’s Requirements. G-d demands that His Name be proclaimed publicly, and thereby be sanctified among all the people; and so He commanded Gideon to build for Him an altar which would accomplish this task, as it was to be constructed in the midst of the idolatrous City of Ofrah. What then of the first altar? It would seem that Gideon, despite his proclamation of practical faith in G-d, nevertheless built his altar in a place away from the public eye, so as not to attract attention, and thereby endanger himself, from the idol-worshipping citizens of Ofrah. Accordingly, being well aware of Gideon’s fears, G-d decided to test whether Gideon’s faith in Him was greater than his fear of Man in order to create a Kiddush HaShem first among the people of the City and then among all Israel. Moreover, it is clear that Gideon would not be ready to confront Midian until he was first ready to confront -- and lead -- his own people. Gideon feared building an altar near his idol-worshipping neighbors. So, measure-for-measure, G-d commanded him to build an altar in the midst of the very City he feared, thereby providing Gideon with an opportunity to conquer his fear of Man. Unfortunately, Gideon failed this first test. Gideon’s evident fear of his own people is established by the manner in which he fulfills G-d's Command: “But since he was afraid to do it by day, because of his father’s household and the people of his City, he did it at night.” Consequently, Gideon’s delayed compliance and secretive conduct reflected adversely on the City’s recognition and awe of the G-d of Israel. For, if Gideon had immediately and publicly destroyed the altar of Baal and the Asherah-tree in the Name of the G-d of Israel during the brightness of the day, then a majestic Kiddush HaShem would have been created, because the sinful people of the City would have recognized that Gideon was fearlessly acting in the Name of the True G-d, in the manner of Phineas (see Num. 25:1-15); and, seeing this, the people of the City would have been ashamed of their past infidelity and they would have immediately returned to their Master. However, by shunning this course of conduct, Gideon displayed, not his obvious faith in the G-d of Israel, but rather his obvious fear of the people of the City. This is because destroying the shrines at night was not a product of strategy; it was a product of fear. And lest one wishes to argue, despite the verse’s clear declaration of Gideon’s fear, that completing the mission at night was nonetheless satisfactory to G-d, one must recall the purpose of Gideon’s mission. G-d’s motives are clear and simple. He wishes to test Gideon’s newfound practical faith, and to create a Kiddush HaShem among the people of the City. Gideon did indeed complete the physical portion of his mission; he did indeed create a limited Kiddush HaShem, in that he succeeded in destroying the idolatrous shrines and in building a new one to G-d in their place. Yet, this did not cause the people of the City to return to G-d; instead, they sought revenge against Gideon. Consequently, Gideon failed to complete the spiritual portion of his mission. This is why Gideon’s conduct reflected adversely on the City’s recognition of the G-d of Israel.
Despite the dilution of authentic Jewish morality in modern Judaism, we must not forget G-d’s View on this matter, a View which is as eternal as is G-d Himself. A Jewish leader must have neither regard nor respect for false gods and religions. A Jewish leader must act with wanton disregard for the “feelings” of his nation’s enemies. And a Jewish leader is certainly not disturbed by the embarrassment of his enemies. Let us not forget David’s eternal words to Goliath:
David spoke to the men standing with him, saying, “What will be done for the man who slays this Philistine and removes disgrace from Israel? For who is this uncircumcised Philistine, that he disgraces the battalions of the Living G-d?” ... David said to the Philistine, “You come to me with a sword, a spear, and a javelin -- but I come to you with the Name of HaShem, Master of Legions, the G-d of the battalions of Israel that you have ridiculed. On this day HaShem will deliver you into my hand. I shall smite you and I will remove your head from upon you; and I shall offer the carcass of the Philistine camp this day to the fowl of the Heavens and to the beasts of the Earth! Then the whole Earth will know that there is a G-d in Israel.” (I Samuel 17:26, 45-46).
By accomplishing his mission at night, Gideon feared to treat the Baal and Asherah, and the inhabitants of Ofrah, as they deserved to be treated -- with open contempt. Gideon did not trust in G-d’s Promise of Protection to its fullest, another grave failure on his part. And if one wishes to argue that we are forbidden to place ourselves in a dangerous situation if it is unnecessary, and that Gideon simply attempted to reduce the danger that inhered in the mission while still completing the mission itself, then an important lesson may be learned here. It is true, as a general rule, that we are commanded to avoid dangerous situations at all costs and to never to place ourselves in such situations needlessly. However, when G-d Himself commands a person to embark on an inherently dangerous mission, this general rule clearly does not apply. G-d’s Purpose here, as stated above, specifically related to the intrinsic danger of the mission. Unfortunately, Gideon’s fear of Man destroyed his opportunity to create an unqualified Kiddush HaShem.
Before this drama has finished, however, another serious question arises. To where does Gideon disappear after he has completed his mission? When the inhabitants of Ofrah search for Gideon in order to murder him for desecrating their idolatrous shrines, where is Gideon to proclaim that the Justice of the One True G-d has been done? Even a belated public appearance by Gideon before the people of the City to explain the purpose of his mission might well have compensated for the method by which he conducted the mission, thereby creating a great -- albeit delayed -- Kiddush HaShem among the people. Yet Gideon is nowhere to be found. On account of his fear of Man, Gideon once again misses an opportunity to properly sanctify G-d’s Name. And, without his presence and public proclamation in the Name of G-d, the Kiddush HaShem created by his mission remains limited. Instead, Gideon’s father, Yoash, himself a (former) worshipper of the Baal (see Judges 6:25), is forced to defend his son’s actions and highlight the absurdity of a mortal man being able to “destroy” a god and other mortal men being tasked with avenging a god who is unable to avenge himself. Gideon should have said these words and more, yet fearing the reaction of Ofrah to his actions, Gideon failed to seize the opportunity. He thereby demonstrated a weakness which might well be interpreted as G-d’s Weakness -- a clear Chillul HaShem which arguably negated the limited Kiddush HaShem created by Gideon’s “successful” mission.
Another interesting footnote to this particular episode is the true financial and social status of Gideon’s family. While arguing with G-d, Gideon, in an attempt to shy away from the unwanted responsibility being thrust upon him, stated that his family is from the poorest segment of the tribe of Menashe. But this representation was certainly false. For, G-d commands Gideon to take his father’s cattle, and to destroy his father's shrines. Then, Gideon chooses 10 men from among his servants to accompany him on his night mission. Clearly, poor families don’t have livestock, shrines and servants. Gideon is further commanded to build his altar to G-d in place of his father's shrines. As discussed above, G-d desired an altar built in a public place to sanctify His Name. Clearly, Yoash’s shrines were in a location significant enough to fulfill G-d’s Requirement of a prominent location for His Altar. More than that, when the townspeople sought to murder Gideon, Yoash chastised them, eventually convincing them to leave the matter alone. It is quite clear that Yoash was not the penniless, social outcast portrayed by Gideon. His father was wealthy enough to own cattle and an altar, one which was in a prominent location, and he was sufficiently respected to convince an enraged and irrational mob to disband. Why would Gideon attempt to deceive Omniscient G-d, especially given the absurdity of attempting to lie to Him? It seems that Gideon was searching for excuses in a panic, and that he said whatever he thought might cause G-d to leave him in peace. Once more though, G-d uses the tool of midah k’neged midah (measure for measure) to discipline Gideon. Gideon claims his family is one of poverty, and not respected in the tribe of Menashe. In response, G-d commands him to destroy his father’s “nonexistent” idols, and to remove his father’s “nonexistent” cattle. And, as a result of Gideon’s lack of practical faith in G-d, G-d caused Gideon’s salvation from the City’s wrath to come, not directly from Him (which would have Divinely vindicated Gideon’s actions and revealed him to be G-d’s Anointed) but rather from Yoash -- Gideon’s idol-worshipping father. This created a situation in which, midah k’neged midah (measure for measure), G-d caused Gideon to be denied public recognition of his true status among the people of Ofrah, just as Gideon had caused G-d to be denied public recognition of His True Status among the people of Ofrah.
Finally, it is pointed out that, as a result of his failure to effect an unqualified Kiddush HaShem among the people of the City, Gideon receives a new name, Jerubaal (created from Yoash’s statement: “let Baal take up …”), which associates him only with the destruction of the Baal idol (i.e., the physical portion of his mission), rather than with the sanctification of G-d’s Name (i.e., the spiritual portion of his mission).
GIDEON’S REQUEST FOR MORE SIGNS
of Midian, Amalek, and
B’nai Kedem gathered together. They crossed [to
the western bank of the Jordan River] and encamped in the Valley of Jezreel. The Spirit of HaShem
clothed Gideon. He blew the shofar, and [the family of] Abiezer was mustered after him. He sent messengers
throughout Manasseh, and it, too, was mustered after him. He sent
messengers to Asher, Zebulon, and Naphtali, and they ascended to confront them
[the forces of Midian, Amalek,
and B’nai Kedem].
Gideon said to G-d, "If You wish to save
Directly following the aforementioned events, we are informed that Midian, Amalek, and the B’nai Kedem have gathered together to attack the Children of Israel. Immediately, the Spirit of G-d envelops Gideon, and he gathers an army from the Hebrew tribes of Manasseh, Asher, Zevulun, and Naftali. Several questions arise here: Why does G-d need to “envelop” Gideon with His Spirit? Hasn’t Gideon seen G-d’s Power? Doesn’t he believe fully in G-d? After all, no harm came to him as a result of his actions in Ofrah. What is the purpose and nature of this Spirit of G-d?
G-d had previously informed Gideon of his primary mission: to save the Children of Israel from Midian. This is no secret to Gideon; yet he clearly takes no action to accomplish this all-important mission, and to thereby alleviate the suffering of his people. Once again, Gideon's leadership falters. Because Gideon clearly has no intention of acting unless he is forced to do so, G-d causes the armies of Midian as well as those of Amalek and B’nai Kedem to march against the Children of Israel. Yet, still Gideon does nothing. Only after he is “clothed” by the Spirit of G-d does Gideon finally act, calling together a Jewish army to combat the enemy forces. Gideon is reluctantly stepping into the role of Jewish leadership, at every juncture being pushed along by G-d. He is clearly not perfect, yet he is nevertheless chosen by G-d to lead his generation out of subjugation. He obviously has the potential, but his shortcomings lie in his inability to practically trust in G-d. As a result of this, G-d chooses to strengthen Gideon every step of the way, both with verbal Promises of Divine Protection and with the metaphysical action of “possessing” him with His Spirit -- not to deprive him of his free will, but rather to give him the strength to actually trust in G-d despite the impending danger from the invading Gentile armies. Much as G-d hardened Pharoah’s heart in Egypt in preparation for Egypt’s grand destruction and the consequent Sanctification of G-d’s Name, G-d strengthens Gideon’s heart in preparation for his role in Israel’s imminent redemption from Midian’s oppression and in the Kiddush HaShem that will follow. Gideon, however, consistently rebels against the destiny G-d has set for him. At every turn, G-d strengthens Gideon, yet Gideon responds by requesting yet another Sign and yet another Proof that G-d is both able and willing to keep His Word.
Despite being possessed by the Spirit of G-d, and taking the first step of gathering an army to defend against Midian and its allies, Gideon wavers. True, in response to the Gentile armies encamping in the Jezreel Valley, he did assemble an army from several tribes. However, there is no mention of preparation for war, nor is there any mention of troop movements, save for the initial gathering together of the Jewish army. Gideon had assembled an army, but he was not yet ready to engage in battle against Israel’s enemies. Despite the Promise of Divine Protection, despite the Spirit of G-d now enveloping him, despite the earlier Sign of the meat and fire presented to him by the Angel, despite his survival in the aftermath of his mission at Ofrah, Gideon is afraid. He understands, in theory, that G-d has the Power to crush the multi-nation army arrayed against him, and he has theoretical faith in G-d’s Promises. However, Gideon looks at the past seven years of Midianite oppression, and asks himself, as he had previously asked the Angel of G-d: I beg you, my lord, if HaShem is with us, why has all this happened to us? And where are all His Wonders of which our forefathers told us, saying, "Behold, HaShem brought us up from Egypt?" For now HaShem has deserted us, and He has delivered us into the grip of Midian. True, in the Past, G-d did many great wonders and miracles for the Children of Israel, but that was Then, and this is Now. For seven long years Midian has ruled over Israel; why should tomorrow be any different? If G-d could have ended the oppression at any time, why should tomorrow be the day? And if G-d is not able to end the oppression at any time, then there is no point in marching out to meet Midian on the battlefield. Furthermore, Gideon certainly knows the odds he is facing, namely, a Jewish army of 32,000 soldiers (see Judges 7:3), certainly not trained in the arts of war for at least the last seven years, facing a seasoned Midianite-Amalekite-B’nai Kedem army of 135,000 strong (see Judges 8:10). To Gideon, this disparity is clearly shocking. This, however, is the inevitable result of his theoretical-only faith in G-d. Combined with Gideon’s aforementioned “logic” and his general fear of Man, this numerical disadvantage would be enough to overwhelm anyone, except a Jewish leader who fears only G-d. "Some with chariots, and some with horses, but we, in the Name of the L-rd our G-d, call out." (Psalms 20:8). This is the level of devotion G-d expects of an authentic Jewish leader, and nothing less.
Whereas Gideon lacked full
commitment to G-d at this point, the Children of Israel did not. 32,000
Jewish souls took up Gideon’s call to arms, prepared to fight for G-d and
Therefore, despite these 32,000 men coming in the Name of the G-d of Israel to fight for their country, for their Torah, and for their people, they receive no support from Gideon, neither blessing nor pronouncement of the victory that G-d will bring to them. Rather, they witness Gideon asking, nay begging, G-d for two specific Signs to validate His Promise to save the Jewish People. This is not true Jewish leadership, nor is it Kiddush HaShem (Sanctification of G-d’s Name). Were G-d’s prior Promises inadequate for Gideon? Did they expire? What of G-d’s Declaration: “Peace to you. Do not be afraid; you will not die.”? What of the Angel’s Declaration that G-d is sending Gideon to save the Jewish People from Midian? Gideon needs no Sign; yet he asks not only for one, but for two. Whereas the people came of their own free will to fight for G-d, Gideon must be convinced to take action, despite all of the Divine Promises of Protection he has already received. And, in asking for these two Signs, Gideon creates an enormous Chillul HaShem (Desecration of G-d’s Name). Whereas the earlier Sign he asked of G-d was displayed in a private setting, these later Signs are displayed in front of the entire nation of Israel; for even those who were not present would certainly hear of it eventually. Who is Man to demand proof from the Almighty? Even Gideon’s manner of requesting the second additional Sign betrays his understanding of how wrong it is: “Let not Your Wrath flare against me…” Yet Gideon does just this, and worse. Asking for a specific type of Sign is arrogant enough. However, a skeptical Gideon asks for just that, and then for its converse, so that he can be sure that the essence of the Sign (i.e., the manipulation of dew) is dictated by G-d rather than the vagaries of Nature.
AN ARMY TOO LARGE
who is Gideon, arose early with all the people who were with him and they
encamped near Ein-Charod; the camp of Midian was to his north, from the hill of Moreh, in the valley. HaShem
said to Gideon, “The people that are with you are too numerous for Me to
deliver Midian into their hand, lest
At this point, Gideon finally seems prepared to go to battle, despite the quantitative military deficit he is facing (135,000 to 32,000), because he truly does believe G-d will fight for the Jewish People. The Signs of the fleece and dew had given Gideon the faith in Victory that he had been lacking thus far. Gideon took the first major step towards war by maneuvering his army near the army of Midian. G-d, however, desired to test Gideon once more. True, Gideon at this point clearly believed in G-d’s Promise and Ability to fight for the Jewish People, and he now demonstrated practical faith, as evidenced by action. Yet, Gideon also had a “cushion” in the nature of an army consisting of 32,000 men. Granted, the odds were still strongly in Midian’s favor, but 32,000 men is no small force, and it is not unheard of for a considerably smaller army to defeat a larger one. The odds of victory are not necessarily comforting, but they exist. G-d, seemingly quite suddenly, decides that the army Gideon has amassed is too large, for victory might be attributed to Jewish force rather than to G-d’s Hand. This seems like an “illogical” assessment by G-d for a number of reasons. Firstly, the Jewish People had been persecuted by Midian for the past seven years, and no immediate end to this persecution was in sight. Consequently, a sudden victory over Midian after this long period of subjugation would most likely be attributed to Omnipotent G-d. Secondly, the Jews are clearly quantitatively outnumbered by a qualitatively superior army; again such a victory would most likely be attributed to G-d’s Intervention, not to the Jewish People’s purported strength. Thirdly, and decisively, G-d promised the Jewish people a victory, and gave two clear, public Miracles in support of this Promise. Therefore, a victory would most likely be attributed to G-d. More than that, G-d did not seem to have any issue, up until this point, with the size of Gideon’s force. In fact, he allowed them to maneuver to within striking distance of Midian before objecting to their “large” number. The question is: WHY? The answer can be found in the precise language which G-d uses in speaking to Gideon.
G-d expresses His Desire to prevent a situation in which: “Israel aggrandize itself over Me, saying, ‘My own strength has saved me!’”. G-d is attempting to teach Gideon an important lesson. The victory over Midian must recognized by Israel (and by Midian) as being G-d’s Victory, and His Victory alone, for the simple reason that this victory is a means to an end for returning the Jewish nation to fear of, and service to, G-d. Therefore, there must be no doubt whatsoever as to the Divine Nature of the impending Jewish victory over Midian.
G-d commands Gideon to release from service all those who are afraid in accordance with the Torah’s Laws of War (see Deut. 20:8); and, as a result, 22,000 men leave, with 10,000 choosing to remain. This Decision by G-d serves a number of purposes. Firstly, as stated in the Torah, fear is a dangerous enemy for an army to confront. One soldier’s fear can easily infect hundreds of other soldiers. By releasing those who are afraid, G-d thereby removes a potential liability from the Jewish army.
Before discussing the next purpose
served, a question must be posed. 32,000 men answered Gideon’s call to
arms, knowing full well the enemy and the odds that they were about to face.
Clearly, as discussed above, they feared the G-d of
It may be argued that perhaps their closer proximity to the Midianite army is the root cause of their sudden fear, but again, these men knew what they were marching towards. It is completely illogical that, after volunteering for Gideon’s army, and then seeing the tangible evidence produced by the two public Signs of G-d’s Power, these men would suddenly be afraid. G-d, however, is teaching Gideon another vital lesson. “Many designs are in Man’s heart, but the Counsel of HaShem -- only it will prevail.” (Proverbs 19:21). Although Gideon had undoubtedly determined that that these miraculous Signs had strengthened his odds of Victory over Midian, measure for measure, in response to that erroneous conclusion, G-d thereupon (seemingly) weakened those odds. For, suddenly, two thirds of Gideon’s army is fearful of the Midianites, and G-d commands their release from service. As mentioned above, this served a number of purposes. The first, as discussed, is that fear is a dangerous element, and by releasing those who are afraid, the danger posed by fear is removed. The second reason is that, despite G-d’s desire to chasten Gideon (rather than members of the Jewish army) for his faithless demand for Proof of G-d’s Faithfulness to His Own Promise by allowing fear to invade the Jewish army, any Jew who thereafter succumbs to that fear is surely not worthy to fight in an army of G-d. G-d desired an army of men who believed in Him; and those who now feared Midian, despite it being G-d’s desire that fear be introduced into the Jewish army, were nonetheless making a personal choice to fear Midian more than they feared G-d, a choice which made them unfit to fight in this battle. The third and final reason, as discussed above, is G-d’s desire to test Gideon’s faith. The Signs demonstrating G-d’s Power and the security provided by a large army are not benefits that are truly necessary for an authentic Jewish leader to enjoy; yet up until this point, Gideon has enjoyed them. If Gideon has true faith in G-d, then his faith and trust in G-d will be unaffected by this reduction in his armed forces. As King Hezekiah will later comfort the remainder of the Children of Israel who are under siege in Jerusalem by King Sennacherib of Assyria during the First Temple Period: “Be strong and courageous, be not afraid nor be dismayed of the King of Assyria or of all the multitude that is with him. With him is an army of flesh, but with us is the Lord our G-d to help us and to fight our battles.” (II Chronicles 32:7-8). Whether Gideon has 32,000 men or 10,000 men is irrelevant, as true faith in G-d dictates that quantity is irrelevant. G-d promised Victory; and paucity in numbers will have no effect on that.
AN ARMY STILL TOO LARGE
Then HaShem said to Gideon, “The people are still too numerous; bring them down to the water and I shall purge them for you there. And it shall be, that of whomever I say to you, ‘This one shall go with you,’ he shall go with you, and of whomever I say to you, ‘This one shall not go with you,’ he shall not go.” He brought the people down to the water, and HaShem said to Gideon, “Everyone who laps from the water with his tongue as a dog laps, stand him apart, and [so, too], everyone who kneels on his knees to drink.” It happened that the number of those who lapped with their hands to their mouth were 300 men, and all the rest of the people knelt on their knees to drink water. HaShem said to Gideon, “Through the 300 men who lap shall I save you, and I shall deliver Midian into your hand -- and let all the [other] people leave, each to his place.” And they took the provisions of the [other] people in their hands, as well as their shofars. And as for all the [other] men of Israel, he sent them each to his home, and he kept the 300 men. The camp of Midian was below him, in the valley. (Judges 7:4-8)
After commanding the release of 22,000 men, G-d immediately informs Gideon, once again, that the army with him is too large. G-d dictates to Gideon the test He desires for the remaining men, telling Gideon that He will choose who will go out to battle and who will not. In the end, G-d chooses the group of 300 men who drank the water by lapping it up like a dog, instead of the 9,700 men who knelt on their knees to drink. G-d then proceeds to give Gideon yet another Promise of Victory, proclaiming that specifically through these 300 men will G-d grant Gideon victory. The question must be asked: Why does G-d reduce the Jewish army twice? Why not lessen the army all at once from 32,000 men to 300 men? The answer, I believe, lies once again in G-d’s desire to test Gideon’s faith, but also to chastise him measure for measure. For, Gideon had requested two additional Signs from G-d before even maneuvering his army near the battlefield. One Sign was not enough for Gideon; rather two were required. Just as Gideon tested G-d’s Faithfulness to His Own Promise twice by means of the fleece and dew, so too -- mida kneged mida (measure for measure) -- G-d tests Gideon’s faith in Him twice by means of the Jewish army. The conjecture can be made that if Gideon had had true faith in G-d at the outset, and had he, instead of requesting Signs from G-d in front of the entire army, instead proclaimed the imminent and momentous victory that G-d would grant to His People, then perhaps G-d would have had no reason to test Gideon in this way. Perhaps G-d would have allowed Gideon to take the army of 32,000 men and wage war against Midian. Gideon’s failure to create Kiddush HaShem, and in its place, his creation of a Chillul HaShem, required G-d to take action and place Gideon in a situation in which he would be forced to create a Kiddush HaShem -- against his better judgment if necessary. When a Jewish leader misses an opportunity to create Kiddush HaShem, the direct result is the creation of Chillul HaShem. Thus, in order to erase this newly-created Chillul HaShem, G-d reduced Gideon’s army to the point where the creation of Kiddush HaShem would be inevitable. And after this second reduction, G-d -- understanding that Gideon needed to be strengthened in anticipation of his returning fears -- promised once again to grant him Victory, specifically with the incredibly small force that G-d had handpicked.
FINAL TEST BEFORE BATTLE
It happened that night that HaShem said to him, “Arise [for the attack] and descend [with your army] into the camp, for I have delivered it into your hand. But if you are afraid to descend [with your army], go down to the camp, you and Purah, your attendant. Listen to what they will speak; then your hands will be strengthened, and you will descend [with your army] into the camp.” So he descended with Purah, his attendant, to the edge of the armed troops in the camp. Midian, Amalek, and all B’nai Kedem were encamping in the valley, as numerous as a locust-swarm; and their camels were countless, as numerous as the sand at the seashore. Gideon arrived, and -- behold -- a man was relating a dream to his fellow, and said, “Behold, I dreamt a dream. Behold, a roasted barley bread was rolling in the Midianite camp. It came to the tent and struck it, and it fell; it turned it upside down, and the tent fell.” His fellow answered and said, “This is none other than the sword of Gideon, son of Yoash, the man of Israel; G-d has delivered Midian and the entire camp into his hand!” It happened that when Gideon heard the recounting of the dream and its interpretation, he prostrated himself. He returned to the camp of Israel and said, “Rise up, for HaShem has delivered the camp of Midian into your hand!” (Judges 7:9-15)
Following the aforementioned promise of victory, G-d came to Gideon that very same night, commanding him to take his army into the valley and battle Midian. However, in a concession to Gideon’s weakness of faith, G-d also gives Gideon an alternative option. If Gideon is fearful, if he still lacks full and complete faith in the G-d of Israel and His Promises of Protection and Victory, then he can sneak into the Midianite camp under cover of darkness, and upon hearing what the men in the camp say, his faith in G-d will be strengthened, and he will be ready to do battle. Such is the alternative option that G-d presents to Gideon. The question surely is: WHY? G-d has never before given Gideon an alternative option. He has always given Gideon reason to believe fully and then required that Gideon act. Each time though, Gideon has failed to meet the expectations that G-d has set for him, the consequences of which had adversely affected the faith of the Jewish people, first that of the people of Ofrah and then, through infectious fear, that of the bulk of the initial Jewish army. Now, with a mere 300 faithful Jews remaining in the army, G-d seemingly decides not to force Gideon into a corner, to either act publicly on his faith or to doubt it publicly, as the stakes are too high. Clearly Gideon still has fears, as evidenced by his secretive nighttime descent into the Midianite camp -- reminiscent of his secretive nighttime descent into the midst of Ofrah. Had he possessed true, practical faith in G-d, then he would have told G-d that there was no need for him to descend into the Midianite camp, instead yelling out a cry of battle in the name of the G-d of Israel and leading the Israelites into battle. However, had G-d not allowed Gideon this alternative, then perhaps Gideon would have once more showed a public lack of faith in G-d and His Promise of Victory. Yet another public failure of faith of this magnitude would have devastated the small remnant of the Jewish army. Consequently, G-d allowed Gideon a private outlet to deal with his lack of faith, where the Jewish People would not be witnesses and would therefore not be affected by Gideon’s fear of Man. G-d once again is allowing Gideon to take baby-steps toward faith in Him and true leadership of the Jewish people. Thus, despite the fact that Gideon once again displays a lack of faith, the ramifications are much less severe than in previous instances.
As a side note, Scripture also describes the multi-nation army as being “as numerous as a locust-swarm; and their camels were countless, as numerous as the sand at the seashore.” (Judges 7:12). Whether this is merely the way Gideon perceives the multi-nation army as a result of his fear of Man, or whether this is an actual description of an army that is, after all, 135,000 strong, is irrelevant. Scripture is highlighting the irony of the situation. Gideon obviously still has his doubts as to G-d’s Ability to defeat Midian. Why would secretly infiltrating this army during the night cause Gideon to have a sudden revelation and finally to trust completely in G-d? If anything, Gideon will get a closer look at an army that seemingly has no end, and that should cause him to doubt G-d’s Promise of Victory even more. Yet, G-d nevertheless commands Gideon to descend towards the Midianite army, and Gideon does indeed descend, miraculously undetected by the soldiers guarding the army’s periphery against attack.
Upon arriving at the Midianite encampment, Gideon overhears a soldier relating a dream to another soldier, who interprets the dreams for him, declaring that it must mean that Gideon, “the man of Israel” (Judges 7:14), will lead the Jewish people to victory over Midian in the Name of G-d. Immediately, Gideon is infused with full, complete, practical faith in G-d and His Promise of Victory. Why did this soldier’s dream and obvious fear of G-d and Gideon finally give Gideon the faith that he so sorely lacked despite everything G-d had already promised and showed to him? Perhaps the reason is that all of G-d’s prior Miracles involved either domination over the forces of Nature (e.g., the consumption of the drenched tribute by fire and the serial placement of the dew) or a command for Gideon to act against passive objects (e.g., the Baal altar and the Asherah-tree). Yet this is the first time that G-d is pitting Gideon against a flesh-and-blood enemy. Gideon clearly understands that G-d has mastery over Nature and passive objects. However, he may very well doubt G-d’s Ability to control entire nations. When Gideon discovers, however, that G-d has actually manipulated this soldier’s dream and his friend’s interpretation of it, he realizes that G-d indeed controls Everything, and this was the final push Gideon needed to move past his doubts and fears, and to fully embrace the faith that G-d requires of His Agents. By allowing Gideon to overhear a Midianite dream portending the imminent Israelite victory, G-d is once again proving to Gideon that He is an Active G-d, essentially answering Gideon's initial question to the Angel: “…if HaShem is with us, why has all this happened to us? And where are all His Wonders of which our forefathers told us…” By showing Gideon that He controls even the dreams of the enemy army, G-d resoundingly answers Gideon's first doubting question. Sadly, Gideon’s complete faith was created by overhearing his human adversary’s conversation rather by simply trusting in the initial Command and Promise of G-d: “Arise [for the attack] and descend [with your army] into the camp, for I have delivered it into your hand.”
Nevertheless, Gideon instantly
returns to the Jewish camp, and commands them to rise up and do battle, “for
HaShem has delivered the camp of Midian
into your hand.” (Judges 7:15). This is the battle cry Gideon should
have declared from the outset; and now that he has been permeated with true
faith in G-d, he wastes no time in proclaiming the imminent Jewish victory over
Midian. A few
small, yet interesting, nuances should be noted here. Firstly, when the
interpretation of the dream is given, Gideon is referred to as “Gideon, son of Yoash”, which has not happened since the incident in Ofrah. I believe that Yoash
is mentioned here to give him honor for redeeming his son and himself by
confronting the idol-worshipping inhabitants of his City in order to defend his
son who had acted justly and in G-d’s Name.
Secondly, the reference to Gideon as “the man of
STRATEGY AND BATTLE
He divided the 300 men into three companies. Into the hand of them all he gave shofars and empty jugs, with torches inside the jugs. He said to them, “See my example and do the same. Behold, when I arrive at the edge of the camp, then as I do, so shall you do. I will sound the shofar -- I and all who are with me -- then you, too, shall sound shofars all around the entire camp, and you shall say, ‘For HaShem and for Gideon!’” Gideon and the 100 men with him arrived at the edge of the camp at the beginning of the middle watch, when they had just barely set up the guards. They sounded the shofars and broke the jugs that were in their hands. The three companies sounded the shofars and broke the jugs; in their left hand they grasped the torches and in their right hand the shofars to sound; and they called out, “The sword for HaShem and for Gideon!” Each of them stood in his place, all around the camp -- and the entire camp ran; they shouted and fled. They sounded the 300 shofars, and HaShem set each man’s sword against his fellow and throughout the entire camp. The camp fled as far as Beth-shittah, toward Zererah, as far as the border of Abel-meholah, near Tabbath. (7:16-22)
Once filled with practical faith in G-d, Gideon immediately prepares for battle, utilizing several key tactics relating to deployment, resources, and timing of attack. He divides his army into three companies of 100 men each, for his plan of action required the Jewish army to encircle the Midianite army. The separation of his army into three equal companies would ensure that the soldiers would be evenly distributed around the Midianites. He also gave each soldier shofars (i.e., rams’ horns), empty jugs, and torches to be put inside the jugs. His battle plan did not involve charging the Midianite army head on, but rather encircling them under cover of darkness and causing a sudden cacophony of noise that would terrorize the Midianites. Although Gideon realized that Israel’s salvation from Midian would be miraculous in nature, he nonetheless devised a plan of battle which employed all the resources at his disposal. Finally, he timed his army’s arrival and the execution of his plan at the start of the middle guard watch, when the guards who were being relieved were exhausted from lack of sleep, and the new guards at their posts had not yet awakened completely. These tactics and Gideon’s overall strategy do not display any lack of faith in G-d’s ability to defeat Midian. Rather, they show the way a Jewish leader and the Jewish people must cooperate with, and become partner to, G-d’s Plan. True, G-d promised Victory to Gideon, but Gideon is still required to use every resource at his mortal disposal to achieve that Victory. He, and we, cannot merely sit back and expect G-d to fight for us; rather we must descend into that valley, devise and implement a plan of attack despite the odds, and know that G-d will do His Part according to His Plan.
Another issue to be analyzed is the glaring contrast between Gideon’s attack upon Midian under cover of darkness and Gideon’s destruction of the Baal and Asherah shrines in Ofrah under cover of darkness. There, Scripture clearly criticizes Gideon’s decision to act during the night, attributing it to fear of detection by the residents of the City. Here, however, Gideon’s actions are not criticized. What is the difference between the two situations? While in both instances Gideon made a clear choice to attack under cover of darkness in order to avoid detection, his motives in each case must be examined in order to understand the fundamental difference between the two situations. In Ofrah, Gideon acted at night in order to avoid any confrontation with the residents of the City. He lacked practical faith in G-d’s Promise of Protection, and therefore feared that if the inhabitants saw him destroying the shrines, they would confront and then kill him. Consequently, by acting at night, he transformed what should have been a great Kiddush HaShem into a very limited Kiddush HaShem.
Here, however, Gideon does not choose to act at night in order to avoid confrontation. On the contrary, he uses the cover of darkness in order to initiate confrontation, and in a manner designed to cause Midian the greatest confusion, surprise, and fear. Whereas in Ofrah he had acted at night on (what he wrongly perceived to be) a personal mission in order to ensure his anonymity and safety, here he acts at night on (what he rightly perceives to be) a national mission in order to openly and fearlessly lead a tiny Jewish army in battle against a gigantic enemy force. As a result, he finally creates a great Kiddush HaShem.
When presenting his battle plan to his army, Gideon commands them “See my example and do the same. Behold, when I arrive at the edge of the camp, then as I do, so shall you do…and you shall say, ‘For HaShem and for Gideon!’” (Judges 7:17-18). This is the essence of true Jewish leadership. A Jewish leader must actually lead, not only spiritually -- a role which Gideon has finally embraced based upon renewed faith -- but also physically. When a leader tells his followers that, first, he will act and they shall merely follow his example, it removes enormous pressure from his followers. Gideon is leading by example, without even the slightest hesitation or doubt. This is how a Jewish leader must always act, and Gideon has finally embraced the role G-d has given him. (The phrase “See my example and do the same” is, in fact, the motto of the contemporary Israel Defense Forces Officers Training School, for it embodies the way a true Jewish leader must act and lead.)
At the end of the presentation of his battle plans, Gideon commands his soldiers to yell out “For HaShem and for Gideon”; and, indeed, Scripture relates that they yelled out “The sword for HaShem and for Gideon.” Once again, it may be asked: what is Gideon’s purpose in commanding them not only to yell out in G-d’s Name, but also to yell out his own name? Might Gideon be trying to add honor to his own name? Such an act would clearly lessen the Kiddush HaShem that G-d intended, for a Jewish leader is interested neither in personal power nor in fame, rather only in causing a Kiddush HaShem. While it is possible that Gideon faltered here, and wished to gain honor for himself by having his army yell out his own name alongside that of G-d’s, it is more likely that this was merely another tactic in Gideon’s overall strategy to cause the maximum shock possible to the Midianite army. When Gideon heard the dream’s interpretation it was clear that the Midianite army feared Gideon, the embodiment of the Jewish army, and the likelihood that G-d would give Midian into Gideon’s hand. By having the army yell out his own name alongside that of G-d’s, Gideon was incorporating Midian’s fear of him into his battle plans, effectively using psychological warfare against the Midianites. Upon hearing Gideon’s name in the Jewish battle cry, surely the first thought to come into Midian’s mind would be one of shock and fear that, indeed, that night’s dream of their destruction at the hands of Gideon, son of Yoash, is actually coming to fruition. At this point, Gideon is acting completely for the sake of Heaven, with no thought of personal gain whatsoever, and there is no reason to doubt his motives in this matter. Thus, while it is possible that Gideon’s motives for including his own name in the battle cry might be impure, I believe that in this case, his motives were completely pure and for the sake of creating a greater Victory, and hence a greater Kiddush HaShem.
At this point, the Jewish army is poised to unleash G-d’s Wrath on the Midianites, merely awaiting Gideon’s command to begin the battle cry. Yet I wish to pause one last time before moving onto the battle itself to point out something that might otherwise be overlooked. The critique of Gideon that I have given in this essay might cause some to wonder whether he is even worthy to lead the Jewish people. He consistently failed to rise to the occasion and show true faith in G-d, despite the numerous Promises of Protection and Victory from HaShem, and several open Miracles. However, looking back at our introduction to Gideon, we must remember the Angel’s initial Declaration to him: “HaShem is with you, O mighty hero!” (Judges 6:12). Clearly, Gideon is not perfect. However, the potential that G-d saw from the very beginning has finally been unleashed now that Gideon has finally embraced his leadership role and has finally acquired true, practical faith in G-d. He has learned from his failures; and at this point, poised on the brink of battle with Midian, Gideon has finally become the mighty hero and leader he was declared to be at the beginning of his long journey. The strategy and leadership employed in this one battle are traits that were within Gideon all along. He merely needed to understand how to unleash and channel them positively towards creating a Kiddush HaShem.
As discussed earlier, the concept of not relying on a miracle does not mandate inaction while one awaits the advent of a miracle. Rather it requires us to do as much as we can, and to trust that G-d will follow through with the rest. And indeed, Gideon utilized his army to its fullest, and G-d did indeed take care of the rest, causing the enemy soldiers to kill one another in confusion and to flee in fear.
CALLING UPON ADDITIONAL VOLUNTEERS FOR ASSISTANCE
And [additional] men of Israel were mustered from Naphtali and from Asher and from all of Manasseh, and they pursued Midian. Gideon sent messengers throughout Mount Ephraim, saying, “Come down toward Midian and secure the waterway to block them [from re-crossing to the eastern bank], until Beth-barah, and the Jordan [River].” All the men of Ephraim were mustered and they occupied the water until Beth-barah, and the Jordan [River]. (7:23-24)
Gideon thereupon rallied additional volunteers from the tribes of Naphtali, Asher and Manasseh to assist him and his 300-man army in chasing Midian to the Jordan River. He then called to the tribe of Ephraim to prevent Midian from retreating across the River. Note that the first three tribes had contributed to the initial Jewish army, while Ephraim had not contributed to the initial Jewish army. Further note that Gideon gave the first three tribes an offensive task, namely, driving Midian to the River, while he gave Ephraim a defensive task, namely blocking Midian from crossing the River.
Why did Gideon feel the need to solicit additional volunteers when G-d had promised him Victory at the outset and had, in fact, already allowed him to defeat Midian and its allies at the Valley of Jezreel with an army of only 300 men? Scripture is silent on this issue. However, it seems that, in his exuberance over the quick rout of Midian at the Valley of Jezreel, Gideon now thought only about making a quick end of Midian at the western bank of the Jordan River. In contemplating this speedy resolution, he did not fully comprehend the adverse consequences of trying to “enhance” G-d’s Promise of Victory. He apparently believed that, by utilizing additional men only from the tribal contributors to the G-d-approved army for the offensive task, while utilizing men from the non-contributing tribe for the defensive task, he would not incur G-d’s Wrath for making changes to the Jewish military forces in order to hasten the Victory over Midian. But, in doing so, he inappropriately substituted his judgment for G-d’s Judgment.
Although the tribe of Zebulon had been one of the four tribes solicited by Gideon to be part of the initial Jewish army of 32,000, that tribe -- alone among the four original tribal contributors -- was not called upon by Gideon to supply additional volunteers to assist him in implementing the offensive task. Why? Again, Scripture is silent on this issue. However, it is possible that, in reducing the Jewish army from 32,000 to 300, G-d eliminated Zebulon’s entire contingent from the army. If that happened, then it is logical that Gideon -- in an attempt to avoid angering G-d -- would have limited his request for additional volunteers for the offensive task to the three tribes which had remained part of the G-d-approved army.
THE EXECUTION OF OREB AND ZEEB
They [the men of Ephraim] captured two [high] officers of Midian: Oreb and Zeeb; they killed Oreb at the Rock of Oreb, and they killed Zeeb at the Winepress of Zeeb, and they pursued Midian. They brought the heads of Oreb and Zeeb to Gideon [who was still] on the other side the Jordan [River]. (7:25)
During the pursuit-and-blocking operation, the volunteers from Ephraim captured and immediately executed two high officers of Midian: Oreb and Zeeb. Their prominence is evidenced by the fact that certain locations in the Land of Israel had been named for them -- the Rock of Oreb and the Winepress of Zeeb. The men of Ephraim subsequently brought the heads of these two officers to Gideon on the western bank of the Jordan River.
It should be obvious from this episode that Judaism exhibits no respect for the military (or political) leadership of our enemies. There is no distinction between the individual enemy soldier who tries to kill a lone Jewish soldier on the field of battle (and thereby deserves death) and the supreme military leader of that enemy nation, who while he may claim not to have personally shed Jewish blood, is still held accountable by G-d for leading his nation’s armed forces in its attempt to destroy the Jewish People. Therefore, the immediate beheading of Oreb and Zeeb does not represent an unjust punishment; rather it is a true example of the level of contempt and disrespect that we are commanded to show for the military leaders of our enemies.
Note that, while the men of Ephraim succeeded in catching and killing these two prominent officials of Midian, they failed to block Midian’s retreat across the Jordan River. It is possible that had Gideon pursued Midian with only his G-d-approved 300-man military force, he would have caught and annihilated Midian’s entire army and its leadership on the western side of the River, as this Gift was certainly within G-d’s Power to grant. Yet, because Gideon attempted to hasten the Victory in a way that might have caused Israel to believe that its own prowess was the decisive component, it is likely that G-d responded to Gideon’s ill-conceived tampering with the Jewish army by -- measure for measure -- permitting Israel’s prey to escape to the eastern side of the River, thereby prolonging the war.
THE APPEASEMENT OF EPHRAIM
The men of Ephraim said to Gideon, “What is this thing that you have done to us, not summoning us when you went to fight with Midian?” and they contended with him vehemently. He said to them, “What have I now done compared to you? Are not the gleanings of Ephraim better than the vintage of Abeizer? Into your hand did G-d give [high] officers of Midian: Oreb and Zeeb. And what could I do compared to you?” Then their indignation against him abated, when he made this statement. (Judges 8:1-3)
After the initial battle engagement and the subsequent rout and scattering of Midian, a slight pause in battle ensued. There was still a viable Midianite force that had managed to flee across the Jordan River, and Gideon fully intended to complete the Kiddush HaShem by giving chase and destroying it. However, before that could be accomplished, the tribe of Ephraim angrily accused Gideon of offending their honor, by not inviting them to fight with him against Midian from the very beginning, thereby denying them the opportunity to avenge Jewish honor and participate in this great Mitzvah (Holy Deed) and Kiddush HaShem (Sanctification of G-d’s Name). Approximately 100 years later, the tribe of Ephraim will lay the same accusation at the feet of the Jepthah the Judge (see Judges 12:1-6). Jepthah will respond by insulting Ephraim and waging a war against them, in the end slaughtering over 42,000 fellow Hebrews from the tribe of Ephraim. Clearly, this bloody civil war was avoidable and unnecessary, and the proof may be found in the conduct of Gideon when faced with virtually the identical crisis.
Whereas Jepthah will later respond to Ephraim in anger, and wage war against that tribe in order to avenge an affront to his personal pride, Gideon instead responds to Ephraim in kindness and humility, declaring publicly that he has done nothing in this war compared to them. After all, since G-d gave Oreb and Zeeb into Ephraim’s hands, the honor of that victory lies with them, not with Gideon. This, Scripture relates, appeased their indignation against him. While a Jewish leader must react to other nations with pride and resoluteness (and, in the face of belligerence, with confrontation), when interacting with his brethren he must usually act with humility and understanding. Thus, Gideon appeases the tribe of Ephraim, maintaining “Shalom Bayit” (“Peace of the House”), and thereby preventing internecine bloodshed.
There is, however, an exception to this usual rule of familial conduct. Note the Sages’ criticism of King Saul’s leniency towards those Jews who publicly ridiculed his royal appointment (see I Samuel 10:27). After shying away from his public anointment and hiding from the large crowd gathered for his investiture ceremony, Saul was located and brought before the people to be proclaimed the first king of Israel. However, there was a small group of Jews that ridiculed him publicly, saying: “How can this person save us?”. King Saul, however, was silent in the face of this public ridicule. Later, after seeing Saul’s decisive leadership, the Jewish people demanded that those who had previously ridiculed him be arrested and put to death; but Saul declared that no man would be put to death that day (see I Samuel 11:12-13). The Sages say that these men were subject to the death penalty, for they were not merely ridiculing the human being Saul. Rather, they were ridiculing G-d for having chosen Saul as king. Saul, therefore, acted incorrectly when he allowed these men to go unpunished. He showed humility when he should have showed indignation at the offense to G-d’s Honor that these men had caused. Due to the fact that God had chosen Saul as king of Israel, an undeserved affront to Saul in that capacity was essentially an affront to G-d, as Saul has been anointed as G-d’s earthly representative to the Jewish People and to the World. Ephraim, however, did not appear to be criticizing Gideon in his capacity as God’s anointed one; rather the men of Ephraim seemed to be merely criticizing a particular decision made by Gideon in his capacity as Israel’s military commander. Gideon, therefore, was seemingly justified in acting with humility. Thus, although there are some situations where a Jewish leader is justified -- indeed required -- to take action against his fellow Jews, this does not seem to be one of them.
Yet, certain additional questions must be addressed before making a definitive judgment on this issue. Firstly, was Ephraim’s angry rebuke of Gideon wrongful or justified? Secondly, instead of appeasing Ephraim with words of exaggerated praise, why didn’t Gideon simply explain to Ephraim that G-d Himself had chosen the size and composition of the Jewish army, thereby enlightening Ephraim to the fact that its rebuke of Gideon actually represented rebellion against G-d? The second question must be answered first. By soliciting additional volunteers from Naphtali, Asher and Manasseh, Gideon not only temporarily enlarged the Jewish army that chased Midian to the Jordan River, but he might also have altered the relative proportions of each of the three tribes within the army. Consequently, Gideon could not truthfully declare to Ephraim that the Jewish army’s present size and composition represented God’s Decision. This leads to the conclusion that, under the circumstances created by Gideon’s ill-conceived tampering with the Jewish army: (1) Ephraim’s rebuke of Gideon was indeed justified, and (2) Ephraim was not, via its rebuke of Gideon, rebelling against G-d’s Decision. If it were otherwise, then G-d would not have permitted Ephraim to publicly castigate His Anointed Representative.
THE PUNISHMENT OF SUCCOTH AND PENUEL
then arrived at the
As mentioned above, Gideon, fully
infused with faith in the G-d of
By noting that Gideon crossed the Jordan River with his original 300 men, Scripture thereby informs us that Gideon barred the additional forces (from the tribes of Manasseh, Asher, Naphtali and Ephraim), which had answered his call for temporary assistance, from participating in the trans-Jordan pursuit of Midian. And, although Gideon and his small force were exhausted from the ordeal, they continued chasing the Midianites in order to finish the battle. Why did Gideon refuse to enlarge (or alter the composition of) his small, exhausted army with these more fit volunteers? In my opinion, the answer is that, in light of the public rebuke that G-d permitted Ephraim to inflict upon him, Gideon belatedly acknowledged his error in tampering with the Jewish army. And he now fully understood that any enlargement thereof (or even any one-for-one replacement of individual soldiers without enlargement thereof) would have represented both a lack of his complete faith in G-d’s Promise of Victory and a sinful substitution of his judgment for G-d’s Judgment. This is because G-d Himself had chosen those 300 men for battle. Consequently, any change in the size or composition of the Jewish army before the final battle would have created a huge Chillul HaShem.
Upon reaching the Jewish town of Succoth, Gideon requests loaves of bread for his tired men. However, the leaders of Succoth irreverently respond that they see no reason to assist Gideon and his men, for Zebah and Zalmunna are not yet captured. Gideon, then angrily retorts that when G-d does indeed give Zebah and Zalmunna into his hand, he will return to Succoth and lash its leaders with thorns and briers as punishment. Gideon and his men then proceed to the Jewish town of Penuel, once again requesting food from its inhabitants. Gideon is greeted by the same response as he received at Succoth, and so he also threatens Penuel that when he returns in peace from his pursuit, he will destroy the tower of Penuel. The question must be asked: why did Succoth and Penuel refuse to assist Gideon? The answer is, unfortunately, altogether too common. Succoth and Penuel wished to hedge their bets. This means that although Gideon, the new leader of the Jewish people, had clearly defeated Midian that very day, for the people of Succoth and Penuel a Jewish victory in that one battle was not quite enough for them to be willing to throw in their lot with Gideon and with the G-d of Israel. The main reason is that the towns of Succoth and Penuel are located east of the Jordan River, making them closer to the territory of Midian than are the majority of Jewish towns, which are located west of the Jordan River. For seven years Midian has ruthlessly dominated the Jewish people. Although Gideon has successfully defeated Midian on the field of battle, and is now in pursuit to complete the rout, a numerically superior force of 15,000 Midianite soldiers still stand between Gideon’s tiny army and total victory. For Succoth and Penuel, who clearly did not have complete faith in the G-d of Israel, it is simply too risky to support Gideon at this point. If they support Gideon now, but Midian manages to defeat him in the end, then King Zebah and King Zalmunna will return and inflict their revenge on all the Jewish towns that assisted Gideon. Conversely, it is likely that if Gideon had already captured all of the kings of Midian and was merely chasing the remnants of their defeated army, these two Jewish towns would have helped him due to the absence of any risk. But with the kings of Midian and 15,000 soldiers still at large, the risk is just too great for those who don’t believe fully in the G-d of Israel. By denying Gideon assistance, they can later make the claim to Midian, if need be, that they in no way helped the Jewish insurgents. If, however, Gideon defeats Midian in the end, they clearly do not expect a Jewish leader to take revenge on his fellow Hebrews.
In this matter, however, they were most certainly mistaken. Gideon angrily threatens the two Jewish towns, and with full justification. By denying him assistance, they were not only weakening the Jewish army physically, by withholding much needed food, and psychologically, by not showing support for the war effort, but they were, more importantly, ridiculing G-d’s Choice of Gideon to lead the Jewish people. Thus, this was a rebellion against G-d, even worse because this was a time of war when the fate of all Israel was to be determined. Gideon, in his capacity as leader of the Jewish people, had an obligation to be angry for G-d’s Sake and to avenge the Chillul HaShem created by Succoth and Penuel. Thus, his threats of punishment are not only valid, but their implementation is vital as an example to Israel of the fate of those who rebel against G-d.
Despite receiving no assistance from Succoth and Penuel, Gideon and his men continue in their chase, finding the Midianites encamped near Karkor. Scripture informs us that a mere 15,000 enemy soldiers remain, while 120,000 had already fallen in battle. It is important that even though the odds are still greatly in Midian’s favor (the odds are still 50:1), Gideon does not hesitate for a moment. He ascends by way of the tent-dwellers, possibly attacking from an unanticipated direction, while the Midianite camp was complacent. There is no waiting for a miracle, and no expectation that G-d would cause the Midianites to attack one another again in confusion. Rather, Gideon directly attacks the enemy, chases the fleeing Zebah and Zalmunna, and then captures those two Midianite kings. Gideon has finally embraced his role as leader of Israel, thinking and acting as a Jewish leader should. (A side note on the miraculous nature of this entire military engagement is the fact that Gideon had finished the rout and capture of Zebah and Zalmunna while the sun was high. The original battle engagement had begun at the start of the middle night watch of the Midianite encampment in the Jezreel Valley. Approximately twelve hours afterwards, including the pursuit across the Jordan River and the final routing of the Midianite army, all 135,000 Midianite and allied forces have been killed, and Israel has been liberated from foreign domination.)
Gideon’s capture of Zebah and Zalmunna, however, is the beginning of a series of mistakes and flaws that have serious ramifications for the Jewish People and serve to lessen the Miracle of Gideon’s defeat of Midian. Gideon, as he had threatened earlier, returns and punishes Succoth and Penuel. As discussed above, they deserved to be punished for their refusal to accept Gideon as the leader of Israel, thereby constituting rebellion against the G-d of Israel, and for their wartime crime of withholding from the Jewish army vital assistance. So what is the problem? While the actual punishments Gideon inflicted on Succoth and Penuel were just and righteous, his motivation for inflicting these punishments was impure. Gideon, as the leader of the Jewish people, was required to act only in his representative capacity when confronting others. Accordingly, although Gideon viewed the insults of Succoth and Penuel only as a personal affront, these insults were actually directed at G-d and His Choice of Gideon as Jewish leader. Consequently, these towns deserved punishment only to avenge G-d’s Honor, and not to avenge Gideon’s honor. Unfortunately, Gideon acted to avenge what he improperly viewed only as an affront to his personal honor.
Firstly, a discussion of the punishments themselves is necessary. Upon arriving at Succoth, Gideon detains a young man and acquires a list of all 77 leaders of the City. He singles out those 77 men, and thrashes them, publicly, with thorns, as he had threatened. With the town of Penuel however, not only did he destroy their tower, as he had threatened, but Gideon also killed the men of the City. Why do the punishments for these two towns vary, while their transgressions were identical? The answer is that Succoth defied Gideon first, while Penuel surely heard of Succoth’s insubordination and Gideon’s threat. They already knew what Gideon’s response would be if they answered him as Succoth did, yet they still chose to rebel. Therefore, they received the more severe punishment. While Gideon merely punished the leaders of Succoth, publicly humiliating them for their transgression, at Penuel he destroyed their tower, which is a collective punishment for the entire town. As for killing all the men of Penuel, which Gideon did not threaten to do, but actually did, it is unclear if this was a just punishment as the thrashing and tower destruction were, or an improper punishment as a result of Gideon’s improper personal motivation. However, if the text itself offers any indication, it would seem that all of the punishments Gideon inflicted on these two Jewish towns were justified, even though his motivations for so doing were not. Gideon was not punished (or even criticized) by G-d for killing the men of Penuel, which one might assume would happen if it was an evil act. However, as will be discussed later, he was punished midah k’neged midah (measure for measure), for allowing the evil kings, Zebah and Zalmunna, to witness the act, which was surely improper.
Secondly, a discussion of Gideon’s
motives is critical. How can we even speculate what Gideon was thinking
when he punished these two rebellious Jewish towns? The answer is that
Gideon’s own actions betray his thoughts. Upon capturing Zebah and Zalmunna, Gideon should
have immediately and publicly executed them, proclaiming that such is the fate
of the enemies of the G-d of
THE EXECUTION OF ZEBAH AND ZALMUNNA
He [Gideon] said to Zebah and Zalmunna, “What sort of men did you kill in Tabor?” They said, “Your appearance is like theirs, identical, like the form of the king’s sons.” He said, “They were my brothers, the sons of my mother. As HaShem lives, had you let them live, I would not kill you!” He said to Jether his firstborn, “Arise and kill them!” But the youth did not draw his sword, for he was afraid, since he was still a youth. Zebah and Zalmunna said, “You arise and slay us, for as a man is, so is his strength. So Gideon arose and killed Zebah and Zalmunna, and took the crescents that were on the necks of their camels. (Judges 8:18-21)
Trapped in a mindset of personal revenge and anger, and having satisfied that desire with regards to Succoth and Penuel, Gideon now turns, publicly, to Zebah and Zalmunna. He ascertains from them that they killed his half-brothers in Tabor. Angrily Gideon proclaims in G-d’s Name that, had they allowed his family members to live, he would have spared their lives at this very moment. Again, an opportunity to enhance the Kiddush HaShem that had already been achieved was wasted. Gideon should have proclaimed, that for their crimes against the G-d of Israel and the Jewish People, they are to be put to death, and then he should have immediately executed them publicly. Such an act would have inspired the entire Jewish nation, renewing the faith in G-d of those who have strayed, and surely would have caused the surrounding nations to tremble in fear at the mere mention of the G-d of Israel. But instead, Gideon proclaimed publicly that had they spared his family members from death, he would not kill them now. However, since they did indeed kill his half-brothers, now he will execute them. Such a proclamation no doubt caused all of Israel to wonder if Gideon led the Jewish people to war, not because he was G-d’s Messenger and wished to overthrow the yoke of Midianite oppression, but merely because he wished to take personal revenge against these two kings of Midian. For this proclamation thereby casted doubt upon the great Kiddush HaShem created by Gideon’s defeat of Midian. True, a miraculous victory did occur, but the awe and wonder that should have fallen upon Israel and the surrounding nations was squandered. Gideon thereby converted the victory over Midian from G-d’s and the Jewish people’s shared Victory into his own personal victory. Gideon makes it appear that he led Israel in war to avenge his brothers’ deaths, and not to avenge the thousands of other Jews who had surely perished under the oppression of Midian. A Jewish leader should regard each and every Jew as his own flesh and blood, and Gideon failed in this respect. When Gideon put Zebah and Zalmunna to death, the Jewish people might very well have believed that the two kings were executed, not because they were G-d’s enemies, but rather because they were Gideon’s personal enemies -- a public perception that was surely unacceptable to G-d.
Gideon commands his firstborn son, Jether, to arise and kill the two kings of Midian, but the boy, being fearful, is unable to do as his father commands. This was surely a great embarrassment to Gideon, both in front of his fellow Jews, and in front of these two idolatrous kings of Midian. Gideon, having turned G-d’s Victory into his own personal victory over Midian, commands his own son to complete that personal victory. Yet G-d causes his son to fear these two defeated evildoers. Surely Jether has been with Gideon for the entire campaign. He was obviously one of the 300 men that G-d allowed to fight from the very beginning. He has killed men in the battles against Midian. There is no reason for him to fear these two defeated kings. Yet, inexplicably, he does fear them, and the only explanation is that G-d caused him to fear. Why? I believe G-d caused Jether to fear in order to punish Gideon for turning national revenge into personal revenge, and for thereby lessening the Kiddush HaShem that should have occurred. Gideon turned the victory and the miracle into his own, and G-d -- measure for measure -- causes Gideon’s son to be so fearful of these captured and defeated kings he is even unable to lift his sword. Just as G-d had caused Midian to draw swords one against the other in that very first battle, He now causes a proud and victorious son of a Jewish leader to be unable to draw his own sword against a defeated enemy. To compound the embarrassment to Gideon, the evil Zebah and Zalmunna were now permitted the opportunity to publicly ridicule Gideon by denigrating the worthiness of his firstborn son: “ … for as a man is, so is his strength”, thereby implying that the paralysis of Jether (who is Gideon’s “strength”) reflects weakness in Gideon himself. That this was meant as an insult to Gideon is confirmed by the Torah’s declaration concerning one’s firstborn son: “… for he is the beginning of his strength …” (Deut. 21:17). According, they challenged Gideon to kill them himself. Surely such a challenge embarrassed Gideon in front of his army; and indeed, he arises and kills them -- again, out of personal anger. Why does G-d permit these two evildoers to publicly ridicule His Anointed One? G-d allows this to happen in order to publicly chastise Gideon for his disgraceful failure to create an unqualified Kiddush HaShem. Gideon became distracted by his personal anger against Succoth and Penuel, and then against Zebah and Zalmunna; and, consequently, his decision-making as a Jewish leader has faltered. Even with this challenge by Zebah and Zalmunna, G-d is giving Gideon yet another chance to openly proclaim that he is not executing them for personal revenge, but rather because they are enemies of the G-d of Israel. But, unfortunately, Gideon misses this last opportunity to create an unqualified Kiddush HaShem.
GIDEON AS KING?
The men of Israel said to Gideon, “Rule over us -- you, your son, and your grandson, for you have saved us from the hand of Midian!” But Gideon said to them, “I shall not rule over you, nor shall my son rule over you; HaShem shall rule over you!” (Judges 8:22-23)
The position of being a Judge over
Gideon said to them, “I shall make a request of you. Let each of you give
me a nose ring from his spoils” -- for they [the dead Midianites]
had golden nose rings, since they were Ishmaelites.
They said, “We shall surely give.” They spread out a garment and every
man threw into it a nose ring from his spoils. The weight of the nose
rings that he requested was one thousand seven hundred gold [dinars], aside
from the crescents and the pendants, and the purple wool garments worn by the
kings of Midian, and aside from the chains on the
necks of their camels. Gideon made it into an ephod and hung it in his
city, in Ofrah. [Eventually] all of
After decisively rejecting the Jewish people’s request for him to rule over them, Gideon made a request of his own. He asked for gold from the spoils of Midian, 1,700 gold dinars worth of nose rings; and with this, Gideon made an ephod (breastplate), which he hung in his city, Ofrah. Before a further discussion is possible regarding Gideon’s misguided motives and its consequences, it must be noted that a Jewish leader is forbidden to request such things from his followers. As the Prophet Samuel will later testify before the entire nation of Israel: “Here I am; testify about me in the Presence of HaShem and in the presence of His anointed: Whose ox have I taken? Whose donkey have I taken? Whom have I robbed? Whom have I coerced? From whose hand have I taken redemption money that I should avert my eyes from him? And I shall make restitution to you. And they said, ‘You have not robbed us; you have not coerced us; and you have not taken anything from any person’s hand.’” (I Samuel 12:3-4). Scripture relates that “all of Israel strayed after it [Gideon’s ephod] there, and it became a snare for Gideon and his household.” A Jewish leader has no right to take the smallest thing from a fellow Jew for his personal use. His sole purpose is to serve HaShem. Personal interests must have no bearing on his decisions and actions. However, despite correctly rejecting the hereditary kingship offered to him, Gideon stumbled and created a golden ephod, with one purpose in mind. He wanted to commemorate the Victory over Midian. Now, after realizing his past mistakes in taking personal revenge, and seeing the consequences of such mistakes when Israel begged him to become its king, Gideon clearly understood that it was not his personal victory. Yet, although he knew that it was G-d who had defeated Midian, he nonetheless feared that his own part in the miraculous Victory would be forgotten. Therefore, he created a symbol of his role in the war, and placed it in Ofrah, his hometown. Obviously Gideon did not intend for this ephod to lead to idolatry, but that was indeed the end result. Israel strayed after it; and a great Chillul HaShem was thereby created. A Jewish leader acts neither for fame, nor fortune, nor for his name to be remembered throughout the generations. These trivialities do not concern a Jewish leader. He exists solely to do G-d’s Will, to lead His People, to fight His Battles, and to create Kiddush HaShem.
In a way, Gideon’s desire to be remembered for Posterity is, in itself, a form of idolatry, in that it caused the nation to relapse and again credit him for the Victory over Midian, which adulation led them to venerate and eventually worship the post-war symbol of that Victory, the golden ephod -- instead of remaining faithful to G-d. And, although when Scripture refers to Israel as having “strayed” it is usually in reference to idolatry, perhaps in this case it is also an allusion to the “straying” after Gideon inherent in giving him credit for the Victory alongside G-d. In any case, Gideon’s personal lust to be remembered became a snare for him and his household. As we will see, G-d punished Gideon -- measure for measure -- for this great Sin.
[A small clarification should be made regarding the mention of Ishmaelites in Judges 8:24. Scripture sometimes refers to Midianites as Ishmaelites, as a result of their being half-brothers. See Genesis 16:16 and Genesis 25:1-2 for the familial relationship between Ishmael and Midian.]
GIDEON’S FINAL DAYS
Midian was subdued before the Children of Israel, and
they did not continue to raise their head; and the Land was tranquil for 40
years in the days of Gideon. Jerubaal, son of Yoash, went and
settled in his home. Gideon had 70 sons emerging from his loins, for he had
many wives. His concubine, who was in Shechem,
also bore him a son and he called his name Abimelech. Gideon, son of Yoash,
died at a good old age, and he was buried by the grave of Yoash,
his father, in Ofrah, of the Abiezrites.
It happened when Gideon died that the Children of Israel once again went astray
after the Baalim, and they set Baal-berith as a god for themselves. The Children of
Scripture informs us that Midian did not even dare raise its head against
Gideon, son of Yoash,
was one of the greatest men to ever lead
© Jesse Rosenblit