Biblical irony and obscurities
Chapter 8 concludes the three chapter tale of judge Gideon. It affords us an opportunity, among much else, to see how the Bible uses irony and obscurities.
Gideon successfully defeated the marauding Midianites. While chapters 6 and 7 depict fearful Gideon depending on divine help, he shows no fear in this chapter, just the opposite, and God offers no help. 120,000 armed Midianites fell in battle, leaving an enemy force of only 15,000. For reasons unclear until the chapter’s end, Gideon crosses the Jordan with his three hundred men and chases the remnant Midianites force.
Gideon’s men need food. He requests food from the people of Succoth and Penuel. Both refuse. We don’t know why. Perhaps they feared that Gideon will be defeated by the Midianites who were successful warriors in the past. They would be furious if the cities helped their foe and would kill them. Gideon, the once fearful man, ignores their fear and swears that when he is victorious, he will return and punish the cities brutality. He surprises and defeats the Midianite remnant, takes two Midianite kings prisoner, returns to Succoth and Penuel and fulfills his promise.
What did he do to these people? The chapter describes different “punishments” inflicted on the two cities – Succoth will be dragged over thorns as a threshing sledge is dragged over grain, while Penuel’s tower will be torn down. Are the descriptions metaphors? Are both treated differently? Why? Did he kill some or all of the inhabitants? Where they Israelites? None of this is clear.
Why did Gideon hunt the Midianite remnant, who told him about the two kings and what they did or where they were, why did he say that if the kings had left his brothers alive he would not have killed them, why did Gideon lead his army in pursuit without sufficient food, who fed his starving troops, why did he kill the two kings, did he wait to execute them until after he showed the people of Succoth and Penuel that he captured them, or did he bring them across the Jordan to show them to the citizens of his hometown, why did Gideon say he would not have killed the kings if they had not killed his brothers when there is no indication that he let other Midianites live, why did he tell his eldest son to kill the kings rather than doing it himself, was this son a member of the original 300 mentioned in chapter 7? All of this, like much else in the chapter, is obscure.
Rashi supposes that Gideon rushed to Trans-Jordan without supplies to aid the tribes of Reuben, Gad, and Manasseh who lived there. However, many other commentators, such as Kaufman, suppose that Gideon hastened to Trans-Jordan to free his brothers who had been taken prisoner by the two kings. Gideon discovers that the kings didn’t enslave them, but killed them. So he revenges their deaths by killing them. If the brothers were still alive and sold into slavery, he wouldn’t have slain the kings, but would have traded them for his brothers. This is a good explanation of the events, but the chapter itself is obscure. It only states that Gideon captured the kings, told the kings he wouldn’t have killed them if his brothers were alive, and then executed them.
Gideon may have told his eldest son perform the execution because he wanted his son to show he could succeed him as a fearless warrior king, but his son was weak and unable to do it, so he did the execution. This episode serves as an introduction to chapter 9. In chapter 9 his son Abimelech, son of his concubine, considers none of Gideon’s 70 sons fit to rule.
The Israelites offer to make Gideon king, but it is unclear who made the offer – was it one tribe, two, or all the tribes, and where was the offer made. He refuses, but then acts like a king, seemingly showing that his refusal was a ruse, a show of humility, a means of getting the people to push harder and become invested in the idea. Furthermore, if he became a king, what kind of king was he, what were his powers? Why didn’t the author tell us, as he did for other judges, that Gideon judged the people? Even more significant, how should we understand this episode: is the author showing his disdain of monarchy or the opposite, his feeling that the Israelites needed a king? These too are obscure.
In chapter 6, Gideon’s first action is the destruction of an idol. Yet in chapter 8, he requests the people to give him gold from the war spoils so that he can make an ephod, which he set up in his home town. What the ephod was is obscure. It could have been a monument to his victory, an ornamental belt, or kingly garment. Whatever it was, the author tells us that despite beginning his career destroying an idol, ironically “all Israel went whoring after it,” treating it as an idol. The chapter does not reveal when the “whoring occurred,” during his life time or after his death. Rashi and Radak, apparently attempting to protect Gideon’s honor, suggest the later.
One of the characteristics of biblical writing is subtle references to other biblical events and people designed to prompt readers to make comparisons and thereby see both events and people in a much deeper way and clearer light. Gideon has seventy children and at least one concubine who may not have been an Israelite. We understand the number seventy to mean “many” and the taking of so many women of different types as an indication of royalty. King Solomon, another Israelite ruler, is said to have had 700 wives and 300 concubines. We can understand the use of the frequently-used seven in 700 and three in 300 in this description as an imprecise indication of an exceedingly high number. The large numbers suggest that Solomon was more “successful” than Gideon. But should we see more from the comparison? Solomon was led astray by his foreign wives and built pagan temples for their idols. Is chapter 8 suggesting that Gideon was like Solomon in this manner? He too ended his life furthering idol worship. This is another of the vastitude of ambiguities in our chapter.
We saw over a dozen examples of obscurities in this final chapter of the Gideon trilogy and an example of irony, but where are other examples of irony, the portrayal of outcomes that are contrary to what the author seems to wants us to think as we begin reading the chapter?
We saw the first example in chapter 6 where the author apparently wanted us to believe that the Israelite victory will be achieved only with divine help, but the narration of the battle shows that Gideon, who was fearful, won because of a surprise attack in which he caused the Midianites to be afraid, and Gideon sought help in overcoming the fleeing marauders from four Israelite tribes, not a divine miracle.
In this chapter we see that the once fearful Gideon, filled with self-distrust, is now bold. The two kings recognize this and want to be slain by Gideon rather than by another because it is more honorable to be killed by such a man.
We wonder whether Gideon has gone too far. In chapter 7, he shows humility in his magnanimous negotiations with the tribe Ephraim, but his treatment of Succoth and Penuel is harsh. Was his cruel punishment of the two cities justified? Although the text is obscure, it seems that he killed many of the inhabitants of the two cities; this is certainly not justified by today’s standards. Additionally, did he act properly when he executed the two kings? Isn’t this another ironic portrayal, a reversal of what we expected?
The author of chapter 8 tells readers that the names of the two captured kings are Zebah and Zalmunna. These are likely not their real names. The author is using an ironic witticism: until they were captured they were kings, but now they are a “victim” and “protection refused,” the meaning of the names.
Another ironic episode is the request of the people that Gideon rule over them and be succeeded by his children. Yet, in the next chapter we will see these people participating in the murder of most of his sons.
Most readers of the prophetical books fail to see the obscurities and the ironies, and the humor in them. They approach the stories in an overly serious even pedantic manner, unfortunately missing the author’s clever art.
 I mentioned in the past that Jorge Borges explained that good literature, and the Bible is good literature, contains many ambiguities and obscurities with the result that two people write good literature, the writer and the reader. Readers supply their understanding of what is not explicit in the text.
 The fact that Gideon took only his 300 men and not the tribes that chapter 7 states joined him in defeating the plunderers, led some scholars to believe that we have two tales here that are mixed together: in one Gideon wages all the battles with just 300 men, in the other he uses a large force during part of his fighting.
Assuming this is a single tale, it is unclear, obscure, why he only took the three hundred; after frightening the Midianites in Chapter 7, many Israelites joined him in the battle. Why didn’t they join him in the pursuit? We can only speculate. Perhaps because this was a personal matter, as we will soon see, and Gideon only took men of his tribe or extended family with him.
 It is a common biblical writing style that Scripture describes an event without revealing certain even crucial details until later.
 Ironically both of these cities had significance in patriarchal history. Succoth, which means “huts,” were the dwellings Jacob built when he returned to Canaan after an absence of some twenty years (Genesis 33:17). Penuel was where Jacob struggled with a man/angel (Genesis 32).
 Gersonides supposes that Gideon used the same trick of surprise that he used in chapter 7, including the clatter of the breaking of vessels, lights, and shofar blast.
The use of the military tactic of surprise rather than marching assuredly into the enemy camp is still another proof of what I discussed in chapter 7: the author’s use of irony; while he began chapter 7 seemingly assuring readers that God will be involved in the victory and perform a miracle, he ends the chapter showing that no miracle occurred and Gideon relied on the human military tactic of surprise, as he did here.
 The meaning of this punishment is incomprehensible, but seems to indicate a death by torture.
 The weakness of Gideon’s oldest son serves as an antithesis that highlights Gideon’s strength (Olam Hatanach). The rules of the blood vendetta are in Leviticus 24:17 and Deuteronomy 19:21. Gideon ignored these rules which were enacted to limit revenge killings.
 Actually the passage uses the singular, an Israelite made the offer. It is a very common biblical usage to use the singular when the plural is intended and vise versa.
 Like a king he takes many wives and had seventy sons and at least one concubine. The evil king Ahab also had seventy sons (II kings 10:1). Is the author comparing Gideon to Ahab, for Ahab’s wife killed a man to get her husband what he wanted?
It is obscure whether the concubine was an Israelite, or like the women in Samson’s life, a non-Israelite (as maintained by Moore). Her home in Shechem, where there were many non-Israelites, seems to indicate the latter. “He named (the son of the concubine) Abimelech, “my father is a king,” But is the “He” who did the naming Gideon or did Abimelech give himself this name when he made himself a king, for it was the practice of kings, as it is with popes today, to assume a new name when crowned. This too is obscure.
The name Abimelech was also used by the king of Gerar in Genesis 20-21, 26.
The number seventy should not be taken literally. It is used in the Bible to indicate many. A classical example is Exodus 1:5 which states that seventy people came to Egypt with Jacob, but a count reveals that there were less than seventy. The number of rulers and elders in Succoth is given as 77 in verse 14, indicating a lot and even much more.
 The donated gold weighed about seventy pounds.
 In the ancient Middle East, many kings, Egyptian, Assyrian, Persian, would occasionally set up a pillar boasting of their conquests.
 Radak and Kaufman.