2 Kings 13: The rule of the J names

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Note: This post is coming a bit late and I missed Friday’s. Oops! I’ve eaten through my buffer and am now writing on deadlines (or, rather, not). Sorry!

Much of this chapter continues the chronology Israel’s rulers. Unfortunately, nearly all of them have names that start with Js and there are loads of repeats, so it can get pretty confusing. I found that I needed to refer back to the timeline I posted in March to be able to follow along.

We begin in the twenty-third year of Joash’s reign in Judah, when Jehu is replaced by Jehoahaz. He ruled for seventeen years, but was terrible in the way of Jeroboam (in other words, he either maintained or failed to destroy the rural shrines).

Of course, it’s hard to imagine a ruler of one country abolishing his local forms of worship to bow instead to a newer form completely under the political control of a rival king. Still, we’re apparently counting this as a sin.

A sin so bad that God punished Israel by putting it into the hands of Hazael, king of Syria (followed by his son, Benhadad).

To his credit, Jehoahaz did call out to God, and God listened by sending the Israelites a saviour who, it seems, managed to get Israel a temporary reprieve from Syria’s attacks. But because the Israelites still didn’t destroy their local centres of worship (and this time the presence of Asherah is also mentioned – which may or may not have once/still been part of the broader YHWH cult), the Syrians returned with a vengeance.

The construction sounds an awful lot like the formula used in Judges. Except that the focus is on the monarchy. That means that a) the king is the one calling out to God, rather than the people, and b) whoever the saviour is or what their deeds were goes completely unmentioned.

After Jehoahaz’s death, he was succeeded by Jehoash (also called Joash in one instance). Jehoash’s reign lasted for sixteen years, during which he continued to allow local expressions of faith, in the way of Jeroboam. Otherwise, all we get in this quick summary is that he fought against King Amaziah of Judah (who followed King Joash). After his death, he was succeeded by yet another Jeroboam.

Elisha’s Terminal Illness

Elisha has fallen sick, and we’re told that it’s the illness that will eventually kill him. There’s no reason to think that people would have known this at the time, though he’s been active in enough stories to peg his age somewhere around “very advanced,” so it’s hard to imagine that his death wasn’t anticipated.

So King Jehoash of Israel comes to him weeping, and calls out: “My father, my father! The chariots of Israel and its horsemen!” (2 Kgs 13:14), a phrase that is a clear call back to Elisha’s own words to Elijah in 2 Kgs 2:12, and that make as little sense here as they did then. I can only assume that it’s a Humpty Dumpty reference and move on from there.

Joash Shooting the Arrow of Deliverance, by William Dyce, 1844

Joash Shooting the Arrow of Deliverance, by William Dyce, 1844

As a final living miracle, Elisha instructs the king to draw a bow. He lays his hands over the king’s hands and tells him to fire out through the window. When the Jehoash does so, Elisha announces that this signals the impending victory over Syria.

This story is similar to God telling Joshua to hold his javelin out toward Ai in Jos. 8:18. In both cases, there’s a question of whether this counts as sympathetic magic.

In particular, this case has a trial aspect. Jehoash is then instructed to take the remaining arrows and strike the ground with them. He does so three times, then stops. Elisha is furious because it means that he will only beat Syria three times, not the five or six times needed to really defeat Syria. So because Jehoash did not properly complete the ritual, the victory he had asked for would only be half-way achieved. It really is hard to see this as anything other than sympathetic magic.

When Elisha dies, he is buried in an area where Moabites are known to invade in the spring. At some later point in time, another funeral is being held in the area when the Moabites are seen approaching. The attendees panic, tossing the corpse into Elisha’s grave, and flee. When the corpse lands on Elisha – specifically, when it touches Elisha’s bones – the man revives.

The story cuts off there, but we might imagine that he would be rather unhappy to find himself in the middle of a Moabite raid. We can imagine how brief his return might have been.

Also, was Elisha’s grave just sitting open? Was the man being buried in the same tomb as Elisha?

Syria’s Succession

While Hazael, king of Syria, continually harassed Israel during Jehoahaz’s reign, God never allowed Israel to be destroyed completely. This is attributed in part to how “gracious” he is (2 Kgs 13:23 – just try and read that without sarcasm), and in part because of the covenant he had made with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

When Hazael died, he was succeeded by his son, Benhadad. Perhaps profiting from the destabilization that usually accompanies a change in leadership, Jehoash was able to retake many of the Israelite cities Syria had conquered – these, then, are the three victories he earned himself earlier with Elisha.

2 Kings 12: Infrastructure Maintenance

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I noticed in the last chapter that Jehoash’s name is written differently in different sections of the text. There, he was called Joash in the narrative portion, but switched to Jehoash for the chronological summary. Here, it’s the reverse.

Jehoash’s reign is situated, beginning in the seventh year of Jehu’s rule in Israel. It lasted forty years. We also learn that his mother was Zibiah of Beersheba (for some reason, I fudged the genealogy and said in my last post that he was Athaliah’s son – he was, in fact, her grandson). Our author tells us that Jehoash was great because he was educated by the priests. This conflicts with the assessment in 2 Chronicles 24:17-19, where Jehoash fell into idolatry. It’s possible that we have two separate traditions, each with their own assessment of Jehoash’s time as king. Another possibility is that the author means to tell us that Jehoash was great while he was educated (read: controlled, or under the influence of) the priests. Not that he remained awesome until his death. This explanation is complicated, however, by the fact that Jehoash’s death is given some narration space, yet the reasons for it are not given here (the Chronicles account will tell us that Jehoash’s assassination was a response to his idolatry).

Construction Corruption

There are certainly hints of conflict between Jehoash and the priests, though. At some point in the first twenty-three years of his reign, he dedicated some of the money raised by the priests to be used in repairing the temple. How this was supposed to work is explained in some detail, but rather confusing, and mentions “acquaintances” from whom the priests were supposed to collect these funds.

According to my New Bible Commentary, ‘acquaintance’ was “a technical term which occurs in Ugaritic texts along with priests, temple prostitutes, and silver casters. The suggestion has been made that they were ‘assessors’, possibly to help the priests fix the cost or value of sacrificial animals and other offerings” (p.357). So it seems that they were not meant to solicit donations from their acquaintances – my first stab at understanding the passage – but rather physically collect the value from those who might exchange gifts in kind into money.

King Jehoash Collects Funds to Repair the Temple  II KIngs 12:9-14But by the twenty-third year of Jehoash’s rule, the priests still had not used any of the money collected (or failed to collect the money – a less likely but possible interpretation) to make repairs to the temple. It seems no coincidence that Jehoash would have been 30 at this time, established enough in adulthood, perhaps, to break free of the priests’ control. Reading between the lines, it seems that the priests took advantage of Jehoash’s youth and dependence on them to enrich themselves – at the expense of the temple itself. That Jehoash was then forced to rein them in puts an interesting spin on the Chronicles claim that he was given to idolatry (which, as we’ve seen with Jeroboam’s bulls, appears to be used for anyone who renounces the authority of the Jerusalem priests).

To interfere with this corruption, Jehoash forbids the priests from taking the money directly. Rather, a donation box is built and placed in the temple. When a donation is made, the priests who guard the temple’s threshold must put it into the box, where it is kept until it can be weighed and placed in bags by another party (controlled by the king?) and then delivered to the workmen tasked with making repairs.

Guilt and sin offerings would not go into the box, as these properly belonged to the priests. The money collected isn’t to be used for special furnishings (such as trumpets, vessels, basins, etc). The detail isn’t explained, though my study Bible speculates that it may have had to do with the funds available – enough for structural repairs, but not enough for furnishings. Having been in many Catholic churches growing up, I wondered if this might not be evidence of more corruption. Perhaps Jehoash feared that the priests would spend the money on things like gold or silver bowls, things that look very fancy and increase prestige in the short term, yet continue to neglect the less spectacular maintenance of the building’s structure.

Yet despite the fact that Jehoash’s collections box appears to be a response to corruption, the text specifically tells us that the men who delivered the money to the workmen performing the repairs were not to be made to account for the funds, “for they dealt honestly” (2 Kings 12:15). How can they be known to deal honestly if they aren’t accounting for the funds? This could be an indication of the distrust between the religious and “secular” (to the extent that the Jerusalem monarchy could be said to be secular at this time) authorities. If the men who are acting as intermediaries between the temple and the workmen are the king’s, not holding them accountable might be a power play.

Mention of Jehoash’s repairs to the temple are mentioned in an artifact known as the Jehoash Inscription. Whether or not the inscription is authentic appears to be a matter of debate, with consensus seeming to fall on the opinion that it is a modern forgery.

Syria’s Advances and the End of Jehoash

Around this time, King Hazael of Syria has been busy. After conquering Gath, he sets his sights on Jerusalem. To hold him at bay, Jehoash loots both palace and temple, paying Hazael to turn back. This arrangement seems like vassalage, but without the ongoing nature of such agreements.

At this point, Jehoash’s name switches back to Joash as, at the end of his reign, some of his subjects begin to conspire against him. His term ends when two of his subjects, Jozacar son of Shimeath and Jehozabad son of Shomer, murder him. He is succeeded by his son, Amaziah.

2 Kings 11: Athaliah’s brief reign

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EDIT: I have been tricked by too many Ah- and Je- names. In my initial writing of this post, I mistakenly identified Joash as Athaliah’s son, rather than as Ahaziah’s.

When Jehu kills Ahaziah, he creates a power vacuum in Judah – one that Ahaziah’s mother, Athaliah, takes advantage of. To secure her hold on the country, she murders her late husband’s entire family. All except for Jehosheba and Joash (a shortening of Jehoash). Jehosheba is the daughter of Jehoram, sister to Ahaziah. Her nephew, Joash, is Ahaziah’s son.

When Athaliah came after the dynasty members, Jehosheba hid her little nephew and his nurse in a room, saving the child. She kept him with her for six years, hidden “in the house of the Lord.” Not to get into spoilers, but 2 Ch. 22:11 tells us that Jehosheba was the wife of the high priest Jehoiada. It seems likely, then, that her nephew was being raised in her household, perhaps in an apartment attached to the temple complex.

In the meantime, Athaliah ruled Judah. This is a somewhat amusing turn of events since Athaliah was born into Ahab’s dynasty (likely his daughter or sister – 2 Kings 8:26). So while Jehu was purging the dynasty from Israel, he provided the opportunity for it to take control in Judah!

Coup and counter-coup

After six years in hiding, it was time for Joash’s triumphant return.

Athaliah, as depicted in Antoine Dufour's Vie des femmes célèbres, c. 1505; in the Dobrée Museum, Nantes, France

Athaliah, as depicted in Antoine Dufour’s Vie des femmes célèbres, c. 1505; in the Dobrée Museum, Nantes, France

Jehoiada called several guard captains (including the captains of the “Carites,” which may be a variation of “Cherethites,” as mentioned in 2 Sam. 20:23) to the temple. There, the high priest showed them the prince, revealing that he still lived. It seems odd that his continued existence would have gone unnoticed – did Athaliah forget about her own grandson when she went on her murderous rampage?

Or perhaps he was known to have escaped, but not where he was hiding. Or, my favourite theory, he was an imposter and Jehoiada hoped to control the country through a puppet king, young enough to be controlled.

Jehoiada organizes the captains, forming a plan of attack. There’s much mention of the Sabbath, which seems to imply that the coup is meant to take place on that day (perhaps while there is a change of guard, resulting in two companies being nearby instead of only one). Either way, the captains agree and follow the priest’s directions. They bring Joash out and perform a coronation ceremony.

Queen Athaliah hears the noise they are making and emerges to find her seven-year-old grandson, surrounded by arms-men, wearing a crown. She tears at her clothes and screams out, “Treason! Treason!” Which, of course, it is. (And, yes, she’s murdered every member of the previous dynasty that she could get her hands on, but so has every other dynasty founder we’ve seen so far – including David, though his actions were painted a pretty colour of apologism).

Jehoiada calls for the queen to be brought outside the temple and murdered, along with anyone loyal to her. Murder is just fine, but he doesn’t want it happening inside the temple.

The priest then makes a covenant between God, the new king, and the people. While it is blessedly not given in detail this time, it’s clear that this is the same sort of covenant that we saw Moses, Joshua, and David all swear. Which makes sense, since David’s dynasty was interrupted by Athaliah and now needs a sort of re-launching.

Before they can bring the new king to his palace, however, they have one more task: The destruction of the local temple of Baal (and murder of its high priest, Mattan, before its altars). They say that a Dothraki coronation without at least two deaths and a temple burning is considered a dull affair.

In a final verse, we learn that Joash was only seven years old when the crown was put on his head. An interesting little note here, this verse (2 Kings 11:21) is the first time that his name is spelled out, Jehoash. This would seem to indicate that the information about his age at ascension came from a different source from the story of the events surrounding it. Or, perhaps, as a chronicle detail, it was meant to be written more formally.

The Kings of Judah and Israel

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There seems to be some wiggle room in the dates given for the various kings of Israel and Judah. We’ll be seeing several instances of overlapping reigns, totals that don’t add up, and other problems. This is, it seems, compounded once the dates are verified against external references, such as the names and dates from Egypt or Assyria. As a result, the dates my New Bible Commentary settles on are wildly different form the dates John Collins has settled on for his Short Introduction to the Hebrew Bible. For my own purposes, I’ll be following the latter. For ease of reference, here’s the chart:

Kings of Judah Kings of Israel
Rehoboam 922-915 Jeroboam 922-901
Abijah (Abijam) 915-873
Asa 913-873 Nadab 901-900
Baasha 900-877
Elah 877-876
Zimri 876
Omride Era
Omri 876-869
Jehoshaphat 873-849 Ahab 869-850
Ahaziah 850-849
Jehoram 849-843 Jehoram 849-843
Ahaziah 843-842 Jehu Dynasty
Jehu 843-815
Athaliah 842-837
Joash 837-800
Jehoahaz 815-802
Amaziah 800-783 Jehoash 802-786
Uzziah (Azariah) 783-742 Jeroboam II 786-746
Assyrian Intervention
Jotham 742-735 Zechariah 746-745
Shallum 745
Menahem 745-737
Pekahiah 737-736
Ahaz 735-727/715 Pekah 736-732
Hoshea 732-722
Hezekiah 727/715-687
Fall of Samaria 722
Manasseh 687-642
Amon 642-640
Josiah 640-609
Jehoahaz 609
Jehoiakim 609-598
Jehoiachin 598-597
Babylonian capture of Jerusalem 597
Zedekiah 597-586
Destruction of Jerusalem 586

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.

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