Gideon and the 300
This chapter is a work of art. The author presents a story containing several themes: the number three, the consequences of fear, and the question, is God involved in what we do?
A careful reading of the Bible reveals that despite it apparently saying that something occurred because of a divine miracle, the event happened naturally. This chapter is an example. The bulk of the chapter states that the Israelites will be saved by the miraculous intervention of God, but its end ironically seems to show that the people saw the victory as a natural event.
Gideon gathers forces to battle invading Midianites. God tells him that he needs to winnow down the number of soldiers so that a victory secured by a small force winning victory over the 135,000 invaders will cause people to realize that God brought the victory. God suggests that Gideon tell all who are afraid to leave, and two-thirds of his soldiers do so. The remaining 10,000 is further reduced when God tells Gideon to have the soldiers drink from a stream and send away those who “go down on his knees and drink” but retain “every man who laps the water with his tongue like a dog.” This reduces Gideon’s forces to 300 men.
As in chapter 6, Gideon is fearful. He doesn’t beg God for a sign in this chapter, but God sees that he needs one to give him courage. God suggests that he go near the Midianite camp where he will receive a sign that will assure him. Gideon takes his aid with him and overhears two Midianite soldiers discussing a dream. An agitated dreamer says he saw a “barley-cake rolling over the Midianite camp” and overturning a tent. The other interprets that this foretells that Gideon’s army will prevail.
Gideon is assured. He returns to his camp and develops an offensive tactic. Each of the 300 is to take a jar and shofar, and place a torch in the jar. He divides the army into three groups, places them on three sides of the Midianite camp, leaving the eastern side open so that the enemy can flee into a trap. The troops approach the Midianite camp quietly during the second of the three parts of the night, and at Gideon’s signal break the jars creating frightening clatter, reveal the light, and blast the silent night with the sound of the three hundred shofars. The surprised Midianites think that there are many soldiers surrounding them, perhaps a unit behind each light, and they flee east toward the Jordan to escape.
Gideon summons three tribes to attack the fleeing Midianites and kill them. He also calls upon the tribe of Ephraim to cut-off the fords of the Jordan so that the Midianites cannot cross. The operation is a success.
Fear is one of the themes of this chapter. It is emphasized by the name of the place where Gideon’s forces encamped, Ein-harod, which means Spring of Fright, and by Ein-harod being near the hill of Moreh, meaning “fear”; the release from service of all men who were fearful; God giving Gideon a sign to overcome his fear; Gideon fearing to look at the sign alone and taking his aid with him; the frightened dreamer, the tactic to beat the Midianites by scaring them, and their fearful flight.
The meaning of those who bend the knee and those who lap like a dog
The book of Judges does not explain why those who stretched out and lapped water like a dog were chosen and those who bent their knees were dismissed, and the scholarly views vary, leaving it to the reader to decide. Some examples are:
- J. D. Martin and other say there is no significant difference between the benders and lappers, “The selection of which group is to remain with Gideon is made on purely numerical grounds.” The goal was to have a small militia that would prove that the victory was accomplished by God; thus whichever of the two groups was smaller would remain.
- Rashi, Radak, and Abarbanel see a religious explanation. They explain that the men who knelled showed they were accustomed to bowing to Baal and God only wanted righteous soldiers.
- Y. Elitzur notes that some consider the rejection of those who knelt as a symbol: the Judeans will no longer kneel to Midianites.
- God typically chooses inadequate men to accomplish divine missions so that the result redounds to God’s glory (Josephus, Antiquities 5, 6, 3).
- Some commentators read the story as choosing the best warriors. Gersonides states that Gideon wanted the most able warriors and those who knelled were those who were lazy.
- The 300 are compared to dogs; “they were rude, fierce men; compare the name Caleb” the warrior during the days of Joshua (G. F. Moore).
- Those who lapped water did not put their heads into the water, but brought water to their mouths with their hands. They showed that even while drinking they were alert to a possible enemy attack (Kaufman).
- Ehrlich and Olam Hatanach take the opposite approach; Gideon chose the weakest group to show that the victory belonged to God. The lappers were chosen because they acted in an unmanly manner, like dogs, not warriors, and no one could say they achieved the victory.
- The soldiers who bent down showed they were superior warriors, quick and courageous. Gideon rejected them because he wanted the weak, the lappers, to prove that the victory was God’s (J. A. Soggin).
The use of seven and three
The bible and other ancient literature and even fairy tales use numbers seven and three frequently. In this chapter, the Lord speaks to Gideon seven times.
The number three can be seen in the 300, the three counts of Gideon’s army, the division of the 300 into three units, the three items each soldier brings to the battle, the three parts of the night, the three tribes called to pursue the Midianites, and the three stages of the battle: during the first watch Gideon has his forces take three items (verses 15-18), during the second watch the Midianites are frightened (19-22), and in the third three tribes join in defeating the foe (23).
Was it God who defeated the Midianites?
The chapter starts with the Lord telling Gideon that the object of the operation is to show that God secured the victory. Gideon’s troop is specifically reduced to 300 to show that a few can beat many with God’s help.
Yet, there are indications that the victory was a natural event. The story begins with the appearance of an angel in 6:12 who states that Gideon is a mighty warrior. This suggests that the triumph will be achieved by his skills. Gideon gains the victory by using the psychology of fear. The tactic may have been God’s advice, but the chapter does not say so. Once the Midianites began to run, chapter 7 does not suggest that God did something to them; it states instead that Gideon relied on three tribes who attacked them and the tribe of Ephraim who fought them at the Jordan fords. There were no miracles.
Furthermore, chapter 8 begins with the people of Ephraim criticizing Gideon for not sending for them sooner, presumably so that they could fight and gain more spoils. This criticism only makes sense if they believed the victory was the result of human activity. Additionally, once Gideon sees that he is an accomplished warrior, he shows no fear in chapter 8, needs no more signs, and has no more feelings that he needs divine help.
The author of chapter 8 is presenting his readers with at least three ways to interpret his tale.
- God is directly involved in all that occurs. While it may appear that humans bring results, it is actually God who does so.
- Although God is not directly involved in controlling the events, God inspired Gideon in every action he took. The inspiration could have been by divine intervention, divine thoughts placed in his mind, or by Gideon being inspired by his view of God.
- The story is composed with irony and addresses the common notion that God is ever-present and constantly involved in human activity. While it appears to people that this is so, and the narrator depicts it in this way in the first part of the chapter, the chapter’s ending shows that it was not God but Gideon who attained the victory by using a psychological tactic and an unforeseen attack on the fleeing invaders from the flanks while they are confused.
 Maimonides discuses this subject in his Guide of the Perplexed 2:48.
 In chapter 6, Gideon experiences God in five different ways, probably indicating his agitated mind: a prophet, an angel of God, and angel of the Lord, God, and the Lord. Here, in chapter 7, it is only y-h-v-h in Hebrew, “Lord” in English.
 The Hebrew eleph could mean “unit,” so there were only 135 units of enemy soldiers, perhaps no more than ten men in a unit, or 1,350 invaders.
 This seems to parallel Deuteronomy 20:5-8. However, the traditional interpretation of 20:5-8 is that the faint hearted, those who had just married, and those who recently built a home or vineyard, are excused only for wars that are not milchemet mitzvah, “divinely-mandated wars” (Sifrei Deuteronomy 190; Mishnah Sotah 8:7; and Maimonides, Laws of Kings, 7:5). Gideon’s battle is clearly divinely mandated and the fearful soldiers should not have been released. Why were they released? The answer is the same we saw previously when the law was ignored: it may be ignored when circumstances demand it (see chapter 4, part 2). However it is also possible to interpret the events as follows: Gideon did not release the faint-hearted entirely. He wanted to proceed with a small force. So he told the faint-hearted to go away, but not far for he would use them after he could frighten the Midianites and prompt them to run. This interpretation is supported by the fact that at the end of the chapter, Gideon summons soldiers from three tribes to pursue and kill the fleeing Midianites. It is unlikely that these were not men already near the battlefield for it would take many hours if not days to mobilize these forces. So they must have been men he excluded from the 300.
 Or ten units.
 These 300 fighters parallel the story of the 300 Spartans who fought at the Battle of Thermopylae in 480 BCE during the Persian Wars. Both show how a small group can obtain a victory over a numerically superior force.
 The biblical Joseph in Genesis 41:25 reflects the ancient notion that God reveals information to humans by means of dreams.
 Scholars, such as J. D. Martin and G. F. Moore, interpret the barley-cake as symbolizing Israel, for barley is a poor person’s bread and it is a late crop, a crop that could be harvested after the Midianite plunder was completed and the marauders left. It is also the food of a settled community. The tent symbolizes nomadic people, such as the Midianite plunderers.
 Abarbanel explains that shofars were available because in ancient times soldiers brought horns to battle and customarily blew them to terrorize the enemy. Ehrlich notes that Joshua also used the shofar to frighten the inhabitants of Jericho. He adds that since the shofar was used in ancient times to frighten one’s enemy, we blow the shofar on Rosh Hashana to frighten and scare away Satan. Rashi understood that the soldiers blew their shofars to cause God to recall the merit they deserve for their ancestors accepting the Torah, for the shofar was sounded at Mount Sinai during the revelation of the Decalogue.
 Usually each soldier wouldn’t have a shofar, a horn, or a torch and jar, but Gideon had the soldiers who left leave these items with those who remained.
Did the 300 enter the battle without swords? It would seem so since their hands were full with three objects. No, Kaufman contends, the swords could have been in their belts.
 Psychological warfare, the use of shofars to scare the superstitious Midianites was part of the tactic used by Joshua at Jericho when his forces also blew shofars. See my description of Joshua’s tactic in my “Unusual Bible Interpretations: Joshua,” chapter 6.
When we recall that we are told at the outset that the Midianites came with their families and “camels as many as locust,” we can imagine that the Midianite superstition-induced flight must have been very confused.
 It is possible to interpret Gideon’s taking his aid with him as a usual procedure and not an indication of fear, for Jonathan, King Saul’s brave son, did so in I Samuel 14, and he was not fearful.
 Jorge Borges wrote: Great literature has two authors. It has obscure and ambiguous parts so that the tale is authored by both the writer and the reader.
 Some scholars, such as Moore, suppose that there is a textual error here; the passage should read that those who lapped the water lapped it with their tongues, while those who were watchful knelt and brought the water to their mouths with their hands. The kneelers used their hands not the lappers.
 The Lord is mentioned nine times in the chapter – 2, 4, 5, 7, 9, 15, 18, 20, and 22. If the two battle cries by the military are removed from the list, the total is seven.
 First 32,000 men (or 32 units). Second after the fearful men left, 10,000 (or 10 units). Then the reduction to 300.
 The practice of dividing the night into three parts of about four hours each was changed by the Romans who used a four-part division. See Exodus 14:24, I Samuel 11:11, Mark 13:35, and Babylonian Talmud Berakhot 3a, b.