The nation of Israel continues its downward spiral with Gideon’s cycle. The cycle opens, “The people of Israel did what was evil in the sight of YHWH, and YHWH gave them into the hand of Midian seven years” (Judges 6:1). The Midianites, Amalekites and “the people of the East” that came up against Israel during this time are described in plague-like terms: “They would come like locusts in number—both they and their camels could not be counted—so that they laid waste the land as they came in” (Judges 6:5). The plagues are coming upon Israel just as Deuteronomy said they would if they did what was evil in the sight of YHWH.
And the people of Israel cried out for help to YHWH. When the people of Israel cried out to YHWH on account of the Midianites, YHWH sent a prophet to the people of Israel. And He said to them, ‘Thus says YHWH, the God of Israel: I led you up from Egypt and brought you out of the house of bondage. And I delivered you from the hand of the Egyptians and from the hand of all who oppressed you, and drove them out before you and gave you their land. And I said to you, ‘I am YHWH your God, you shall not fear the gods of the Amorites in whose land you dwell’… (Judges 6:6b-10).
It is fitting that the prophet would remind them of Egypt when the people around them are acting like a plague on Israel. And the prophet transitioned seamlessly from Egypt to the Promised Land. The first prophet mentioned in the prophetic book was Deborah and this second one (masculine singular) is never named.
We could spend weeks just examining the Gideon narrative. Instead, I am going to focus in on a couple parts of it as an example of some fruitful approaches and then we will begin comparing Gideon and then Abimelech to Saul.
We are going to start with the Call of Gideon (Judges 6:11-24). He is the one judge that Israel asks to lead them as king. So one might argue that from the perspective of the people of Israel he was perhaps the greatest of the judges. His call echoes the call of Moses and that raises the question of whether he might be the prophet like Moses. The text answers this question with an emphatic NO. He does not recognize that he is speaking to an angel of YHWH, he does not know and understand that the covenant in Deuteronomy was being violated by Israel and that is why they were suffering God’s judgment, and his need for signs to lead him shows up here in the very beginning of the story.
In the context of the larger story we will discover the reason that Gideon failed in these respects was that his father worshiped Baal and YHWH and therefore had confused his son. Gideon did not realize that an angel of YHWH was speaking to him until verse 22…an angel that was introduced in verse 11. The text sometimes refers to the angel as “the angel of YHWH” (Judges 6:11, 12, 21), sometimes as “the angel of God” (Judges 6:20), and sometimes simply as “YHWH” (Judges 6:14, 16)…which means the angel is speaking the very word of God to Gideon. The same feature is found in the burning bush call of Moses. The angel even uses lines from the burning bush episode to reassure Gideon but because Gideon does not know who he is speaking to…the dialogue can be ironic at times…
So Gideon went into his house and prepared a young goat and unleavened cakes from an ephah of flour. The meat he put in a basket, and the broth he put in a pot, and brought them to him under the terebinth and presented them. And the angel of God said to him, ‘Take the meat and the unleavened cakes, and put them on this rock and pour broth over them’…and fire sprang up from the rock and consumed [the meat and cakes] (Judges 6:19-21).
Gideon made a meal for the angel (not knowing who it was) that the angel turned into a sacrifice. This too shows Gideon was oblivious. When Gideon finally realizes that he has been face to face with YHWH’s angel he fears for his life but YHWH tells him, “Do not fear, you shall not die.” And Gideon built an altar to remember God’s mercy. Nevertheless, the failure to recognize that it was YHWH speaking to him will reverberate throughout the rest of the story and fits well into the theme of the leadership failure of the judges.
We see what kind of “mighty warrior” Gideon is going to be when we find him hiding in the wine vat. In the next scene he will destroy his father’s altar to Baal by night. That the angel would call him a “mighty warrior” when he is hiding in the wine vat is meant to be understood as ironic and funny. Then when Gideon asks, “Where is YHWH?” when he is speaking to YHWH is again ironic, but this time it is not funny but tragic. The failure to recognize YHWH means that he will constantly need signs to show him that he is on the right path because his knowledge of YHWH is so lacking. This need for visual aid is ironically highlighted by the angel disappearing from his sight.
The narrative analogy with Moses shows some differences reflecting poorly on Gideon compared to Moses. Moses says to YHWH, “Here I am,” when Gideon says, “Where is YHWH?” YHWH tells Moses not to fear when Gideon is challenging God at the same point in the story. Moses hides his face from YHWH but at the same point in the story YHWH turns His face to Gideon.
As you might now expect, the application for us today IS NOT to be like Gideon. This negative statement does not positively express what the application of the Gideon story is for us today but it does seek to address a common and problematic application of the text. For example, people will often lay out their fleece to test God to see what they should be doing and use this story as justification for doing so. However, that misses the whole point of this story. Gideon should not have needed these signs and should not have needed to test God. This is a display of his lack of faith and lack of knowledge of God’s word. His fearfulness throughout the whole story reflects his little faith in YHWH. This will climax in his building an idolatrous ephod at the end of the story, which will be a snare for him and his family.
In fact, early on, Gideon’s name gets changed to Jerubbaal – “Let Baal contend against him” – in other words, it is a name change that casts him as an opponent of idolatry though this too is probably ironic since he does not contend against Baal during the daylight but by sneaking around at night and because Gideon ends up falling into idolatry himself at the end.
Now we are going to largely skip the stories in the middle and look at the next to last part of the Gideon narrative next (see my translation of Judges 8:22-27).
Gideon was no new Moses. In fact, he undergoes a similar fall to Aaron. Aaron or Gideon said to them to hand over rings of gold (Exo 32:2, Judges 8:24), the men of Israel immediately complied with Aaron and Gideon’s requests for rings of gold (Exo 32:3, Judges 8:25), so Aaron and Gideon made their idols (Exo 32:4, Judges 8:27a), Aaron set up an altar for his idol (Exo 32:5, and Gideon appears to have done so as well – perhaps it is the one in Judges 6:24 (Judges 8:27b), Israel’s form of worship was then perverted and the people identified YHWH with the idol (Exo 32:8, Judges 8:27c) and there were consequences (a plague, Exo 32:35; a snare, Judges 8:27d).
The ephod was a snare to Gideon and his household. This means then that YHWH will turn against Gideon and his house, as can be clearly seen in the Abimelech narrative. Also Samuel, conjured up by the witch of Endor, explains why YHWH has turned against Saul and handed his kingdom over to David (cf. 1 Sam 28:16ff).
Unlike the kings of surrounding nations, the king of Israel was not supposed to collect excessive silver and gold (Deut 17:17), the stress on the volume of gold he collected in Judges 8:26 suggests that he violated this law. Gideon clearly said one thing and acted in a different way – he said that he would not be king but then he took a bounty like other ANE kings would have done (“Let me request from you a request…”).
Like Saul, Gideon was the wrong person to be king of Israel. Gideon, like many of the judges, is meant to sound like King Saul. In particular, one comparison is seen between Gideon versus the Midianites in Judges 6-8 and Saul versus the Philistines in 1 Sam 28.
The Israelite camp locations are similar – near Mt. Gilboa for Gideon (Judges 7:1, 4) and on Mt. Gilboa for Saul (1 Sam 28:4) and thus so are the enemy camp locations – NE of Mt. Moreh (Judges 7:1, 8) and W of Mt. Moreh (1 Sam 28:4). In both the leader is afraid before the battle. “If you are afraid…” (Judges 7:10f) and Saul is terrified at the sight of the Philistine army (1 Sam 28:5). Both have a pre-battle omen that is a sign of dew. There are two signs with dew in Judges 6:36-40 and there is no dew on Gilboa as you can read in 2 Sam 1:21. In both there is a pre-battle omen that is a dream. YHWH gives the dream in Judges 7:10f but YHWH is silent in 1 Sam 28:6. And perhaps most importantly, both have a night mission where Gideon receives a promising omen (Judges 7:11-15) and Saul receives a menacing omen from the witch at En-dor (1 Sam 28:7-25).
There are also other narrative analogies between Gideon and Saul besides just 1 Sam 28. Both are considered men of valor (perhaps meant ironically). The Angel of YHWH calls Gideon a mighty warrior (Judges 6:12). Saul is said to be a head taller than the rest (1 Sam 9:2, 10:23). Both put up an initial self-effacement: ‘my clan is the weakest, I am the least in my family’ (Judges 6:15) and ‘Benjamin is the smallest tribe, my clan is the least in Benjamin (1 Sam 9:21). This self-effacement is to be contrasted with Othniel who was the youngest brother of Caleb and David who was the least of Jesse’s sons. Both have the empowerment of the Spirit (Judges 6:34, 1 Sam 10:6, 9). Both make a cult object – an ephod for Gideon and an altar for Saul (Judges 8:27, 1 Sam 14:35). Both seek YHWH sinfully – Gideon by use of the ephod and Saul by using the witch of Endor (Judges 8:27, 1 Sam 28:5ff). Both slaughter Israelites – Gideon slaughtered the people of Succoth and Penuel for failing to aid Israel (Judges 8:5-9, 13-17) and Saul slaughtered the priests and citizens at Nob for aiding David (1 Sam 21:1-6, 22:18f).
The accounts of Gideon and Saul also both have an element of sparing an enemy king. This comparison like one we saw last time with Barak makes Saul out to be worse than Gideon. Gideon kills the kings that his son was unable to kill (Judges 8:10-12, 18-21) and Samuel killed Agag because Saul failed to do so (1 Sam 15:9, 20, 32f).
The response of these two judges to the offer of kingship is ‘just the opposite.’ Gideon refuses the people’s offer (Judges 8:22f) and Saul accepts the people’s offer (1 Sam 11:14f). However, Gideon names his son Abimelech (“my father is king”). So he is refusing with a wink, wink.
The stories of Gideon and Saul (in 1 Sam 13-14) also share many common characteristics on the theme of Holy War. The Israelites hide in caves (Judges 6:2, 1 Sam 13:6), muster with the ram’s horn (Judges 6:34, 1 Sam 13:3f), enemy superiority as sand on the seashore (Judges 7:12, 1 Sam 13:5), trembling troops released (Judges 7:3) or flee (1 Sam 13:7), there is a test of the commander (Judges 7:4-8, 1 Sam 13:6-14), number of troops is 300 (Judges 7:8) or 3000 and more (1 Sam 13:15). The enemies of both panic turning on each other (Judges 7:22) or striking each other (1 Sam 14:2), there is victory by means of a few troops (Judges 7:7 and 1 Sam 14:6ff where Jonathan believes YHWH can save by a few unlike Saul), the Ephramites join the pursuit late (Judges 7:24f, 1 Sam 14:22), and the troops are fatigued with Gideon requesting food (Judges 8:5, 8) and Saul forbidding food (1 Sam 14:24).
While comparing characters, we might as well compare the first person to explicitly claim to be king and Saul. Gideon’s claim to be king was subtle – naming his son, Abimelech (“my father is king”). But his son, Abimelech, claimed it outright.
Both Abimelech and Saul had rivals for the throne (Abimelech had 70 half brothers, Judges 9:2; Saul had David, 1 Sam 20:30f, 22:7f). Both have an evil spirit come into them at the point that they lost the kingdom (Judges 8:23, 1 Sam 16:14). Both murder innocents to crush their rival(s) – Abimelech killed 69 of his brothers in Judges 9:5 and Saul killed 85 priests who aided David in 1 Sam 22:18. Both Abimelech and Saul were the people’s choice rather than God’s preference (Judges 9:6, 1 Sam 12:13). Both Abimelech and Saul slaughtered citizens – Abimelech the citizens of Shechem in Judges 9:40, 45, 49) and Saul the citizens of Nob (1 Sam 22:19), one person escapes the slaughter – Jotham escaped the slaughter by Abimelech (Judges 9:5, 21), Abiathar escaped from Saul (1 Sam 22:20). Both are confronted and rebuked prophetically – Jotham’s fable does this to Abimelech in Judges 9:7-21 and Samuel’s rebuke to the people in 1 Sam 8:10ff performs the same function. Both Abimelech and Saul command their armor bearer, ‘slay me lest I be embarrassed’ (Judges 9:54, 1 Sam 31:4).
Like father, like son – both are like Saul. Hence you do not want Ishboseth, the son of Saul, to be your King. David should be king.
[This post also borrows heavily from the late Al Groves and from work done for his class. All mistakes are my own.]