Judges 7:9-20, The Battle That Was No Battle
This text tells the dramatic story of how Gideon and his force of 300 men defeated the vastly superior army of Midian without, figuratively and literally speaking, firing a shot. The wonderful thing about this story, told in the LXX, is that it stops the action, blows up or magnifies the characters and then walks us slowly through this most dramatic victory. It consists of several things:
First, the Lord’s appearance to Gideon at night (7:9-12). Note the way that the LXX has God issue commands, “Rise up, go down!” (ἀνάστα κατάβηθι). Stand up, sit down, fight, fight, fight! God wants Gideon to enter into the enemy camp to do a little pre-battle reconnaissance. But God makes a special provision for Gideon lest he be fearful. That provision is, “If you are afraid, well take your boy servant Phara with you into the camp” (v 10). Even in this situation God accommodates Gideon’s weakness and vulnerability. God wants Gideon to listen to what is being said in the camp. After he does these things, his hands will be “strengthened” (ἰσχύσουσιν). This small section closes with a description of the vastness of the Midianite host (v 12).
Second, Gideon overhears one Midianite describing his dream to another (7:13-15). The dream consists of a few rare Greek terms: one soldier sees a “kneaded mass” (μαγὶς) of barley bread rolling into the camp of Midian. The word for rolling is κυλιομένη in A. B has the same mass of barley bread but instead of the bread “rolling” we have it “turning” or “being turned” or “twirling/spinning around” (στρεφομένη). In any case, this loaf of rolling/spinning/twirling/turning bread, in the soldier’s dream, then starts to cause damage in the Midianite camp. Three memorable verbs appear in A. The first is it “struck” it. Then, three translations for the second verb are: "overthrew or overturned or destroyed" it. The third verb is easy: the tent “fell” (ἐπάταξεν, κατέστρεψεν, ἔπεσεν are the three verbs). In B we have four verbs. In order they are “struck” and “fell” but then we have “overturned it again” (αναστρεψεν αυτήν άνω) and, finally, the tent “fell.” The soldier listening to his neighbor’s tale was aghast and said the most heartening words that Gideon could have heard, “This is nothing more than the sword of Gideon son of Ioas.” Word sure got around quickly that Gideon was the Lord’s man. When Gideon hears this explanation (A uses διήγησης, while B uses εξήγησης) and this interpretation (both use the word συγκρισις), he knows it is time to prepare for battle.
Third, there is the actual encounter, which consists more of a psychological trick than an actual battle (vv 16-23). Gideon divides his 300 men into three companies of 100 men each, and to each he gives horns, empty water jars and lamps to put inside of the water jars (v 16). Interestingly, then, all the remaining men are accoutered in ways that make them completely unable to fight. No swords or other things, but just lamps under jars and horns. It is reminiscent of the priest Panthus in Book II of the Aeneid showing up for battle at Aeneas’ door with the statues of the gods in one hand and his little grandson in the other. No one is ready to fight. But, as we will now see, that is no obstacle for the God of Israel.
Gideon then gives instructions on the use of the horns and the jars. Sound the trumpet, break the jars and shout at the top of your lungs, “For the Lord and for Gideon!” (v 18). So, with these instructions they enter into the camp. There is an ambiguity in Recension A. They enter into the “part of the camp which is in the extremity at midnight/when the guard is in the middle.” That is, it seems one can read Recension A in two ways: one, the traditional reading, is that Gideon and the hundred are in the outskirts of the camp in the middle watch of the night. But it also can be read that they are in the extremity or border of the camp while the guard is in the middle (of the camp). Thus, this latter reading would emphasize their location where the guard is not. B tries to clean it up a bit by having that “the 100 men with him were in the edge/command of the camp during the beginning of the middle watch.” So, both translations can easily be read as pointing to a temporal reality rather than a physical one (which would mean with Gideon and his men being in a different location from the Midianite guard).
So, things turn out as planned. They rouse the guards, sound the trumpets (though this may be an unintentional hysteron-proteron), smash the jars, and cry out as commanded. Then, the scene quickly shifts to the reaction of the Midianites. They did three things: they “ran” and then they “made signs” and then they “fled.” The most interesting verb, repeated also in B, is ἐσήμαναν. This comes from the verb “make signs” or “signify.” Most translations render it as “talk/shout” to each other, as if they are in panic as they are fleeing, but I see it as them frantically trying to make gestures to their neighbors, perhaps because they know they can’t be heard over the din of the trumpets, the smashed jars and the shouts of Gideon and his people. The Midianite soldiers then turn on each other, so confused are they in the panic and noise of the middle-of-the-night attack.
Finally (vv 24-25), we have the clean-up action. Israel takes off after them in hot pursuit (v 23), and they capture them by some streams of water that are not only hard to identify but hard even to translate. In any case, Israell is crying out and seizing the streams (the interesting verb “seize them (waters) in advance” appears in both Recensions— προκατελάβοντο). Two of the chiefs are singled out: Oreb and Zeeb, who are both killed. Their heads are brought to Gideon from the region of beyond the Jordan (A has ἐκ τοῦ πέραν τοῦ Ιορδάνου, while B shortens it to από πέραν τοῦ Ιορδάνου).
A dramatic victory has been wrought at the hand of Gideon. But, as all observers will now have to admit, this is a victory that has to be attributed to the mighty hand of the Lord. How quickly the fortunes of the people have been reversed!
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