Harry Whittaker
Judges And Ruth

7. A Fearful and Brilliant Leader (6:33-7:23)

About this time there came a particularly severe inroad of the “locusts”. Midianites, Amalekites (the eternal enemy) and the Ishmaelite “children of the east” joined forces to prey upon the defenceless people of God.

And doubtless many were ready to say: See what happens when Baal’s altar is thrown down!

However, the divine call came to Gideon to organize resistance against these marauders: “The Spirit of the Lord clothed itself with Gideon, and he blew a trumpet.” The first of these figures of speech is delightfully appropriated in several places in the New Testament. After the Lord’s ascension the disciples were to “tarry in Jerusalem till ye be endued (s.w. clothed) with power from on high” (Luke 24:49). And Paul exhorted: “Be renewed in the spirit of your mind; and put on (s.w.) the new man....” (Eph. 4:23,24).

Fearful as ever and terribly anxious to be absolutely sure that he had a divine mandate to act in this matter, Gideon sought yet another sign from heaven. With importunity bordering on audacity, he appointed his own signs, as Abraham’s steward did centuries before and the intrepid Jonathan generations later.

The sign of the fleece

“Behold (he said), I will put a fleece of wool in the floor; and if the dew be on the fleece only, and it be dry upon all the earth beside, then shall I know that thou wilt save Israel by mine hand, as thou hast said. And it was so: for he rose up early on the morrow, and thrust the fleece together, and wringed the dew out of the fleece, a bowl full of water.”

Impressive though this was, an element of doubt remained. There might actually be nothing specially miraculous about the dew on the fleece. The hanging of a fleece on the boat’s side is known to have been a device familiar to seafaring men of bygone days as a means of securing a limited condensation of fresh water. The same scientific principle explains the more familiar dew-pond. So Gideon dared to ask for the sign to be repeated, only this time in reverse. And it was so! Such is the divine condescension to human weakness.

It is worth pausing here to consider whether perhaps there is in this remarkable transaction a typical significance of God’s dealings with Israel. First, the dew of blessing on Israel’s fleece, and Gentile dryness round about. Then, those distinctive experiences reversed. Next, a discrimination between a small faithful remnant and the rest, so that there may follow the Messianic rout of Arab enemies, “as in the day of Midian” (Isa. 9:4). Then Messiah’s blessing “will come down like rain (not as light as dew!) upon the fleece (s.w.): as showers that water the earth” (Psa. 72:6; and note 110:7).

Sounding a trumpet

Encouraged by the response to his plea, Gideon first sent to his own tribe for help against the marauders, and then to the neighbouring tribes of Asher, Zebulun, and Naphtali. Two of these had been foremost in Barak’s rebellion against Jabin and Sisera.

Thirty-two thousand men rallied to Gideon’s standard at the spring of Harod — an army small indeed compared with the host of the Midianites , “as the sand by the seaside for multitude” (135,000; ch. 8:10; see note there), and yet surprisingly large when the character of Gideon’s project — revolt — is considered.

Saved by few, not by many

On instructions from the angel of the Lord Gideon’s force of unconfident Israelites was to be whittled down, so that there might be no shadow of doubt that victory would be won not by their valour or skill but by the help of the Lord. In the wars of the Lord, the national pride of Israel must have no place. (Contrast the Jew-Arab conflicts of the present day.)

Accordingly, in the spirit of the commandment given through Moses (Deut. 20:8), proclamation was made through the host that everyone who had no stomach for the fight should return, if he so desired, to his home and family — but not until next morning! The reason for this becomes evident as the climax develops.

The perplexing phrase in 7:13: “Let him depart early from mount Gilead”, has had generations of commentators in a tangle. It should perhaps be read as an allusion to the sunrise over mount Gilead, i.e., next morning.

But why the mention of mount Gilead, since Gilead is certainly on the other side of Jordan? A favourite guess is that by a scribal error “Gilead” has come to be read for “Gilboa”. This would certainly make very good sense, inasmuch as Gideon’s army was encamped on the northern slopes of mount Gilboa. But there is no textual evidence for this emendation. Another possibility is that this reading anticipates the naming of the high land between Harod and Jordan, as mount Gilead, in honour of Gileadite Gideon and his victory. The twentieth century Arab name Jalud suggests a derivation from “Gilead”.

Fear and trembling

There is a strange irony about the massing for this battle between Midian and Israel. The men of Israel were nearly all of them afraid, so much so that from now on their place of mustering took its name from that fact — Harod means “trembling” (7:13RV). Gideon their leader was afraid also (v. 9-11). And so also were the Midianites (as will be seen by and by).

Here are problems. First, what impelled twenty thousand men to join Gideon’s army, although in too fearful a state to be of the slightest use in battle? This was poor stuff with which to seek the overthrow of a tyranny. Second, what made the Midianites so panicky? They hopelessly outnumbered Gideon’s army both in numbers and military resources, and they had behind them seven years of completely successful domination of a cowed and spiritless people.

These difficulties are now put in cold storage for the time being.

The elect of God

Gideon’s ten thousand willing soldiers were still too many to save Israel from the folly of boasting. There must be further drastic pruning. So now selection was made on the basis of a principle unique in all military history.

The men were brought to the spring to drink. Readers who have spent long summer days in Scottish hill country will recall how they themselves have quenched their thirst at a burn. The vast majority of Gideon’s men did just that — they put their faces down to the water, and drank easily and copiously.

But a mere handful — three hundred out of ten thousand — chose the far less convenient and far less satisfying method of cupping their hands and bringing the water to their mouths, drinking only intermittently, whilst most of the precious liquid ran to waste. It was these three hundred who were to be host of the Lord against Midian.

Why such an odd mode of selection? The point has been commonly urged that a man with his face in the stream was un-alert and defenceless, and therefore useless as a vigorous, vigilant warrior of the Lord. How utterly unconvincing this is! As though a man could not afford to relax with the enemy several miles away and tens of thousands of his fellows hard by. They were not all simultaneously preoccupied with the serious business of thirst-quenching!

Alternatively, it has been suggested — in desperation, surely — that no particular significance is to be sought in the method of selection; it was simply that the ten thousand must somehow be drastically reduced, and here was a convenient means of choosing. Can it be that this means of discrimination, appointed by the angel of the Lord, was so utterly meaningless, even to the point of absurdity? Far more reasonable, or at least equally so, to have counted off the first three hundred Gideon set eyes on, or to have selected all those who had red hair. This kind of explanation is bankruptcy.

There is available an explanation which is simple, historical and which fits the context splendidly.

Archaeologists have remarked on the accumulation of evidence to show that it was customary among the pagan tribes of Palestine and neighbouring countries to regard wells and springs as the haunts of nature gods and demons. Traces have been found of images and idolatrous sanctuaries close by many of these important places.

So it is highly probably that there was by the spring Harod, the image of some Canaanite deity, so placed that anyone stooping to drink from the water would by that very action be bowing down before the idol. Thus Gideon’s test becomes full of meaning.

Those who put their faces down to the water were men dominated more by thoughts of thirst that by scruples of conscience. On the other hand, the minority was made up of men who supported to the full Gideon’s onslaught on Baal, and who showed this by their choice of a highly inconvenient mode of drinking in order not to countenance in the slightest the ascription of honour to that which was “not God” (Prov. 13:14).

Yet another sign needed

It was with these few men of stubborn conscience that Gideon must rout the Midianites. “By the three hundred men that lapped will I save you, and deliver the Midianites into thine hand” (1 Sam. 14:6). But he himself, poor fellow, felt dismally unable to “screw his courage to the sticking place”. At the sight of these paltry three hundred his valour just oozed away and all his former misgiving assailed him. How intensely human was this divinely-chosen leader! He was as daunted as any of the others. So there was granted him yet another marvel of heaven’s condescension to human weakness.

On instructions from the angel of the Lord, immediately after dusk he went to the edge of the camp of Midian; and, to improve the quality of his courage, he took with him his servant Phurah.

In the darkness they crept as near as they dared to where the sentries were posted. There they overheard a Midianite telling his dream of the night before. There was no language difficulty, for (as Mesha’s Moabite stone has clearly shown) the tongue of these people was virtually identical with Hebrew.

“Behold, I dreamed a dream, and lo, a cake of barley bread tumbled into the host of Midian, and came unto the tent (i.e., the leaders’ tent), and smote it that it fell, and overturned it, that the tent lay along.”

His comrade’s interpretation was a veritable prophecy of Caiaphas: “This is nothing else save the sword of Gideon.”

Gideon immediately perceived that the enemy were ripe for panic, and that his fame amongst them as a leader had already been inflated by wild rumour far beyond anything that his natural skill or courage warranted. But what would surely impress him most of all was that this Midianite told the same story as the angel of the Lord: “I will deliver the Midianites into thy hand.”

Here was yet another sign from heaven. Gideon acknowledged it is faith and gratitude: “He worshipped, and returned into the host of Israel, and (next morning) said, ‘Arise: for the Lord hath delivered into your hand the host of Midian.’”

Unique military tactics

From now on everything Gideon did was marked by the most complete confidence in God. So he will deserves to be included in Hebrews 11 with those who wrought “by faith”. But — it should be especially noted — this was a faith maturing from personal experience of the ways of God.

He now pushed forward preparations for the most unorthodox military operation in history. The three hundred elect were equipped with weapons of a unique kind. Trumpets were gathered from among the host, so that each of the three hundred might have one. Torches were fashioned and kindled, and carried in earthenware jars. Weapons they may have had, but not for use in the wild melee that was to ensue in this grotesque operation. Divided into three groups, these men of faith went forth into the night to take up assigned positions on the perimeter of the Midianite camp.

His last instructions rang in their ears: “Look on me, and do likewise — as I do, so shall ye do.” Was the faith of these three hundred any less than that of Gideon himself? They were prepared to give implicit obedience in carrying through the most quixotic scheme ever detailed to a band of soldiers.

Time passed slowly as they crept stealthily to their appointed stations. There they waited, tense and motionless. Then, suddenly the air was filled with a hideous crashing sound, the smashing of three hundred pitchers. Midianites, Amalekites, Arabians rushed forth in bewilderment and alarm from their tents to see all round the camp hundreds of torches describing vivid circles of fire like so many outsize Catherine wheels; and at that moment their ears were assailed by a deep-throated thunderous shout: “The Sword of the Lord and of Gideon!”

Immediately all was panic and chaos indescribable. Camels, plunging violently, broke their tethers and ran amok in the darkness and confusion. The startled Bedouin, already expecting the worst, were convinced that their enemies were in the midst of the camp in large numbers. Thus they fell to fighting furiously among themselves, an error made all the more easy since they were a mixture of at least three different tribes. And all the time there was this startling appearance of fire on the edge of the camp, as though supernatural powers were taking a hand in the bedlam of noise and carnage now rapidly intensifying. Many a son of Ishmael fell in violent bloody struggle that night as “the Lord set every man’s sword against his fellow, even throughout all the host.” At last, crazed with fear by unaccustomed sights and sounds and baffled by the mysterious destruction in their midst, the remnant broke and fled eastward through the night.

As that night of horror passed, and morning broke over the shattered, mangled remnants of the camp, Gideon rapidly organized for instant pursuit and destruction of the enemy, the rest of his forces — those out of the thirty-two thousand who had not yet gone back to their homes. Cross-country runners went out to the Ephraimite villages away to the southeast to warn fellow-Israelites there to hold the fords of Jordan. And the drama moved to the last act in the utter destruction of the hated Bedouin oppression.


Chapter 6

Manasseh not mentioned here because, of course, they were already at the heart of the resistance.
The dew. The first effect is readily explicable scientifically, but scientific explanation of the second sounds rather hollow. If indeed it were a well-recognized phenomenon, why did the “sign” so readily satisfy Gideon?

Chapter 7

Beside the well (spring) of Harod. Hebrew al should probably be read “over, above”, i.e., up the hillside (v. 5a). Al normally means “upon”. In 1 Sam. 28:5; 29:1 Harod was again a spring of trembling.
Let him return and depart. Compare Luke 14:25,26.
I will try them, i.e., as metal is refined (so Heb. and LXX).
The people took victuals seems to mean that the 300 gathered food also from their comrades (RV) — just enough for one good meal (8:4,5), all that they would be needing (as they thought) before final victory.
As sand by the seaside. As many camels as Israelites.
Barley bread, a symbol of Gideon’s humble origin.

That it fell, and overturned it. Literally: Turned itself — and turned it (the tent), and the tent fell.
Virtually the same words in v. 9,15.
Lamps s.w. 15:4,5.
Blow ye the trumpets. Num. 10:9.
“Hearing so many trumpets together, if so many trumpeters, then how many soldiers in proportion to them?” (Fuller)

Next Next Next