The magnitude of the challenge facing Gideon must be reconstructed from hints scattered through our text. The marauding Midianites with their Amalekite and other allies, the "Children of the East" (ch 7 v 12), numbered one hundred and thirty-five thousand warriors (ch 8 v 10) -- over four times as many as Gideon's 32,000 - the great majority of whom proved to be too afraid to go out to battle (ch 7 v 3). The Midianites were encamped in the western corner of the Beit Shean valley between the protruding spurs of Giv'at Hamoreh with Mt. Tabor behind it to their north and Mt. Gilboa to the south. They had watchmen posted on the hills (ch 7:2 see Targum/RaDaK). Gideon had rallied Naftali and Asher, the tribes of the Galilee, to Mt. Tabor , intending that they should attack the Midianites on their northern flank, while he himself was waiting for reinforcements to come up from his own tribe of Menasheh in the south in order to advance northwards from Gilboa to attack the Midianites on their southern flank. However, the plan for a pincer attack failed because the hoped for reinforcements from Menasheh did not arrive in time, and from ch 8 vv. 18-19 we learn that the Midianites succeeded in routing the northern tribes on Mt Tabor under the leadership of Gideon's brother, whom they killed.

Thus Gideon was left with no more than ten thousand men to stand against the vast army of invading hordes from the east. Yet even Gideon's 10,000 were far too many for God, Who wanted to teach that Israel does not need great numbers in order to accomplish His purpose, "lest Israel boast against Me saying 'my own hand saved me'" (verse 2). God does not need numerical advantage for His victories. For "not because of your multitude out of all the peoples did the Lord desire you and chose you, for you are the small minority out of all the peoples" (Deut. 7:7).

What counts for God is true devotion and righteousness. Gideon showed outstanding faith and courage in sending away all but the 300 tzaddikim who, rather than fall down on their knees like Baal-worshippers in order to plunge their faces into the stream to slake their desperate thirst, preferred to draw up the water with their hands and bring it up to their mouths with dignity. DEREKH ERETZ ("the way of the land", "good manners") comes even before the Torah. "And his HAND was FAITH" (Exodus 17:12). Instead of greedily bending down and swallowing what they needed to take from the world, they drew it to themselves through the hand of FAITH and PRAYER.

Why was kneeling down by the water the sign of an idolater? RaDaK (on v 4) brings an illuminating midrash that says that the people of that generation used to kneel down and bow down TO THEIR OWN REFLECTIONS - i.e. they were filled with narcissistic pride. (Do we too look too much in the mirror?) Self-love with the accompanying craving for kudos were the fatal flaws that subsequently led to so much strife between Gideon and Ephraim, the men of Succoth and Penu-el (ch 8) and eventually to the downfall of Gideon's own dynasty (ch 9).


Man's egotistical pride is precisely what the Omer barley offering brought in the Temple on the second day of Pesach, 16 th of Nissan, comes to rectify. We have already seen (ch 6 v 19) that Gideon's smashing of the idols took place on the first day of Pesach. He "rose early in the morning" (ch 7 v 1) and advanced all day, dispatching all who were unworthy to take part in the miracle. It was thus on the eve of the 16 th Nissan that God told him to go down to spy on the Midianite camp, and they were routed that night.

The Midianite man's dream about the coal-baked cake of barley that rolled through and overturned the Midianite camp alludes to the merit of the small Omer-measure of Barley offered by Israel (Rashi on v. 13). The Omer offering, which initiates the harvest season, is a kind of national Sotah (unfaithful wife) offering to propitiate God for apparent disloyalty. The only two grain offerings in the Temple that had to be of barley and not wheat were the Omer and Sotah woman's offerings. Barley is normally for animal consumption. Offering barley on the Altar signifies man's repentance for having succumbed to his animal instincts. RaDaK relates the unusual word TZLIL referring to the barley cake (TZLIL is the KRI, the way the word is to be READ) to TZLIL meaning a "noise", alluding to the tumult in the camp that the barley-cake brought in its wake. However, the Midrash darshens the KSIV - the word as WRITTEN in the parchment scroll, TZALOOL - as indicating that the generation was TZALOOL, "strained off" of all Tzaddikim (see Rashi on v 13 and Vayikra Rabba 28:6). Practically no-one was left except Gideon's tiny band. Even so, they saw victory through their humble faith and their confidence that even in their degradation and smallness, their repentance could bring God to perform miracles for them.

The Shofars and Torches that were their only military "equipment" came to arouse the merit of the Giving of the Torah, which was accompanied by the blast of the shofar, thunder and lightning (Rashi on v 16). From the point of view of psychological warfare, the idea was to surround the Midianites and make them think that they were in the middle of a surprise night-time ambush on all sides by a vast Israelite army.

Thus God showed that one man's dream could throw an entire army into a state of such demoralization that an ingenious display of night-time fireworks with accompanying Shofar-blowing could send them all into flight. The defeat of the Midianites came about not through numbers but all through the power of the spirit.

The Midianites fled southwards along the western bank of the River Jordan, hoping to cross over the river fords into Ammon in order to escape eastwards to their home territories in the Arabian desert .


God's miraculous defeat of the Midianites and their allies is celebrated in Psalm 83 (particularly vv. 10-12). The lesson that comes forth from the narrative in our text in Judges is that the vital flaw of pride and arrogance, together with the internecine rivalry to which it leads, still prevented the Israelites from uniting under a messianic king whose goal would be not his own personal glorification and that of his dynasty but only the sanctification of God's great Name. It would take generations before the nation was ready for a true king of Israel .

Gideon himself showed himself largely free of this pride: he eloquently dissipated a potential conflict with the Ephraimites by humbly offering them the kudos, but he was faced with excessive mean-mindedness from the men of Succoth and Penu-el, whose refusal to assist him in his efforts against the common enemy is reminiscent of Naval's later refusal to help David. Succoth and Penuel are east of the River Jordan near the Adam Bridge in the valley of the River Yabok. Penu-el had been the site of Jacob's encounter with the angel prior to his confrontation with Esau (Genesis 32:31) while Succoth was where Jacob subsequently built a house for himself and "tabernacles" for his animals (ibid. 33:16). Perhaps the severe reprisals which Gideon the Judge meted out against the men of Succoth and Penu-el were intended to eradicate the animalistic Esau-trait that their meanness betrayed.

The remaining forces of Midian and their allies succeeded in reaching KARKOR, which is about 200 km. EAST of the River Jordan. There they thought they would be safe from Gideon, yet he succeeded in capturing their kings and routing the entire camp.

The final destruction of the Midianites by a scion of the tribe of Menasheh was fitting since it was the Midianites who had purchased Menasheh's father Joseph from his brothers and sold him to the Egyptians (Genesis 37:28 & 36). Gideon refused the Israelite offer to be their king with a dynasty of his own offspring as kings after him: he understood that Israel was not yet ready for a king. Instead he took a rich share of the booty captured from the Midianites, who in v. 24 are referred to as Ishmaelites since as a son of Ketura (=Hagar) Midian was Ishmael's brother and came under his wing. The splendid gold necklaces and ornaments of the Midianite hosts indicate pride. Gideon's receiving the Midianite booty was perhaps a "repayment" for the sale of Joseph, his ancestor, but could he rectify the pride?

Why did Gideon make himself an EPHOD? The EPHOD is one of the eight garments of the High Priest (Exodus 28:6 ff). Gideon had indeed, although not a COHEN, served as "High Priest" when he broke down the altar of Baal and sacrificed to HaShem. However, the Midrash (Bereishis Rabba 45) explains that he had a particular motive in making an EPHOD for himself. On the CHOSHEN MISHPAT, the breast-plate of the High Priest worn with the EPHOD, there were twelve stones corresponding to the Twelve Tribes of Israel. But because one of the stones was for Levi, it was impossible to have more than one stone for the tribe of Joseph even though it had become two, with Ephraim and Menasheh. Since Ephraim was the natural leader of Joseph there was apparently no stone in the High Priest's breastplate for Gideon's tribe of Menasheh. Since the twelve stones correspond to the twelve constellations (MAZALOT), it was as if Menasheh had no MAZAL, and this was why Gideon made the EPHOD. If MAZAL means "luck" (well, kind of), Gideon's EPHOD proved to be very luckless, for although he intended it for the sake of heaven, this symbol of "his" victory over the Midianites became a stumbling-block for Israel as they turned it into a cult object, and although Gideon himself enjoyed a good old age, his success in weaning the Israelites from idolatry were thus short-lived.

May God save us from pride and unholy rivalry and bring us to the humility that will enable us to be worthy of His victory over our enemies despite our tiny numbers and their overwhelming force.



By Rabbi Avraham Yehoshua Greenbaum
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