Wednesday, July 8, 2020

Snatching defeat from the Jaws of Victory: A Cautionary Tale- Judges 8

May of us if asked, “what kind of life/legacy do you want to leave behind for those who will outlive you?”, would come up with all kinds of amazingly positive and inspiring answers. However, well-intentioned though these answers may be, it is the direction you and I are and will take that is going to ultimately take us to that destination (or not). I’m sure if asked about what kind of legacy he wanted to leave behind Gideon would have come up with a good answer. However, as we will see in the fallout of Judges 8, the choices that he made and the direction that he took landed him and his people in an undesirous place. In this chapter we will witness five disputes that take place in the aftermath of Gideon’s victory and learn what NOT to do if we are to leave the kind of legacy that glorifies the Lord and leads other to do the same.

a. Dispute #1: Between Gideon and Ephraim-8:1-3

At the very end of chapter 7 we saw Gideon begin to take matters into his own hands (calling for reinforcements to finish the job that God sent him to accomplish). This demonstrated both a lack of faith in God’s plan and a bloated view of human convention and capacity. Unfortunately, this theme will continue and grow as we witness the disputes in this passage. The first of these is a dispute between Gideon and Ephraim in 8:1-3. This dispute begins when a question is raised—“Then the men of Ephraim said to him, ‘What is this thing you have done to us, not calling us when you went to fight against Midian?’” (8:1). Remember, Ephraim was not called up to the battle until after the initial attack at night when Midian was already on the run (see 7:24). This question reveals that the tribe of Ephraim was upset that Gideon did not call upon them earlier (probably because God did not ask him to call upon them). In their minds, they were “late to the party” and this was displeasing. 

To smooth things over with this tribal partner, Gideon makes the following presentation: “…But 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? God has given the leaders of Midian, Oreb and Zeeb into your hands; and what was I able to do in comparison with you?’…” (8:2-3a). Here, Gideon demonstrates his skill as a diplomat. In order to turn the Ephraimites disappointment into contentment he draws attention to their important role in the battle. Though their part came later, Ephraim was the tribe that successfully cut off the fords of the Jordan river, captured two retreating Midianite chieftans, and executed them. In a skillful display of self-deprecation, Gideon wonders “what did I do in comparison to you? I may have started this initial attack, but you finished it.”

This presentation seems to do the trick—“then their anger toward him subsided when he said that…” (8:3b). While this dispute appears to be easily handled, notice who is not included in the explanation—God! No mention of Him, his power, his direction, his involvement, is given by Gideon. This omission betrays Gideon’s newfound confidence in his abilities over God’s direction and demonstrates the trajectory both he and Israel will take in the remainder of his saga.

b. Dispute #2: Between Gideon and Succoth-8:4-17

As we move to consider the second dispute of verses 4-17, it is important to remember that while the initial battle was over, the campaign was still underway. Oreb and Zeeb (who were taken care of at the end of chapter 7) were just two of many chieftans on the run and Gideon and the 300 men with him were in hot pursuit of those who remained (Zebah and Zalmunna). Verses 4-6 pick up the action and reveal the offense that leads to the second dispute in the chapter—the dispute between Gideon and Succoth—“… Then Gideon and the 300 men who were with him came to the Jordan and crossed over, weary yet pursuing. He said to the men of Succoth, ‘Please give loaves of bread to the people who are following me, for they are weary, and I am pursuing Zebah and Zalmunna, the kings of Midian.’ The leaders of Succoth said, ‘Are the hands of Zebah and Zalmunna already in your hands, that we should give bread to your army?’…” (8:4-6). At this time Succoth was under Israelite control and while Gideon as the commander of the group of soldiers could have simply confiscated the necessary provisions, he continues to employ diplomacy and asks for much-needed refreshments nicely. However, despite his niceties, this request is rejected and Gideon is met with speculation. Succoth’s request for some proof of their quest (“are the hands of Zebah and Zalmunna already in your hands, that we should give you bread to your army?”) reveals that they do not completely trust Gideon. This raises an important question: Has the Spirit of God, so evident in the earlier chapters of Gideon’s story, left him? Earlier, when the Spirit of God was more active, people immediately responded to Gideon’s orders and answered the call to battle. Here, not so much. Perhaps this dispute is the first example of God letting Gideon doing things in his own power and, at least here, feeling the negative effects of spirit-less decision-making.

Rather than change his ways and seek the Lord’s direction/provision for his men, Gideon responds to this offense with an angry threat—"Gideon said, ‘All right, when the Lord has given Zebah and Zalmunna into my hand, then I will thrash your bodies with the thorns of the wilderness and with briers.’ He went up from there to Penuel and spoke similarly to them; and the men of Penuel answered him just as the men of Succoth had answered. So he spoke also to the men of Penuel, saying, ‘When I return safely, I will tear down this tower.’…” (8:7-9). Instead of answering their refusal with a gentle word, Gideon throws diplomacy out the window and threatens to take the law into his own hands and beat their bodies with a switch of desert thorns and briars like a man beats grain on the threshing floor (Block, Judges, Ruth, 290). Gideon not only meets friction at Succoth, apparently Penuel does not come to his aid either. He speaks to both the same way and promises in Penuel’s case to tear down their defensive tower.

Gideon continues his campaign, flustered by the lack of aid, and is successful. “Now Zebah and Zalmunna were in Karkor, and their armies with them, about 15,000 men, all who were left of the entire army of the sons of the east; for the fallen were 120,000 swordsmen. Gideon went up by the way of those who lived in tents on the east of Nobah and Jogbehah, and attacked the camp when the camp was unsuspecting. When Zebah and Zalmunna fled, he pursued them and captured the two kings of Midian, Zebah and Zalmunna, and routed the whole army…” (8:10-12). The battle that is briefly mentioned here appears to take the same shape as the initial skirmish of 7:19ff—1) Gideon surprises an unsuspecting larger unit 2) takes advantage of their confusion, 3) the enemy then flees 4) two of the chieftans are captured.

“Then Gideon the son of Joash returned from the battle by the ascent of Heres. And he captured a youth from Succoth and questioned him. Then the youth wrote down for him the princes of Succoth and its elders, seventy-seven men. He came to the men of Succoth and said, ‘Behold Zebah and Zalmunna, concerning whom you taunted me, saying, “Are the hands of Zebah and Zalmunna already in your hand, that we should give bread to your men who are weary?”’ Gideon takes the elders of the city with thorns of the wilderness and briers in hand and he disciplined the men of Succoth with them. He tore down the tower of Penuel and killed the men of the city…” (8:13-17). In this account, Gideon makes good on the threat that he shared earlier. When the elders had gathered before him, Gideon presented the captive chiefs and reminded them of their earlier taunting challenge to produce the hands of these kings before they would offer any food to his exhausted troop. Then Gideon took the elders and beat them with thorny switches. He then continues on to Penuel and does far worse. Not only does he make good on his promise to tear down their tower, his rage propels him to slaughter all the men of the city—mind you, this is a city of fellow Israelites! If readers were not yet sure that Gideon has changed for the worse following his victory over Midian, here they are given compelling proof that Gideon is no longer listening to the Lord, walking in his ways, bound by the rules of civility, or even concerned about national loyalty. He is simply out of control.

c. Dispute #3: Between Gideon and Zebah and Zalmunna-8:18-21

Following the dispute with Ephraim and Succoth is a dispute between Zeba and Zalmunna (the two recently captured chieftans). This is introduced by Gideon in verses 18-19-“Then he said to Zebah and Zalmunna, ‘What kind of men were they whom you killed at Tabor?’ And they said, ‘They were like you, each one resembling the son of a king.’ He said, ‘They were my brothers, the sons of my mother. As the Lord lives, if only you had let them live, I would not kill you.’…”. Where is this question coming from? Where is Tabor? We can infer here that in addition to harassing the Israelites and ravaging the countryside (see 6:4-5), the Midianites, under the rule of people like Zeba and Zalmunna, had committed murderous acts against God’s people during the Israelite oppression. By asking “where are the men you killed at Tabor?” Gideon is mockingly drawing attention to these terrible acts to indict these two Midianite leaders. They answer his question and Gideon lays out the charge saying, “had you not killed them I would have spared your life.”

Things go from bad to worse when Gideon announces the way that he intends to carry out the sentence of these two—“So he said to Jether his firstborn, ‘Rise, kill them.’ But the youth did not draw his sword, for he was afraid, because he was still a youth” (8:20:21a). Imagine the kind of thinking that must have motivated this decision to ask his young son to carry out his dirty work! Again, Gideon is out of control. Gideon’s request of his son places him in an impossible situation. If he said yes, he would become an accomplice in his father’s personal vendetta and behave in a way similar to the Canaanites who proved their maturity and nobility through violent acts like this. If he said “no,” disobeying his father, he would come across as unmanly before all looking on. Jether, a very young man, refuses to play a role in this episode.  While this is no doubt the right decision, he is quickly derided by the Midianite chiefs—“Then Zebah and Zalmunna said, ‘Rise up yourself, and fall on us; for as the man, so is his strength’…” (8:21a). Paraphrase—"be a man and do it yourself or does your mettle match that of your son’s?”

“So Gideon arose and killed Zeba and Zalmunna, and took the crescent ornaments which were on their camels’ necks…” (8:21b). The narrator’s final comments concerning the conflict between Gideon and Midian depict the deliverer as a common conqueror claiming the customary trophies of victory—jewelry worn by the royal camels. Gideon ends the campaign less attractive than he began all the way back in chapter 6.  In his tenure thus far Gideon moves from cowardly to confident to cruel. While the struggle against the Midianites is over, the disputes in this passage are not yet finished. You may say, who is there to have a dispute with if Midian has been taken care of? The answer to this is found in verses 22-27 as Gideon enters a dispute with his own people.

d. Dispute #4: Between Gideon and his People-8:22-27

This dispute is instigated after God’s people make a request of their leader, “Then the men of Israel said to Gideon, ‘Rule over us, both you and your son, also your son’s son, for you have delivered us from the hand of Midian.’…” (8:22). Context clues suggests that the nation of Israel, represented by the delegation approaching Gideon here, wanted Gideon to “rule” over them much as a king would in the ancient world. Perhaps Gideon’s retrieval of royal ornaments from his victim’s camels placed this idea in their head. Though this offer to Gideon was ill-advised given that Gideon had not been divinely chosen to serve in this capacity, the people of Israel present this offer as a reward for his victory over the Midianites (Block, Judges, Ruth, 298).

Gideon’s responds to this offer by refusing the post—“But Gideon said to the, ‘I will not rule over you, nor shall my son rule over you; the Lord shall rule over you’” (8:23). Here, Gideon actually (and, perhaps accidentally) gets something right. He rejects the opportunity to be the founder of the first dynasty in Israel. In fact, he goes further suggesting that it would be wrong for him and his family to usurp the role of Yahweh, the only truth ruler of Israel. However, rather than go even further in explaining that the victory they have just achieved came from God and not from him in the first place, he enters a compromise that proves to be the foundation for more problems.  

“Yet Gideon said to them, ‘I would request of you, that each of you give me an earring from his spoil.’ (For they had gold earrings, because they were Ishmaelites.) They said, ‘We will surely give them.’ So they spread out a garment, and every one of them threw an earring there from his spoil. The weight of the gold earrings that he requested was 1,700 shekels of gold, besides the crescent ornaments and the pendants and the purple robes which were on the kings of Midian, and besides the neck bands that were on their camels’ necks…” (8:24-26). Gideon appears to be more interested in the spoils of victory than in giving God the credit for it. In fact, though Gideon refuses to be made king, his request here was in keeping with what kings in the ancient world would do following military success. Like the monarchs of the ancient near east, Gideon demands a symbolic gesture of submission—the earrings—and would start a royal treasure trove. 1700 shekels of gold is equal to about 43 pounds! Surely sounds like the kind of wealth fit for a king to me! In addition to the submissive symbol and gold treasure, Gideon demands the purple robes worn by the kings of Midian. Hmmmmm….for someone who does not want to be made king, Gideon is sure beginning to look like one.

While Gideon’s acquisition of the emblems of royalty was wrong in and of itself (and went against his own refusal to be king just verses before), something even worse happens in verse 27—“Gideon made it into an ephod, and placed it in his city, Ophrah, and all Israel played the harlot with it there, so that it became a snare to Gideon and his household” (8:27). Like the pagan kings he just defeated, Gideon assumes a pagan’s king’s role as sponsor of the community cult erects a makeshift shrine, possibly to Baal, in his city—IN THE VERY SAME REGION THAT HE REMOVED A SHRINE AND ASHERA FROM EARLIER (see 6:28-35). At the beginning of Gideon’s saga God saw to it that an altar to Baal and Asherah pole was removed, thereby clearing distractions that would keep God’s people from being led astray. However, at the end of Gideon’s saga, the very same leader God appointed, equipped, empowered, and used, reintroduces a spiritual distraction that draws the worship of God’s people away from its only appropriate destination. Though it might appear small—a single shrine—it was enough to ensnare both Gideon and his household on into the future. How could Gideon get it so wrong so fast? The answer lies in his over-confidence following the victory God had given. It led not only to the cruelty exhibited earlier at Succoth, the embarrassment before Zeba and Zalmunna, the posturing as an illegitimate king before his people, but here it has flowered into open idolatry.  Gideon’s overconfidence has made him cruel, careless, cocky, and now complicit in pagan worship. Where was God in chapter 8? He appears to be absent, not because he has left Gideon, but because Gideon has ignored him and is behaving as though he does not need him. When this happens, it does not take long at all for a false god to take the place of Yahweh in Gideon’s house, and for that matter, in the nation of Israel.

e. Dispute #5: Between Israel and their God-8:28-35

Before acknowledging the last dispute found in this troubling chapter of Judges (and Israel’s history), the narrator calls attention to the resulting geo-political context following the defeat of Midian in verse 28-“So Midian was subdued before the sons of Israel and they did not lift up their heads anymore. And the land was undisturbed for forty years in the days of Gideon” (8:28). Despite the unimpressive fallout from the victory over Midian under Gideon’s leadership, God’s grace allows an entire generation (40 years) of relative peace for Israel. The same Midianites who harassed, pillaged, and murdered Israel before would not be able to lift their heads during this season.

Next, the narrator tells the end of Gideon’s story. However, evidence that the speaker is less than impressed with this deliverer is witnessed in the name he employs at the beginning of verse 29—“Then Jerubbaal (let Baal contend with him) the son of Joash went and lived in his own house. Now Gideon (the same as Jerubbaal) had seventy sons who were his direct descendants, for he had many wives. His concubine who was in Shechem also bore him a son, and he named him Abimelech. And Gideon the son of Joash died at a ripe old age and was buried in the tomb of his father Joash, in Ophrah of the Abiezrites,…” (8:29-32). Despite Gideon’s hesitation at the beginning of his story and idolatrous treachery at the end of his story, he is allowed a long life. During this long life we see the evidence of indulgence and a lack of self-discipline resulting in many multiple marriages and children both by wives and concubines. One of these illegitimate sons is named—Abimelech. He will be part of the unfolding story of Israel very shortly. However, for now one must realize that the ending of Gideon’s story is one that, while pleasing and desirous on a worldly level, is one that falls short of God’s character and standard.

This goes a long way in explaining why Israel behaves the way that it does following Gideon’s death—leading to its dispute with God. The chapter concludes with “Then it came about, as soon as Gideon was dead, that the sons of Israel again played the harlot with the Baals, and made Baal-berith their god. Thus the sons of Israel did not remember the Lord their God, who had delivered them from the hands of all their enemies on every side; nor did they show kindness to the household of Jerubbaal (that is, Gideon) in accord with all the good that he had done to Israel” (8:33-35). Followers reflect leadership and the same treachery Gideon himself introduced earlier permeates his people leading to mass idolatry. In this particular case the offense is especially egregious as rather than embrace worship of the God who has made a covenant with them (Yahweh), they decide to take the misplaced initiative to establish their own covenant with a master of their choosing. “Baal-berith” means “Baal of the Covenant.” Yikes! In so doing, the Israelites forget the very God who had graced them with an undeserved victory over their enemies and act viciously against Gideon’s household, or should we say (as the narrator does here) “Jerubbaal.” It is fitting to end this saga with his pagan name. After all, he behaves and leads as a pagan in the end and the people of God follow suit.

So What?

Gideon’s saga is nothing short of a real tragedy. Though God had done everything to ensure his victory and the victory of his people in a way that would not puff them up with pride, overconfidence in the life of this leader transforms this hesitant coward into a cruel, over-indulgent, and idolatrous pseudo-king. This goes a long way in demonstrating the frailty of the human condition. What Gideon endorses in this passage is not beyond possibility in your life and my life today. If/when we grow overconfident in ourselves, we drown out God’s influence on our lives and fall prey to the same fate we read about here, leading to all kinds of trouble for those both in our households and around us.

So what steps might we take, in God’s grace, to keep ourselves from sliding down this slippery slope? The answer is found in what is not present in this chapter—seeking the Lord. Rather than seek the Lord God as he had done in chapter 6-7 (even if there it was for reassurance), Gideon steps out, not in faith, but in unmerited self-confidence in chapter 8 and the result is tragic. The Lord is barely mentioned and even then only in a glib comment of feaux self-deprecation (8:23). What would we tell Gideon if we were there on the field of victory to prevent this tragic ending? What does it mean to seek the Lord well today? Let me ask you, what is your prayer life like? A prayerless person is a person placing confidence in the wrong thing/person. What is your Bible study life like? Those uninterested in the word of God might be trusting their own word or the word of someone else? What fellowship do you keep?  Those who look for ways to avoid or mistreat the people of God prove that they are operating in an unhealthy degree of uncertainty. Do not fall prey to idolatry of the self and/or others that Gideon and Israel slip into in Judges 8. Finishing well is possible for those who depend on the Lord and prayer, adherence to the Word, and fellowship with his people go a long way to that end in any season.

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