This blog offers a meditation on the Common Lectionary daily readings along with a headline from world news:
Judges 8 New Revised Standard Version, Anglicised (NRSVA)
Gideon’s Triumph and Vengeance
8 Then the Ephraimites said to him, ‘What have you done to us, not to call us when you went to fight against the Midianites?’ And they upbraided him violently. 2 So he said to them, ‘What have I done now in comparison with you? Is not the gleaning of the grapes of Ephraim better than the vintage of Abiezer? 3 God has given into your hands the captains of Midian, Oreb and Zeeb; what have I been able to do in comparison with you?’ When he said this, their anger against him subsided.
4 Then Gideon came to the Jordan and crossed over, he and the three hundred who were with him, exhausted and famished.[a] 5 So he said to the people of Succoth, ‘Please give some loaves of bread to my followers, for they are exhausted, and I am pursuing Zebah and Zalmunna, the kings of Midian.’ 6 But the officials of Succoth said, ‘Do you already have in your possession the hands of Zebah and Zalmunna, that we should give bread to your army?’ 7 Gideon replied, ‘Well then, when the Lord has given Zebah and Zalmunna into my hand, I will trample your flesh on the thorns of the wilderness and on briers.’ 8 From there he went up to Penuel, and made the same request of them; and the people of Penuel answered him as the people of Succoth had answered. 9 So he said to the people of Penuel, ‘When I come back victorious, I will break down this tower.’
10 Now Zebah and Zalmunna were in Karkor with their army, about fifteen thousand men, all who were left of all the army of the people of the east; for one hundred and twenty thousand men bearing arms had fallen. 11 So Gideon went up by the caravan route east of Nobah and Jogbehah, and attacked the army; for the army was off its guard. 12 Zebah and Zalmunna fled; and he pursued them and took the two kings of Midian, Zebah and Zalmunna, and threw all the army into a panic.
13 When Gideon son of Joash returned from the battle by the ascent of Heres, 14 he caught a young man, one of the people of Succoth, and questioned him; and he listed for him the officials and elders of Succoth, seventy-seven people. 15 Then he came to the people of Succoth, and said, ‘Here are Zebah and Zalmunna, about whom you taunted me, saying, “Do you already have in your possession the hands of Zebah and Zalmunna, that we should give bread to your troops who are exhausted?”’ 16 So he took the elders of the city and he took thorns of the wilderness and briers and with them he trampled[b] the people of Succoth. 17 He also broke down the tower of Penuel, and killed the men of the city.
18 Then he said to Zebah and Zalmunna, ‘What about the men whom you killed at Tabor?’ They answered, ‘As you are, so were they, every one of them; they resembled the sons of a king.’ 19 And he replied, ‘They were my brothers, the sons of my mother; as the Lord lives, if you had saved them alive, I would not kill you.’ 20 So he said to Jether his firstborn, ‘Go, kill them!’ But the boy did not draw his sword, for he was afraid, because he was still a boy. 21 Then Zebah and Zalmunna said, ‘You come and kill us; for as the man is, so is his strength.’ So Gideon proceeded to kill Zebah and Zalmunna; and he took the crescents that were on the necks of their camels.
“Gideon’s the main man” seems to be the message here. He not only catches and kills the leaders of the enemy, but also soothes the Ephraimites whom he has offended by failing to call them to join the holy war, and punishes the people of Succoth and Penuel, who have refused to help his men. I’m not sure what exactly is involved in “trampling with thorns” but it doesn’t sound a load of laughs. The motif of the leader who is insulted and takes a humiliating revenge is a universal folk-tale element, used with gusto by this author. The use of vastly greater numbers of warriors (120,000) than could possibly have been mustered by a small desert people is also traditonal, serving to point up the courage and skill of the hero and his men. The author also credits Zebah and Zalmunna with a kind of stoic courage: they are real hard men.
All in all, what’s not to like? The charismatic hero called by God wins the battle, kills the enemies, saves the people, routs his critics.
Well, the author gives just a little disturbing detail. Gideon takes the gold crescents from his enemies’ camels. As the story continues we hear that Gideon uses these and other booty to make a gold image which he sets up in his own town, perhaps as a memorial of victory, but it becomes a cult object for the Israelites.
Just a little arrogance, a little self-regard is enough to undermine the faith of the people and the achievements of a hero. Even the person called by God can take his eyes off the God who inspires him and on to his own reputation. In this respect the hero is typical of his people as depicted by the book of Judges. In trouble they turn to God, who gives them a rescuer; but in good times they forget the true God and turn to idols. Doubtless they just thought that all Gods had their uses. The Lord Jahweh was a for them a god of war whereas there were gods and godesses of the land who could assist with good harvests. The bible history of Israel as edited over generations, shows how the worship of the one God had to be rescued again and an again from a more natural approach to religion. The nature Gods were well-behaved if sometimes negligent supernatural assistants to their worshippers, but Jahweh the God of the ancestors, had his own purposes, his own pride, his own anger. He was a troublesome deity.