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Judges: Exploring A "Dark Age" in Jewish History
Video 4 of 6
So we wouldn’t have thought that after chapter 7 the book of judges, we would say that now the land is quite for 40 years and then poof! Chapter 8 would emerge with once again the Israelites were sinning and intermarrying and worshipping other deities, another enemy came and so on and so forth. But instead chapter 8 comes along and there’s a whole another chapter about Gideon, which is completely unlike what we have seen up until now in the book of judges. The thesis of this shiur in general is that Gideon is a far more complex figure than his predecessors in Othniel and he is very much like his predecessors in terms of being just superlatively excellent. He is so wonderful but then part of him also has a negative dimension and that negative dimension’s manifest increasingly in the second half of the book of Judges, after Gideon, which makes Gideon this transitional figure. We are also going to see how the sons of Gideon, namely Jotham and Abimelech, to some degree sort out the different elements of his personality. Jotham inherits the positive elements of Gideon and Abimelech inherits the negative elements of Gideon. And we will see how this transition between Gideon and his two sons also helps discuss the whole issue of monarchy which is one of the most important discussions both in the book of Judges as well as in the ensuing narratives in the book of Samuel and Kings.
So, we look now after Gideon has defeated the enemies of Midian, we look at chapter 8, verse 4 and we see something remarkable. Gideon came to the Jordan and crossed it, three hundred men with him were famished with still in pursuit. He said to the people of Succoth, please give some loads of bread to the men who are following me for they are famished and pursuing Zebah and Zalmunna, the kings of Midian but the officials of Succoth replied, are Zebah and Zalmunna already in your hands and we should give bread to your troops? I swear, declared Gideon, when the Lord delivers Zebah and Zalmunna into my hands, I will thrash your bodies upon desert thrones and briar. And then they went to Penuel and Penuel also gave them the cold shoulder. So he threatened and he said, when I come back after defeating these enemy kings, I am going to destroy your tower. What happens after the victory is Gideon comes back to these towns and in fact thrashes the elders of Succoth with thorns and he also attacks the city of Penuel destroying their tower and also killing the town’s folks.
Now, on the one hand, the town’s folks of Succoth and Penuel look terrible. How can they not help Gideon and his famished army, as they are defeating a national enemy. They should do anything to help him because, A. its good patriotism and B. it actually helps them since the Midianites have been oppressing the land for so many years. That all being said, these punishments seem incredibly harsh.
Abarbanel justifies this punishment, he says that Gideon has the halachic status as a king and so these towns by not helping him and in fact are rebels against the throne and are guilty of death at any forms of punishment that Gideon is willing to give them but that all being said, there seems to be something very harsh about that and if we look at verse 15, we see something shocking, Gideon tells the people of Succoth right before he thrashes them with thorns, he says, Here are Zebah and Zalmunna, about whom you mocked me, saying, are Zebah and Zalmunna already in your hands, that we give your famished men bread. Why is Gideon punishing the people of Succoth, was he punishing them because they were rebels against the throne? Or is he punishing them because he was insulted, because they mocked him? That’s shocking. There seems to be a very personal reason, for punishing these people and it gets a little more complicated when we look ahead to the next section, verse 18. Then he asks Zebah and Zalmunna, those men you killed at Tabor, what were they like? Apparently there was a battle before the one that we read about in Shoftim and the Midianites had won and so it turns out that Zebah and Zalmunna, who are the kings of Midian, they had defeated the Israelites and they had killed many Israelites and they respond, they looked just like you. Like sons of a king. They were my brothers, he declared, the sons of my mother. As the Lord lives, if you had spared them, I would not kill you and Gideon then orders his son Jether to kill the kings. Jether refuses and so Zebah and Zalmunna says, look, we rather be killed by you, both because of the honor and because you are a grown man and therefore much more likely to kill us the first time around and so, Gideon kills the enemy kings directly. But listen to what Gideon is saying, first of all, all of a sudden, he is saying that he wants to kill Zebah and Zalmunna as an act of family revenge. You killed my brothers and now, I want to kill you. But this was a battle of national defense. Gideon didn’t fight the Midianites because his brothers had been killed, he had fought the Midianites because the people of Israel as a nation were in danger and furthermore, let’s say we take it on his words in verse 19. He said as the lord lives, I swear to God, if you had spared them, meaning my brothers, I would not kill you. That’s remarkable but he is saying is that had the Midianites spared Gideon’s brothers, even if they had killed many other Israelites, Gideon would let these kings walk away free. This is even after he thrash the people of Succoth with thorns and he killed the people of Penuel for not helping him catch these two kings but he would have let them go had they allowed his brothers to live. If this is true then Gideon helped the people of Israel, he still remains a great national savior, he defeated the Midianites against incredible odds, he had the faith in God to stand up against the enemy. That’s all good but simultaneously his battles were tinged with personal motivation, his revenge against Succoth and Penuel had the element of insult and his battle against the Midianites also had the element of personal vendetta as a result of Gideon’s own brothers.
So what we have seen so far is that Gideon is definitely a good judge but simultaneously for the first time we see strongly personal elements in his battle tactics which lead to some questions that our commentators begin to debate and in the coming segment, we are going to discuss Gideon’s relationship to the monarchy and whether or not he wanted to be a king and how that all plays out in terms of his thoughts,motivations, as well as his own desire perhaps to have the kingship.
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