From the town of Penuel, Gideon and his men moved homeward with the spoils from the Midianites, including the two Midianite kings as prisoners. On the outskirts of the town of Succoth they captured a young man from whom they learned the names of 72 of Succoth’s leading men, the ones who had refused food to Gideon and his men when they were trailing the Midianites (Judges 8:11-14).
“Seek out from the town all the men whose names this fellow has written down and bring them to the main street,” Gideon told his soldiers.
Although the adult males of the town were considerable in number, they were cowed by the quick and decisive action of Gideon’s men. The leaders were quickly rounded up and brought to the town center.
“You refused us food because you were so faithless you were more afraid of what the Midianites might do to you than what God might do to you for rebelling against Him,” Gideon reminded the sullen Gadites. “You refused to believe that God would make it possible for a small number of us to overcome a much great number of heathens. You will remember that I told you that you should respect and help us, as God’s servants, rather than fear the enemy. Now look upon the two kings of the Midianites who were actually fleeing before us with their thousands of troops when we wearily passed through here. We slew all their men, but spared these two men to bring back as evidence we had defeated their army” (Judges 8:15).
The Gadites stared in amazement at Zebah and Zalmunna. It was plain that they didn’t wish to believe what they could plainly see to be true.
Gideon continued: ‘You are going to suffer, according to God’s will, for your miserable attitude toward your Israelite brothers!”
A few of Gideon’s men cut limbs from thorny bushes and briers nearby. Then the 77 Gadites, struggling and loudly and angrily protesting, were bound and forced to the round, face down. They were then chastised with these thorny bush limbs and briers (v. 16).
The rest of the people of Succoth, gathered not far away, watched in fear and trembling, regretful that their city had so stubbornly and hatefully refused food to their Israelite brothers, and thankful to God that only the leaders had to be punished for their city’s shameful misconduct.
When the punishment was finished, it was a repentant, remorseful and silent group that got up from the ground as soon as their bonds were cut. They limped away to their homes, thankful that they had come to their senses and that their punishment wasn’t as severe as that of the men of Penuel.
Gideon and his group moved on to the west, crossed the Jordan River and entered the central part of their country. There Zebah and Zalmunna were brought to trial as the two chief leaders of the Midianite oppression of Israel in recent years. In the course of the questioning, Zebah and Zalmunna admitted they had murdered several of Gideon’s brothers.
“If you had spared my brothers then, I would spare you now,” Gideon told them. “Since you unmercifully put to death many Israelites, including my blood brothers, you can hardly expect to escape the death penalty for murder” (vs. 18-19).
There was a rule among the Israelites that the first-born male of a family should be the one to execute anyone who murdered any of his kin. Gideon was the youngest son of his parents (Judges 6:15), and therefore he felt that it wasn’t his place to personally execute the two Midianite kings, although there fate was more than a family matter.
Gideon’s oldest son, Jether, was only a lad in his teens, but according to Israelite procedure, he was the proper one to avenge the deaths of his uncles. Jether was present at the trial, and like all young Israelite men of that time, he was armed to protect himself form attack by the enemy.
“Come here, my son,” Gideon said to Jether. “It is your duty and honor to draw your sword and do away with these two pagan murderers.”
Young Jether was startled by his father’s decree. He understood why his father spoke to him as he did, and he had been taught that God had commanded Israel to use the sword to slay or drive out all enemies from Canaan. But he had never executed a man. His boyish sensitivity in such a situation was far greater than any desire to try to be a national hero.
“I – I can’t kill these men!” Jether finally spoke out.
Gideon wasn’t disappointed in his son’s reaction. He understood the feelings of a friendly young man who had no desire to execute criminals. Gideon knew that it was up to him to do what his son couldn’t do, but even before he could step forward to perform the wretched task, Zabah and Zalmunna fearfully called out for him to deal with them and put them to instant death (Judges 8:20-21).
After the bodies of the two Midianite kings had been hauled away and their camels stripped of their valuable trappings, the Israelites felt that the struggle with their ancient eastern enemy was officially over. Gideon realized, however, that the struggle to keep from idolatry was never over, and he continued his efforts against pagan worship.
Just when he was feeling thankful that matters were going especially well, elders of the tribe of Ephraim came to him to angrily ask why Ephraimite soldiers hadn’t been asked to join in the first encounter with the Midianites.
Gideon could have answered in his defense that all the people were aware of the situation, and that the soldiers of Ephraim could have volunteered. He also could have reminded them that he was carrying out explicit orders from God. Instead, he chose to soothe their offended feelings with a soft answer as God commands His servants to do (Prov. 15:1)
“If you feel that your tribe didn’t have the opportunity to do enough in this campaign,” he told them, ‘then I must remind you that your soldiers were the ones who showed up just in time to defeat most of the fleeing Midianites at the Jordan River. Without your men there, what would we have done? It was there that God delivered into the hands of your solders the two mighty Midianite princes, Oreb and Zeeb. This alone was a great accomplishment compared to what my men and I did!”
Before Gideon had finished talking, the attitude of the elders of Ephraim went through a great change. Obviously they wanted most of the credit for victory to go to their tribe. When they heard Gideon praising their soldiers, they were quite pleased, and departed in a very friendly mood (Judges 8:1-3).
Not long after that, a great crowd of Israelites gathered before Gideon’s home. When Gideon went out to learn why so many were there, there were loud cheers.
“Because you have saved us from the Midianites,” a spokesman for the crowd shouted, “we have come to ask you to be our king! We think you should rule Israel, and that the kingship should remain in your family down through the generations!”
Loud cheering broke forth again, finally to subside after Gideon held up his hands for silence.
“I’m not the one to rule over you!” Gideon exclaimed to the crowd. “Neither is my son nor his son. If I am chosen by God to be your leader, so be it .But your ruler is God” (Judges 8:22-23).
There was another burst of cheers. Gideon continued speaking.
“I have a request. Many golden earrings were recently taken from slain Midianites. Unless those who possess them prefer to keep them, I ask that they be contributed for making ornaments by which we will be reminded of God’s delivering us from the Midianites.
“We will willingly give them!” several Israelite soldiers shouted.
Someone spread out a coat on the ground, and hundreds of men filed by, in the next few hours, to drop their booty on it. By the time the last trinket land been given, there were thousands of dollars worth of gold on the coat.
Later, Gideon hired men to melt the gold down and re-shape it into a costly vestment to be used and displayed by him and future leaders of Israel as a symbol of their office as judge. Unfortunately, this thing came to be revered so highly by the people that it eventually became an object of idolatrous worship (Judges 8:24-27).
For the next 40 years, as long as Gideon was their leader and law-enforcer, referred to in the scriptures as a judge, most of the Israelite enjoyed the blessings of peace and prosperity (vs. 28-29). Since most people don’t know how to wisely use peace and prosperity, such a period can be dangerous. During that time Gideon had several wives. The practice of having more than one wife was tolerated in those times, especially by men who could afford to feed many children. But God punished those who practiced polygamy, though sometimes that punishment befell the children. The Bible doesn’t state how many children Gideon had, though it speaks of his having at least seventy-two sons (Judges 9:5).
As soon as Gideon died, many Israelites began to abuse their prosperity and turn to idleness and ease. They immediately began to fall away from worshipping God and turn again toward the worship of Baal and Easter, the pagans’ chief god and goddess. That false religion had been developed into different names and forms among various nations since the ancient time of Nimrod and his mother-wife Semiramis. Soon most of the nation had lost respect for what Gideon had accomplished and what God commanded. It was evident that Israel was once more heading for a downfall, this time to plunge into the misery of civil strife (Judges 8:30-35).
Abimelech, one of Gideon’s sons, was very desirous of being king of Israel. He started his ambitious scheme by going to his mother’s family in Shechem to persuade them that one of Gideon’s’ sons should reign over the nation.
“Someone has to determine which of my father’s sons should rule,” he told his relatives. “Now would you prefer about seventy of them to reign over you, or would you choose just one? I am of your flesh and bone, so why should you prefer anyone except me” (Judges 90:12)?
Abimelech’s relatives quickly perceived the advantages of having a king from their family. They launched a campaign in and around Shechem to promote the idea of how worthwhile it would be to have a leader of Israel from Shechem, so that their city might be established as the capital of the nation.
Shechem had latterly become one of the cities where the worship of Baal was most active. Some of the contributions to Baal were turned over to Abimelech, who used the money to buy the services of the kind of evil men who would do anything for a price (vs. 3-4).
Abimelech’s next move was shockingly cold-blooded and barbarous, proving that he would stop at nothing to gain what he wanted. He led his hired band of cut-throats to his father’s home in Ophrah; about twenty miles southward, where Gideon’s other sons were gathered. The hired hoodlums surprised the sons, and managed to overcome them and tie them up. At this point Abimelech arrived on the scene. He carefully examined and counted all the bound men.
“There should be seventy-one here!” he barked at the leader of the gang he had hired. “You have bound only seventy!”
“I wanted you to get all of them!” Abimelech snapped. “But go ahead with the job. Use that large stone in the back court.”
The stone to which Abimelech referred was a part of the architecture in the back yard, but within the next few minutes it became a gruesome chopping block. There the seventy sons of Gideon were beheaded (v. 5).
As soon as the dreadful act was finished, the murderers fled, careful to leave no evidence as to who had committed the ghastly crime.
Gideon’s youngest son, Jotham, was the one who had escaped being murdered. He had hidden himself when the assassins had first appeared, but when he heard later what had happened, he almost wished he hadn’t. He left Ophrah right after that, realizing that Abimelech’s men would be looking for him for a long time.
While the search for Jotham was going on, Abimelech wasn’t too worried about him. He felt that the youngest son would fear to make any move against him. He went ahead with his plans to become ruler of Israel by obtaining the backing of influential men, families and priests of Baal in Shechem, which resulted in a few days in a celebration and a ceremony in which Abimelech was declared king of Israel (v. 6).
When Jotham learned of this he was quite angry. Even though a son of Gideon who had been Israel’s leader, he didn’t yearn to become Israel’s king. But he wanted to expose his half-brother for the murderous, power-seeking politician he was, and to help promote in Israel the conduct his father had enforced and practiced against pagan worship.
By night Jotham went up Mt. Gerizim. Next morning, when the people were up and about, he appeared on the top to call down to them. This wasn’t such a tremendous fear as one might imagine, inasmuch as Joshua had successfully addressed hundreds of thousands of people in that same area. Mt. Ebal was close by to the north, and between the two peaks a strong voice could clearly be heard over an unusually large expanse (Judges 8:30-35).
Jotham couldn’t have chosen a better place to talk to so many people at the same time and say what he had to say before Abimelech’s hired murderers could get to him. It isn’t known how many people lived in and around Shechem at the time, but there must have been at least a few thousand residents, including people from the neighboring villages and countryside who were gathered at Shechem for a festival.
“Listen to me, men of Shechem!” Jotham shouted down to them. “You are headed for misery and trouble .But if you will hear what I have to say, and move to correct matters, God will help you” (Judges 9:7)!
Although Jotham was too far away to be recognized by sight, there were some among the startled people of Shechem who knew him by voice. Abimelech was told at once. He came out to look up and listen, and when he was convinced that the man on the mountain was his missing half-brother, he gave orders to his men to quickly climb the mountain and silence Jotham.
“Bury him up there on the mountain!” Abimelech ordered. But Abimelech did not know God was leading Jotham.
Be watching for the next installment of The Story of the Bible.