GOD’S WORD FOR YOU
10 Now Zebah and Zalmunna were in Karkor with their army of about fifteen thousand men, all that were left of all the armies of the people of the east (a hundred twenty thousand armed men had fallen). 11 So Gideon went up by the caravan route east of Nobah and Jogbehah, and he attacked the army catching them off guard. 12 Zebah and Zalmunna, the two kings of Midian, fled, but he pursued them and captured them. He routed the whole army.
Zebah is the Hebrew word for the oldest and most common type of sacrifice, the fellowship meal in which the meat of the slaughtered animal was shared with the family (Genesis 31:54; Leviticus 3:1). Zalmunna sounds like the Hebrew word for “shadowy” (Psalm 39:7; 73:20). Since they had Midianite names, these may have been close approximations made by the Israelites, or nicknames, as when the British called Napoleon “Boney.” The two kings (from different tribes or branches of the Midianites?) fled and were captured.
Verse 10 is where we learn the incredible size of the Midianite force. Almost ninety percent of them had fallen, and a pitiful fifteen thousand men remained. God had crushed the heads of the Midianites as they tried to slither back across the Jordan to their desert in the east.
13 When Gideon son of Joash returned from the battle by the Pass of Heres, 14 he caught a young man from Succoth and questioned him. The young man wrote down for him the names the seventy-seven officials and elders of Succoth.
The Pass of Heres is more literally the Pass of Nomads, an established mountain pass. Gideon’s 300 men were pursuing a force that still didn’t know how small the pursuing enemy force was, and by sticking to the route they took, Gideon was keeping the size of his half-brigade a secret (they still outnumbered him about 50 to 1).
On the way back to Succoth, Gideon captured a boy educated enough not only to read and write, but one who knew all seventy-five officials and elders of Succoth. The Hebrew word for “young man” can mean anyone from infancy (like the baby Moses, Exodus 2:6) to a youth (like the 17-year old Joseph, Genesis 37:2), or a servant of some kind (like Joshua when he was Moses’ servant, Exodus 33:11). Could this have been a schoolboy? A servant of one of the officials? We can’t say for certain. But we can certainly say three things:
First, education was at a premium among the Jews at this time. If a random youth taken captive outside a city could read and write, then it’s extremely likely that almost everyone taught their children some basic things. Unfortunately, Israel was teaching the three R’s, but not their own religion. Leaving religious learning up to a child’s choosing only means that the child with never, ever choose to learn about what he has never been exposed to. Parents who use this excuse today (to let their children “choose” their religion) condemn their children as surely as the crowd shouting for Barabbas condemned their children as they condemned Jesus: “Let his blood be on us and on our children!” (Matthew 27:25).
Second, God was with Gideon. He saw to it that Gideon’s plan would be carried out even here at the stage of carrying out a threat he had made while exhausted and frustrated. His anger had been righteous, and God supported his words. An example would be made of Succoth for the rest of Israel.
Third, God works out all things for our good and to his glory. Once again the Lord supplied Gideon with precisely what he needed at just the right moment. This educated young man had all the information Gideon needed, and he fell into Gideon’s possession at exactly the right moment. Time after time, the Lord proved that his words were true when he said to Gideon, “The LORD is with you, mighty warrior” (Judges 6:12).
15 Then Gideon came to the people of Succoth and said, “Here are Zebah and Zalmunna! You taunted me by saying, ‘Do you already have in your possession the hands of Zebah and Zalmunna, that we should give bread to your exhausted warriors?’” 16 Then he took the elders of the city and he took briers and thorns of the desert and with them he tore the flesh of the people of Succoth. 17 He also tore down the tower of Penuel, and killed the men of the city.
In Psalm 83, David’s poet Asaph describes a huge coalition of Israel’s enemies: “Edom and the Ishmaelites, Moab and the Hagrites, Gebal, Ammon and Amalek, Philistia, with the people of Tyre, even Assyria…” (Psalm 83:6-8). As fearsome as this army must have been, Asaph looks back onto Israel’s past, to this account of Gideon, and he brings comfort and confidence to Israel that God would help them by doing to these enemies “as you did to Midian…Make their nobles like Oreb and Zeeb, all their princes like Zebah and Zalmunna, who said, ‘Let us take possession of the pasturelands of God.’ Make them like tumbleweed, O my God, like chaff before the wind.” (Psalm 83:9-13)
Gideon had carried out God’s command to drive out the Canaanites, and he punished the Israelites who refused to help him. If a village had said, “We are too poor, we have nothing to spare, but go with God’s blessing and bring victory to the land,” Gideon would have understood. Of all the judges, he was perhaps the poorest and he understood what it was to have nothing. But the men of Succoth and the people of Penuel (or Peniel) had plenty. They refused to help him out of fear. Their fear was a symptom of their mistrust of God and their unbelief, so their punishment was a powerful message for the rest of Israel.
God wants us to stand up for our faith, even when it’s difficult to do so. He wants us to show that we trust in Jesus, and to know that he is with us, even when we’re in danger. This was the lesson Gideon taught to Ephraim and the people of Gad, and it’s a lesson we need to learn, too.
In 1671 the Lutheran composer Johann G. Olearius wrote “Jesus Christ, My Pride and Glory,” which urges Christians to stand firm in our faith:
Jesus Christ, my pride and glory,
He, the true and living light,
Strengthens me with glorious might.
Christ, revealed in sacred story,
Whom I now as Lord confess,
Teaches me true holiness. (CW 464, vs 1)
Pastor Timothy Smith
Archives by Wisconsin Lutheran Chapel: http://www.wlchapel.org/worship/daily-devotion/
Pastor Smith serves St. Paul's Lutheran Church, New Ulm, Minnesota