1 Kings 19: Meditation Retreat

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Following from the story in the last chapter, Ahab rushes home to tell Jezebel about the slaughter of the prophets. I think we’re supposed to understand something about the power dynamics at Israel’s royal court.

When Jezebel vows to come after Elijah, he flees the country again, this time going to Beersheba in Judah. He stops just long enough to deposit his servant before walking off into the wilderness, finding a tree to sit under, and ask God to let him die.

The accuracy of this description of depression is quite accurate, right down to the part where Elijah falls asleep and refuses to get up again for what appears to be a rather long time. During that time, an angel wakes him, gets him to eat a bit of miracle food, and Elijah goes back to sleep. A little later, the angel wakes him again to eat, saying that he must make sure to eat or else “the journey will be too great for you” (1 Kings 19:7).

Elijah in the Wilderness, by Frederic Leighton, 1878

Elijah in the Wilderness, by Frederic Leighton, 1878

Apparently on those two meals alone, Elijah is able to walk for forty days and forty nights through the wilderness to Horeb. This is a clear reference of the Exodus story, and is perhaps intended to lend some vicarious credibility to Elijah.

Once Elijah finds himself a cave to live in, the same encounter repeats itself, nearly word for word. In both, God asks Elijah what he’s doing there. Elijah responds that he has been very jealous for God because the Israelites have forsaken the covenants, slain the prophets, and thrown down the altars – the latter being rather amusing in light of the Deuteronomist “smash the altars” position.

Similar to Moses’s sighting in Exodus 33:21-23, God tells Elijah to come out and look look at him. Of course, there’s a lengthy pre-show to get through first, complete with great winds, the rocks in God’s path smashing into pieces, an earthquake, and a fire. Lest readers get the wrong theological idea, we’re told explicitly that God is none of these things.

Rather, God is… something. Various translations give it as “a still small voice,” “a gentle whisper,” “a gentle blowing,” “a whistling of a gentle air,” and “a voice of gentle silence” (1 Kings 19:12). Elijah covers his face with his mantle and emerges from the cave, suggesting that perhaps he hadn’t actually seen all the natural disasters that preceded the voice. Since this is where the narrative loops, it seems that two traditions were stitched together, or perhaps this detail of Elijah emerging from the cave migrated a little.

The voice repeats the question: “What are you doing, Elijah?” (1 Kings 19:13). I think it would be a mistake to take this question literally. It’s more like when you walk into the kitchen and find your preschooler, as well as the entire kitchen, utterly covered in flour. You know what he’s doing, you’re not asking to find out.

After Elijah confesses to his jealousy (again), God sends him to the wilderness of Damascus so that he can anoint Hazael as king of Syria. After that, he’s to anoint Jehu, son of Nimshi, as king of Israel. Finally, he’s to anoint Elisha, son of Shaphat, as his own successor. The idea is to destroy Israel. Hazael will take the first swing, anyone who misses while fall to Jehu, and Elisha will sweep up the remainder. Only seven thousand Israelites, those who never bowed to Baal, will survive.

Disregarding God’s wishes, Elijah instead heads straight out to where Elisha is ploughing with twelve oxen. I doubt that the number of oxen is a coincidence.

Rather than anoint him (unless we take “anoint” metaphorically), Elijah places his own mantle over Elisha. Elisha then becomes Elijah’s servant, signifying that he will be Elijah’s successor as Joshua served Moses in Exodus 24:13.

But before Elisha leaves, he slaughters his twelve oxen and throws a feast for the people.

1 Kings 3-4: Solomon tries to cut a baby in half

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The court cleared of dissent, Solomon starts working on external politics – marrying the daughter of an Egyptian Pharaoh. He brought her to the city of David, pending the completion of his own house (presumably here meaning “palace” rather than “dynasty”) and the wall around Jerusalem.

The Deuteronomist editor slips in a bit about how “the people were sacrificing at high place,” though this is excusable for the time being because “no house had yet been built for the name of the Lord” (1 Kgs 3:2). We know by content that this is the Deuteronomist talking, but we know to look because it makes no sense in context. This location for the verse seems to have been chosen only because of the mention of construction preceding it, and the mention of Solomon worshipping at high places following.

In fact, the source material seems to approve quite plainly of Solomon’s worship at the high places, saying that he did it because he “loved the Lord” (1 Kgs 3:3). Solomon, we are told, was quite a fan of these high places (and of God!), and sacrificed a hyperbolic amount. In particular, he made a huge sacrifice at Gibeon, which occasioned God’s appearance in his dreams.

Like some sort of magical fish, God offers to grant one wish. Solomon chooses wisdom, and God is so pleased with the choice that he just grants riches, honour, and long life, too – so long as Solomon always obeys God, of course. Then again, the bar is set rather low, since God only requires that Solomon walk on God’s road “as your father David walked” (1 Kgs 3:14) – has he been reading the same book I’ve been reading?

Solomon is so pleased with how that dream, went (and who wouldn’t be!) that he rushes back to Jerusalem to make another offering before the ark.

Practical Wisdom

The next seems to have been included to show us an example of Solomon’s new-found wisdom in action. It takes place while he sites in judgement, apparently bridging the gap between local chieftain and king, since it seems unlikely that a king would have the time to see more than a symbolic handful of petitioners – a lesson Moses learned way back in Exodus 18 and Deuteronomy 16.

Victor Matthews says that Solomon may have taken up the task for political reasons:

These shifts [introduction of monarchy and movement of population to urban centres] contributed to significant changes in legal customs and the administration of justice in ancient Israel. Naturally the Israelite kings, like their ancient Near Eastern counterparts (see the preface to Hammurabi’s code in ANET, 164), wished to exercise as much control over the law and its enforcement as possible in order to increase their own authority. This meant the king had to be identified with dispensing of justice to all segments of society, especially the weak. The ideal, perhaps best exemplified by Solomon’s judging of the two prostitutes (1 Kgs 3:16-28), was to create the perception that he was a “just king.” With this accomplished, it would be more likely that people would look to him first for justice. (Manners & Customs of the Bible, p.119)

The scene is very similar to David’s dealings with Ziba and Mephibosheth back in 2 Samuel 19. In that case, David had granted Mephibosheth’s lands to Ziba after the latter claims that the former failed to support David when he fled Jerusalem. When David returns, Mephibosheth claims that Ziba had lied. In this case, two prostitutes come before Solomon, claiming that they had given birth within three days of each other and, while alone in the house one night, one of them had lain on her baby, suffocating it by accidentally. Now, each are claiming that the mother of the dead child secretly switched it for the other woman’s living child.

The Judgement of Solomon, by Peter Paul Rubens, c,1617

The Judgement of Solomon, by Peter Paul Rubens, c.1617

When David had dealt with Ziba and Mephibosheth, he tried to resolve the argument by splitting the lands in half, so that each would get a share. Solomon claims that he will do the same here, fetching a sword to cut the baby in half so that each woman could have a share.

When the solution was given, both Mephibosheth and the (presumably) true mother gave up their claim (the other woman demanding the child’s death so that “it shall be neither mine nor yours” – 1 Kgs 3:26), preferring that the land/baby be whole and out of their possession, rather than divided/dead and only half theirs. David shrugged and accepted Mephibosheth’s relinquishing of his claim to the lands. Solomon, by contrast, declares her to be the true mother and gives her the baby, whole.

This story only really works in contrast to David’s, so that we can see Solomon’s wisdom boost in contrast to how David dealt with a similar issue. But neither story works except in contrast to the other. David dealt horribly with Ziba and Mephibosheth, rewarding a man who seems to have been opportunistic and perfectly willing to betray his master (not something a king should particularly be encouraging – though the fact that David does certainly goes a way toward explaining how his reign came to be so troubled), while screwing over a cripple whose livelihood was probably put into question by the ruling.

In Solomon’s case, there was really only one way to resolve the issue, and it depended entirely on one woman (and only the one) relinquishing her claim. Any other outcome would have required Solomon to either reveal his bluff or murder a baby – neither which, I imagine, would have particularly endeared him to his people.

The second woman had recently lost her baby and resorted to kidnapping a replacement. While it’s certainly possible that she might have been so bitter that she would rather see a second baby die rather than live in a house with a healthy baby who wasn’t her own, that seems far from the only way she could have responded. So unless Solomon’s wisdom included clairvoyance, I think his gambit was far more of a long shot than the narrative implies – unless, of course, he really was perfectly willing to murder the baby.

Incidentally, Tim Bulkeley points out that neither woman is called “mother” by the narrative, only by Solomon and only at the very end when he renders his judgement. He also mentions that when the one who is determined to be the true mother is moved by “compassion” (1 Kgs 3:26) to relinquish her claim, the word used is etymologically related to the word for “womb.”

Solomon’s Administration

Chapter 4 begins with Solomon’s cabinet. From the very first, there’s some confusion as we are told that Azariah, the son of Zadok was the priest, while a few verses later has both Zadok and Abiathar as priests (Abiathar, of course, having been deposed earlier). Explaining Abiathar’s presence requires that we assume that some time-hopping is going on, but Azariah is more complicated. I can only guess, but it’s possible that Azariah’s role is as a family priest, perhaps tending exclusively to Solomon and his household, while Zadok and Abiathar are meant to be the co-high priests, in charge of all the other priests. Sort of like the difference between a family chaplain and a pope.

We also get another Azariah, this time the son of Nathan, who is in charge of the officers. Zabud, also the son of Nathan, is another priest and king’s friend. My first thought was that both of these Nathans were Nathan the Prophet, though it seems more probable given the lack of honorific that he was David’s son, mentioned in 2 Sam. 5:14.

  • Elihoreph and Ahijah, the sons of Shisha, served as secretaries;
  • Jehoshaphat, son of Ahilud, was recorder;
  • Benaiah, son of Jehoiada, was commander of the army;
  • Ahishar was in charge of the palace;
  • Adoniram, son of Abda, was in charge of the forced labor.

We’re also told that Solomon appointed twelve officers, overseers of the various territories in the nation. Interestingly, these territories do not “conform to the old tribal boundaries,” as my study Bible puts it. These officers seem to be in charge of collecting taxes, providing food for the king and his household (apparently each being responsible for one month of the court’s needs per year). These officers were:

  1. Ben-hur over the hill country of Ephraim
  2. Ben-decker over Makaz, Shaal’bim, Bethshemesh, and Elonbeth-hanan
  3. Ben-hesed over Arubboth
  4. Ben-abinadab over Naphathdor (and he was married to Taphath, Solomon’s daughter)
  5. Baana, son of Ahilud, over Taanach, Megiddo, and Bethshean
  6. Ben-geber over Ramoth-gilead
  7. Ahinadab, son of Iddo, over Mahanaim
  8. Ahimaaz over Naphtali (and he was married to Basemath, Solomon’s daughter)
  9. Baana, son of Hushai, over Asher and Bealoth
  10. Jehoshaphat, son of Paruah, over Issachar
  11. Shimei, son of Ela, over Benjamin
  12. Geber, son of Uri, over Gilead
  13. An unknown officer over Judah

The count is more than twelve, perhaps indicating that the unknown officer over Judah was separate from the others, perhaps meaning that Judah was exempt from the taxes Solomon required of the other regions. If so, this looks more like a primary tribe collecting tribute from vassal tribes than a real unified nation.

I also find it interesting that Solomon has married two of his daughters to these regional leaders, particularly when he’s clearly dabbling in external politics. There’s probably nothing to it, but it makes me wonder if perhaps Solomon was still working to settle a turbulent court. He either executed or exiled all the major threats, and I wonder if this is evidence of him trying to secure internal allies through marriage. (Though Crusader Kings II has taught me that these internal unions can be quite a double-edged sword, since they give the descendants of those courtiers hereditary claims to the crown that may cause problems for your successors.)

Despite the mention of taxes and forced labour, we’re assured that everyone in Judah and Israel was happy, and that Solomon’s kingdom was very large. We’re given a list of the provisions he went through in one day, which I assume indicates the size of his court rather than the size of his belly. It seems a bit much even if it’s for his entire family.

We get some gushing about the awesome number of horses, chariots, and horsemen, not to mention the stables required to house such numbers. This detail – clearly presented here in a positive light – obviously comes from a different source than Deut. 17:16.

The boundaries of Solomon’s kingdom are rather unlikely. The fact that they fit with the promise made to Abraham in Genesis 15 suggests that they are likely a romanticized fantasy of the nations “glory days,” rather than an accurate description of a small, new nation just beginning to emerge from its origins as a tribal confederacy.

Solomon’s Wisdom

To close off the chapter, we get another reminder that Solomon was so terribly wise. In fact, he was so wise that he “surpassed the wisdom of all the people of the east, and all the wisdom of Egypt” (1 Kgs 4:30) – though the only demonstration we’ve seen so far leaves me rather unconvinced. Unless he is meant to only seem wise by comparison.

Solomon is mentioned to be wiser than Ethan the Ezrahite, as well as the sons of Mahol: Heman, Calcol, and Darda. Clearly, this is a reference the reader is supposed to get.

We’re told that he composed 3,000 proverbs and 1,005 songs, and that he seems to have had a fair bit of knowledge of the natural sciences (or liked nature themes in his songs and proverbs, I suppose). People came from “all the kings of the earth” to seek out his wisdom, clearly implying that – at least as far as threatening to cut babies in half was concerned – Solomon was better than any other king.

Judges 6-8: Gideon’s 300

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Israel was at rest for forty years, presumably under Deborah as judge. At the end of that time, the cycle resets and God gives the Israelites over to Midian for seven years. The Midianites, who are suddenly joined by the Amalekites and miscellaneous eastern peoples, harass the Israelites so much that they build “dens” (Judges 6:2) in the mountains – defensible caves and strongholds. They harass the Israelites, and come through with so many people and cattle that they are “like locusts” (Judges 6:5), both in number and in the effect they have on the land. They’ve apparently bounced back quite admirably from the culling they received Num. 31:7, 16-17.

The situation is so terrible that it prompts God to give a big lecture and then he appoints his new judge, Gideon.

Gideon’s appointment story reminded me a lot of Moses’s call from Exodus 3. First, there’s the presence of Midianites (though in Moses’s case, of course, he was rather friendly with them). But the real connection is that Gideon is the first “hero” called since Moses who goes through the refusal stage of Joseph Campbell’s monomyth. The idea behind the refusal is that only a narcissist would accept becoming God’s Special BFF without protest. An initial refusal of the position demonstrates humility, therefore signifying to the audience that the hero is worthy of the position.

Gideon is visited by a figure who is alternately God and an angel of God – something we saw a bit of in Genesis, such as Gen. 16:10-11 and Gen. 22:11, then again in Balaam’s story in Numbers 22, and then not again until Judges.

This angel sits under an oak at Ophrah, on land belonging to Joash the Abiezrite. Gideon, his son, was beating out wheat in the wine press instead of out in the open “to hide it from the Midianites” (Judges 6:11).

Right from the start, Gideon challenges God. When the angel tells him that “the Lord is with you” (Judges 6:12), Gideon asks how that can be when the situation is so terrible. What happened, he asks, to the great deeds of the exodus? To which God replies, “do not I send you?” (Judges 6:14). That got a good chuckle out!

Gideon proceeds to make various excuses for why he can’t possibly be the deliverer of the Israelites – the Abiezrites are the weakest clan in Manasseh, and he has the lowest status within it. It reminded me of all the excuses Moses made when faced with a similar situation. God, however, still maintains that Gideon will do fine because he will have God at his side.

Still unsure, Gideon (who clearly never read Deut. 6:16) proposes a test and asks the angel/God to hang around for a bit. He runs off and prepares a meal, then brings it back to the where the angel/God is still waiting under the tree, offering the meal. God tells him to put the meal on a rock and to pour broth over it. That done, God touches it with the tip of his staff and it bursts into flame. The miraculous fire at the time of the call is another connection to the Moses story – and I wonder if the pouring of the broth over the food is intended to give the miracle a little more oomph, since it would pre-emptively shoot down any objections that perhaps Gideon’s meatloaf is just so dry that it spontaneously combusts like underbrush in a drought. Though the parameters of the test were never stated, this seems to satisfy Gideon – for now.

Unfortunately, it satisfies him too well, and Gideon freaks out as it dawns on him that he has seen God face-to-face (this being a death sentence, as per Exod. 33:20). God reassures him – “Peace be to you; do not fear, you shall not die” (Judges 6:23).

Altar Real Estate

Like the patriarchs of Genesis, Gideon builds an altar that “to this day still stands at Ophrah” (Judges 6:24) on the spot where he communed with God. Details like this and the references to the “angel of the Lord” make me wonder if this story may not have originated from the same tradition that later birthed Genesis. Certainly, it seems that the bulk of the story comes from a very different set of traditions than the other books we’ve read so far.

Now that God has his altar at Ophrah, he asks Gideon to pull down his father’s altar to Ball and cut down his father’s Asherah – two separate monuments to two separate gods located on the same real estate.

The wording is a little confusing, but it seems that Gideon uses one of his father’s bulls to do this work, then builds (another?) altar to God, then sacrifices a second of his father’s bulls using the wood from the Asherah. I’m not sure whether these are two separate bulls, or if Joash’s second best bull is being used to both purposes.

I was somewhat shocked that God would ask Gideon to use the wood from the Asherah to build the sacrificial pyre since it would have been consecrated to another God. There’s no mention of, for example, reusing the materials from Baal’s altar in the building of the new one. I haven’t looked into it, but I’ve heard whispers that Asherah may have been proto-God’s consort before Judaism got all monotheistic. I’m just using a little wild conjecture but, if that’s the case, is it possible that using wood from an Asherah was at one time part of how sacrifices were supposed to be made to God, at least in a particular region?

Gideon, who seems to be depicted truly as the “least” (Judges 6:15). When we first see him, he is working in hiding, then demurs from God’s call, and now is willing destroy his father’s altars only under the cover at night for fear of his family and the townsfolk.

In the morning, the townsfolk see what happen and tell Joash to bring out his son. Despite the fact that Gideon had worked at night for fear of his family and the fact that the altars were his fathers, Joash seems quite firmly on Team Gideon.

He faces the mob, and he says: “If he [Baal] is a god, let him content for himself” (Judges 6:31) – a message that I truly wish were preached from the pulpit a bit more often. It seems to work because the townsfolk are not mentioned again.

Even though Joash is the one who says this, we are told that this is how Gideon earns his new name – Jerubbaal, which means “Let Baal content against him” (Judges 6:32).

On this name, my study Bible says:

The explanation given of the name Jerubbaal is not the natural one; the bearer of such a name was certainly a worshiper of Baal, not an antagonist.

This leads me to wonder if perhaps this portion of the story wasn’t invented to explain away a name that was associated with Gideon.

Abbie from Better Than Esdras asks, in a similar vein, if perhaps Gideon might not have originated as a Canaanite folk hero.

The Battle

With enemies amassing, “the Spirit of the Lord took possession of Gideon” (Judges 6:34), which I assume is just another way of saying that he girded his loins.

Gideon calls out to Asher, Zebulun, Naphtali, and the rest of Manassehfor help. Before moving out, however, Gideon wants to make absolutely sure that God will be with him. Rather than simply asking for confirmation, he instead sets up a new test.

First, Gideon sets out a fleece of wool and tells God that, in the morning, the fleece should be wet with dew but not the ground around it. On the second morning, the fleece should be dry while the ground is wet. God abides.

Convinced, Gideon/Jerubbaal assembles his army and gets ready to head out. This time, it’s God’s turn to have reservations. He’s concerned that the gathered army of 32,000 men is too impressive – when they win, they will surely think that it was their number that won the battle and not God.

God would like the defeat of the Midianites (who are sporadically accompanied by Amalekites and assorted eastern peoples) to be an obvious miracle, so he proposes tests to reduce the number of soldiers in Gideon’s army.

  1. Anyone who is fearful is told to head home. This leaves only 10,000 soldiers, but the number is still too high for God’s liking.
  2. God has Gideon send the soldiers down to the river and take a drink. Those who lap at the water with their tongues like a dog may remain, while those who kneel to drink must go home. This leaves the 300 most savage and uncivilized Israelites – Gideon’s very own 300.

Timid Gideon who prefers hiding in wine presses and in the dark of night is woken in the wee hours and told to attack. Anticipating that he’ll object, God pre-empts any further testing and just tells Gideon to take his servant, Purah, and eavesdrop on the Midianite camp.

There, Gideon overhears two men talking. One of them has had a dream wherein a cake of barley bread tumbled into camp and crushed a tent. His friend interprets the dream, seeing the barley bread as a stand-in for Joshua’s sword. Because nothing says “sword” like a loaf of bread shaped to tumble.

My study Bible helpfully supplements this interpretation – the barley bread is a symbol of a settled, agrarian society (the Israelites), while the tent symbolises a nomadic culture (which the Midianites apparently are).

What follows is a bit of trickery – or, at least, I read it as such. I get the sense from both Better Than Esdras (where it is described as “SO WEIRD”) and Both Saint and Cynic (who refers to the Israelite army being “armed with pottery jars” but makes no reference to their purpose) that perhaps this is not the obvious interpretation I thought it was.

The Israelites position themselves in companies on different sides of the Midianite encampment perimeter. They all carry trumpets and torches, but the torches are kept inside jars. Once they are in position, they smash the jars and blow the trumpets. In my interpretation, the strategy here is to use the jars to hide the light from the torches during the approach (depending on the shape of these jars, it could allow for a focused beam of light so that the soldiers can see where they are going without being seen by the Midianites). When they smash the jars, the torches are revealed. Combined with their positions and the blowing of the trumpets, they would give the illusion that their number is far greater, which is what scares the Midianites, prompting them to flee.

The text implies that all the Midianites flee and that there is no actual battle at this point.

Ephraim’s Victory

With the Midianites fleeing, Gideon sends word to Ephraim to kill off the deserters coming their way. The Ephraimites manage to capture two Midianite chieftains, Oreb and Zeeb. They kill Oreb at a rock of the same name, and Zeeb at a winepress of the same name.

But all of this happens after something of a river-hopping chase. Being unfamiliar with the geography, I noticed nothing strange about the description of the movements. Abbie, from Better Than Esdras, however, did a little more research than I:

The Midianites flee. The average reader wouldn’t realize it, but the OSE [Oxford Study Bible] 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.

[She then quotes Judges 7:24-25]

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.

The chieftains dispatched, the Ephraimites turn on Gideon, angry that they were not called in to the war efforts earlier. Gideon mollifies them by arguing that the capture of Oreb and Zeeb was a greater victory than the ruse at the Midianite camp.

Zebah and Zalmunna

Gideon and his 300 men pursue two more chieftains, Zebah and Zalmunna (or, more likely, origin stories for locations known as Oreb and Zeeb got associated with the story of Gideon’s triumph over Midian and something to do with two kings, and we’re seeing two very different versions of the same story).

Bataille de Gédéon contre les Madianites, by Nicolas Poussin, 1625-1626

Bataille de Gédéon contre les Madianites, by Nicolas Poussin, 1625-1626

The soldiers are exhausted, so they stop at Succoth and ask for bread. The residents of Succoth refuse, saying that Gideon hasn’t yet caught Zebah and Zalmunna (which I see some people interpret as a taunt, though I saw it as choosing the side they anticipate will be the winner, having seen how much smaller Gideon’s army is). Furious, Gideon tells them that he’s busy right now, but when the chieftains are caught, he’ll come back and flay the people of Succoth with thorns and briars.

Still hungry, the Israelites stop in Penuel and the same thing happens, only this time Gideon says that he will return and break down their tower.

Eventually, the 301 Israelites catch up to Zebah, Zalmunna, and their 15,000 men in Karkor. Gideon’s army attacks and wins. This is clearly not the timid Gideon we’ve seen so far who hides in the shadows. Rather, the Gideon of this portion of the story resembles more the Israelite-hero-who-kills-everything archetype we’ve seen so much of.

He returns to Succoth with his two prisoners and confronts a young man they find from the city. The young man – under what conditions it is not described – gives up the names of Succoth’s 77 elders. Gideon confronts the elders, presenting his captive chieftains, and then “taught the men of Succoth” (Judges 8:16) by flaying them, as promised, with his thorns and briars. He then moves on to Penuel and takes down their tower, slaying their men too, for good measure.

I think it’s rather clear that there was a story in which Gideon asked for help from a town, was rejected, and then got revenge, though different areas had attributed it to different towns. These two divergent threads were then stitched back into the same narrative by the Judges editor.

Having shown off Zebah and Zalmunna to his enemies, Gideon then questions them about men they killed at Tabor. To chieftains confess to having killed them, and Gideon reveals that “they were my brothers, the sons of my mother” (Judges 8:19). Wait, what??

According to J.R. Porter:

[Gideon] seems to have been originally a simple folk-hero of a small clan group, who was remembered as one who upheld the fundamental social institution of the blood-feud by slaughtering the two kings of Midian who had killed his brothers (Judg. 8.18-21). (The New Illustrated Companion to the Bible, p. 68)

In other words, there seems to have been a story where, instead of being called by God to liberate the Israelites, Gideon was instead on a personal quest for revenge. I wonder if Gideon and Jerubbaal might not have originally been separate figures who were combined at some point, and then given an origin story that better fit with the Judges pattern of judges being elected to free Israel from the hands of some enemy.

That the story had originally been of revenge rather that freedom is the only way that I can see to explain his reaction when the chieftains confess to the killing: “if you had saved them alive, I would not slay you” (Judges 8:19). I don’t think we have any example of the hero from a freedom narrative sparing the enemy leaders, but in the context of a blood feud, Gideon would have no basis for killing them if his brothers still lived.

At first, Gideon tells his eldest son, Jether, to kill the chieftains (wait, if he was the “least” in his family back in Judges 6, does that mean that his status was lower, even, than his own son? How on earth did literalphilia ever become a thing?). Jether, taking after his dad, refuses, and the text tells us that it’s because he was so young. Surprisingly, he is not stricken down or killed for his refusal, and Gideon simply does the job himself.

Monarchy and Heresy

Having seen him in action, the Israelites ask Gideon to become their king, and for his position to be hereditary. Gideon refuses (Judges 8:23).

He does, however, ask a favour of his soldiers – he asks them all to give him the gold earrings they had taken from their enemies, who have suddenly transformed from Midianites to Ishmaelites. These, he melts down with the crescent jewellery he’d taken from the Midianite kings, and uses the gold to build an ephod. This he sets up in Ophrah, presumably near the (two) altar(s) he made for God.

The Ishmaelites, if you’ll remember, are the descendants of Abraham’s first son, Ishmael, whom he abandoned in the wilderness. He is considered by Muslims to be the father of Arabs. It struck me that the text should associate these Ishmaelites with crescents twice, that symbol being today associated with Islam.

Wikipedia confounds any conclusions I might draw from this, however, as it seems to have been a symbol in use around the Ancient Near East.

The building of the ephod turns out to be a rather bad idea because “all Israel played the harlot after it, there, and it became a snare to Gideon and to his family” (Judges 8:27).

Thing is, we have no idea what an ephod is.

Brant Clements discusses the object:

Previously we encountered the word in reference to a priestly garment (Exodus 25:7). That doesn’t seem to be what Gideon made.No, Gideon made some kind of object of worship (an idol). I suspect that, like the priestly garment, it may have been used for divination, but that’s just speculation on my part. Whatever it was, Gideon’s ephod was problematic because people worshiped it.

The Israelites have forty years of rest under Gideon, during which time he has seventy sons via many wives. One, Abimelech, was born of a concubine. We’ll hear more about him later.

When Gideon dies, the Israelites turn to Baalberith as their god.