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Bible Commentaries

Peter Pett's Commentary on the Bible

Judges 7

 

 

Introduction

Chapter 7. Gideon Smites the Midianite Confederacy.

In this chapter we have an account of the army gathered out of several tribes under Gideon, which were finally reduced under God’s instructions from thirty two large units to three hundred men, and we are told by what means this was done, and how Gideon was directed to himself go among the host of the Midianites, where he heard one of them telling his dream to his fellow, which greatly encouraged Gideon to believe that he would succeed. Also we are told of the way in which he disposed of his reduced army in order to attack the Midianites, and the orders that he gave them, which had the desired effect, and issued in the total rout of that huge army. Those who were not destroyed were pursued by Israelites gathered out of several tribes, and the passages of Jordan were taken by the Ephraimites, so that those who attempted to escape into their own country there fell into their hands.


Verse 1

Chapter 7. Gideon Smites the Midianite Confederacy.

In this chapter we have an account of the army gathered out of several tribes under Gideon, which were finally reduced under God’s instructions from thirty two large units to three hundred men, and we are told by what means this was done, and how Gideon was directed to himself go among the host of the Midianites, where he heard one of them telling his dream to his fellow, which greatly encouraged Gideon to believe that he would succeed. Also we are told of the way in which he disposed of his reduced army in order to attack the Midianites, and the orders that he gave them, which had the desired effect, and issued in the total rout of that huge army. Those who were not destroyed were pursued by Israelites gathered out of several tribes, and the passages of Jordan were taken by the Ephraimites, so that those who attempted to escape into their own country there fell into their hands.

Judges 7:1

Then Jerubbaal, who is Gideon, and all the people who were with him, rose up early, and pitched beside the spring of Harod, and the camp of Midian was on the north side of them, by the Hill of Moreh in the valley.’

This verse emphasises the new name given to Gideon, the name of Jerubbaal, but the narrative then speaks of him again as Gideon. It is however under his new name that he is known elsewhere (1 Samuel 12:11) and his household is known as the house of Jerubbaal (Judges 8:29; Judges 8:35), the one with whom Baal presumably (in men’s minds) strove but could not defeat.

The people were now with him and they rose up early, ready for battle. The odds did not seem good. Thirty two units against one hundred and thirty five (Judges 8:10). But they were encouraged by the signs that Gideon had received.

“The spring of Harod.” This spring was at the foot of Mount Gilboa, east of Jezreel, and flows eastward into the Bethshean valley. It is a copious spring and its name means ‘trembling’, an apt name in view of the withdrawal of many of Gideon’s troops through fear (Judges 7:3). It is probably what is now known as ‘Ain Jalud in which case its banks are infested in leeches, and no one knowing it would put his mouth directly in the water. The enemy were to the north, in the plain, by the hill of Moreh, at the head of the north side of the Valley of Jezreel, now known as Jebel Dahi.


Verse 2

‘And Yahweh said to Gideon, “The people who are with you are too many for me to give the Midianites into their hand, lest Israel vaunt themselves against me, saying, my own hand has saved me.” ’

Gideon undoubtedly wondered whether his thirty two units would be sufficient. But Yahweh declared that they were too many. For He knew men’s hearts. He did not want them taking the credit on themselves. This was in fact further assurance that He was committed to victory, and demonstrated that His strength did not lie in numbers but in His own power. Gideon could take comfort in that.

“Lest Israel vaunt themselves against Me.” The unusual use of ‘Israel’ (unusual in Judges - see introduction) as the subject of an active verb stresses the theoretical nature of the idea being mooted. His covenant ‘children of Israel’ would not vaunt themselves against Him, only a rebel Israel.


Verse 3

“Now therefore go to, proclaim in the ears of the people saying, whoever is fearful and trembling, let him return, and depart (or ‘chirp’ - from the Arabic) from Mount Gilead.”

This was in accordance with Deuteronomy 20:8. The purpose was so that they might not spread fear among the remainder.

“Depart from Mount Gilead (gl‘d).” It is quite possible that those living in the area had called a nearby mountain after their ancestor Gilead (Numbers 26:29). Abiezer was descended from Gilead (Numbers 26:30 with Joshua 17:2). There was a more famous Mount Gilead elsewhere (Genesis 31:21). Some have suggested translating here ‘Mount Gal‘ud’ (the same consonants).

But the meaning of the verb translated ‘depart’ is unknown, and it is not found elsewhere. However, we can compare the later Arabic ‘to dance, leap, spring’ or ‘to chirp’. Thus the whole tenor of the phrase is uncertain. Perhaps it means ‘chirp from Mount Gilead’ in Transjordan, like a bird sitting watching from a place of safety. The idea being to picture the defaulters as taking refuge on Mount Gilead and chirping from there in safety as they watch the battle. Or perhaps the consonants need repointing and the ‘m’ (here translated ‘from’) be attached to ytspr instead. But the basic idea is clear. They could return home.

“And there returned of the people twenty two military units (‘thousands, clans, families”) and there remained ten units.’ Thus Gideon was now left with only ten military units. How his heart must have quailed when he saw two thirds of his fighting force depart. But Yahweh was also watching and His heart did not quail. In fact He decided that there were still too many. After all the enemy only had one hundred and thirty five military units of fighting men.


Verse 4

‘And Yahweh said to Gideon, “The people are still too many. Bring them down to the water, and I will try (‘separate by refining’) them for you there. And it shall be, that of whom I say to you, this shall go with you, the same shall go with you, and of whoever I say to you, this shall not go with you, the same will not go.” ’

Gideon was told to take them all down to the water’s edge, where Yahweh would separate those who were to go in the first phase from those who were not to go. Notice that Yahweh’s purpose was to ‘test’ them. This was thus a refining process in order to obtain the most useful.


Verse 5

‘So he brought down the people to the water, and Yahweh said to Gideon, Everyone who laps of the water with his tongue, as a dog laps, him you will set by himself. Likewise everyone who bows down on his knee to drink.” ’

The distinction was to be between those who took water in their hands and lapped it like a dog, and those who knelt down and put their faces in the water, not noticing the leeches.

It may be that this was simply a way of distinguishing a small group from the remainder, but there may well have been more to it than that, for Yahweh had described it as a ‘test’. Those who put their faces in the water showed a certain lack of self-restraint and of alertness. Furthermore they demonstrated that they had not noticed the leeches (see on Judges 7:1). Thus they had less control and were less aware of things. For what he was about to do Gideon needed men of iron control and men who had their wits about them and were alert.


Verse 6

‘And the number of those who lapped, putting their hand to their mouth, was three hundred men. But all the rest of the people bowed down on their knees to drink water.’

Now, no doubt to Gideon’s dismay, his ten larger units had been reduced to three much smaller units. The number three represents completeness. Thus ‘three’ military units may mean ‘the ideal number of men but on a small scale’. Three units was all that God needed, three units of alert, self-controlled, astute fighting men.


Verse 7

‘And Yahweh said to Gideon, “By the three hundred men who lapped will I save you, and deliver the Midianites into your hand. And let all the people go, every man to his place.” ’

Then Yahweh confirmed to Gideon that by these three smaller units of men would deliverance come and the enemy be defeated. The remainder could go to their tents and await the call to further action.


Verse 8

‘So the people took victuals in their hand, and their ram’s horns, and he sent all the men of Israel, every man to his tent, but retained the three hundred men. And the camp of Midian was beneath him in the valley.’

This may mean that the people handed their ram’s horns over to Gideon i.e. ‘took them’ to Gideon (he would need three hundred ram’s horns), or that the remainder now took their victuals and ram’s horns with them to their tents. These troops were not needed immediately, although they would be called on when the battle was won (Judges 7:23 with Judges 6:35). They retired to their tents to await further instructions.

“Victuals”. LXX has ‘they took the pitchers of the people’ which would require a slight change in the Hebrew. The texts behind LXX may have read like this. It makes sense that they should hand over pitchers and ram’s horns to the three hundred to ensure that they had enough.

“Returned to their tents” could mean that they went home (‘tents’ being metaphorical), but it is more likely in view of what followed that they were there ready in their camp when the call came.

“And the camp of Midian was beneath him in the valley.” There, stretched out before him in the Valley of Jezreel, were the countless camels and their riders, fierce warriors who feared nothing. Or so it seemed. One hundred and thirty five military units of them, filling the valley. And he with less than three units and with only three men to deal with each large camel unit.


Verse 9

Gideon Learns That Yahweh Has Made the Enemy Afraid of Him (Judges 7:9-14).

Judges 7:9

And so it was that the same night Yahweh said to him, “rise, get yourself down into the camp, for I have delivered it into your hands.” ’

Now that everything was ready the command came to advance. The waiting was over and it was time for the attack to begin. But Yahweh saw the dread in Gideon’s heart as he looked out over the numerous camp fires scattered throughout the valley, and then around at his pitifully small band of men. And He had compassion on him. God is ever ready to consider our needs. He never demands more than we can give.

“And so it was that the same night Yahweh said to him.” These are the same exact words as the opening of Judges 6:25. The writer wishes us to connect the actions. The throwing down of the altar of Baal was the reason why he could now go forward to deliver Israel. Had he not done the one he would not have been able to do the other. Like faith, obedience and success grow step by step.


Verse 10-11

Judges 7:10-11 a

‘But if you are afraid to go down, you yourself go with Purah, your servant, down to the camp. And you will hear what they say, and afterwards your hands will be strengthened to go down into the camp.’

So God gave him permission to go out as a scout to assess the enemy, assuring him that what he would overhear would give him the strength to go forward with the attack.

Judges 7:11 b

‘Then went he down with Purah his servant to the outermost part of the armed men who were in the camp.’

So Gideon and his servant made their way down and wormed their way in the darkness to where there were men at the extremity of the camp. These would be the sentinels, standing on duty and talking with each other to pass the first watch away.


Verse 12

And the Midianites and the Amalekites, and all the children of the east, lay along in the valley like locusts for multitude, and their camels were without number as the sand which is on the sea shore for multitude.’

As they crawled nearer they could see stretching before them the camp fires indicating the huge force that was awaiting their attack, a force beyond numbering, like a huge swarm of locusts covering the ground, and they were there with the sole purpose of devouring all that the Israelites possessed. Only those who have witnessed the vastness of a swarm of locusts and seen the devastation that they cause can begin to appreciate the picture.

“Without number.” Granted that this is deliberate exaggeration, nevertheless we should remember that numbering was not an art practised by many in those days, especially among folk like the Israelites. Numbers were used descriptively rather than mathematically. The sand by the sea shore is a description regularly used to describe countless numbers (Genesis 22:17; Joshua 11:4; 1 Samuel 13:5; 2 Samuel 17:11; Hosea 1:10). And these camels were there to carry off booty.


Verse 13

And when Gideon was come, behold there was a man who told a dream to his fellow, and said, “Behold, I dreamed a dream, and lo, a cake of barley bread tumbled into the camp of Midian, and came to the Tent, and smote it that it fell, and turned it upside down so that the Tent lay along.” ’

As they came nearer they heard two sentinels talking, and one telling the other of a vivid dream he had had, the dream of a cake of barley bread tumbling into the camp of Midian and crashing into the Tent (probably the tent of the Midianite commander-in-chief, but possibly as symbolising the whole camp) and dismantling it spectacularly so that it lay horizontally on the ground. His double use of ‘behold’ and ‘lo’ demonstrated how impressed he had been by it.

Dreams were considered of great importance in ancient times, especially if the dreamer was an important man, for it was thought that the gods revealed the future by these means. Every dream was seen as having some significance, the only problem being to discern what that was.

In this case barley bread was the food of the poor. It was half the value of fine flour (2 Kings 7:1) and was clearly seen as symbolising downtrodden Israel. It would have been their staple diet at this time of oppression. The fact of only one barley cake may indeed suggest the bareness of their provisions. Thus the dream could only mean the destruction of the Midianite confederacy by Israel. That is certainly how the sentinels saw it. The writer probably saw some significance in the fact that they were camped ‘by the hill of Moreh’ (verse 1). Moreh means ‘diviner, oracle giver’.


Verse 14

And his fellow answered and said, “This is none other than the sword of Gideon, the son of Joash, a man of Israel. Into his hand has God delivered Midian and all the host.” ’

His companion certainly had no doubt as to its meaning. News had reached the camp about this man Gideon who had mustered the forces of Israel. It may have been through the capture of Israelites who in defiance had told them what Gideon was going to do to them, or the capture of runners who had been taking the call throughout Israel, or the help of Canaanites who were always ready to do Israel down. They did not know how many had gathered, or what forces Gideon had, but they were clearly alarmed. God had sent his ‘hornet’ before Him to terrify the enemy (Deuteronomy 17:20; Joshua 24:12).

“Into his hand has God delivered Midian and all the host.” Note the use of the term ‘God’, not ‘Yahweh’. The Midianites would not think in terms of Yahweh. They felt that the dream indicated that the gods were against them and on Gideon’s side. Perhaps also they had heard something about the amazing sign that Gideon had received, passed on in a somewhat exaggerated fashion. The appearance of the angel of Yahweh would have been cited in the call to the tribes (Judges 6:35). Fear of the unknown was beginning to bite into the hearts of the Midianite confederacy. Yahweh had filled their hearts with apprehension and doubt.


Verse 15

The Defeat of the Midianites and Their Allies (Judges 7:15-25).

Judges 7:15

And it was so that, when Gideon heard the telling of the dream, and its interpretation, he worshipped. And he returned to the camp of Israel, and said, “Arise, for Yahweh has delivered into your hand the host of Midian.” ’

On hearing the words of the sentinels Gideon’s heart was filled with worship and praise. He recognised that God was showing him that Midian were panicking. They too were afraid of Yahweh. Thus it was clear that victory would now be His. His men could get up and go, for Yahweh would deliver them into their hand.

It is noteworthy that all through the narrative there is no hint of criticism from God. He knew that this was an immature young man in the process of growing up, and that what He was demanding would have tested the faith even of Deborah. He knew too that the signs would be important in keeping the children of Israel convinced that Yahweh was with Gideon in the face of what was being asked of them. They too needed great faith. Gideon was not only confirming his own faith but the faith of his followers. After all, the only status that he had in their eyes was that which came through God’s signs.

Thus He patiently went along with Gideon in what he asked as long as he continued to move forwards to the final end. It should be noted that each sign, apart from the first, followed Gideon’s steps of obedience. He committed himself first and then sought signs along the route as confirmation, not before he was willing to act. They were confidence boosters for all who followed him, not demands before he would act.

How many of us would have destroyed the altar of Baal knowing that the death penalty awaited, would have taken the risk of calling on the tribes to follow us when the position seemed hopeless (Judges 6:35), would have stood by without protest when God twice reduced our strength to a minimum, and would have gone down by night to the camp of Midian? How many of us would even have got the people to follow us? How cleverly we would have shown that we could not do these things. It would not be sensible. Most of us would have prayed and left it to God do it if He wanted to. But Gideon was a man of growing faith, and was willing to stick his neck out for it, and that is what the writer is portraying. He was one of the men of faith in Hebrews 11:32.


Verses 16-18

And he divided the three hundred men into three companies, and he put into the hands of all of them ram’s horns, and empty pitchers, with torches within the pitchers. And he said to them, “Watch me, and do the same. And behold when I come to the extremity of the camp it shall be that as I do, so you shall do. When I blow the ram’s horn, I and all who are with me, then you blow the ram’s horns also on every side of the whole camp, and say ‘For Yahweh and for Gideon’.” ’

The strategy was simple. With the ram’s horns hanging by a cord from their necks and their swords at their sides, they would carry the empty pitchers and the torches within the pitchers, to a point just outside the enemy camp. They would go in three companies so that they could spread out widely on three different approaches to the camp.

Then Gideon would blow his ram’s horn first, a lone and disconcerting wail, alerting the camp that the attack was beginning. Thus would the camp be awoken and sleepily stirring when suddenly they would hear the sound of three hundred ram’s horns over a wide range, replying to the first and sounding the charge. Racing from their tents in the unnerving darkness they would then see three hundred lights appear over a wide range, each held by the leader of a military unit to rally his men (or so they would think). Thus they faced three hundred military units, a huge force. And they were already unnerved at the thought that the gods were with Gideon. No wonder panic set in.


Verse 19-20

So Gideon, and the one hundred men who were with him, came to the extremity of the camp at the beginning of the middle watch, when they had but newly set the watch, and they blew the ram’s horns and broke in pieces the pitchers that were in their hands, and the three companies blew the ram’s horns, and broke the pitchers, and held the torches in their left hands and the ram’s horns in their right hands to blow withal, and they cried “The sword of Yahweh and of Gideon”.’

So the men of Israel crept silently down in the darkness just after 10:00 pm (22:00 hours, the middle watch was from around 22:00 hours to 2:00 am), when most would be asleep or dozing in anticipation of coming battle. The new watch had just come on, alert and nervous, and suddenly there came the wail of a single ram’s horn, and then the area around the camp became alive with signs of a night attack, with ram’s horns replying and torches blazing. Night attack was always devastating, for in the darkness it was not always possible to tell who was who, and figures in the darkness seemed multiplied, and could be friend or enemy.

So first the ram’s horns were sounded, echoing through the night, drawing attention to the wide areas where the attacks were coming from, then the horns on their cords were dropped while the pitchers, which would be of earth and easily broken, were smashed. This would make an unnerving noise in the darkness as they probably clashed them against each other, and the torches would then be lifted and waved, bursting into flame.

Dropping the broken jars they would again seize their ram’s horns and would give a further series of blasts, and would wave their torches and shout their warcry, “For Yahweh and for Gideon”. The torches would be of rags soaked in oil on a stick, or some other form of inflammable material. They would only glow gently within the pitchers until exposed to and waved in the air. The whole effect over a wide area can be imagined. The Midianite confederacy, already unnerved by Yahweh’s activity, wondered what was about to hit them and panicked. The dreaded Gideon, by now developed in their minds into a mythical hero, was here.

The sentinels would probably sound their own horns, and some would race to the commanders’ tents. Figures would be moving in the darkness with drawn swords, joined by others leaving their tents ready for an attack, some carrying torches. The fearful, unnerved, would think of escape, others of readiness for battle, and run to their camels with weapons at the ready. The result was that as shadowy figures came out of the darkness of the camp they began to see each other as the enemy and to cut each other down, and as blade clashed with blade it would result in further panic. The enemy were among them!


Verse 20

‘And they stood every man in his place around the camp, and all the host ran about, and they shouted and put them to flight.’

The courage needed by these men was immense. Had they been discovered they would probably have died instantly, or even worse. But they stood in their place, blew their ram’s horns, waved their torches and yelled their warcry. And they succeeded. The enemy ran about, totally disorganised, broke up and fled for safety from the ‘pursuing hordes’, which were, in fact, all in their minds. Many of their camels would be left behind. The tendency would be not to bother about them. Life was at stake and they would not be thinking clearly.


Verse 21

‘And they blew the three hundred ram’s horns, and Yahweh set every man’s sword against his fellow and against all the host.’

The three hundred continued to blow as they watched the disorder revealed in the camp, by cries, and clashes of steel, and moving torches, and Yahweh fed the panic until it became a rout, with men slaughtering each other. For once the escape began the three allied forces would be intermingled and recognition would totally have gone. Every man would be seen as an enemy, and everyone thought the other was an enemy, for who was to know? Note the stress on the fact of Yahweh’s direct involvement. This was Yahweh’s doing.

“And the host fled to Bethshittah toward Zererath, as far as the border (‘lip, bank”) of Abel-meholah, by Tabbath.’

The places are unknown to us but ‘bank’ suggests either a wadi leading down to the Jordan or even the Jordan itself. Abel-meholah later became part of Solomon’s fifth district (1 Kings 4:12) and was Elisha’s birthplace (1 Kings 19:16). It is usually seen as sited in the Jordan valley, south of Beth-shean. Some place Zererah as south of Jabesh Gilead. So they fled towards the Jordan rift, heading for ‘home’.


Verse 23

‘And the men of Israel were gathered together, out of Naphtali, and out of Asher, and out of all Manasseh, and pursued after Midian.’

The enemy having been routed by Yahweh, the chase now began. The three hundred would be first in pursuit (Judges 8:4). The ten units in their tents would be the next to join the pursuit, followed by many more who would join them as messengers carried the news of the success. (Asher could hardly have joined in if they had not been still nearby. They would never have caught up).


Verse 24

‘And Gideon sent messengers throughout all the hill country of Ephraim, saying, come down against Midian and take before them the waters as far as Bethbarah, even the Jordan.’

Not wanting the enemy to escape too easily Gideon sent fast messengers to Ephraim and asked them to move down and guard the fords. The flight would take time, for some would at some point stand and fight, others would make for the hills until the way seemed clear, while their panic meant that they had not been ready for the journey and many would be on foot. So they would not move as fast as the speedy messengers, whom Gideon probably already had standing by.

“So all the men of Ephraim were gathered together, and took the waters as far as Bethbarah, even the Jordan.” Ephraim were quick to respond. They stood firm by the covenant. They knew something of what had been happening but had clearly not been so affected, if at all, by the invasion. But they were ready to support their brothers.


Verse 25

‘And they took two princes of Midian, Oreb and Zeeb, and they slew Oreb at the rock of Oreb, and Zeeb they slew at the winepress of Zeeb, and pursued Midian. And they brought the heads of Oreb and Zeeb to Gideon, beyond Jordan.’

Chronologically this happened after Gideon had crossed the Jordan (compare Judges 8:4). This method of continuing a story until the end, followed by going back to a parallel story occurs regularly in ancient writings.

Oreb means Raven and Zeeb means Wolf. The Midianites appear to have favoured animal names. Compare how Moses’ Midianite wife was called ‘little bird’ (Zipporah - Exodus 2:21). Oreb and Zeeb were princes of Midian. But the ‘kings’ appeared to have escaped. They had the fleetest camels. The rock and winepress were named after these events. The whole situation became a byword in Israel (Isaiah 9:4; Isaiah 10:26; Psalms 83:11). Out of all the sufferings of the people in Judges this one was most deeply remembered as the most terrible, for their enemy had tried to destroy them through starvation.

 


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Bibliography Information
Pett, Peter. "Commentary on Judges 7:4". "Peter Pett's Commentary on the Bible ". http://odl.studylight.org/commentaries/pet/judges-7.html. 2013.

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