Judges 7:1-8, Preparations for War
Gideon has “tested” God twice, though the story of the fleece and the water, and has determined that this call to “save” Israel is truly from God (I have not yet published any essays on the “fleece test”). He has tried, in good biblical fashion, to evade the call by claiming low and insignificant birth, but that got him nowhere. So, he has faced up to the reality of the coming war with Midian. Interestingly, Recension A talks about the battle with Midian and Amalek, while B confines it to Midian (7:1). We begin in 7:1b with obscure words about the location of the foe:
παρεμβολὴ Μαδιαμ καὶ Αμαληκ ἦν αὐτῷ ἀπὸ βορρᾶ ἀπὸ τοῦ βουνοῦ τοῦ Αβωρ ἐν τῇ κοιλάδι
“the camp of Midian and Amalek was to the north of him (Israel/Gideon), from the hill of Abor in the valley.”
The “picture” i get, if indeed the authors were trying to communicate a picture that made sense, is that Gideon and his people were south of Midian and Amalek, and these two were actually in a valley a certain distance from a hill named Abor. Recension B is obviously confused by all of this, since it drops out the idea of a “hill” and makes the name of the valley town “Gabaath Amora.” Of course, no one really is that interested in locational niceties, since the real story is how God whittles down the size of the Israelite army under Gideon.
The Divine Winnowing Process
That divine process is described in vv 2-11. It really is a dramatic story, one that no doubt was told countless times subsequently around campfires or other places where people gathered to celebrate past victories. Israel is ready to fight, with a force of 32,000 men. But this is too large an army for God. The point is laid out rather attractively in verse 2:
μήποτε καυχήσηται Ισραηλ ἐπ᾽ ἐμὲ λέγων ἡ χείρ μου ἔσωσέν με
“Lest Israel vaunt itself over me and say, ‘My hand has saved me.’”
In other words, God wants not only to give Israel a victory, but wants it to be crystal clear to Israel that the victory comes from the divine hand. So, Gideon first dismisses all those who are “afraid and fearful.” Interestingly, B uses the same two adjectives but reverses their order. 22,000 will respond to the “fear” invitation and go home. Notable are the verbs in both Recensions used to describe these decisions (v 3):
A: ἀποστραφήτω καὶ ἐξώρμησαν ἀπὸ τοῦ ὄρους τοῦ Γαλααδ καὶ ἀπεστράφησαν ἀπὸ τοῦ λαοῦ
“Let him return (if he is scared). And there dashed out from Mt Gilead and returned from the people . ."
B uses the verb επιστρέφω twice, in positions 1 and 3 (“return”) but instead of the rare, though highly suggestive ἐξώρμησαν (“they dashed out”) in A, B has εκχωρείται, or “let him separate himself/depart.” Recension A keeps the raw power of the elation of 22,000 guys who just can’t wait to get out of fighting a battle.
Well, then even more whittling down of the troops takes place. In the next test one has two different verbs employed. Recension A has God telling Gideon to bring people down to the water where he will “test” them (δοκιμω), while B chooses to use the verb εκκαθαρω, or “I will cleanse/sift” them. This test is the famous “lapping at the water like a dog” vs. “kneeling down to get a drink” test. God wanted “lappers” and the number of those was 300. All the rest of the people had “bent down” to drink. A uses the verb καμπτω (“I bend”) to describe those that didn’t pass the test, while B uses the verb κλίνω (“I bend/tilt”) to describe them.
Israel’s Fighting Force
Thus, we have a fighting force of less than 1% of the size of Israel’s original fighting force. Certainly this will convince the Israelites, if a victory ensues, that God is to be credited with the victory. Note that the two tests to whittle down the numbers consisted of: 1) a self-identification test (whether he was fearful) and a 2) physical attributes test (whether he lapped or knelt to drink water). But by the time we get to verse 7, God has a 300-man fighting force. The irony of all of this is that ultimately one isn’t going to need any military prowess to win the war. Victory will depend on a clever psychological device.
So, they are just about ready for battle. The 22,000 superfluous guys return home. We are told that all of the people take the τὸν ἐπισιτισμὸν τοῦ λαοῦ or the “snacks/additional food of the people” in their hands and return to their own places. I suppose that means that not only is the fighting force reduced to 1% of their original number but they also have no food. If I were one of the 300 remaining I would wonder if this was some kind of suicide mission. Good thing this occurred before the Battle of Thermopylae, where 300 Greek soldiers lost their lives in a valiant stand against a much larger Persian host. Otherwise one could be excused for wondering if the number 300 was the number of a specially cursed military unit.
So, these 99% of the original troops return with the food and their “horns” (we will meet the horns again in a few verses). What happens with the remaining 1% (or less….300/32000)? Well, it just says, in both Recensions, that he (Gideon) “strengthened” (ἐκράτησεν; though B adds the κατά prefix to the verb) the 300 men. Midian lay in front of them, down from them, in the valley, confirming my translation of v 1, where it is in the “valley.” Again, B abbreviates A. A uses the rare word ὑποκάτωθεν (“under” or “underneath) to describe Midian’s location, while B uses the typical ὑποκάτω.