Fribble Friday: When Good Men Go Bad (Judges 8–9)

A belated merry Christmas out there in Readerville! Nothing exemplifies the true spirit of Christmas like the epilogue to the story of Gideon, so that’s today’s reading.

Short snarky summary: Gideon, having set Israel free from idolatry and tyrrany, proceeds to fuck up everything.


When we left last time, Gideon, with a tiny 300-man muster from the tribes of the north, had routed the Midianite raiding camp. After chasing them down to the Jordan, some Ephraimites killed their generals. He’s now in pursuit of the body of the Midianite army, and crosses over the Jordan.

But first, there’s some tribal politics to be taken care of. Ephraim was actually left out of the original 300-man muster and wants to know why. Gideon doesn’t actually answer the question they asked, but flatters them so much that they forget their ire, admiring how much they helped him running down the generals and how very, very mighty they are. This is perhaps the better way to do business—not the most honest policy, but it beats how Gideon deals with the next set of unhappy Israelites he meets.

So, about those other Israelites. On the other side of the Jordan, pursuing the Midianites, Gideon’s men grow weary and ask for provisions at the towns of Sukkot and Penuel. A little bit of investigation suggests these locations would have been in Gadite territory, or maybe southern Mannaseh. In both towns they refuse, telling him to come back when he’s actually defeated the Midianites. His ominous response is basically, “Oh, I’ll come back, and you’ll be sorry!”

And then he finally chases down the Midianite army, which had stopped in a defensible location, and the battle goes the way every battle between God’s anointed and the local nations goes: namely, they rout the army, chase down the kings, and capture them.

The battle having been won, Gideon proceeds to become a horrible villain for the rest of the story.

First he interrogates a native of Sukkot and learns the names of all the city’s leaders. Then he returns to Sukkot and Penuel in triumph and beseiges the cities. After winning, he thrashes the elders of Sukkot, destroys the tower of Penuel, and kills indiscriminately.

I’m not sure what to make of this episode. It’s an article of Deuterocanonical faith that the Israelites of the era of Judges were, by and large, weak-willed and wicked, and presumably the inhabitants of these two cities are meant to exemplify that. Add that to the fact that, as with many Near East cultures, the Israelites regarded inhospitability (especially to fellow-tribesmen) as a grave crime, and you have the substance of a justification for Gideon’s behavior here, but, still, the central issue to me is that Gideon’s whole purpose is the liberation of the Israelites. Chastisement might be in order, but re-enactment of the crimes of the occupiers isn’t really constructive.

Anyways, Gideon’s destructive rampage ends with the captive kings of Midian. When he learns that they killed his kinsmen, he flies into a rage, ordering his son to kill them, and, then, when he is reluctant to do so, slaughters them himself.

A couple of notes on this bit of the story raise more questions than they answer. In particular, Gideon inquires specifically about an incident at Tabor, which doesn’t actually appear anywhere in the Gideon narrative except here. Also, he refers to the heroic dead as his mother’s sons, and more specifically as his brothers, but the family of Gideon is, as we learned back in Judges 6:15, a clan of no repute whatsoever. This section of the narrative, I venture to suggest (working from the idea that the Book of Judges is a loose stringing together of disparate oral-tradition myths) is perhaps from a completely different tale of Gideon, or maybe a tale of a different hero altogether. Anyways, this behavior doesn’t really reflect well on Gideon either, most likely. The manner of Gideon’s borthers’ death at Tabor is left murky, but if, as the narrative seems to suggest, it took place in battle, Gideon’s brutality against prisoners in response to expected wartime operations is somewhat uncalled-for. Yes, I know, he’s not a Geneva Convention signatory or anything, but there did seem to be a process to war which he’s violating here in responding so immoderately to a death in battle. That’s assuming Tabor was a battle, of course—if Tabor was a massacre of the unarmed then the morality shifts somewhat. Either way, I’m not kindly disposed towards Gideon here.

However, all of the above is kind of within the established Biblical framework. Moses and Joshua punished recalcitrant and lawbreaking Israelites, and Joshua killed captives all the time. The next incident isn’t, and it kind of suggests that even the authors weren’t really seeing Gideon by this point as a heroic figure. because from Judges 8:22–27 Gideon undertakes a very strange project. Having refused the rule of Israel with a pious claim that Israel needs no mortal rulers, judt their immortal God, he gathers a small tribute of gold from the spoils of war and smiths it into some ritual thingy which he installs in his hometown. The specific noun used for this thingy in the text is אפוד, a word which might be broadly translated as “vest” or “breastplate” (many translations simply leave the untranslated “ephod”), but which in the Bible up to this point has been used specifically to describe the decorative breastplate of the high priest.

The text of Judges 8:27 is pretty explicit in condemning this construction, describing it as an incitement to sin and an object of particularly vile worship (many translations use the word “whored” or “prostituted” to describe Israel’s worship of Gideon’s ephod), but even without that hint, we’d have pretty good reasons to think that this project was Not Divinely Sanctioned. A major theme of Numbers and Deuteronomy is the centralization of worship and the privilege of the priestly class, and Gideon is not a Levite, nor is any Levitical sanction of his project suggested. By using the same name as is used for the holy vestments, this narrative strongly suggests usurpation of the theocracy, which is a strange irony to follow so closely on a pious concession to that same theocracy.

Surprisingly, this particular incitement to sin disappears from the story entirely. The next several verses indicate that Gideon (or Jerubaal, as the text returns to calling him) kept peace and security for decades, left a large family, and died, and that after his death the Israelites returned to their worship of foreign gods. Despite the suggestion that the ephod became an improper object of worship, the narrative completely ignores its role as such when, a few verses later, it needs to return to the theme of Israelite idolatry. I’m not even clear on what the point of the whole ephod incident is.

So the scenario as we enter Chapter 9 on the death of Gideon is that Israel is free from foreign occupation or raiding, but that there’s a power vacuum which might be filled in some way by his 70 children: possibly Jether, his firstborn, or Abimelech, the son of one of his concubines. Meanwhile, Israel has gone astray, which means it’s catastrophe time.

Chapter 9 begins with Abimelech fundraising among his mother’s kin. He’s quite shrewd because he’s gone to the one place where he stands out from the crowd: he may be the son of a hero, but there are 69 other people with as good a claim to that name, but in his mother’s clan he has an independent line of support, and he suggests that they back him to take power from the coalition existing among the sons of Gideon. So in Shechem, where his mother’s family held influence, he had a following which provided money and men. That’s apparently enough for him, since his half-brothers aren’t expecting an attack, and he ambushes them, captures 68 of them, and executes them. So, yeah, the house of Gideon went downhill fast, since it’s now down to this murderer and the youngest son Jotham, who managed to hide during the attack. And, unsurprisingly, Abimelech anoints himself king. Presumably he’s not asserting kingship over all Israel; this seems to be a purely regional conflict, with Shechem and the surrounding region of Manasseh as the stakes.

Jotham responds to the coronation by giving a speech, which surprisingly does not result in his swift assassination. He starts with a frankly incomprehensible parable about trees, but gets quickly to the point, that it’s difficult to believe the Shechemites are acting in good faith and in respect towards the house of Gideon by raising up as a ruler the man who killed most of the house of Gideon. In particular, he swears that destruction will come for the faithless. This speech apparently doesn’t work as well as he hoped, because he then runs away.

Anyways, this gets us into the really ugly part of the narrative, with Abimelech as ruler (“over Israel”, according to verse 9:22, but I’m continuing to assume this is a sectional conflict confined to the vicinity of Shechem) and Jotham in exile. This stable if unjust situation explodes into civil war for no particular reason. Well, if you want a reason, it’s God judging bloodguilt on both Abimelech and the Shechemites, and compassing the destruction of both by setting them against each other, but there’s no non-handwavy explanation of how this conflict arises.

At this dramatic turning in the narrative we introduce a bunch more characters just to complicate matters. While the city of Shechem is in rebellion, a previously-unheard-of character named Gaal drops into Shechem for the harvest festival, hangs out with the leading citizens of the city, and trash-talks Abimelech, as is the local custom.

A strange footnote to the story: Gaal claims that Abimelech and his deputy Zebul had previously served “Hamor, the father of Shechem”. If this is meant to be a literal reference to a contemporary ruler, there’s a real problem with the chronology, because Hamor and his son who shares the name of the city were the rulers of the city that Simeon and Levi genocided the shit out of back in Genesis 34, which was several hundred years prior to these events. (Incidentally, there is an Abimelech who would be contemporary with Jacob and his sons, the Philistine ruler of Gerar who tangled with Abraham and Isaac. If this guy’s supposed to be the same Abimelech then the entire Biblical chronology and genealogy is tangled beyond hope.)

But now we have two new characters: Gaal, whose presence seems utterly pointless, and Zebul, Abimelech’s deputy and administrator of the city. Based on the open rebellion, Zebul seems to be doing a pretty crappy job, but he kicks Gaal’s treasonous words up the org-chart to his boss. I dunno why he doesn’t mention the fact that everybody else is saying things as bad or worse, but I also really don’t understand Gaal’s narrative function at all, so maybe I’m missing something important.

So Abimelech marches on Shechem to put down a rebellion which, for some reason, Gaal receives credit for starting even thoguh previously in the story it’s asserted that the Shechemites were already resisting Abimelech’s rule. They approach the city under cover of night, and in the morning Gaal tells Zebul that… wait, let’s back this up a bit. Why the fuck are Gaal and Zebul doing sentry duty together? They hate each other, and the citizens of Shechem are on Gaal’s side. Plausibly, Zebul should be expelled, imprisoned, or dead by now. I have no idea why he’s in this story. The only thing which remotely makes sense is that maybe Zebul has his own garrison troops and that some sort of uneasy peace exists between the garrison and the insurgents in the city.

Anyways, Gaal goes out to fight, and loses, and runs home, and Zebul expels him and his followers from the city. And from the story, it seems. The fact that Zebul is able to do this supports my garrison theory, or perhaps that the citizens, fickle in defeat, go over in droves to Abimelech’s side.

This whole narrative is confusing, to be honest. It’s not clear what side anyone’s on, and the city of Shechem seems to be simultaneously a loyal subject city ruled by a royal governor and a city in violent uprising led by an outside demagogue. The former theory is suggested by the expulsion of Gaal, but in the very next verse, they’re back at war with Abimelech again. This time he ambushes the city, rushes the gate, razes the town, kills the troops, and burns down the tower where the refugees had fled. Man, is there any story about Shechem where it doesn’t get massacred?

Anyways, the rebellion apparently continues in Thebez. Thebez hadn’t featured in the story at all, and presumably they are free of the iniquity of Shechem, because they aren’t massacred. After they take refuge in their citadel, Abimelech runs forwards to try his “burning the tower down” trick again. But this time they’re ready, and a woman pushes a millstone out of the window onto his head.

Women are really racking up the kills in Judges. It’s a particularly shameful way to die in the society of the times, so Abimelech asks his attendant to stab him so that he can die at the hand of a man.

Verse 9:54 ultimately ends in anticlimax: “When the men of Israel saw that Abimelech was dead, everone went home.” I guess governmental systems really don’t have much momentum after all, and nobody else came to pick up the pieces. Zebul or Jotham would be obvious choices, or Gaal, but all three have conspicuously vanished from the story.

But that’s the rise and fall (mostly fall) of the house of Gideon. I don’t think we ever hear again about any of his descendants, although if Jotham has children then there’s no reason there wouldn’t be descendants.

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About Jake
I'm a mathematics professor at the University of Louisville, and a geek.

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