When Gideon summoned the northern tribes to join him in pursuit of the retreating Midianite forces, he missed out on calling the Ephramites. With the help of the tribesmen of Naphtali, Asher and Manasseh, Gideon and his three hundred men chased after the Midianite army. Only when they reached the waters of Jordan, did Gideon send word to the residents of the hill country of Ephraim to join them in the war perhaps as an afterthought.
…the Ephraimites asked Gideon, “Why have you treated us like this? Why didn’t you call us when you went to fight Midian? ” And they challenged him vigorously.Judges 8:1 (NIV)
The Ephramites were the more prominent tribe of Israel when compared to the ones that Gideon had gathered for support. There seems to be a sense of entitlement in their protest that they should have been summoned first when the Midianite army was retreating. They felt they were called for namesake, like guests at a wedding invited a week prior to the event. Gideon called the tribes that were closer to the valley where the Midianites had camped and it made sense that he called the centrally placed tribe of Ephriam when they started fleeing towards the south. But the Ephriamites took offence thinking that Gideon had purposefully left them out, presumably to have a large share of the plunder and to gain prominence in Israel. Gideon retorted to them saying,
“What have I accomplished compared to you? Aren’t the gleanings of Ephraim’s grapes better than the full grape harvest of Abiezer? God gave Oreb and Zeeb, the Midianite leaders, into your hands. What was I able to do compared to you?” At this, their resentment against him subsided.Judges 8:2-3 (NIV)
Sukkoth and Peniel
Gideon and his men traversed half the country up to the waters of Jordan, in pursuit of the fleeing army. When they crossed the river and arrived in the trans-Jordanian towns of Sukkoth and Peniel, they were met with stiff hostility. When Gideon urged the townsmen to offer him and his men food so that they can replenish themselves, his request was refused by both the towns saying,
“Do you already have the hands of Zebah and Zalmunna in your possession? Why should we give bread to your troops?”Judges 8:6 (NIV)
Gideon assumed that their cause would be lauded with the same exhilaration as it had been accepted in the regions west of Jordan. But the eastern tribes shared boundaries with the Midianites and the other eastern countries that were raiding Israel. They had more to lose if the Midianite reinforcements were able to defeat the short-lived Israelite uprising. There was already a shortage of food in the land and they did not want to lose their supply over an unworthy cause. Also, they would have had more things in common with their neighbouring countries than they did with the rest of the tribes of Israel.
The Israelites were quick to adopt the cultures and traditions of the natives of the land that they had inherited. Perhaps the trans-Jordanian towns favoured their new neighbours more than their own people. The same was true of the tribes in the Northern region as well. The assimilation of their identities with that of the pagans was evident as they continued to abandon God for manmade idols and superstitions. Gideon was furious at the refusal of these towns to offer him any help and promised them that on his return he will torture them with desert thorns and briers and even tear down the tower at Penial.
The Battle at Karkor
Located about 113 miles further from Peniel, Karkor, was the army base that houses fifteen thousand fighting men of Zebah and Zalmunna, the Midianite kings. Gideon again took an unconventional route, the one that nomadic travellers used and attacked the unsuspecting army, usurping the notorious pair of Midianite leaders as well. He asked his oldest son Jether, to kill the two kings perhaps to tarnish their legacy by meeting their end at the hands of a small boy. When his son refused, Gideon killed them himself and took the ornaments off their camels to take them back home perhaps as a souvenir. On his way back, Gideon chose to pass by the towns of Sukkoth and Peniel and teach them a lesson for humiliating him by refusing to offer any assistance to his men.
He took the elders of the town and taught the men of Sukkoth a lesson by punishing them with desert thorns and briers. He also pulled down the tower of Peniel and killed the men of the town.Judges 8:16-17 (NIV)
It is interesting to note that while God spoke to Gideon so frequently during the lead-in into the first battle, His leading was missing in the battle of Karkor. We don’t even hear the Israelites or even Gideon mention the name of Yahweh. There are parallels between his hasty vow to the people of Sukkoth and Penial and the vow Esau made to Jacob in his hunger. He took a hasty decision and even worse, followed through on his word, invalidating the grace of God that sustained him and his men during their pursuit. In his anger, he carried out his own will and killed the men that he was chosen to deliver.
In Gideon, the Israelites had found their new leader, who had delivered them from the mighty army of the Midianites and ended their seven-year reign of terror. They wanted Gideon to be their first king and for his sons to rule over all the tribes forever but Gideon shot down this proposal as He knew that this was not part of God’s plan.
But Gideon told them, “I will not rule over you, nor will my son rule over you. The LORD will rule over you.”Judges 8:23 (NIV)
He made a request that everyone should forgo one gold earring from their share of the plunder that was brought back from the Midianite raiding party. Gideon took the rings, ornaments and pendants and melted them into a golden ephod. Perhaps Gideon did not realise the irony of his request and how similar it was to the golden calf that Aaron had set up. He placed the golden ephod in his hometown of Ophrah and all the Israelites prostituted themselves by worshipping this new idol instead of giving glory to their True Redeemer.
Years later when the Israelites forgot the significance of the bronze serpent that Moses had set up and prostituted themselves before it, king Hezekiah was bold enough to call out their grave sin and destroyed the idol. Gideon however did not do anything of that kind as the Israelites continue their practice of worshipping the golden ephod.
Israelites have always adored their heroes. From their forefather Abraham to their beloved king David, Israel has the habit of idolizing men of God rather than the source. Gideon brought back the Israelites from the brink of despair as they had lost all hope during the seven-year reign of terror. On top of that, the way in which Gideon took only three hundred men for the initial battle would have garnered him much fame.
The problem is that Gideon fails to redirect all this attention towards God. He is the one who took Gideon from his desperate situation, where he would hide in his father’s winepress fearing the Midianites and made him into a mighty warrior. The LORD did unimaginable things to Gideon and kept building his faith but Gideon failed to recognise the True deliverer. His stupidity resulted in the Israelites falling into the same downward spiral and after his death, they did not revere both the LORD or his family.
Like the Israelites, we often look to mortal beings to know the will of God rather than using the direct route. While many may try their best to help us hear His voice only we can know His will in our lives. We must not blindly follow the traditions established in the name of the LORD but listen intently to His leading for our lives.
The land had peace for forty years during Gideon’s reign and though he did not allow his countrymen to make him king over them, he certainly lived like one. Like other kings of Israel, he made his own hometown the capital, he had many wives and concubines and as we see later, his sons slaughtered each other to get to his throne. He died at a ripe old age and was buried in the tomb of his father in Ophrah.
No sooner had Gideon died than the Israelites again prostituted themselves to the Baals. They set up Baal-Berith as their god and did not remember the LORD their God, who had rescued them from the hands of all their enemies on every side. They also failed to show any loyalty to the family of Jerub-Baal (that is, Gideon) in spite of all the good things he had done for them.Judges 8:33-35 (NIV)
- Why were the Ephraimites angry with Gideon?
- Why did the men of Sukkoth and Peniel refuse to help Gideon and his men?
- Were Gideon’s actions justified?
- What kind of blind loyalty is this that Israelites are ready to do anything for Gideon?