Judges now introduces a relatively important character, who will carry us through the next three chapters: Gideon, also known as Jerubbaal. He’s a folk-hero renowned for destroying the altar of Baal, killing lots of Midianites, and having really trippy prophetic visions.
Is there an etymological connection between “Jerubbaal” and “Baal”? Of course! What it is, well, let’s see. In the text of the Bible, the explanation is this:
6:32 That day Joash named Gideon Jerubbaal, saying ‘Let Baal plead his cause against this man, for he has torn down his altar.’
But… the OSE editors are quick to point out:
This popular explanation of Jerubbaal, “Let Baal plead,” is not the natural one; a person with this name, which really means “May Baal take action,” would be a worshipper of Baal, not a foe.”
This enigmatic information will make more sense (in an enigmatic way) once we see Gideon’s story. But CONSIDER THIS: Perhaps Gideon/Jerubbaal was originally a Canaanite folk-hero. PERHAPS.
Anyway, on to his story. It’s compiled from various sources, the seams of which show. It takes place mostly in Ephraim, on the eastern border of Canaan.
As you might have guessed, the Israelites are again in trouble (this time from the Midianites, a nomadic people.) They again need a saviour. We first meet Gideon when he is threshing wheat at his father’s winepress. Gideon is visited by an “angel of the LORD” (or the LORD himself, it’s contradictory) and called to kick some Midianite ass. Gideon doesn’t believe his own eyes. Is this really an angel of the LORD and/or the LORD himself? Only one way to find out! One very very strange way to find out.
I’m just going to type up the next bit because it’s really pretty bizzare, and typical of this section of the text. Here is what Gideon does:
6:17 ‘If I stand so well with you, give me a sign that it is you who speak to me. Please do not leave this place until I come with my gift and lay it before you.’ He [the angel and/or LORD] answered, ‘I will stay until you come back.’ So Gideon went in, prepared a kid and made an ephah of flour into unleavened cakes. He put the meat in the basket, poured the broth into a pot and brought it out to him under the terebinth. As he approached, the angel of God said to him, ‘Take the meat and the cakes, and put them here on the rock and pour out the broth’, and he did so. Then the angel of the LORD reached out the staff in his hand and touched the meat and the cakes with the tip of it. Fire sprang up from the rock and consumed the meat and the cakes; and the angel of the LORD was no more to be seen. Then Gideon knew that it was the angel of the LORD and said, ‘Alas, Lord GOD! Then it is true: I have seen the angel of the LORD face to face.’ But the LORD said to him, ‘Peace be with you; do not be afraid, you shall not die.’ So Gideon built an altar there to the LORD and named it Jehovah-shalom. It stands to this day at Ophrah-of-the-Abiezrites.
Very bad edit job at the end: the angel disappears like a stage magician; then suddenly returns to give a few parting lines. As for the rest of the text, what can I say? The OSE editors seem at a loss as well. The really important details to note are the “terebinth” (this is some sort of a “sacred tree”) and the altar to Yahweh he builds.
The next story regards Gideon, per the LORD’s orders, tearing down the altar to Baal. This altar is coincidentally located on Gideon’s land. And next to the altar, there is a “sacred pole”. If we take the account at face value, Gideon’s father has two altars, to two different Gods, with two sacred pole-ish objects, all co-existing on his land.
This bizzare state of affairs is easily explained by the existence of several sources being muddled together. What we have are two distinct but related stories involving Gideon and an altar on his father’s land. This sounds to me like two folk-explanations for a real place in Canaan. I’d guess the Israelites knew of the remains of an altar to Baal at this site. Jerubbaal was somehow historically connected to it. When the Israelites moved in, they had to explain it’s existence. So they made up stories. One involved Gideon/Jerubbaal having built the altar for Yahweh. The other involved Gideon/Jerubbaal having torn the altar down, for Yahweh. Both make sense, in and of themselves. But when Judges was edited together, these two traditions found themselves in uncomfortably close quarters, leading to a confusing and contradictory text.
Yes, this is all highly speculative, but I have read convincing theories that much of Joshua is geographically (but not historically) accurate. What we may have here is the early Israelites wandering Canaan and explaining what they see- the ruins of cities, etc- and incorporating the locations into the mythology of their people.
Anyway, back to the second story.
Gideon does as he’s told and, under cover of night, destroys the altar, tears down the sacred pole and performs one of those “whole-offering” sacrifices. The next day, the townspeople are apoplectic at the destruction of their sacred site. They tell Gideon’s father (Joash) to narc on his son so they can deliver some mob justice. But Joash is emminently sensible:
6:31 But as they crowded round him Joash retorted, ‘Are you pleading Baal’s cause then? Do you think that it is for you to save him? Whoever pleads his cause shall be put to death at dawn. If Baal is a god, and someone has torn down his altar, let him take up his own cause.’
I’m a bit confused by the line “Whoever pleads his cause shall be put to death at dawn.” (By whom?) But Joash conveys a nice sentiment. Next time a believer gets super-offended on behalf of their omnipotent deity, just go JUDGES SIX THIRTY-ONE!!!!!!!11111 Your God should be able to take care of himself. If he’s so existent and all.
Oh, and obviously, the mob relents. The last bit of Chapter 6 returns to the original narrative and we find Gideon rather abruptly in command of his army, heading off to destroy the Midianites, who have allied with the Amalekites and other “eastern tribes”. There is more prophetic weirdness, this time involving undamp wool.
Gideon/Jerubbaal has his troops ready at En-harod, but there is a problem: Too many troops! Seriously. God thinks there are too many soldiers: when they win, he will not recieve enough glory. He needs to wheedle their numbers down, so that the inevitable victory is more dramatically satisfying and so the glory goes to him, not the stupid puny humans. I’m being serious. This is what is says! So fucking weird.
So how do you turn 32,000 Israelites into a measly 300?
Round One: Tell the pussies to fuck off home! This simple yet effective strategy eliminates 22,000 of the “scared or frightened” Israelites. Only 10,000 manly men left.
Round Two: The “drinking style” test.
7:5 So Gideon brought the people down to the water and the LORD said to him, ‘Make every man who laps the water with his tongue like a dog stand on one side, and on the other every man who goes down on his knees and drinks.’
The score for round 2 is 300 lappers, and 9,700 kneelers. The latter are to go home; the 300 are the elect few who will glorify God in their ethnic cleansing.
Now we get down to the battle. The Midianites and related baddies are encamped in a valley, and there are a SHIT TON of them. So Gideon and a servant go a-spyin’. They overhear a very strange conversation between two soldiers. It goes something like this:
“Oh man, dude, I had such a fucked up dream last night. There was a barley-cake, dude, totally hard and stale, and it was, like, rolling… right through our camp! Dude, and it rolled up to a tent… and oh man… the tent COLLAPSED. It was so weird, dude, I don’t know what it meant.”
His companion interprets the dream:
7: 14 “Depend upon it, this is the sword of Gideon son of Joash the Israelite. God has delivered Midian and the whole army into his hands.
The OSE editors, for once, have an explanation for this weirdness. Barley-cake = farmers (Israelites). Tent = nomads (Midianites). Gotcha.
So the Israelites attack the camp, with trumpets, and torches in jars. I don’t know why they put torches in jars. But they do. SO WEIRD.
Here the text loses its coherence. I’m seeing giant contradictions that signify various sources being mixed, but it’s hard to delineate them. Still, I can’t help but try. (It will be my undoing.)
The Midianites flee. The average reader wouldn’t realize it, but the OSE editors note that the places they flee to are all east of the Jordan (outside of Canaan). If you’ve been paying ANY attention you’ll know all the action has taken place in Ephraim, west of the Jordan. So, logically, the Midianites have crossed the Jordan. TAKE NOTE OF THIS.
Here is the end of chapter 7:
7:23 The Israelites from Naphtali and Asher and all Manasseh were called out and they pursued the Midianites. Gideon sent men through all the hill-country of Ephraim with this message: ‘Come down and cut off the Midianites. Hold the fords of the Jordan as far as Beth-barah.’ So all the Ephraimites were called out and they held the fords of the Jordan as far as Beth-barah. 7:25 They captured the two Midianite princes, Oreb and Zeeb. Oreb they killed at the Rock of Oreb, and Zeeb by the Winepress of Zeeb, and they kept up the pursuit of the Midianites; afterwards they brought the heads of Oreb and Zeeb across the Jordan to Gideon.
See any problems? The Ephraimites are trying to prevent the Midianites from crossing the Jordan… and apparently they succeed (the fords are held, right?) But the Midianites, we know from their locations, just crossed the river. Major, major contradictions here. And then what is up with the king’s heads? Which side of the river are they even headed towards? HAHAHA.
How to solve these contradictions? Sift out the sources. After a lot of puzzlement, here is my FINAL ANSWER. I believe that the main text of chapter 7 ends abruptly partway through verse 22. Then, 7:22b-7:24 is a short bridge, drawn from several fragments. Finally, 7:25-8:3 is a cohesive insert. The text beginning 8:4 apparently continues the main story from Chapter 7.
I really should round out this post with the final chapter of Gideon’s adventures, but this is quite long enough!