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Gideon’s Diplomacy, Vindication, Humility and Foolishness
Though Gideon’s little band completely routed the Midianites and their allies, nevertheless he called to the men of Ephraim to come down and aid in completing the victory (Judges 7:24). The Ephraimites were quick to the task, taking the territory pointed out by Gideon, and capturing and executing two of the leading Midianite princes, Oreb and Zeeb, whose heads they proudly brought to Gideon (verses 24-25). But the meeting with Gideon was not entirely pleasant. The men of Ephraim sharply upbraided Gideon for his refusal to call them to the initial engagement, feeling that they had been denied their rightful part in a great battle (Judges 8:1). Gideon’s reply astutely appealed to the vanity of the Ephraimite men. “Though you were called to aid in the mopping-up activity, yet you have done far better than I,” he basically told them, “for you have taken and killed two Midianite princes—and how shall my little skirmish compare to that!” (compare verses 2-3). Thus said, the Ephraimites’ anger was assuaged.
As Gideon and his men returned to the land of Israel, exhausted and faint with hunger, they came to Succoth and asked the elders of the city for provision to continue their pursuit of other Midianite leaders. The elders of Succoth refused, saying that it looked to them like Gideon hadn't captured anyone. The men of Penuel, upon the same request, made a similar reply. In both cases Gideon promised to return and punish the cities for their impertinence. According to the culture of the day, Gideon had every right to make the request, for he was a fellow countryman who was warring against Israel’s foes. The actions of the Succothites and Penuelites showed disloyalty and cowardice. When Gideon captured the two Midianite kings, he returned to Succoth and Penuel and carried out his threats, whipping the elders of Succoth with thorns and breaking down a defensive tower in Penuel. The victory achieved by Gideon was so stupendous that the men of Israel were intent on making him king. But Gideon refused—God was Israel’s king, and Gideon made sure to impress that point on the men of Israel. Gideon did take a reward, however, which was also his due according to the standard of the day. But Gideon behaved foolishly, for he took his reward of gold and made an ephod—a ceremonial religious garment—of it. It became an object of veneration by the Israelites and, sadly, even proved a snare to Gideon and his family (verse 27). When Gideon died, the people went back into total idolatry, even building a temple to Baal (verses 33-35; Judges 9:4).
Gideon’s story presents the first signs of a yearning for kingship in Israel. As previously stated, most of the real governmental power in Israel at the time was in the hands of the elders of the various tribes, and the tribes tended to look to their own interests, even when the national fortune or honor was at stake. The repeated cycle of servitude and deliverance began to expose the weakness of the tribal confederacy as it then existed and to awaken a desire for a more powerful central government. Sadly, the repeated cycle of servitude and deliverance did not impress on the Israelites the need for fidelity to God and the covenant. That was the lesson they should have learned. But men seldom blame their own evil hearts, preferring rather to blame “the system.”
Supplementary Reading: “Gideon: When a Few Make a Majority,” Good News Magazine, Sept.–Oct. 1997, pp. 27-29