Judges 7:21-22, Utter Panic!
I sometimes wonder what the 300 men, divided into three companies and fighting for Gideon (the text is never clear where the other two companies of 100 men go or what they do) were thinking when he told them just to sound their trumpets, smash their water jars and shout, “For the Lord and for Gideon.” Though these men were the most loyal of the loyal troops, certainly at least one of them must have said, “Hm.. . .what is the connection between shouting and trumpets and victory?” But there was enough plausibility to the strategy at least to make the case that this novel tactic might lead to victory.
One Overlooked Feature
Though the story is often told about the dramatic victory through the sounding of trumpets and breaking of jars, what is interesting to me is the way the LXX describes the reaction of the Midianite troops to these raucous sounds surrounding them. That reaction is described in 7:21-22. Let’s begin with Recension A:
21 καὶ ἔστησαν ἕκαστος καθ᾽ ἑαυτὸν κύκλῳ τῆς παρεμβολῆς καὶ ἔδραμον πᾶσα ἡ παρεμβολὴ καὶ ἐσήμαναν καὶ ἔφυγον
“And each one (of Gideon’s troops) stood by himself in a circle around the camp, but the entire camp (of the Midianites) ran and made signs and fled.”
The description is spare; all it says is that the 300 warriors positioned themselves around the camp so that the cacophony of noise would resound loudest, and that this positioning had the desired effect: the Midianites scattered in a panic. The most interesting of the three verbs used to describe their panicked flight is ἐσήμαναν, “they made signs.” The big LSJ dictionary states that one of the specialized definitions of the term is to “make a signal in attack.” Thus, one way to read the verb is to suggest that the Midianites were rising up in opposition and, boldly, raising the battle cry.
But I read the word differently. The verb ἐσήμαναν appears in the middle of three verbs, the other two being “run” and “flee.” To me the “signs” in this context are panicked signs of what the best escape route would be or what they should do. They are frantic efforts at the most minimal communication. They knew couldn’t be heard above the din of the trumpets; in the dim lighting, all that might have been possible was to see the shadowy outline of their companions. So they “gave signs” as to the most propitious route for escape.
A Panicked Reaction
That this “giving signs” had more to do with desperate attempts at communication than in leading a responsive action is made clear by the utterly (and perhaps unintentionally) brutal words of verse 22:
καὶ ἐσάλπισαν αἱ τριακόσιαι κερατίναι καὶ ἔθετο κύριος μάχαιραν ἀνδρὸς ἐν τῷ πλησίον αὐτοῦ καὶ ἐν ὅλῃ τῇ παρεμβολῇ καὶ ἔφυγεν ἡ παρεμβολὴ ἕως τῆς Βαιθασεττα. . .
“And the 300 horn-blowers sounded off and the Lord placed the sword of a man in his neighbor and throughout the entire camp, and the camp dwellers fled until they reached Baithasetta.”
My translation is a bit wooden, especially in the middle, but I translated it this way for a reason. That reason is that I wanted to bring out the utter terror and panic that has now gripped the Midianite troops. Rather than just giving confused signals to each other perhaps because the din of the horns/trumpets is too loud, we have each man so confused that he is thrusting a sword through his neighbor (A and B have two different words for “sword”).
Imagine, if you will, the devastating situation. The camp is surrounded by a deafening roar that doesn’t diminish over time. Loud noise disorients people; we are unable to think straight or act with much thought. And then it is dark, so maybe they can dimly perceive the motions of their neighbors. But the combination of dark and noise and fleeing people means that all kinds of strange people might be flitting by you. What you do in that situation is to make sure that they don’t stab you first. So, each man then tends to put his sword in his neighbor before he even asks for identity or language. He doesn’t first ask a question—are you with me or against me? —because in the space of that time he might be revealing himself to the enemy. The LXX has perfectly captured the panic and the slaughter of “friendly fire.”
In many of the stories in Judges, such as the story of Jephthah, the narrative of the actual battle is brief. They fight; victory for God/Israel. But here we are given enough details to catch the terror, if we have ears to hear. The voices of the Midianites are, of course, long dead, but their last panicked moments are caught forever in the simple words of the LXX, when a man thrusted his sword in his neighbor, thinking this was a better way of saving himself than waiting to learn another person’s identity.
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