Home » Various Sermons » Yahweh’s Strange Tactics in the case of Gideon’s Three Hundred: Judges 7.1-22

Yahweh’s Strange Tactics in the case of Gideon’s Three Hundred: Judges 7.1-22

“And the Lord said to Gideon, “The people are still too many. Take them down to the water, and I will test them for you there, and anyone of whom I say to you, ‘This one shall go with you,’ shall go with you, and anyone of whom I say to you, ‘This one shall not go with you,’ shall not go.” So he brought the people down to the water. And the Lord said to Gideon, “Every one who laps the water with his tongue, as a dog laps, you shall set by himself. Likewise, every one who kneels down to drink.” And the number of those who lapped, putting their hands to their mouths, was 300 men, but all the rest of the people knelt down to drink water. And the Lord said to Gideon, “With the 300 men who lapped I will save you and give the Midianites into your hand, and let all the others go every man to his home.” So the people took provisions in their hands, and their trumpets. And he sent all the rest of Israel every man to his tent, but retained the 300 men. And the camp of Midian was below him in the valley.”” – Judges 7.4-8

As we open up once more to the Story of Gideon, we find that Gideon, called here Jerubbaal has at last formed his army.  However Gideon is the same wishy-washy sort of person that he has been since his introduction to the book of Judges.  While Barak might have balked once, Gideon continues to do so, all the while testing Yahweh.  Othniel, whom the other Judges might be contrasted with, certainly shows why he is the model Judge.  Although for all the faults that we have seen of Gideon thus far, he is still certainly not the worst of Israel’s deliverers.   In moving through Gideon’s story moreover we might want to recall what the writer of Hebrew’s said of him and perhaps reflect then on our own faith.

As we move into this portion of Gideon’s narrative we  see Yahweh now tests Gideon, and at the same time moves to prove that it is his hand and not Gideon’s that will save Israel.  Yahweh proves himself more than capable, and the only thing that is reliable within the book of Judges.  Since, it is well seen that his chosen deliverers often enough show themselves as the fallible humans that they are.

“Then Jerubbaal (that is, Gideon) and all the people who were with him rose early and encamped beside the spring of Harod. And the camp of Midian was north of them, by the hill of Moreh, in the valley.

The Lord said to Gideon, “The people with you are too many for me to give the Midianites into their hand, lest Israel boast over me, saying, ‘My own hand has saved me.’ Now therefore proclaim in the ears of the people, saying, ‘Whoever is fearful and trembling, let him return home and hurry away from Mount Gilead.'” Then 22,000 of the people returned, and 10,000 remained.” – Judges 7.1-3

As this portion of narrative opens, here we have the continuation of the events which have thus far preceded the story[1].  Namely that Gideon is at last ready to go on with the battle with Yahweh has called him too and thus an army has at last been formed to deliverer Israel.  They come to this place called the Spring of Harod, which could also be translated as the “Spring of Trembling,” something that foreshadows the events of verse three[2].  Although in many ways this “Spring of Trembling” also reflects the leader of this whole campaign.  O’Conner makes this comment on this whole section of the narrative: “Gideon has tested Yahweh, and now Yahweh proposes tests for Gideon’s men.[3]

As Yahweh is looking over Gideon’s army, he notes that his deliverer has developed to big an army to fight for him.  Yahweh plainly tells Gideon the reason, namely that the wrong person would be getting the credit, that the people would not acknowledge Yahweh, but Gideon and his men fighting prowess[4].  It is here that we get the only indication that Yahweh “was not pleased with Gideon’s test[5].”  This isn’t the first time that Yahweh has made strange request concerning an upcoming battle, one is reminded of Moses’ battle with the Amelekites or Joshua’s battle against Jericho (cf. Exod. 17.8-9; Josh. 6.1-21)[6].  Yet one can readily see a difference between the prior two engagements and Gideon’s, namely the quality of leaders.  It is Gideon’s “uncertainty” which seems to prompt the need for a reason to these happenings[7].

Besides Yahweh’s direct interaction upon Gideon’s army count this also harkens to another passage in the Old Testament.  One finds within Deuteronomy a reason for this first whittling down of Gideon’s troops[8]. “And the officers shall speak further to the people, and say, ‘Is there any man who is fearful and fainthearted? Let him go back to his house, lest he make the heart of his fellows melt like his own.’” (Deut. 20.8)

On a side note, the numbers here might seem staggering at first, within the thousands, 32,000 to be precise for the Israelites and 135,000 for the Midianites.  Especially when it would seem to be only one tribe in view here, however the Hebrew term, for a thousand, might simply reflect a military unit[9].  I.e. as Boling translates it as “Twenty-two units went home and ten units were left[10].”  Of course this is just one answer to the number problem within the Bible.  Another suggestion is that the writer here is using the large numbers as “numerical hyperbole,” which is a practice seen in other Ancient Near Eastern Writings, where they described large numbers to make their kings seem grander[11].  The idea in Israelite’s use would be that they were making Yahweh, the King of Kings seem the grandest, that is they used a standard in their land and used it to argue for the validity of Yahweh[12].

At this first step of Yahweh’s tactical command, we also see his first test on Gideon.  God has already quite substantially shrunk the size of the army which Gideon had first presented to him.  And now he begins to force out of Gideon more faith, not by allowing Gideon to test him, but by testing Gideon.  We might be reminded here of Saint James’ words of “for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness.” (Jas. 1.3)

“And the Lord said to Gideon, “The people are still too many. Take them down to the water, and I will test them for you there, and anyone of whom I say to you, ‘This one shall go with you,’ shall go with you, and anyone of whom I say to you, ‘This one shall not go with you,’ shall not go.” So he brought the people down to the water. And the Lord said to Gideon, “Every one who laps the water with his tongue, as a dog laps, you shall set by himself. Likewise, every one who kneels down to drink.” And the number of those who lapped, putting their hands to their mouths, was 300 men, but all the rest of the people knelt down to drink water. And the Lord said to Gideon, “With the 300 men who lapped I will save you and give the Midianites into your hand, and let all the others go every man to his home.” So the people took provisions in their hands, and their trumpets. And he sent all the rest of Israel every man to his tent, but retained the 300 men. And the camp of Midian was below him in the valley.”” – Judges 7.4-8

We now move onto the second cut.  Throughout this entire whittling down of troops one can note a sad state of affairs, from the previous judges, notably Deborah and Barak we saw Yahweh interact through Deborah to issue the various tactics, but here, he is directly involved in all of it and in essence his level of faith in his deliverers has fallen[13].  Moreover his actions in Ehud and Othniel are even less evident, Othniel has the Spirit of Yahweh and Ehud is merely called by him (cf. 3.10; 3.15).  This second whittling involves the stranger it seems of Yahweh’s tactics.  Since excusing fearful men seems entirely reasonable (and even has a prior tradition to it).  There is none of that for seeing which men to choose based on how they drink water.  But Yahweh does have his reasons.

It is entirely uncertain though, why the men who “lapped up” the water were chosen over the other ones.  Naturally therefore there are a variety of different ideas of concerning the choice of men who lapped.  Perhaps those who “lapped up” the water are the ones who reflect a better soldiers’ attitude, for they seem to keep their weapons close to hand, while the other men have left their weapons to drink their water[14].  It has also been suggested that the three hundred weren’t the wiser ones, but instead those who shouldn’t have been in battle at all, as they were the less aware ones and thus they allow for a greater show of Yahweh’s power[15].

In either case though, Gideon army has been cut down to mere three hundred.  In so doing so Gideon is left with a mere 300, not much of an army.  However this three hundred does at least get to have extra supplies, as the men who were sent back, left their provisions and their shofars[16]. Thus as God has brought the troop count down to three hundred, he insures that the victory will be seen as his and not Gideon’s[17].

Yahweh tested Gideon a little the first time, but this one was really a hard test.  From Gideon’s huge army he is left with a mere fraction of it.  Yet in all of this, God is in control and will continue to be in control as he continues to move in this passage.  While man needs God’s help, he doesn’t need the help of man.  And so as Gideon as an example of sorts Yahweh proves this to his people.  Sadly however as one might know if they read past the story of Gideon, the people will continue to sin and continue to follow false gods, whereas Yahweh has shown himself to be all powerful.

“That same night the Lord said to him, “Arise, go down against the camp, for I have given it into your hand.  But if you are afraid to go down, go down to the camp with Purah your servant.  And you shall hear what they say, and afterward your hands shall be strengthened to go down against the camp.”  Then he went down with Purah his servant to the outposts of the armed men who were in the camp.  And the Midianites and the Amalekites and all the people of the East lay along the valley like locusts in abundance, and their camels were without number, as the sand that is on the seashore in abundance.  When Gideon came, behold, a man was telling a dream to his comrade. And he said, “Behold, I dreamed a dream, and behold, a cake of barley bread tumbled into the camp of Midian and came to the tent and struck it so that it fell and turned it upside down, so that the tent lay flat.”  And his comrade answered, “This is no other than the sword of Gideon the son of Joash, a man of Israel; God has given into his hand Midian and all the camp.”

As soon as Gideon heard the telling of the dream and its interpretation, he worshiped. And he returned to the camp of Israel and said, “Arise, for the Lord has given the host of Midian into your hand.”” – Judges 7.9-15

After Gideon is down to his small army we see a scene shift and a new part of this portion of the narrative opens up.  Once more we enter into a nightly scene and are reminded quickly of the previous events of Gideon’s narrative (cf. 6.27-32)[18].  Moreover this portion is the seventh time which Yahweh has interceded to show Gideon that the victory would be a sure thing[19].

Yahweh comes to Gideon and instructs him to go check in on the Midianites and their camp.  He even offers Gideon to allow his shield bearer to accompany him along, because of Gideon’s evident fear.    One translation of what Purah is to Gideon (besides servant) is that of “Shield bearer,” or “young man,” it would seem that his whole purpose in accompanying Gideon is merely to bear witness to what Yahweh has done[20].  Thus the Gideon is going into the camp with only his shield bearer.  We see that Gideon does indeed take Yahweh up on his offer and takes this servant, but it does unfortunately show that Gideon is still fearful[21].  Although Gideon has already seen Yahweh act constantly in his life, Yahweh’s chosen deliverer still needs more proof.

Although as Gideon enters the camp one can now readily see why when Gideon allowed his men who were afraid that to leave, that many took him up on his offer, since who wouldn’t begin to tremble upon seeing such a sizable army[22]?  This description of the camp, reminds the reader of the same description found within earlier portions of the narrative[23].  At this point the reader is reminded if they had forgotten how small the Israelite’s army really is compared to their enemy.  As Gideon comes into the camp he begins to hear some of the enemy warriors discuss a dream in which they had had the previous night.

In it Israel is represented by a barely loaf, since as noted in earlier portions of Gideon’s story, his culture was predominately that of an agricultural base[24].  The “cake of barely bread” Boling suggests that this should be translated as “moldy” or “stale” and thus this reflects the small size of Yahweh’s forces, three hundred versus the vastness of the Midianites, as numerous as the sand[25].  The Tent in itself also reflects the whole of the Israelite’s enemies.  Again as the barely loaf fit the agricultural Israelites well, so too is the Tent a fitting symbol for their enemies who were largely a nomadic people[26].

There is an irony here in that this dream wasn’t meant for the warrior who had it, but instead it was really meant for Gideon simply to hear[27].  Sadly though one could note that these non-Israelite soldiers almost have more faith in Yahweh than Gideon does, since after all, God only seems to need to send a dream upon them and they believe, but Gideon has desired so many tests, including hearing their belief[28]!  While Gideon may have feared the Midianites, we see that this terrifying enemy due to this dream is now terrified of Gideon[29].  And in this we see yet another irony in that while Gideon keeps shaking his boots, despite having seen Yahweh intercede to prove himself, but the Midianites see just this dream, and receive the desire affect.

One writer termed Gideon as having a “bi-polar perspective,” as we so often see Gideon’s qualms and doubts within his narrative contrasted with that of Yahweh’s assurances that victory will truly come[30].  Although listening to the dream helped Gideon, it was the interpretation that cause within Gideon to realize at last it seems that Yahweh is indeed with him in the upcoming battle[31].  Even if all that Gideon has is a mere three hundred troop.

Although Yahweh had certainly reduced the count of Gideon’s army, and Gideon remained unsure of his deity’s actions, God proves himself once more.  God shows up in some of the most unusual of places, he simple calls attention to himself.  There is sad fact that Gideon kept refusing to believe in his god, yet those who weren’t even Israelites seems to show more faith in something as intangible as a dream.  (Yes dreams were important back then, but Gideon has seen in a waken state Yahweh’s actions).  In this we can however know that God moves despite our doubts and lack of faith in him.

In conclusion:

In looking at this portion of Gideon’s narrative we see that God makes preparation to show himself as the Almighty.  We can faith in Yahweh as we should readily see that he is a god who is all power, able to take a small force and defeat a larger one, before the battle had even yet to happen.  For the dream in itself had done more damage than the Israelites could have done with mere physical warfare.  Moreover as Yahweh forced Gideon’s army into the shape he wanted, he helped to mold Gideon more into the sort of leader that he wanted.

For until now Gideon seems to be merely this wishy-washy sort of guy, but now at last, after his shrunk army and after hearing the dream Gideon seems to at least really get that Yahweh was with him.  We have our own things which may struggle with, but we need to remember that it takes time, and if we truly want to get over our own personal struggles we need to work at it and with the grace of God we truly will get over that.  We may backslide at points, but if we don’t give up and keep at it, then there will come a day when we finally do get it and will no longer have that struggle.  Though of course we might just find another one.

As we reflect upon this portion of Gideon’s narrative, let us remember the power of Yahweh, that it is over all, and it is over us.  Let us remember this even when have our own crisis points, that with God’s help we can over them.


[1] John Dominic Crossan, “Judges,” in The Jerome Biblical Commentary, ed. Raymond E. Brown, Joseph A. Fitzmyer and Roland E. Murphy (Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, 1968), 155.

[2] Barry G. Webb, “Judges,” in New Biblical Commentary, ed. G. J. Wenham et al. 4th ed. (Leicester: Inter-Varsity Press, 1994), 272.

[3] M. O’Connor, “Judges,” in The New Jerome Biblical Commentary, ed. Raymond E. Brown, Joseph A. Fitzmyer and Roland E. Murphy (Upper Saddle River: Prentice-Hall, 1990), 139.

[4] Tammi J. Schneider, Berit Olam: Studies in Hebrew Narrative & Poetry: Judges, ed. David W. Cotter (Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 2000), 110.

[5] Schneider, 110.

[6] Victor H. Matthews, The New Cambridge Bible Commentary: Judges & Ruth (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 92.

[7]Ibid.

[8] Leslie Hoppe, Old Testament Message: Joshua, Judges, vol. 5, ed. Carroll Stuhlmueller and Martin McNamara (Wilmington: Michael Glaizer, 1982), 148.

[9] John J. Davis, Conquest and Crisis: Studies in Joshua, Judges, and Ruth, 3rd ed. (Winona Lake, Indiana: BMH Books, 2008), 142.

[10] Robert G. Boling, The Anchor Bible: Judges a New Translation with Introduction and Commentary, vol. 6a, ed. William Foxwell Albright and David Noel Freedman (Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Company, 1985), 142.

[11] D. M. Fouts, “Numbers, Large Numbers,” in The Dictionary of the Old Testament: Historical Books, ed. Bill T. Arnold, and H. G. M. Williamson (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2005), 753.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Schneider, 110.

[14] Crossan, 155.

[15] Davis, 143.

[16] Schneider, 111.

[17] Hoppe, 148.

[18] Webb, 273.

[19] O’Conner, 139.

[20] J. Alberto Soggin, The Old Testament Library: Judges, tr. John Bowden (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1981), 140.

[21] Ibid., 142.

[22] Davis, 142.

[23] Schneider, 113.

[24] Hoppe, 149.

[25] Boling, 146.

[26] Crossan, 155.

[27] Soggin, 141.

[28] Matthews, 92-93.

[29] Webb, 273.

[30] Matthews, 93.

[31] Schneider, 114.

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2 Comments

  1. reese says:

    Every commentary I can find treats the “lap like a dog” phrase one of two ways. Either that it’s irrelevant – God is just using a bizarre criterion because he can. Or that there is an obscure quality contained here. But I have a more basic question. Are there humans who can lap water with their tongues? Can anyone reading this do so? Effectively enough to take a drink? And in what way is standing and drinking from one’s hands “like a dog” whereas “bending his knee to imbibe,” presumably on hands and knees and drinking without using the hands, is unlike a dog?

    It’s not just that the rationale makes no sense. The description itself is nonsense. Something has been corrupted here, in the Hebrew, not the translation. Or some idiom has been forgotten, or come into being that obscures an earlier literal meaning. If yaloq/laqaq meant something more like ‘slurp’ rather than lap, and if kalev was a scribal error for chalab – slurp it like milk rather than lap it like a dog. I’m not positive that ka asher yaloq ha-(kalev/chalab) leaves that open that possibility – my Hebrew is so rudimentary that I’m not sure whether kaleve/chalab could be the object of Yaloq If so, I still wouldn’t understand the point of this criterion, but at least the scenario is humanly possible.

    This is an army with pitchers, as we know from what follows. Thirsty, faced with a spring, 10,000 people alongside me, and many of us carrying pitchers, I’d suggest we all drink from pitchers, and then refill them from the spring, rather than all of us trying to crowd the spring in order to drink on hands and knees or by cupping our hands. Among other things, it would be much faster. As far as I can tell, whether the 300 or the 9,700, Gideon has an army of knuckleheads.

    It’s interesting to speculate that there’s some parallel or metaphor in bringing water “hand to mouth”, raising a trumpet in one’s right hand, and the delivery of Midyan into Gideon’s hand. But it’s hard to get at, because the passage has eroded beyond modern understanding.

  2. Trevor Johnson says:

    The real miracle here is that people are still believing this nonsense today.
    Even the task of watching 10,000 people drink water is unrealistic.

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