In my Bible-in-a-year quest, I’m still way behind, but at least I’m in Judges now. I just got done reading about Gideon, and it’s pretty sad; it doesn’t end well.
To really see the whole, I needed to step back and consider the whole narrative. (And, of course, I still could be missing quite a bit.)
First off, this is Israel in the time of the tribal league. D’vorah is no longer a judge. Israel has yet again turned from God. (This is a recurring thing with Israel, just as it is with us.)
Because of the terms of the Covenant, God has invoked the curses; Midian is oppressing Israel. The text – in Judges 6:1-6 – doesn’t make it sound quite like a military invasion. It sounds like the Midianim are simply moving in, overwhelming the Israelites through numbers; they “devoured the produce of the land” and left nothing for Israel; as a result, the tribes fled to the mountains.
This is, of course, an inverse of what Israel itself did to the Kenanim: a foreign, numerous host comes in like a plague of locusts. Is there a difference? Well, it depends on whose perspective you use.
For the Kenanim, well, Israel was a foreign invader; numerous, hungry, convinced, the invader was victorious, and aggressive about asserting cultural purity. The Canaanites fought back militarily as well as subversively; the Gibeonites, for example, lied to the Israelites to convince them that there was not a cultural conflict, with the result that the Gibeonites were a local cultural influence – and for Israel, a foreign culture, with foreign idols, was a bad thing.
From the Israelite perspective, the culture war was necessary; a pure culture, arranged around the Covenant, was a mandate. Any violation of this was an offense, and here we see part of the result of the failure to assert a monoculture.
The Midianites were a foreign culture, invading the Israelite culture. The result is conflict.
Anyway: Gideon. Israel has violated the monoculture, God has allowed the Midianites to move in on Israel. As we’ve seen before in Hebrew history, God raises a messiah – Gideon – to rescue Israel.
God called Gideon from his father’s land as he worked a winepress (according to Judges 6:11-12). Gideon is struggling with doubt; if God saved Israel, why has Midian attacked and been successful? Why has God not delivered Israel already?
The messenger of God then tells Gideon that he is the one who will deliver Israel; Gideon, echoing Moshe, says that he is unable to do it, that he’s the least of his father’s house. He demands signs and proof; he receives them.
I’m not quite sure how well this plays with D’varim 6:16, which says “You shall not put the Lord your God to the test.” I suppose it doesn’t matter; in the end, Gideon agrees.
The next part of the story is fairly well-known (or it was to me, at least) – Gideon goes to war with the Midianites, using a small force of 300 men; armed with trumpets and torches, they frightened the army of the Midianites into fleeing.
Pursuing the army (in part for revenge for killing his brothers at Mount Tabor), they asked for help from Succot and Penuel, being denied in both cases (Judges 8:4-9) – a move that both Succot and Penuel would regret, after Gideon was victorious.
Speaking of his total victory – avenging his brothers, conquering the Midianites – Gideon takes their treasure and screws up. After denying the tribal league’s desire to make him a king, he makes a breastplate, an ephod; it becomes a “snare to Israel,” according to Judges 8:27.
The irony of the kingship comes home: Gideon (known now as Jerub-Baal, “contends with Baal,” although it could also mean “one who defends the Name” or “one who strives with the Name”) has many sons, one of whom is named Abimelech, which means “son of the king.” (Melech is “king” in Hebrew.)
But Gideon’s not a king! Whoops. This doesn’t look good, and it will continue to not look good.
Abimelech then declares himself a king in Shechem, a city in the middle of Israel, killing his own brothers – save one, Jotham, the youngest. Jotham makes an impassioned speech against Abimelech to Shechem – the people who declared Abimelech king – and in three years’ time, we see a war between the supporters of Jotham (who is not a claimant to a throne) and Abimelech, with the result that Abimelech chases his opponents to a tower, where a woman throws a stone and wounds him.
Abimelech then commands a soldier to kill him, so that it could not be said that he died at the hand of a woman. The text in Judges 9:57 states that Shechem ended up losing as well: the evil of the men of Shechem “returned on their heads,” as a result of declaring Abimelech as king in the first place.
And Jotham fades from history.
Thus ends the first recorded kingship in Israel.