Sefer Shofetim Chapter 7
Thirty-two thousand troops rallied around Gideon for the battle against Midian. Hashem conveys to Gideon that this situation is not acceptable; such a large army might give Israel the impression that their salvation is the result of their numbers and strength, not Divine intervention. Gideon instructs anyone hesitant about fighting to return home, but he still has ten thousand soldiers under his command. Finally, Hashem tells Gideon to lead the troops to water; any soldier who gets down on his knees to drink will be sent home and any soldier who laps up the water with his hand without lowering himself to his knees will remain. At the conclusion of the selection process, Gideon is left with three hundred soldiers.
Hashem commands Gideon to mobilize his forces against Midian and assures him of victory. However, Hashem also offers Gideon one more opportunity to witness a “sign” that will bolster his courage. Gideon and his servant sneak over to the enemy camp and overhear a Midianite soldier recounting a terrible nightmare he had dreamt. In the dream, an enormous barley cake rolled through the camp and overturned his tent, flattening it. His friend tells him that the dream symbolizes Gideon and his men, who are going to triumph over the Midianite army.
With a refreshed sense of determination and confidence, Gideon plans his attack. He divided his three hundred men into groups of one hundred men each, and gave every soldier a shofar, a pitcher and a torch. The strategy would be to hide the lit torches inside the pitchers and to stealthily surround the camp in the middle of the night. When Gideon blows his shofar, everyone else is to follow suit and do the same, shouting “for Hashem and for Gideon”. The soldiers are then supposed to smash the pitchers, revealing the brightly burning torches, and to lay siege to the Midianites.
Apparently, the logic of Gideon was based upon the principle that only a small fraction of a given army is normally expected to blow shofarot or hold torches. The sudden appearance of 300 torch-holding shofar-blowers in the dead of night would give the Midianites the impression that they were being surrounded by many thousands of troops and would overwhelm them and cause them to panic.
This is indeed what occurred, with members of the camp of Midian fleeing and even turning against one another amidst the hysteria. The Jews defeated their enemies decisively but several princes of Midian escaped with their lives. Gideon sends word to the elders of Ephraim to intercept two of these princes, Orev and Ze’ev, and not to permit them to become fugitives of the law. The tribe of Ephraim successfully apprehends and executes Orev and Ze’ev, and when we reach the end of the chapter, the story is ALMOST over.
Several details of the story demand an explanation. First, what was the reason why Hashem wanted Gideon to use such a small army to attack Midian? We don’t find such a concept elsewhere in Tanakh. In fact, one of the criticisms of Yehoshua was that he relied on a very modest band of troops to defeat Ha-Ai, and he lost! Second, what is the reason why Gideon is provided with so many signs to reassure him of Hashem’s continued commitment to support him in battle? Why is he so insecure?
I would like to suggest that these aspects of the story highlight a personality defect of Gideon. The fact that he feels so deeply insecure about winning the battle actually indicates that he is relying on HIMSELF too much and fears that he is inadequate to the task. His protestations and worries reveal that he sees himself as critical to the victory and therefore doubts his chances of success because he questions his own capabilities and talents. What seems like modesty or humility may point to quite the opposite – an assumption that it is Gideon who is responsible for making this happen, not Hashem.
We see a similar phenomenon in the case of Moshe Rabbenu who protested that his inability to speak effectively meant that he wouldn’t be able to liberate the Jews from Egyptian bondage. After much back and forth, Hashem relieves Moshe of the responsibility of addressing Pharaoh directly, delegating it instead to Aharon. This was because Hashem knew that Moshe’s fear of failure on account of poor speech indicated that he believed that his own rhetorical ability was the determining factor in whether the Jews would be redeemed or not. If he succeeded, he might take the credit and attribute the achievement to his own skilled oratory! In order to make clear that Moshe was not “the savior”, Hashem gave the duty of speaking to Moshe’s older brother, Aharon.
In the case of Gideon, the decrease in number of troops and the various signs along the way to the mission, all meant to underscore that Hashem is the true orchestrator of victory. We will see the further evolution of this characteristic of Gideon’s personality later on in the next chapter; in the meantime, it is worth noting that in formulating the battle cry “for Hashem and for Gideon”, Gideon assigns to himself a very prominent role in the battle that seems like exactly the sort of thing that Hashem is discouraging here.
Another interesting question is why drinking on one’s knees disqualifies one from fighting in Gideon’s army. The traditional commentaries assume that one who would go down onto his knees to drink must have been habituated to the prostrations that were typical of Baal worship at the time. Anyone involved in this military conflict had to be – like Gideon was – totally divorced from any vestige of idolatry. The beginning of the chapter refers to Gideon first and foremost as Yerubaal – the iconoclast who rejected idol worship and is therefore worthy of reestablishing the independence of the Nation of Hashem. The men under his command were expected to meet the same religious standard.