Son of Joash the Abiezrite; also called "Jerubbaal" (Judges vi. 32; "Jerubbesheth" in II Sam. xi. 21); one of the prominent judges of Israel. His story is told in Judges vi.-viii. Midianites and other Bedouin peoples harry Israel for seven years, this bitter experience being a providentially appointed punishment of the descendants of those whom Yhwh had freed from Egyptian bondage, but who did not harken unto His voice (see the speech of the prophet in vi. 8-10). At everyharvest-time the enemy descends upon the land in swarms, like voracious locusts, and strips it bare. While "beating out wheat in the wine-press" Gideon is summoned by Yhwh's messenger, sitting under the holy tree in Ophrah, his father's possession, to free Israel (vi. 11-24). He doubts Yhwh's solicitude for Israel and himself, in view of the fact that "his family is the poorest in Manasseh" and he himself is its most insignificant member. But his disinclination is overcome at seeing the fire consume the food he has prepared for his divine visitor, who after giving this sign vanishes from sight. Gideon, reassured by Yhwh that he will not die as a consequence of seeing His messenger (that is, Yhwh Himself) face to face, builds an altar (which was still standing at the time the narrative was written), and names it "Jehovah-shalom" (God is well disposed).
Interior of the Synagogue at Gibraltar.
The very night after this theophany, Gideon is called by Yhwh to destroy Baal's altar, belonging to his father, and the Asherah standing beside it, and to build instead an altar to Yhwh and dedicate it by an offering of a bullock. He obeys the divine command. His fellow townsmen, discovering the destruction, demand his death; but his father, Joash, with fine irony persuades them to leave the outrage to be avenged by Baal. As Baal is expected to contend with him, Gideon is named "Jerubbaal" (vi. 25-32). The Midianites and their allies cross the Jordan and encamp in the Great Plain. The spirit of Yhwh now fills Gideon; he rouses his clan Abiezer, then the tribe Manasseh and finally the tribes of Asher, Zebulun, and Naphtali, to march out to meet the invaders. Gideon asks a sign that Yhwh will give him the victory. A fleece exposed at night on the thrashing-floor is drenched with dew, the ground around remaining dry. The test is repeated with reversed conditions (vi. 33-40). Gideon with 32,000 men pitches his camp at the well of Harod. Lest the victory be claimed by the people as due to their strength, Gideon sends back all those that are timorous. Ten thousand remain, from whom 300 are finally selected, only those that lap the water with their tongues, "as a dog lappeth," being chosen. These he provides with food and the horns of the others. Thereupon reconnoitering the camp of the enemy in the valley beneath, accompanied by Thurah, his "boy," he overhears a Midianite telling an ominous dream of a "cake of barley bread" rolling through the camp and striking and overturning a tent. The Midianite's comrade explains the dream to refer to the sword of Gideon, into whose hands God has delivered the host of Midian (vii. 1-15). Gideon, returning, calls upon his 300 men, and divides them into three parties, each man carrying a horn, and a jar with a torch inside. Each is to do as Gideon does: when he blows a blast, they alsoshall blow. At the beginning of the middle watch Gideon creeps upon the camp: following his example, his men blow their horns, smash their jars, brandish their torches, and cry: "The sword of the Lord and of Gideon" (vii. 15-20). The Midianites, panic-stricken, mistake friend for foe in the darkness, and flee for safety, Naphtali and Manasseh pursuing them. Ephraim is rapidly summoned to intercept Midian's flight at the Jordan. Two chiefs, Oreb and Zeeb, are captured and put to death, and their heads brought to Gideon (vii. 21-26).
The Ephraimites quarrel with Gideon (viii. 1-3). After allaying their anger by a well-turned compliment, he takes up the pursuit of Midian across the Jordan. Refused food by the men of Succoth and Penuel, he presses on, threatening vengeance (viii. 4-9). Surprising the camp of Midian, he makes two kings prisoners (viii. 10-12). Retracing his steps, he takes vengeance on the elders and men of Succoth, and destroys Penuel, slaying its inhabitants. Zebah and Zalmunna, the captured kings, he then puts to death to avenge his brothers, slain by them in a foray (viii. 18-21). He declines the kingdom which is offered him, and makes an EPHOD out of the rings of the fallen Midianites, which ephod he sets up at Ophrah (viii. 21-27).
Gideon had seventy sons. He lived to a ripe old age, and was buried in Ophrah, in the burial-place of his father (viii. 28-32).
The critical school declares the story of Gideon to be a composite narrative, mainly drawn from three sources: the Jahvist (J), the Elohist (E), and the Deuteronomic (D) writers. In the portion credited to E there is recognized by the critics an additional stratum, which they denominate "E2". Besides, later interpolations and editorial comments have been pointed out. Behind these various elements, and molded according to different view-points and intentions, lie popular traditions concerning historical facts and explanations of names once of an altogether different value, but now adapted to a later religious consciousness. The account of Gideon's war against Midian is a reflection of the struggle of his own clan or tribe with the hostile Bedouins across the Jordan for the possession of the territory, mixed with reminiscences of tribal jealousies on the part of Ephraim; while the interpretation of the name of the hero, and the endeavor to connect Yhwh with the shrine at Ophrah, indicate the religious atmosphere of a later (prophetic) age. "Jerubbaal" is a theophorous name in which "Baal" originally and without scruples was the synonym of "Yhwh," its meaning being "Ba'al contends" or "Ba'al founds" = , from . The story (Judges vi. 29-32) belongs to a numerous class of similar "historical" explanations of names expressive of a former religious view, either naively provoked by the no longer intelligible designation, or purposely framed to give the old name a bearing which would not be offensive to the later and more rigorous development of the religion of Yhwh, a purpose clearly apparent in the change of such names as "Ishbaal" and "Jerubbaal" into "Ishbosheth" and "Jerubbesheth" (II Sam. xi. 21). While it is exceedingly difficult to separate in all particulars the various components of the three main sources, the composite nature of the Gideon narrative is apparent not so much, as has been claimed by some, from the use of the two names "Gideon" (an appellative meaning "hewer") and "Jerubbaal" as from the remarkable repetitions in the narrative. The incidents repeated or varied are as follows:
The summons of Gideon and the sign of his appointment (Judges vi. 11-24 and vi. 33-38, 39-40; comp. also vii. 1-15).
Gideon's offering (vi. 20 and vi. 25).
The erection of the altar (vi. 23 against vi. 26; comp. viii. 27: in the first passage he fears lest he die, having seen Yhwh; in the second he shows fear of the people and their "contending" Baal).
Ephraim's jealousy (viii. 1-3) against that of the men of Succoth and Penuel (viii. 4-10).
The captive chiefs Oreb and Zeeb (vii. 25, viii. 3) and their fate as against that of the captured kings Zalmunna and Zebah (viii. 7-12, 18-20).
The offering of the crown to Gideon (viii. 22 et seq.) contrasted with his uneventful return "to his house" (viii. 29).
Clearly to the editor belongs the introduction vi. 1, 6b; it gives the usual pragmatic explanation of Israel's suffering as appointed for a punishment for their doing "evil in the sight of the Lord"; while in vi. 2-6a the Deuteronomic phraseology is apparent.
To the oldest narrative (J) are assigned: Judges viii. 4-10a, 11-21, 24-27a, 29-32. Gideon, prompted by the desire to avenge the death of his brothers (viii. 18), attacks and pursues with 300 men of his own clan Abiezer the Midianite chiefs Zebah and Zalmunna, and slays them, after having punished the Israelitish subclans Succoth and Penuel. He makes from the booty an idol ("ephod"), in consequence of which his city (Ophrah) becomes the seat of an oracle, and he is enabled to lead the life of a rich chief with a large harem, enjoying almost royal honors. The somewhat later narrative (E) comprises: vi. 11-24 (possibly 25-32, which, however, more probably belongs to E2), 33, 34, 36-40; vii. 1 (2-8, E2), 9-11, 13-22, 25a; viii. 1-3 (22 et seq., E2). It regards the struggle as concerning all the northern tribes. Gideon is commissioned by Yhwh. It utilizes old traditions somewhat different from those of J (compare the names of the chiefs in vii. 25). Its religious point of view is one of antipathy to idolatry (vi. 25 et seq.), and Gideon is a fighter for Yhwh (= "Jerubbaal"; compare the battle-cry, vii. 18; viii. 22, E2). The Deuteronomic editor in vi. 3-33, vii. 12, viii. 10 adds to the Midianites the Amalekites and other eastern enemies, and in vi. 7-10, viii. 27b-28, 33, 34 emphasizes the religious element.
Gideon's victory is alluded to in Isa. ix. 3, x. 26 ("Oreb" here is a rock [or idol]), and in Ps. lxxxiii. 12 (A. V. 11), where the four chiefs are quoted, showing that at the time when the psalm was written the story must have been known in its present Biblical form.
Studer, Das Buch der Richter, 1835;
the commentaries on Judges by Bertheau, Moore, Budde, and Nowack;
the histories of Israel by Stade, Kittel, and others;
the introductions by König, Wildeboer, Cornill, Driver, and Baudissin;
Winckler, Altorientalische Forschungen, i. 42 et seq.;
Wellhausen, Die Composition des Hexateuchs und der Historischen Bücher des Alten Testaments;
Kuenen, Historisch-Kritisch Onderzoek naar het Ontstaan en de Verzameling van de Boeken des Ouden Verbonds, vol. ii.