Notes on Judges 8:15-21
by Jonathan Spurlock
(Holts Summit, MO)
Judges 8:15, KJV: And he came unto the men of Succoth, and said, Behold Zebah and Zalmunna, with whom ye did upbraid me, saying, (Are) the hands of Zebah and Zalmunna now in thine hand, that we should give bread unto thy men (that are) weary?
In verse 5 Gideon had asked for some food for the Israelite army but the princes of Succoth gave him an insult in verse 6. Likely the elders agreed with this decision but the text does not mention this. Now, in answer to their question, “Where are their heads?”, Gideon shows the men of Succoth both kings of Midian, alive and well—for the moment.
16 And he took the elders of the city, and thorns of the wilderness and briers, and with them he taught the men of Succoth.
This may have been a primitive form of flogging, using thorns and briers to inflict punishment on the leaders of Succoth. Let it be remembered that if Succoth had provided food for Gideon’s army, they would not have suffered this punishment at this time.
Were they expecting Gideon to fail or be defeated?
17 And he beat down the tower of Penuel, and slew the men of the city.
Gideon moved on from Succoth to Penuel. He “beat down” or destroyed the tower and, as the text relates, slew the men of the city. We are not told why Gideon did this. God certainly did not tell him to do this. At any rate, if Penuel had given some to Gideon’s army, they would not have faced Gideon’s wrath.
18 Then said he unto Zebah and Zalmunna, What manner of men (were they) whom ye slew at Tabor? And they answered, As thou (art), so (were) they; each one resembled the children of a king.
This question goes back an undescribed battle or encounter, not mentioned elsewhere in the text. The Midianites and others had come to Israel several times (Judges 6:10) during the seven years Midian had control over Israel.
Note the irony: Gideon had told the Angel of the LORD that his family was “poor in Manasseh” and he was the “least in (his) father’s house
(Judges 6:15)”. These kings of Midian replied the men they killed at Tabor “resembled the children of a king”, even saying Gideon resembled them (paraphrasing)!19 And he said, They (were) my brethren, (even) the sons of my mother: (as) the LORD liveth, if ye had saved them alive, I would not slay you.
The text does not give the names of Gideon’s brothers or his mother, only that of his father, Joash. It is not known if these family members remained true to the God of Israel or if they had converted to Baal worship. Someone, maybe Joash himself, had built an altar to Baal on Joash’s land (Judges 6:25).
Even if Gideon’s brothers had worshiped Baal, there is no record that they did anything worthy of death by the Midianites, except being a Hebrew, during the time Israel was occupied. How many others might have suffered the same fate, being executed by the Midianites?20 And he said unto Jether his firstborn, Up, (and) slay them. But the youth drew not his sword: for he feared, because he (was) yet a youth.
Apparently Gideon had brought his oldest son along in the battles. If so, Jether had neither left Gideon’s army by admitting he was afraid (Judges 7:3) and had grabbed handfuls of water instead of kneeling down to drink from the shore (Judges 7:5-6). One has to admire Jether’s honesty in admitting his fear because of his youth at this time.21 Then Zebah and Zalmunna said, Rise thou, and fall upon us: for as the man (is, so is) his strength. And Gideon arose, and slew Zebah and Zalmunna, and took away the ornaments that (were) on their camels' necks.
Gideon himself executed Zebah and Zalmunna, the kings of Midian. Why Gideon took the ornaments off the camels’ necks, and apparently kept them for himself, is not stated here. In contrast, in Numbers 31 the Israelites went, ironically, to battle the Midianites. When the battle was over, and none of the Israelite soldiers were missing, their leaders brought various items of jewelry to Moses as offerings to the LORD.
Scripture quotations taken from the King James Version of the Bible (KJV).