Sefer Shofetim Chapter 8
The men of Ephraim complain to Gideon that they were not invited to join him in the battle against Midian – they were only included at the end when Orev and Ze’ev had to be seized. Gideon wisely and diplomatically responds that the men of Ephraim were far better warriors than he and were “too good” to be deployed for such a rudimentary mission. Gideon explains that he intentionally saved their outstanding skills for the most challenging part of the campaign, arresting and executing the princes when they escaped. The Ephramites were satisfied with this response.
Gideon and his men were still in hot pursuit of two other Midianite princes, Zevah and Tzalmuna, who remained fugitives. The troops reach the point of exhaustion and Gideon stops at Sukkot to request provisions from the community to feed his ailing soldiers. The leaders of Sukkot refuse to help, pointing out that fact that Gideon has not yet captured Zevah and Tzalmuna itself shows that he has not done anything to deserve their loyalty or support thus far.
Gideon rebukes them and says that when he has successfully killed the princes he seeks, he will return to Sukkot and punish the leaders for their offense. Gideon then leads his men to Penuel and make another request for provisions; they are once again rebuffed by the locals for the same reason. Gideon likewise warns them that once he completes his mission he will return and visit retribution upon the people of Penuel for having acted this way.
When Gideon does eventually capture Zevah and Tzalmuna, he travels back to Sukkot and obtains a list of the elders of the city, whom he whips with thorns and thistles. He then goes to Penuel where he broke the community’s tower and killed many of its inhabitants.
The chapter then records a somewhat cryptic dialogue between Gideon and his captives, Zevah and Tzalmuna. Gideon asks them to identify the men they killed on Mount Tavor; they reply that their victims looked just like Gideon, “with the appearance of the sons of the king”. Gideon informs Zevah and Tzalmuna that the men they killed were actually his brethren, and had they spared the lives of his relatives, he wouldn’t be executing them now. Gideon instructs his son to kill the two princes, but the young lad is too hesitant to carry out the task. Zevah and Tzalmuna request to be killed by Gideon himself, and he obliges.
Upon his return, the Jews entreat Gideon to become their king. He refuses, explaining that Hashem is their only King. Gideon takes up a collection of earrings, jewelry and other spoils of war and fashions from them an Ephod, some sort of a beautiful garment. This is then displayed in his city, Ophra, and later becomes an object of worship or superstitious belief for the people of Israel.
The chapter then describes the many wives and children that Gideon had. He even had a concubine who bore him a son, Avimelekh. Although for the rest of Gideon’s life the Jewish people remained secure and stable, after his death they reverted to idolatry and began worshiping Baal Berit, one of the Canaanite gods. Just as they cast aside Hashem, they cast aside any remnant of loyalty or love for the house of Gideon, as we will see in the next chapter.
There are a few points in this chapter worth highlighting. One is the theme of kingship, which we know is central to the Book of Judges. Gideon seems to have an ambivalent attitude toward the possibility of becoming the first king of Israel. Publicly, he denies any interest in such a position and certainly doesn’t establish any monarchy. Yet he also takes it upon himself to punish the communities who commit treason against him, thereby acting like a king. He implies that he would have been willing to spare the Midianite princes if only they had not harmed his own family, thus assigning a special significance to his “royal” blood and not demurring when Zevah and Tzalmuna make reference to his regal status.
Gideon instructs his son to execute the prisoners (before finally doing so himself), something we would expect of a king who is training his protégé in the art of war. He places the special commemorative Ephod in his own city, underscoring the key role that his family is meant to play in Israel. He takes many wives and a concubine which is reminiscent of kingly behavior, and even names his son “Avimelekh” – “my father is king!”
Given that we already observed a sense of self-importance at play in Gideon in the last chapter, this doesn’t come as much of a surprise to us. We might say that Gideon is interested in the benefits and perks of kingship, the pleasures, glory and honor, but without the responsibilities the official position would entail.
It is interesting to note that the two communities confronted by Gideon – Sukkot and Penuel – are both related to the pivotal meeting between Esav and Yaaqov when the latter returned from his lengthy sojourn with Lavan. Yaaqov’s experience wrestling the angel the night before the meeting occurred at Penuel; after the meeting, he settled in Sukkot.
This reveals a connection between Gideon and another Biblical character, Yaaqov who, when he came back from Aram Naharayim, had to prove he was entitled and qualified to lead the emerging Jewish nation in Israel after having been “out of the picture” for so long. So too, Gideon’s legitimacy as a leader is being challenged and his credentials being “proven” in this story. The association is further solidified by the mention of Shekhem, the third location that is linked with that period in Yaaqov’s life.
Finally, there is no doubt that the collection of jewelry taken up by Gideon is meant to call to mind the collection taken up by Aharon when he constructs the Golden Calf. Even the language used in both stories is similar. Gideon was fashioning a kind of idol, a symbolic item placed in his home town that was intended to remind people of the salvation he had provided to them and that would promote a sort of hero-worship of himself and his family.
Gideon’s commemorative Ephod served the purpose of sublimating the national desire to appoint him king, translating reverence and obedience into more subtle forms of admiration and recognition that are nowadays the purview of celebrities rather than politicians. Not inclined to accept any official title of leadership, Gideon preferred to decline the offer but allowed and even encouraged the people to relate to him on a psychological and social level as their monarch. This gave him all of the benefits and few if any of the drawbacks of kingship.
The Golden Calf, too, was created in the absence of Moshe Rabbenu (their king) to reassure the Jewish people of the presence of Hashem and of the promise of stable leadership in their moment of crisis and insecurity. The decision to fashion a physical symbol to accomplish this – both in the case of Gideon’s Ephod and the Golden Calf – turned out to be problematic and even disastrous decisions.