Who was Gideon?
1. Gideon's Family and Home:
Also named Jerubbaal (Jdg 6:32) and Jerubbesheth (2 Sam 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 Jdg 6 through 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 (Jdg 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 (Jdg 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 (Jdg 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 (Jdg 6:11 ff) 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 (Jdg 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 (Jdg 6:15) and of his people (Jdg 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 (Jdg 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 (Jdg 6:19 ff).
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 (Jdg 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 (Jdg 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 (Jdg 6:28 ff). This defense gained for Gideon the name Jerubbaal (yerubba`al, i.e. yarebh bo ha-ba`al, "Let Baal plead," Jdg 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 (Jdg 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, Jdg 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 (Jdg 7:9 ff). Again we find a conflict of statement between Jdg 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?" (Jdg 8:6). At Penuel he meets with the same refusal (Jdg 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 (Jdg 8:7,9,13 ff).
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 (Jdg 8:20). The youth fearing the task, Gideon himself put them to death (Jdg 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 (Jdg 8:24 ff), 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 Jdg 8:28.
10. His Death:
The remaining verses containing the account of Gideon's family and death (Jdg 8:30 ff) and the record of events immediately subsequent to Gideon's death (Jdg 8:33 ff) come from other sources than the original narrators.
IBSE, "Isaac" (in the public domain) with minor edits.