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Judges: Exploring A "Dark Age" in Jewish History
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After the victory, we now turn to chapter 8, verse 22 where the men of Israel said to Gideon, rule over us, you, your son and your grandson as well for you have saved us from the Midianites. Listen to the very first time that the concept of monarchy is overtly brought up by the people in the history of Israel and Gideon replied, I will not rule over you myself, nor shall my son will rule over you. The lord alone shall rule over you. Hey! We are not like every other nation. As far as Gideon is concerned, God is our king and I am the judge, I am God’s agent to help the people of Israel at a time of need but we are not going to create this dynastic succession where I am the king and I have this kind of power and my sons will inherit that, my grandsons will inherit it after them. It sounds very much like Samuel’s opposition to the monarchy, couple of generations later, where he screams at the people in chapter 12, verse 12 of 1 Samuel, when he saw that Nahash was king of the Ammonites was advancing against you, you said to me, No, we must have a king reigning over us. Though the lord, your God, is your king. You are terrible rebels, says the prophet Samuel to the people. God is your king, you don’t need a human king. Well, Gideon echoes a very similar philosophy over here. So for that point of view, he doesn’t want monarchy at all. And yet, you may recall that in verse 18, just a few verses earlier, when he asked Zebah and Zalmunna, what did the people look like who they had killed? They looked like you, like sons of a king. Gideon had something royal and noble about him and Gideon also asked his son, Jether, to kill Zebah and Zalmunna apparently creating this succession in leadership. Down the line, Gideon’s sons do succeed in positions of judgeship and that creates some of the tensions that we find in chapter 9. Were it not for Gideon’s decline of the monarchy here, so emphatic in verses 22 and 23, we wouldn’t expect that Gideon would have said, yes, I would love to be king. That sounds terrific, that’s just what I am thinking about. I look like a king, I am training my sons to be leaders, I do want to create this sort of succession and this becomes even more complicated when we look at the following verse, verse 24. Gideon said to them I have a request to make of you, each of you give me the earring you received as booty, they had golden earrings for they were Ishmaelites. Gideon made an ephod of this gold. Took all the golden earrings and melted it and made it into an ephod. And set it up in his own town of Ophrah. There all Israel went straight after it and it became a snare to Gideon and his household.
Now, we as readers of Tanach, we realize that when Gideon is making a golden statue, we all think Gideon don’t do that. People of Israel tend to make terrible mistakes whenever they melt gold and turn it into statues. We have seen that from the beginning of our history and it’s no surprise that it happens here. Rashi and Radak explained that Gideon obviously had better motivations than that, he was not building yet another golden calf type of thing. He was building a monument to God, to let everybody know that God had been the victor and that all of these spoils were now converted for the sake of heaven but even so, even if he had the best of motivations, the narrator blames him. Not only does the narrator blame him, the narrator doesn’t say that this all took place after Gideon died. For all we know, this problem of the people going as stray going after the statue already occurred even during Gideon’s lifetime. Ralbag is very uncomfortable with that conclusion but realizes that it is not at all clear that this only happened after Gideon’s death but regardless the narrator is unequivocal, he make sure that we understand that Gideon failed by setting up this monument. Do nothing just because he had good motivations that he got away with it.
And this gets even more complicated when we realize that jumped on to verse 30, Gideon had 70 sons of his own issue for he had many wives. Well that’s what a king does, right? A king has many wives and many children and the point is to guarantee succession. Abarbanel is actually very concerned about this because kings have a prohibition against marrying too many women and so he says, don’t worry, even though kings had that probation, Gideon is not formally a king and therefore he was allowed to have these many wives and he was allowed to have these many children. What matters to us and even more remarkably is verse 31, his son was also born to him by his concubine in Shechem, he named him Abimelech. So just to imagine at the Brit Milah, people are going for the mini muffins, bagels and lox, and then all of a sudden, Gideon and his concubine get up to announce the naming of their son and they say and I name my son Abimelech. What does Abimelech mean exactly? It means ‘my father is king’ and who is doing the naming – Gideon. So if Gideon is naming his son, ‘my father is king’, what is Gideon saying about himself? The answer is it sounds like he was saying ‘I am king’. So even though just a few verses ago, Gideon said, oh no, God is king, I will never be your king, everything that Gideon is doing surprisingly and eerily seems like he is paving the way to become the monarch. Abarbanel sees through all of these, Abarbanel says the reason why Gideon set up the monument, the ephod, in Ophrah, in his own hometown, yes, it was leshem shamayim, it was to glorify God but it was also to legitimize Gideon and his family, to reign for future generations and similarly Abarbanel argues that the reason why Gideon named his son, Abimelech, is because he feud himself as the leader and wanted to see succession within his own family. You could argue by the way that the name Abimelech does not mean ‘my father is king’. It could mean ‘my God is king’ and from that point of view, Gideon is purely leshem shamayim, he is not thinking about himself or monarchy at all but a middle position is that Gideon is thinking about both. Gideon is glorifying God and he is been doing that throughout but he is also laced with personal motivations. He doesn’t want to be king, he says God is king, I am not your king but many of his actions also indicate that he himself does think of himself as king and he does see his sons as his successors and his naming of Abimelech, ‘My father is king’, also is indicative of his future desires to have a monarchy.
In chapter 7, verse 18 the battle cry of Gideon says a lot also. During the attack of Gideon and his men against the Midianites, says when I and all those with me blow your horns, you too all around camp will blow your horns and shout for the lord and for Gideon, leshem shamayim uleGidon. This battle cry regardless of its motivations are perfect way of encapsulating Gideon that Gideon is in fact all about the lord, he is for God, he wants to do everything religiously and correctly and simultaneously he is doing things for himself.
And in the final segment of this shiur, we will consider Abimelech and Jotham, now they sort out the different dimensions of Gideon’s complex personality.
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