Under Midianite Oppression

The Midianites, a tribe on the east of the Jordan, began to make systematic raids on the Jewish settlements.

They would burn the houses and fields, kill the people, and make off with the produce of the land. These raids were especially serious during the harvest season. The people became impoverished and lived in eternal dread of the barbaric hordes from the east. This sad condition lasted for seven years. In trembling and despair, the Israelites prayed to G‑d for rescue, and again He sent them a deliverer.

Gideon Learns of His Mission

There dwelt in Ophrah, a city of Manasseh, a man by the name of Gideon, the son of Joash, the Abi-Ezrite. His brothers had been put to death on Mount Tabor by the Midianites. But even this family was tainted by idolatry; for Joash had in his house an altar for Baal, with a tree consecrated to the Ashtarte by its side, where he and his tribe worshipped. Gideon alone remained uncorrupted by the evil influences that surrounded him, and adhered unswervingly to the service of G‑d. One day he was threshing out some ripe corn near the winepress, to hide it from the Midianites, when an angel of the L-rd appeared to him and greeted him with the words, "The L-rd is with thee, thou mighty man of valour." But Gideon answered "O my L-rd, if the L-rd be with us, why then has all this befallen us? And where are all His miracles of which our fathers told us? And now the L-rd has forsaken us and delivered us into the hands of Midianites." "Go in this thy might," rejoined the angel, "and thou shall save Israel from the hand of the Midianites; indeed, I have sent thee." These words fell upon a wondering ear. Yet, willing to accept the great mission, he asked for some sign to assure him that he had indeed heard a message from G‑d. Entreating the angel to stay, he hastened into the house; and when he returned, he brought the meat of a kid, with unleavened cakes of flour and a pot of broth. But the angel, declining to taste it, requested Gideon to lay the meat and the unleavened cakes upon the stone and to pour out the broth. As this was done, he touched the food with the end of his staff, and fire rose up out of the rock and consumed the meat and the cakes; and then Gideon felt that he truly stood in the presence of an angel of the L-rd.

Destruction of Baal

In the silent hours of the night, the divine voice came again to Gideon, bidding him hew down the altar of Baal, together with the tree of the Ashtarte, which polluted his father's house. He was then to build an altar to G‑d, upon which he was to offer a bullock as a burnt-offering, using for the sacrifice the wood of the destroyed idol. Aided by ten of his servants, Gideon executed this daring scheme by night. In the morning, when the deed was discovered, the men of Ophrah, full of rage, searched for the perpetrator; they discovered and convicted Gideon; they surrounded the house of Joash, and exclaimed angrily, "Bring out thy son that he may die, because he has destroyed the altar of Baal, and because he has cut down the tree of the Ashtarte that was by it." Joash, anxious to rescue his brave son, answered shrewdly, "Will you fight for Baal? If he be a god, let him fight for himself, since some one has destroyed his altar." By this reply he silenced the incensed multitude, and Gideon received the name of Jerubbaal, that is, "Let Baal fight against him."

Heavenly Proof of Victory

In the meantime the Midianites, together with the Amalekites and other tribes, were gathering a huge army in the valley of Jezreel. Gideon also mobilized an army of thirty-two thousand from the tribes of Manasseh, Asher, Zebulun, and Naphtali. In order to encourage his soldiers, Gideon asked for a heavenly sign that the battle they were going to fight would be won. He placed some fleece on the ground. If the wool became saturated with the dew while the earth around it remained dry, he would know that G‑d was with him. In the morning he discovered that his request had been fulfilled. Demanding further proof, Gideon then begged that the wool be dry, and the ground around it wet with dew. The next morning he again found his wish granted. Without exception, all now recognized Gideon's leadership.

An Army of 300 Men

In a further prophecy, Gideon was now informed that the army that he had raised (thirty-two thousand) was too large.

Was not the victory to come by way of a miracle? An order was thereupon sent through the ranks that all those who feared the clash of arms were to be permitted to leave. Twenty-two thousand men returned home. There were then ten thousand men still left; this number was considered by G‑d to be still too large. Gideon then put his men to a test. He took them all down to a river to drink. Of all the men, only three hundred drank the water by bringing the water up to their mouths with their hands. The rest got down on their knees and lapped the water like dogs, as they had done when they worshipped idols. Thus it was revealed that they were guilty of idolatry. Gideon retained the three hundred men, sending all the rest home. With this small army he set out to wage war against an army of 135,000!

In the Enemies' Camp

That night, Gideon was again assured by G‑d of an overwhelming victory. With his armor-bearer, he stole softly into the enemy's camp and overheard a conversation between two Midianites. One of them had a strange dream. A cake of barley bread rolled through the camp of Midian, striking one of the tents with such force that the tent collapsed completely. His companion interpreted this to mean a victory for the Jewish forces under Gideon. Returning to camp, Gideon aroused his men and put before them his plan of action.

Clever Strategy

He divided his men into three groups of one hundred each. The strategy he used was that of a cattle rustler who wishes to stampede a herd of cattle. They surrounded the enemy's camp, each one bearing a horn, an empty pitcher, and a torch. The torch was to be concealed in the pitcher until the action began. Gideon attacked when the enemy had retired for the night. The night watch had just changed. Breaking the pitchers and thus disclosing the flaming torches, the Jews blew the horns and cried, "For G‑d and Gideon!" With the torches in their left hands and the horns in their right, they maintained their positions around the camp, shouting and blowing their trumpets.

The deafening din of the trumpets aroused the sleeping Midianites, and the blazing torches alarmed them. Utter confusion reigned in their camp; seized with a panic, and without attempting the slightest resistance, they turned in hasty flight and sped on madly, in the hope of gaining the fords of the Jordan, and thus reaching the desert or some friendly tribe, in safety.

Civil War Averted

Fierce was the chase through the Holy Land; Gideon sent his speedy messengers through all the mountains of Ephraim, bidding the people occupy at once the passes of the Jordan, and so cut off the retreat of the Midianites. The men of Ephraim promptly obeyed the command, and caused a terrible massacre at the fords of the Jordan. They captured also the two Midianite princes, Oreb and Zeeb, slew them, and brought their heads as trophies to Gideon.

But the men of Ephraim felt aggrieved that they should not have been summoned sooner to share in the glory of the victory, and they remonstrated sharply with Gideon. His wise answer averted a dangerous conflict: "What have I done," he replied, "in comparison with you? Is not the gleaning of the grapes of Ephraim better than the vintage of Abiezer? G‑d has delivered into your hands the princes of Midian, Oreb and Zeeb, and what was I able to do in comparison with you?" The Ephraimites were satisfied.

Complete Victory

Gideon and his three hundred men continued their pursuit of the enemy; they hastened on eastward, anxious to capture the Midianite kings, Zebah and Zalmunna. Arriving at the city of Succoth, they begged for bread to satisfy their hunger; but the men of Succoth answered tauntingly, "Dost thou hold Zebah and Zalmunna already in thy hands, that we should give bread to thy army?" Gideon swore to take fearful revenge if he should return victorious, and passed on with his hungry followers. Having arrived at Penuel, he repeated his entreaty, was just as heartlessly refused, and threatened a similar retribution. Meanwhile Zebah and Zalmunna had rallied at Karkor the remnant of their army, consisting of fifteen thousand men, eager to crush Gideon and his handful of followers. But the Hebrews, incited by despair, and fighting for their existence, surprised the hostile camp at an unguarded hour. The heathen army was routed and put to flight; Gideon dashed off in pursuit of the two kings and captured them. He proceeded with them to Succoth, summoned the elders of the town, seventy-seven in number, and bade them look upon his royal captives. Thereupon he carried out his fearful threat and put the elders to death. He then fell upon the town of Penuel and slew its inhabitants. Zebah and Zalmunna were then brought before him; the moment had arrived for fulfilling what he considered his sacred duty. "What manner of men," he asked the captives, "were those you slew at Tabor?" Promptly they replied, "As thou art, so were they; each one resembled the children of a king." Then Gideon exclaimed, "They were my brothers, the sons of my mother; as the L-rd lives, if you had saved them alive, I would not slay you." So Gideon himself avenged the murder of his brothers, and the war was concluded.

This was the end of the Midianite rule over the Jews. Gideon's heroism was fully appreciated. For the first time in Jewish history, the Jews offered Gideon a crown, and his sons were to have the right of succession. This he refused saying, "G‑d will rule over you." He survived his glorious victories thirty three years, a happy and peaceful time for the Israelites; and when he died at a great age, he was buried in the grave of his ancestors, mourned by a grateful nation.