In the deep darkness before dawn Gideon’s 300 men divided into three groups. Silently they spread themselves around the sprawling camp of the Midianites. Instead of weapons, the men had trumpets of rams’ horns in their right hands and, in their left, earthen pitchers. Each man had a torch hidden in his pitcher.
As soon as his men were in place, Gideon blew lustily on his trumpet made from a ram’s horn. That was the signal for all the men to do likewise on their horns. Then Gideon broke his pitcher and held his torch aloft for all to see. Quickly the three hundred men also broke their earthen pitchers. Light was suddenly revealed from 300 blazing torches (Judges 7:16-20)!
The abrupt light and noise from all direction were confusingly startling to the Midianites. Even the guards were caught by surprise. In the darkness it seemed that a vast army was completely surrounding them. To add to their alarm, a multitude of shouting voices came from all around.
“The sword of the Lord and of Gideon!” were the loud words that rang over the plain from Gideon’s men.
Believing that incredible numbers of armed Israelites were closing in all about them, the Midianites rushed excitedly out of their tents. Campfires were out or were very low. It was so dark that in their frenzy the men collided with each other. Thinking that Israelites had rushed in among them, they attacked one another. Within the next few minutes thousands of Midianites died by the hands of their own brothers. God had intervened for Israel!
Gideon and his men stood by, not knowing at first what was going on. But the continued shouting, the clash of arms, the shrieks of pain and the sounds of frightened animals proved that disorganization and death reigned in the camp (vs. 21-22).
A little later, when it was evident that the Midianites, in their panic, were racing eastward in the direction of their homeland, Gideon thought of a way to make matters much worse for the enemy. Abandoned camels were wandering about. Some of them were caught. Gideon sent messengers on these mounts to various parts of the land occupied by the Ephraimites to tell the men of that tribe what had happened, and that the Midianites could possibly be cut off from escaping over the Jordan if the Ephraimites would move up quickly to meet them.
At the same time Gideon sent a messenger to the thousands of men he had dismissed from battle duty only a few hours before, informing them that the enemy was fleeing to the east, and that the Israelites could be of great service by pursuing them (vs. 23-24).
The messengers were instructed to rejoin Gideon as soon as their missions were accomplished.
It was dawn before the routed Midianites could reach the Jordan River. When finally it was possible for them to clearly see at a distance, they learned for a fact what they had only imagined, at first – that thousands of Israelites were pursuing them. They pressed on at increased speed along the west bank of the river, hoping for a shallow spot where they could quickly cross to the other side.
By then Gideon’s messengers had reached the Ephraimites, who responded by hastily assembling many armed men and sending them off to the east to meet the oncoming enemy.
Later, as the weary Midianites plodded fearfully along the Jordan, still anxiously seeking a place to ford it, they were shocked to see a horde of men guarding every possible fording place. Behind them the thousands of other Israelites pursued very closely. The idol-worshipping Midianites were cut off from their homeland and safety!
The result was more like a vast slaughter than a battle. The morale of the Midianites had been so weakened earlier by fear that the element of courage had almost vanished. Thousands of them fell because of having little or no will to defend themselves. Many plunged into the Jordan, only to drown or to be the targets of well-aimed spears or slung rocks. Nevertheless, they kept pouring into the water by the thousands, and about 15 thousand managed toreach the safety of the eastern bank.
One hundred and twenty thousand of them, however, failed to cross the river (Judges 8:10).
It was at this point that Gideon and his men, having long since exchanged their trumpets and torches for swords, knives and spears, arrived in time to chase the Midianites into the river. In this fray two high-ranking Midianite generals had already been slain. Their heads were later – on the other side of the Jordan – brought to Gideon as tokens of victory (Judges 7:25).
“We haven’t completely won the battle yet!” Gideon shouted to the Israelites. “A great part of the enemy has eluded us. We can’t let them go free. I’m not asking all of you men to go after them, because we don’t have the food to sustain you. But my three hundred chosen men and I will cross the Jordan to pursue the fleeing enemy troops.”
It wasn’t long before Gideon and his picked soldiers were on the east bank of the river and in pursuit of the Midianites, who were fleeing down the Jordan valley. The enemy’s trail wasn’t difficult to find in the sands and soft soil. But sand made travel more difficult, and Gideon’s men had walked and trotted many miles, and they were becoming weary from lack of food and rest (Judges 8:4).
They were still in Israelite territory, the region east of the Jordan that had been given to the tribe of Gad when, several miles southward, they sighted the town of Succoth to the right of their route of travel, Gideon was greatly relieved.
“Don’t be discouraged, men!” Gideon called out. “Our Israelite brothers in the town ahead should be able to give us enough food to restore our strength.
When they reached the town, people scurried into their homes as though afraid of them. Hoping to allay their fears, Gideon stood on the main street and loudly announced the identity of his men and himself. He told the townspeople what had happened, why they were passing through and that they were in desperate need of food (v. 5).
One by one doors opened and the chief men of the city slowly sauntered out to confront them.
“About two hours ago thousands of Midianites passed to the north of us on their way eastward,” one of the leaders of Succoth spoke up. ‘Obviously you have only two or three hundred men. Do you expect us to believe you have wiped out most of the Midianite army as you claim, and that those thousands who passed by are actually fleeing from you? Do you take us for fools, that we should believe that your puny little group is actually pursuing an army of thousands? Do you expect us to risk our lives by giving food to reckless hot-heads while the Midianites are still in control of the country?”
The grim expression of the onlookers turned to the streets. Some of the people laughed and made taunting remarks.
“We don’t expect you to have faith in us,” Gideon answered. ‘”But you should trust the God who has promised to deliver us from oppression! We’re just asking you, as brother Israelites, to give us enough food so that we’ll be able to gain strength to move on.”
“Indeed you will move on!” another one of the leading citizens shouted angrily. “For all we know, you are only a band of beggars trying to wheedle food! Get out!”
After the splendid cooperation he had received from the other tribes, Gideon was shocked by their lack of brotherly concern and faith in God.
“You refuse to help the people of your own nation who are risking their lives struggling for your freedom. This is defiance of God – and all because you fear what the Midianites might do to you instead of fearing God!” Gideon retorted. “Your greater fear should be of the punishment you’ll receive from God at our hands because of your selfishness, when we return victorious” (vs. 6-7)!
There were smirks and scowls on the faces of onlookers as Gideon’s little army wearily moved on to the northeast up the Jabbok river valley to pick up the trail of the enemy. A few miles farther brought them to the town of Penuel, where there was a somewhat unusual stone tower that had long ago been built by the Moabites as a place for observation and as a fortress. The Gadites who lived there were quite proud that theirs was the only town in the territory with such a tower.
Gideon summoned the leaders of the town, related his situation to them and made a desperate plea for food for his men.
“Don’t ask us to believe that you intend to attack and defeat thousands of fierce desert soldiers with your miserably small group,” the head man of the town sneered at Gideon. “We have enough trouble finding food for ourselves without foolishly passing it out to any heedless band of would-be deliverers who come this way with wild schemes!”
“You mean you refuse to give us any help – even any stale bread or scraps you may have?” Gideon asked.
Their answer was only a cold, emotionless stare.
“We’ll be back this way after we have taken care of the Midianites,” Gideon angrily told the Gadites gathered about him. “Then you will lose that tower you are so proud of. What’s more, you are very likely to lose your lives” (Judges 8:8-9)!
As at Succoth, Gideon and his men wearily departed amid hostile expressions and unfriendly murmurs from brother Israelites who showed nothing but derision as they viewed this small band in pursuit of an enemy fifty times as great in number.
Gideon and his men were exceedingly tired when they reached a refreshing mountain stream flowing southward into the Jabbok River. There they could have concentrated their efforts and their remaining strength on hunting birds and animals for desperately need food. But precious time would have been consumed in searching and cooking, and Gideon preferred to keep moving.
It was dusk when the band exhaustedly topped a rise to look down into a ravine. What the men saw caused all of them to almost forget hunger and weariness. Below them, camped for the night in supposed safety among their own people, were the fifteen thousand Midianites they were seeking!
“Keep out of sight!” Gideon commanded. “We’ll stay here till dark, then attack!”
There was still enough light for the Israelites to spot the positions of the Midianite sentries. Later, when Gideon and his men silently moved down into the ravine from all directions, the sentries fell by a noiseless prey. God had again intervened by sending slumber on the idolatrous Midianites. Most of the rest of the Midianites were already deep in slumber after their exhausting day. Suddenly they were caught completely by surprise when the Israelites fell upon them. Hundreds died as they slept. The others, unnerved by the fearful events of the past hours, were in no condition to defend themselves.
Strengthened by God, Gideon and his men rushed in to slay most of the Midianites while they darted around in a state of fear and confusion. Some of the enemy escaped for the third time in recent hours. Among them were two Midianite kings whom Gideon had especially hoped to capture. Their names were Zebah and Zalmunna. The reason Gideon wanted them was that for the past seven years they had led very destructive and murderous forays against Israel.
Mounted on camels, these two men rode off in the dark to the east in the direction of their native land. They didn’t get too far, however. The east side of the ravine was steep and sandy. They were so long getting toward the top that the Israelites overtook them and seized them alive. Gideon felt elated in being able to bring them back westward as prisoners, though he was more thankful that God had miraculously helped his weary men conquer most of the fifteen thousand Midianites (Judges 8:11-12).
The destruction of the Midianites having been accomplished, Gideon and his men were hungrier and wearier than ever. Happily, small amounts of dried dates, dried figs and dried meat were found in many Midianite knapsacks and saddlebags. It all added up to more than enough food to satisfy the Israelites for the time being and to sustain them on their return journey.
Besides food, Gideon’s men found many valuables belonging to the enemy. Desert men of that time often wore golden earrings, and thousands of earrings were taken from the corpses. There were other costly metal trinkets among their possessions, as well as valuable weapons, leathers, blankets and robes. These things were loaded on camels for the return to the Mt. Ephraim area.
The refreshed Israelites then set out during the early night toward the west (Judges 8:13).The two Midianite kings were strapped to their own richly be-decked camels.
When they arrived back at the town of Penuel, the people came out to jeer. Gideon had given them the impression that he and his men would return after being victorious over the Midianites, but the fact that they returned so soon, and with only a few camels and two prisoners, indicated to the Gadites that Gideon had far from accomplished what he had said he would do. The Gadites refused to believe that, by a miracle from God, three hundred men had slain so great a number of the enemy, as Gideon claimed, though the women and children of Penuel were later to find out that it was true.
“The enemy must have said something to offend you that you should return so soon!” one man yelled at them.
“They were pretty hungry when they last went through here!” another one shouted. “Maybe they ate all those Midianites!”
“They still look hungry!” someone else quipped. “Now we know how they’re going to wreck our tower! They’re going to eat it!”
There were many more insults heaped on Gideon and his men. Gideon was filled with disgust. He might have passed through Penuel without chastising these rebellious people who had refused to aid a chosen servant of God in the carrying out of a very important mission. But not now! Rebellion is as bad as witchcraft (I Sam. 15:23)!
Knowing these Gadites had not repented of their rebellion, Gideon signaled his men to action. By now they were very near the tower Gideon had said he would destroy. About two hundred of Gideon’s men swarmed toward it. Within minutes, using swords to hack beams, and beams to pry loose the wall’s stones, they leveled the tower the Gadites looked on with such pride.
At first the men of the town could scarcely believe what was happening. Then they rushed to arm themselves for attack, but by this time it was too late. These wicked Israelites were no different from Midianites. Gideon’s men fell on them, and the men of Penuel, according to God’s will, lost their lives. All because of their willful rebellion against the government God had established for their good (Judges 8:17).
Be watching for the next installment of The Story of the Bible.