Judges 8:1–21: Gideon continues the battle
In the last passage, Gideon and his three hundred men joined the Midianites in battle, and he also allowed his fellow Israelites to kill some of the Midianites, who had fled. In this chapter, they continue with the mop-up effort.
But the passage starts with the Ephraimites criticizing Gideon, for not asking for their help, when he went into battle with the Midianites. But Gideon reminds them that they are the ones who killed Oreb and Zeeb, two of the Midianite leaders, so what do they have to complain about? What has Gideon done to compare with that? (I didn’t mention Oreb and Zeeb, when I did the synopsis for the last passage; I guess I should have, since it turns out that they’re showing up again here.) When the Ephraimites here this, they’re placated.
But there’s no rest for the weary, because Gideon and his men are still pursuing the remaining Midianites. (Specifically, there are two kings of Midian named Zebah and Zalmunna that they are pursuing.) But they’re exhausted, after all of this fighting and chasing. So they come to a place called Succoth, and ask the people there to give his men some bread. But, to put it mildly, the people of Succoth don’t have a lot of confidence in Gideon and his men:
But the officials of Succoth said, “Do you already have the hands of Zebah and Zalmunna in your possession? Why should we give bread to your troops?”
Then Gideon replied, “Just for that, when the LORD has given Zebah and Zalmunna into my hand, I will tear your flesh with desert thorns and briers.”
He then moves on, to a place called Peniel, and asks them for bread. But they give the same response (maybe not in the same words), so Gideon tells them that he’s going to tear down their tower, when he returns “in triumph” (verse 9).
At this point, the passage takes some time to give us some very interesting facts: In the battle so far, a hundred and twenty thousand swordsmen of Midian have fallen, and there are only fifteen thousand left with Zebah and Zalmunna. They are in a place called Karkor, and Gideon and his three hundred men come to attack them, but, cleverly, from a direction that the Midianites are not expecting. They route the entire Midianite army, and capture Zebah and Zalmunna.
On his way back, Gideon captures a young man from Succoth, and gets from him the names of the seventy-seven elders of the town. And then he carries out his threats:
Then Gideon came and said to the men of Succoth, “Here are Zebah and Zalmunna, about whom you taunted me by saying, ‘Do you already have the hands of Zebah and Zalmunna in your possession? Why should we give bread to your exhausted men?’” He took the elders of the town and taught the men of Succoth a lesson by punishing them with desert thorns and briers. He also pulled down the tower of Peniel and killed the men of the town. (verses 15–17)
Gideon then questions his captives, Zebah and Zalmunna. He asks them what kind of men they killed, at Tabor—although I’m not sure what he’s referring to. Is this the battle that they just had? In any event, they tell Gideon that the men they killed were like him, “each one with the bearing of a prince” (verse 18). So Gideon realizes that it was his brothers that they had killed, and decides to kill them, in retaliation. He tells them that if they had spared his brothers’ lives, he would have spared them, but since they didn’t, he won’t spare them.
Gideon then turns to his son, and tells him to kill them, but his son is just a boy, and is too afraid to do it. So Zebah and Zalmunna taunt Gideon, and tell him—in effect—that if he’s a real man, he should just do it himself. So he does.
Interestingly, when the Ephraimites criticize Gideon for not including them in the battle, he placates them by telling them that they did something more glorious than he did anyway. If I had been Gideon, I probably would have talked about the fact that the LORD would only let me have three hundred men, so even if I’d called the Ephraimites, they probably wouldn’t have been allowed to take part in the battle.
There is a particular brand of stubbornness that the Old Testament Israelites often exhibit, whereby they steadfastly refuse to believe that the LORD will do what He says. The situation with Succoth and Peniel is a perfect example; God has already given Gideon and his three hundred men victory over a hundred and twenty thousand men, but for some reason, the people of Succoth and Peniel don’t believe that Gideon can defeat the remaining fifteen thousand. I honestly don’t know, however, if Gideon’s response was justified. It seems a bit drastic, to me.
Overall, the story of Gideon is bizarre. He is so scared that he won’t believe God is going to do what He says He’s going to do, until he has tested God numerous times. Then he has an amazing victory, but even in the middle of his victory, there is this bizarre situation with the people of Succoth and Peniel. And, as we’ll see in upcoming passages, there is some more bizarre activity still to come…