GIDEON (gĭd'ē-ŏn, Heb. Gidh‘ôn, feller or hewer). The son of Joash, an Abiezrite (Judg.6.11) who lived in Ophrah not far from Mount Gerizim (not the Ophrah of Benjamin listed in Josh.18.23). The record about Gideon is found in Judg.6.1-Judg.9.6. When he is first mentioned he was already a mature man. His firstborn, Jether, was a youth (Judg.8.20). Gideon had already become a noted warrior (Judg.6.12), perhaps by waging “underground” warfare against the marauding Midianites. The extent to which the people had been enslaved is shown by the fact that Gideon had to hide in a winepress to do the threshing (Judg.6.11). A supernatural fire that consumed Gideon’s sacrifice (Judg.6.17-Judg.6.23) attested to the fact that the messenger who called Gideon to lead Israel was from God.
Gideon responded to the call and, with the help of some friends, overthrew the altar of Baal and cut down the sacred grove around it. He erected instead a new altar, naming it Jahveh-Shalom, “The Lord is Peace” (Judg.6.24). For his daring feat the followers of Baal wanted to kill him, but his father intervened. Instead of death he was given a new name, Jerub-Baal, or “contender with Baal” (Judg.6.28-Judg.6.32). Later the name was changed to Jerubbesheth, “contender with the Idol,” evidently to eliminate any recognition of Baal (2Sam.11.21). Gideon then issued a call to adjoining tribesmen to war against the Midianites. Having gathered a formidable host, he sought confirmation of his task and so put forth the famous test of the fleece (Judg.6.36-Judg.6.40). As further assurance, he was instructed to slip into the enemy’s camp, and there he overheard one soldier tell another of a dream and interpret it to mean that Gideon’s smaller army would win the battle (Judg.7.9-Judg.7.14). To prevent human boasting over victory, God instructed Gideon to reduce his force to three hundred picked men by (1) letting the faint-hearted go home and (2) choosing only those men who were cautious enough to dip their drinking water when they went down to a stream to drink (Judg.7.1-Judg.7.8).
GIDEON gĭd’ ĭ ən (גִּדְעֹ֑ון, LXX Γεδεών, G1146, a cutting down or a hewer). The son of Joash, the Abiezrite, from the tribe of Manasseh, and the fifth recorded judge of Israel (Judg 6-8). Also called JERUBBAAL (let Baal strive, contend; Judg 6:32; 7:1, et al.) and JERUBBESHETH (let shame strive, contend; 2 Sam 11:21).
During the period of the Judges there was no predetermined or planned leadership such as under a monarchy where the son of the king would rule after the death of the king. God raised up individuals to meet special circumstances, who acted as rulers, judging Israel. The Israelites were unorganized and the tribes disunited. This left them open to oppression by neighboring tribes. “In those days there was no king in Israel; every man did what was right in his own eyes” (Judg 21:25). The Israelites repeatedly fell into sin and idolatry; after which God gave them over to their enemies. At the time of Gideon, the oppressors were the Midianites and the Amalekites who periodically plundered the land, destroying what they could not carry away. With their crops destroyed at each planting, the starving Israelites cried to the Lord. God sent a prophet to rebuke them for their disobedience. After seven years of suffering God delivered the Israelites by the hand of Gideon.
Call of Gideon.
The angel of the Lord (Judg 6:11ff., simply the Lord) appeared to Gideon at his home in Ophra (not positively identified) while Gideon was threshing wheat covertly to hide it from the Midianites. When the stranger informed Gideon that he was to deliver Israel, he asked for proof to validate the message. At the angel’s request, Gideon prepared food and presented it to the angel who caused the food to go up in flames, and the angel promptly vanished. It should be noted that the dynamic leadership of Gideon that followed was not the result of public demand, personal desires for leadership, or a high opinion of his own abilities, but only as a result of the knowledge that God had called him and was leading him. For this reason Gideon asked for and received proof of God’s call both at this time and later. That night, following the Lord’s instructions, Gideon and his servants pulled down the altar of Baal, erected an altar to the Lord, and offered a bull, using the wood of the Asherah that was by the altar of Baal. When the townspeople learned of this the following morning they wanted to put Gideon to death. But Gideon’s father, Joash, refused to deliver Gideon to them, saying that if Baal was a god he could contend for himself and did not need their help. Thus, Gideon was given the name Jerubbaal, “let Baal contend.”
The battle against Midian.
The Midianites and the Amalekites came in from the E, crossed over the Jordan, and set up camp in the Valley of Jezreel by the hill of Moreh. The Spirit of the Lord came upon Gideon; he gathered the Abiezrites and sent messengers to the rest of the Manassites and also to the tribes of Asher, Zebulun, and Naphtali, asking them to join him in fighting the Midianites. Although Gideon had already acted on faith he again asked for a sign—an additional miracle to help him in the difficult job ahead and to give faith to others who might have witnessed the event. On one night he left a fleece of wool on the threshing floor, asking for dew on the fleece, but not on the ground. On the following morning he wrung a bowl of water from the fleece although the ground was dry. The next night he asked for the reverse, so he found the fleece dry and the ground wet with dew. Then Gideon and his army of 32,000 men set up camp beside the spring of Harod on Mount Gilboa.
The Lord made it clear that the coming victory was His and not of superior Israelite might. He thus requested Gideon to send the “fearful and trembling” back home. This conformed with the laws for military exemption (Deut 20:1-8). The majority, 22,000, returned home, leaving 10,000. Still too many, the Lord set up another test based on the method of drinking water. The text as it stands does not seem clear. According to some commentators, the majority got down on their knees, put their faces down to the water, and drank it directly; whereas 300, upright, used their hands to put the water to their mouths. The phrase “laps the water with his tongue, as a dog laps” (Judg 7:5) is made somehow equal with “lapped, putting their hands to their mouths” (7:6), both of these being opposed to those who kneel down. The comparison made between the dog and the “300” is the standing position. This may have indicated that the 300 were more alert and cautious, as their physical position left them ready for action.
An alternate view is that the 300 fell prostrate and put their mouth to the water, lapping as a dog laps whereas the rest knelt “putting their hands to their mouths.” The last phrase would have to be put at the end of the v. as a textual emendation. The virtue of the 300 in this instance would be their willingness to suffer the discomfort of lying in the dirt, if it was the most efficient way of accomplishing a goal. The important part, however, is that only 300 remained. Gideon kept the 300 and sent the rest home.
Having left Gideon with a fighting force of only 300 men, the Lord saw fit to encourage him again. Leading him to the camp of Midian, the Lord caused Gideon to overhear a man relating his dream to a friend. His friend understood the dream to foretell the defeat of Midian at the hand of Gideon. This may have been an indication of insecurity among the Midianite forces. In any case, it gave Gideon the confidence to proceed with his plans.
That same night Gideon divided his men into three companies and gave them instructions for the attack. They surrounded the camp of Midian with torches hidden inside overturned jars in one hand, and trumpets in the other hand. At the beginning of the middle watch (about midnight) following the lead of Gideon, they blew the trumpets, smashed the jars, and shouted. The sudden light and noise frightened the Midianites and the Lord caused them to fight among themselves and to flee while Gideon and his men stood in their places around the camp. The places to which the Midianites fled (Judg 7:22) are not positively identified but seem to indicate that they went E, crossing the Jordan (and possibly S into the tribe of Ephraim). For an evaluation of the battle from a military standpoint, cf. Bibliography, the last three entries.
Clearing out of Midianite troops.
God used just 300 men to defeat the Midianites, but the work of destroying the defeated enemy, now spread across the countryside, remained to be done. For this Gideon sent again to Manasseh, Asher, and Naphtali, and also to Ephraim for assistance to seal off the fords of the Jordan blocking their escape. The Ephraimites caught and killed the two princes of Midian—Oreb and Zeeb—and brought their heads to Gideon.
The men from Ephraim complained that they had not been asked to help with the initial battle. Gideon answered with tact and wisdom that Ephraim had slain the princes of Midian and that Gideon himself had done nothing as great as this. The soft answer turned away their wrath. This is in contrast to a similar situation faced by Jephthah, a later judge. The men of Ephraim asked Jephthah why he had fought the Ammonites without asking Ephraim for assistance (Judg 12:1-6). Jephthah answered them correctly and logically, but although the answer was a good one it did not prevent the conflict between the Ephraimites and Jephthah, whereas Gideon’s diplomatic answer made peace with Ephraim and averted a civil war.
Gideon pursued Zebah and Zalmunna, the kings of Midian, eastward across the Jordan. On the way he asked for provisions for his 300 men from the towns of Succoth and Penuel. Both towns refused him, so after threatening them, he proceeded. Gideon caught Zebah and Zalmunna with their army off guard. (Only 15,000 men were left as 120,000 had already fallen.) The surprise attack again routed the Midianites. Zebah and Zalmunna tried to flee but were caught.
Returning to Succoth, Gideon took thorns and briers from the wilderness and used them to whip the men of Succoth. He also broke down the tower of Penuel and killed men there. When he learned that Zebah and Zalmunna had killed his brothers, Gideon killed them also.
From the golden earrings taken in the spoil, Gideon made an ephod (q.v.), which he put in his city, Ophra. Although Gideon was so devoted to the Lord that he refused to rule Israel, saying that the Lord should rule over them, the ephod became a “snare to Gideon and to his family,” and all Israel as it became an object of worship. The land, however, had rest for forty years as a result of his leadership. Gideon had many wives, who bore him seventy sons. He died “in a good old age,” and it was not until after his death that the Israelites again departed from God.
Gideon also had a son by a concubine, Abimelech (q.v.). After Gideon died, Abimelech slew his seventy brothers (except Jotham, the youngest) and set himself up as ruler (Judg 9).
Character and influence of Gideon.
The writer of Hebrews includes Gideon as one of the heroes of the faith. He certainly learned to trust God for the impossible. He gave evidence of wisdom in the art of warfare and, also, wisdom along with patience and humility in dealing with the Ephraimites. In contrast, he took revenge against Succoth and Penuel. His error in making and worshiping the ephod may be attributed, at least in part, to the ignorance and low moral standards of that time.
Israel later remembered her deliverance by Gideon as one of national importance (Ps 83:11; Isa 9:4; 10:26). The name of Gideon has become popular in Christian circles and has been used to name groups such as Gideons International, a Bible distributing organization.
J. M. Lang, Gideon and the Judges (1890); S. Tolkowsky, “Gideon’s 300”, JPOS, V (1925), 69-74; A. Malamat, “The War of Gideon and Midian: A Military Approach,” PEQ (1953), 61-65; Y. Yadin, The Art of Warfare in Biblical Lands (1963), 256-260.
International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (1915)
(gidh`on, "cutter down," "feller" or "hewer"):
1. His Family and Home:
Also named Jerubbaal (Jud 6:32) and Jerubbesheth (2Sa 11:21), youngest son of Joash, of the clan of Abiezer in the tribe of Manasseh. His home was at Ophrah, and his family an obscure one. He became the chief leader of Manasseh and the fifth recorded judge of Israel. The record of his life is found in Jud 6-8.
Joash was an idolater, and sacrifices to Baal were common among the entire clan. Gideon seems to have held this worship in contempt, and to have pondered deeply the causes of Israel’s reverses and the injuries wrought upon his own family by the hand of the Midianites.
2. The Midianite Oppression:
The Midianites under Zebah and Zalmunna, their two greatest chiefs, accompanied by other wild tribes of the eastern desert, had gradually encroached on the territory of Israel in Central Palestine. They came first as marauders and pillagers at the time of the harvests, but later they forcibly took possession of lands, and thus inflicted permanent injury and loss, especially upon Manasseh and Ephraim. The conflicts became so numerous, the appropriation of land so flagrant, that the matter of sustenance became a serious problem (Jud 6:4). The multitude of these desert hordes and the cruelty of their depredation rendered defense difficult, and, lacking in the split of national unity, the Israelites were driven to dens, caves and rocky strongholds for safety (Jud 6:2). After seven years of such invasion and suffering Gideon comes upon the scene.
3. The Call of Gideon:
It is probable that Gideon had already distinguished himself in resistance to the Midianites (Jud 6:12), but he now receives Divine commission to assume the leadership. Having taken his own little harvest to a secret place for threshing, that it might escape the greed of the Midianites, he is surprised while at work by a visit from the Lord in the form of an angel. However this scene (Jud 6:11 ) and its miraculous incidents may be interpreted, there can be no question of the divineness of Gideon’s call or that the voice which spoke to him was the voice of God. Neither the brooding over the death of his brothers at Tabor (Jud 8:18) nor the patriotic impulses dwelling within him can account for his assumption of leadership. Nor did he become leader at the demand of the people. He evidently had scarcely thought of himself as his country’s deliverer. The call not only came to him as a surprise, but found him distrustful both of himself (Jud 6:15) and of his people (Jud 6:13). It found him too without inclination for the task, and only his conviction that the command was of God persuaded him to assume leadership. This gives the note of accuracy to the essential facts of the story. Gideon’s demand for a sign (Jud 6:17) being answered, the food offered the messenger having been consumed by fire at the touch of his staff, Gideon acknowledged the Divine commission of his visitor, and at the place of visitation built an altar to Yahweh (Jud 6:19 ).
4. His First Commission:
The call and first commission of Gideon are closely joined. He is at once commanded to destroy the altars of Baal set up by his father at Ophrah, to build an altar to Yahweh at the same place and thereon to offer one of his father’s bullocks as a sacrifice (Jud 6:25 f). There is no reason to look on this as a second version of Gideon’s call. It is rather the beginning of instruction, and is deeply significant of the accuracy of the story, in that it follows the line of all revelation to God’s prophets and reformers to begin their work at home. Taking ten men, under the cover of darkness, Gideon does as commanded (Jud 6:27). The morning revealed his work and visited upon him the wrath of the people of Ophrah. They demand of Joash that he put his son to death. The answer of Joash is an ironical but valid defense of Gideon. Why should the people plead for Baal? A god should be able to plead his own cause (Jud 6:28 ). This defense gained for Gideon the name Jerubbaal (yerubba`al, i.e. yarebh bo ha-ba`al, "Let Baal plead," Jud 6:32 the King James Version).
The time intervening between this home scene and the actual campaign against the Midianites cannot definitely be named. It is probable that it took months for Gideon even to rally the people of his own clan. The fact is that all the subsequent events of the story are somewhat confused by what looks like a double narrative in which there are apparent but not vital differences. Without ignoring this fact it is still possible to get a connected account of what actually transpired.
5. Gideon’s Army:
When the allied invaders were in camp on the plain of Jezreel, we find Gideon, having recruited the Abiezrites and sent messengers to the various tribes of Israel (Jud 6:34 f), pitching his camp near the Midianites. The location of the various camps of Gideon is difficult, as is the method of the recruiting of the tribes. For instance, Jud 6:35 seems to be in direct contradiction to 7:23, and both are considered of doubtful origin. There was evidently, however, a preliminary encampment at the place of rallying. While waiting here, Gideon further tested his commission by the dry and wet fleece (6:37 ff) and, convinced of God’s purpose to save Israel by his leadership, he moves his camp to the Southeast edge of the plain of Jezreel nearby the spring of Harod. From his point of vantage here he could look down on the tents of Midian. The account of the reduction of his large army from 32,000 to 300 (7:2 ff) is generally accepted as belonging to a later tradition, Neither of the tests, however, is unnatural, and the first was not unusual. According to the account, Gideon at the Lord’s command first excused all the fearful. This left him with 10,000 men. This number was reduced to 300 by a test of their method of drinking. This test can easily be seen to evidence the eagerness and courage of men for battle (Jos).
6. The Midianites’ Discomfiture and Flight:
Having thus reduced the army and having the assurance that the Lord would deliver to him and his little band the forces of Midian, Gideon, with a servant, went by night to the edge of the camp of his enemy, and there heard the telling and interpretation of a dream which greatly encouraged him and led him to strike an immediate blow (Jud 7:9 ). Again we find a conflict of statement between Jud 7:20 and 7:22, but the conflict is as to detail only. Dividing his men into three equal bands, Gideon arranges that with trumpets, and lights concealed in pitchers, and with the cry, "The sword of Yahweh and of Gideon!" they shall descend and charge the Midianites simultaneously from three sides. This stratagem for concealing his numbers and for terrifying the enemy succeeds, and the Midianites and their allies flee in disorder toward the Jordan (7:18 ff). The rout was complete, and the victory was intensified by the fact that in the darkness the enemy turned their swords against one another. Admitting that we have two narratives (compare 7:24; 8:3 with 8:4 ff) and that there is some difference between them in the details of the attack and the progress of the conflict, there is no need for confusion in the main line of events. One part of the fleeing enemy evidently crossed the Jordan at Succoth, being led by Zebah and Zalmunna. The superior force followed the river farther south, toward the ford of Bethbarah.
7. Death of Oreb and Zeeb
Gideon sent messengers to the men of Ephraim (7:24), probably before the first attack, asking them to intercept the Midianites, should they attempt to escape by the fords in their territory. This they did, defeating the enemy at Beth-barah and slaying the princes Oreb and Zeeb ("the Raven" and "the Wolf"). As proof of their victory and valor they brought the heads of the princes to Gideon and accused him of having discounted their bravery by not calling them earlier into the fight. But Gideon was a master of diplomacy, as well as of strategy, and won the friendship of Ephraim by magnifying their accomplishment in comparison with his own (8:1 ff).
Gideon now pursues Zebah and Zalmunna on the East side of the river. The people on that side are still in great fear of the Midianites and refuse even to feed his army. At Succoth they say to him, "Are the hands of Zebah and Zalmunna now in thy hand, that we should give bread unto thine army?" (Jud 8:6). At Penuel he meets with the same refusal (Jud 8:8). Promising to deal with Succoth and Penuel as they deserve when he is through with his present task, Gideon pushes on with his half-famished but courageous men, overtakes the Midianites, defeats them, captures Zebah and Zalmunna, and, returning, punishes, according to his promise, both Succoth and Penuel (Jud 8:7,9,13 ).
8. Death of Zebah and Zalmunna:
Thus was the power of the Midianites and the desert hordes broken in Canaan and a forty years’ peace came to Israel. But the two Kings of Midian must now meet their fate as defeated warriors. They had led their forces at Tabor when the brothers of Gideon perished. So Gideon commands his young son Jether to slay them as though they were not worthy of death at a warrior’s hand (Jud 8:20). The youth fearing the task, Gideon himself put them to death (Jud 8:21).
9. Gideon’s Ephod:
The people clamored to make Gideon king. He refused, being moved possibly by a desire to maintain theocracy. To this end he asks only the jewelry taken as spoil in the battles (Jud 8:24 ), and with it makes an ephod, probably an image of Yahweh, and places it in a house of the Lord at Ophrah. By this act it was later thought that Gideon contributed to a future idolatry of Israel. The narrative properly closes with Jud 8:28.
10. His Death:
The remaining verses containing the account of Gideon’s family and death (Jud 8:30 ) and the record of events immediately subsequent to Gideon’s death (Jud 8:33 ) come from other sources than the original narrators.