Friday, May 16, 2008

Gideon and the Dangers of Militarism: Judges 6-8

This post is part of a revolutionary Bible commentary sponsored by the Church of the Orange Sky.

Pretty much everyone in Canada must have seen a Gideons Bible of some sort at one point or another. If not, just visit a hotel - most of them still have Gideon Bibles, I think. I couldn't remember Gideon at all in the Bible before and I'm not sure what I was expecting to find this time, but it wasn't this, certainly. The Gideon of Judges doesn't seem like a particularly fine role model for a charity that gives out free Bibles, but I suppose they can choose whichever inspirational idol they wish.

The Israelites start worshipping pagan gods again, and so they get raided by the Midianites - yet another group which was supposed to have been massacred earlier, and has now returned from the dead. Initially, many of the Israelites manage to escape death or captivity by making fortifications in the mountains, but their crops are repeatedly returned. So, once again, the Israelites turn to the Lord and repent.

God sends an angel to Gideon, who at the time is threshing wheat in a winepress. (This is yet another example of God choosing people of low birth and social status as his emissaries, which is what makes the hereditary institutions created within the priesthood seem even more unusual.) Gideon asks some very valid and pointed questions of the angel: If God is with the Israelites (as the angel at once proclaims), why are they repeatedly subjugated by foreigners? And if this is a turning point in that sorry history, why should God begin by turning to an obscure family of the Manasseh tribe? He demands a sign, and then, in a stunning move, actually turns around and walks away, apparently to prepare some food for the angel. Gideon returns, and God sets his lunch on fire. This is apparently enough to convince Gideon.

Gideon begins honourably, taking some servants and cutting down his father's altar to Baal. In a midnight ceremony, they hastily build a new altar and sacrifice a bull. The townspeople are confused when they get up in the morning to see the results of God's little black op, but the culprit is soon identified. (The Bible doesn't say how or who investigates.) Gideon's father Joash is told by the townsmen that the young man must be surrendered for execution. Joash takes his son's side - a stunning move for someone who owned the destroyed pagan altar - and suggests Baal himself should do the killing, if any killing is to be done. Gideon then summons the armies of Israel to battle, though before going on campaign, he demands two more miracles from God, solely for his personal private use: one that God will keep his fleece dry from dew overnight, and another that God will let only his fleece get wet with due overnight.

Gideon's assembled army eventually totals 32 000 soldiers, and God decides on a gratuitous miracle, just to prove his might: he tells Gideon there are "too many" soldiers now, and they dismiss 22 000 who admitted to being fearful. Ten thousand is still too many, God complains, so they weed out another 9700 who drink water the wrong way (depending on the translation, which way is the wrong way and which way is the right way may differ!). Gideon takes the 300 and raids the Midianite camp; the enemies of Israel flee in terror.

The story of Gideon is once again a brief resurgence of Israelite militarism, carried out under the cloak of divine blessing. This is true right to the end, where Israel concludes from Gideon's success in battle that he ought to be their ruler (to his credit, he refuses) and he subsequently gains considerable wealth and privilege from his war exploits (including enough wives to produce no less than seventy sons!) Nevertheless, the story ends on a more ambivalent note: Gideon suggests that his battle prowess does not actually qualify him to rule Israel, and, like Cincinnatus in Roman mythology, after saving the nation he simply returned home. On the other hand, before doing so, he asks for a handsome retirement gift from the Israelite assembly: twenty kilograms of gold, along with assorted other plunder from the Midianite wars. At today's gold prices, Gideon has been paid the equivalent of $600 000 in plunder, plus all the girls he gets as wives and concubines.

Despite the apparent renewal of Israelite militarism, there are a couple of dark moments in the story which I think illustrate the potential excesses of Gideon's new militarism, so that the ultimate conclusion of the story is fairly ambiguous so far as combat goes. Gideon may annihilate the initial Midianite army with God's assistance, but he carries on afterwards with great success - and, significantly, without any more references to the divine.

First, Gideon murders two Midianite kings, Zebah and Zalmunna, after a long chase from the battlefields in Israel. They are captured and brought before him well after the Midianites have been reduced beyond any chance of resistance, and decides to execute them in vengeance for the deaths of Israelites. This is not a legal procedure nor one ordered by God. He strikes them down and then snatches some "ornaments" from them and from their camels, which he pockets for himself. Even Gideon's own son refuses to take part in this execution, though the Bible claims this is because of fearful youth.

Second, and perhaps more significantly, this story is the first by my count to see Israelites slaughter other Israelites in battle (with the exception of Moses' ritual bloodbath following the golden calf episode, if that can be considered a battle). During the unsanctioned pursuit of the defeated Midianites, Gideon and his men demand food from two towns: Succoth and Peniel. These are significant places: Peniel is where Jacob wrestled with God and became Israel, and Succoth is where Jacob-Israel first lived after his reconciliation with his brother Esau.

Gideon isn't particularly concerned about the historical significance. The two towns refuse him food and, outraged, he vows revenge. After the execution of the Midianite kings, Gideon's forces return and sack the towns. What happens at Succoth is unclear - Gideon's force gathers desert thorns and briers and then, depending on your translation, either "tramples," "teaches," or "punishes" the men of Succoth. What happens at Peniel is more explicit, however: the Gideonites swarm the town, tear down its defences, and kill all the men in the city. This seems like considerably more than an overreaction for the refusal of food. Obviously this was not an act of charity, but it's also not clear what law has been violated. The right to sustenance and supplies from the civilian population, taken through force if necessary, is one that has been claimed by military forces in varying ways for thousands of years. But that right is not found in the Israelite laws given by God - according to those laws, only the priests, the poor, and foreigners have such a right. Gideon is arrogating to his military forces powers and rights never bestowed upon them by God.

Gideon's sin deepens in the following section when he takes all of the gold paid to him in tribute by the other Israelites - gold, not incidentally, which comes largely from gold earrings plundered from pagans slain in battle - and makes an "ephod" out of it. What exactly an ephod is remains unclear, but the Gideon ephod is turned into an altar at which the Israelites worship and "prostitute themselves." God may have called Gideon's military into being, but he turns its back on Gideon as that very military then engages in some of the customary excesses one might expect from a strongly militarist culture.