Gideon: The hesitant judge who struggled
Chapter 6-8 introduces readers to the judge Gideon. In chapter 6 he has several experiences which could be taken at face value and understood as supernatural events or as the internal struggles of an anxious man.
The Israelites lived in peace after Deborah’s victory for forty years, but as happened in the past and would happen in the future, the tribes lapsed into idol worship. This time the Israelites were harassed by Midianite plunderers who for seven years road into Canaan out of eastern Trans-Jordan like “swarms of locust,” bringing their families, cattle, camels “past counting,” and settled on the land until they consumed all of its crops.
A prophet appears and chastises the Israelites. (There will be five appearances in this chapter: a prophet, an angel of the Lord, an angel of God, the Lord, and God.) The prophet reminds them that God saved them from Egyptian slavery and other oppressors. God insisted that the Israelites not “stand in awe of the gods of the Amorites in whose land you are settling; but you did not listen to me.”
Then an angel of the Lord appears to Gideon, but Gideon does not know that the “man” is an angel. The Lord speaks to Gideon encouraging him to free Israel from the Midianites. Gideon claimed an inability to do so.
Gideon asks for a sign, his first of several requests for miraculous evidence that God is speaking with him. Gideon prepares a meal for the angel: a kid, unleavened cakes, and soup. The angel of God tells Gideon to place the meat and cakes on a rock and pour the soup over them. The angel of the Lord touches the foods and a fire consumed them, despite the liquid. Then Gideon realizes that the man is an angel.
That night the Lord tells Gideon to take two bulls, the second is seven years old, tear down the local Baal altar and cut down the idol Asherah, the sacred tree standing by it. Then use the altar and the wood of the Asherah and offer the seven year old bull upon it to God.
Awakening, Gideon engages in his first battle, not against Midian but against Baal. He is still afraid, so, with the help of ten men, he acts at night when people are asleep. When the citizens awake, they want to kill Gideon. Gideon’s father defends him and says in essence, let Baal do his own work, “If Baal is God, and someone has torn down his altar, let Baal take up his own cause.” Then, “That day Gideon’s father named him Jerubbaal, saying ‘let Baal plead his case against this man.’”
Meanwhile several tribes join Midian for an attack. Gideon sends messages to four tribes calling them to join him to battle the invaders. Before the battle Gideon asks God to prove that he will “deliver Israel through me as you promised” by performing a miracle with a fleece of wool by making the fleece wet with dew while all the surrounding ground is dry. God does so. Gideon then asks for a third sign, make the fleece dry while the ground is saturated in dew, and God does so.
This chapter raises many questions, including the following:
Who was the prophet?
The book of Judges does not reveal the prophet’s name. Midrash Seder Olam, Rashi, Gersonides, Abarbanel, and others say the prophet was Pinchas the grandson of Aaron, Moses’s brother, who miraculously lived until this time. Gersonides adds that he was still alive during the reign of King David, as indicated in I Chronicles 9:20. Gersonides also accepted the view that Pinchas was still alive centuries later and was then called Elijah the prophet.
Why didn’t Pinchas act sooner? Why was there a need for Deborah to prophesy? Gersonides writes that Pinchas only acted occasionally.
Were the prophet, angel of the Lord, angel of God, Lord, and God the same, just different descriptions?
Commentators differ. Some say that each was different. Some claim that they are from a different ancient traditions of stories patched together. Gersonides posits that they all refer to Pinchas who was delivering God’s message to Gideon.
It is possible to understand the chapter describing a natural, non-supernatural series of events; Gideon’s internal struggle, similar to Jacob’s struggle at the Wadi Jabbok in Genesis 32, where the Bible states he wrestled with a man, which Maimonides describes as a troubled dream. Gideon recognized the danger and the need for someone to assemble the tribes to fight the Midianites, but struggled over whether he should lead. He felt that God was encouraging him, sometimes in one way, sometimes another (each described in the chapter using another name: prophet, angel of the Lord, God, etc.). In his dream or thoughts he sought assurances. He thought he saw a sign (felt confident), but wasn’t sure, and struggled seeking assurance, until he was satisfied.
Did Gideon act according to Jewish law by offering a sacrifice away from the altar?
The rabbis say that the Israelites were forbidden to make sacrifices in places other than the central altar. The sole exception is when the times required an exception. See chapter four, part two, for an explanation of this rule and other examples.
Why was unleavened bread used in sacrifices and not leavened bread?
Ehrlich notes that the Israelites celebrated the upcoming deliverance from Egyptian slavery in Exodus 12 joyously in a thanksgiving meal with special foods, including unleavened bread. He explains there that the ancients considered unleavened bread better than leavened bread. See “Why was the first Passover different from all other Passovers” in my book “Mysteries of Judaism.”
Why are there multiple similarities to other biblical stories?
Sigmund Freud and others explained that dreams of distressed people are frequently filled with images from literature and legends that symbolize or express their anxieties. Gideon was very concerned about his future and was having dreams in which he visualized other people who faced his fears.
Gideon sees events similar to the events in the Samson story in Judges 13, such events being similar to stories in other cultures. Samson’s father, like Gideon, is also visited by an angel who he thinks is a human; he offers the angel food, but the food is given as a sacrifice and burns miraculously. He then realizes he has been visited by an angel, and, like Gideon, thinks he will die because he saw an angel.
The story of the burning of the sacrifice to prove the existence of God parallels the story of Elijah when that prophet showed the priests of Baal that their sacrifice would not be accepted by God, while a fire came down and took his offering despite it being drenched in water (I Kings 18).
Gideon’s struggles can also be compared to:
- Abraham’s near sacrifice of his son Isaac in Genesis 22 which was stopped by an angel.
- The tale of Abraham being visited by angels in Genesis 18.
- Gideon’s plea in verse 39 is nearly verbatim Abraham’s plea in Genesis 18:32, begging God not to be angry as he speaks one more time.
- There are also similarities to the birth of Esau and Jacob in Genesis 25 where their mother sought an explanation from God and received it through an intermediary, and
- The reactions of Moses and Isaiah in Exodus 3-4 and Isaiah 1, respectively, when God appointed them for a mission.
- The ten men that Gideon assembles to help him contrasts with the episode of Abraham pleading with God to save the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah if there were ten righteous people in the towns. There weren’t ten such people, but Gideon had ten supporters.
Why was Gideon instructed to take two bulls when he only offered one?
Finally acting after his internal struggles, Gideon takes a step in the right direction. Somewhat hesitatingly, he destroys the altar and Asherah at night when most people are asleep, but he does act.
He needed one bull to help pull apart the stones of the Baal altar and to uproot the Asherah tree. It would be improper to use a bull that would be sacrificed for this job. We do not know what Gideon did with this bull after he sacrificed the other bull. Ehrlich notes that in Hebrew a man’s second wife is called a tzarah, a “tribulation” and “misfortune.” The second bull here, which is seven years old, and which presumably was set aside by the locals to be an offering to Baal, is symbolically a tzarah, reminding readers of the seven-years of Midianite affliction.
Is it proper to ask repeatedly for divine assurances?
Certainly not, if one takes the story literally; once God states something we would expect that it is so. This is not a unique situation. Balaam in Numbers 22-24 makes repeated requests of God. If we understand the Balaam and Gideon stories as internal struggles, the question vanishes.
What was Gideon’s birth name: Gideon or Jerubbaal, and what is the meaning of Baal?
Gideon is called by this name eleven times in chapter 6, thirteen times in 7, and fifteen in 8; but is called Jerubbaal once in 6, once in 7, twice in 8, eight times in 9, once in I Samuel 12:11, and once in II Samuel 11:21.
The general meaning of “yeru” in the name Jerubbaal is “establish,” suggesting that the combination means “Baal is established.” However here it seems that “yeru” is understood as “yerab,” to “contest.” Many scholars suppose that Gideon’s name at birth was Jerubbaal and he was given the name Gideon as a result of this event, for the root of Gideon means “cut.” He cut down the altar and asherah. Gideon’s new name also symbolizes his future battles against Baal.
During early Israelite history, Israelites used the name Baal, which means “Lord,” as a name for God, just as we use “Lord” today, and many Israelites added Baal to their names, as we add El, “God,” to many names today, as in Israel and Gabriel. Thus Gideon’s birth name does not necessarily indicate idol worship. Similarly, while the Israelites of his time worshipped Baal, this could have been a worshipping of God with religious syncretism, including some pagan practices in their ceremonies, a well-meaning, but unacceptable behavior.
Around the time of King David, the use of Baal became unacceptable. The Bible mocks people who have names ending with Baal and substitutes boshet, “embarrassment,” as in I Chronicles 8:33, 34: 9:9, 39, 40; 14:7; II Samuel 2:2, 8, 12, 15; 4:4, 9, and more (Olam Hatanach and R. G. Boling).
There are essentially two ways to interpret chapter 6. We can accept the literal reading and see Gideon experiencing repeated supernatural encounters with God. I prefer a natural, realistic, and relevant interpretation, just as Maimonides did in the case of the encounter of Jacob with the man with whom he wrestled in Genesis 32:25-32. Jacob and Gideon were facing the possibility of eminent danger and they were afraid. During the night, each experienced their fears with dream images; Jacob wrestling with a man who symbolized Esau whom he feared, and Gideon, in 6:11-26 and again in 6:36-40, seeking God’s assurances that he will succeed.
 Gersonides understands the verse to say the land was at peace until the end of forty years, but the forty years include the twenty years of oppression. Thus the people had peace for only twenty years.
 While this chapter and others seem to imply that every tribe was oppressed by the Midianites, it is more likely that the invading plunderers only attacked the area of some tribes. Thus later Gideon only summons help from four tribes (6:35).
 There were helpful things the Midianites did for the Israelites as well as very harmful ones. People are not always good and a nation that is favorable to Israel doesn’t assure that all its people agree.
 Some scholars, such as Albright, say that the Midianites were successful because they used camels. Some add that they were the first to domesticate these animals, but others site evidence that camels were domesticated during an earlier period (J. A. Soggin, Judges).
 The prophet is sitting under “the eilah.” Although the definite “the” is used, the word could mean “a tree,” but there are scholars who are convinced that the ancient Israelites considered some trees holy, and under the eilah would be a holy place. Gideon later builds his altar near the eilah in verse 24. The eilah is found in Scripture about a dozen times, including Genesis 35:4, Joshua 24:26, and Judges 9:6 (Olam Hatanach).
 This reminder that God saved the Israelites from Egyptian slavery is a constant biblical theme. Among much else, it introduces the concept of freedom for all people, especially when read with the biblical command, repeated 36 times, “You should love the stranger.”
 The angel’s introductory words are “The Lord is with you mighty man of valor,” assuring Gideon of the two matters that bother him: will God aid him in saving Israel and is he a proper leader. But he is not convinced.
 It is not unusual for the Bible to describe a divine revelation as the appearance of a man or men, an angel or angels, and God speaking. For example, Genesis 18 and 19 tell a tale of God appearing to Abraham, then states that three men appeared, then, in chapter 19, the men are identified as angels.
 Abraham did the same in Genesis 18:3-5. It is as if Abraham and Gideon are saying, “Eat first, then we’ll talk.”
 This is the only place in Scripture where a seven year old bull is offered as a sacrifice. It happens here as a literary device to offer symmetry: the Israelites served Baal for seven years and were punished by Midianite cruelty during this period. They then showed devotion to God through Gideon’s behavior by offering a seven-year old as a sacrifice (Ehrlich).
 The legend states that God rewarded Pinchas with long life for killing the man and woman in Numbers 24 who openly cohabitated as part of a pagan idolatrous ceremony.
 In Guide of the Perplexed 2:42.
 There are many biblical instances where heroes ask for signs, including Moses.
 Rashi writes that Gideon offered matzah because it was Passover.
 Gideon’s destruction of his father’s idols is the same as the legend of Abraham doing this same act, which is not in the Torah. It is a legend, probably copied from the Gideon tale.
 In Genesis 18.
 Radak suggests that he took the bull so that the city inhabitants would not use it as a sacrifice to Baal.
 Abimelech is always identified as the son of Jerubbaal, and not Gideon.
 Guide of the Perplexed 2:42. Abarbanel disagreed with Maimonides’s interpretation of Genesis 32 and understood that Jacob actually wrestled with an angel. He states here that while it is generally true that people cannot see or feel an angel, God can create a miracle whereby this becomes possible.