The Child That Raised an Army

Tod Twist

During summer visits to the family farm back in rural North Dakota, I encountered some of the most exciting Bible stories in my Aunt Betty’s Sunday school class. Up on her top 40 was the story of Gideon and his victory over the Midianites—golden moment, golden hero, golden example. But when I learned Hebrew as an adult, I found out that Gideon was anything but a poster child saint.

A Little Coy about the Crown

A noble speech and a happy ending frame some shocking events in Judges 8:22–35. Gideon sounds like a saint when he refuses the offer to rule over Israel (8:22–23), but he sounds like a villain when he takes up a collection of gold, makes an ephod, and leads Israel astray with it (8:24–27). In spite of it all, war ceases after Gideon’s work (8:28). By the time Gideon’s 70 sons and many wives are mentioned, his son Abimelech seems like a pointless detail on the way to Gideon’s eulogy about “all the good he had done to Israel” (8:30–35).

Abimelech’s name isn’t trivial. It contains a fascinating contradiction. Gideon steadfastly refused to rule Israel (8:23), and then gave one of his sons a name that means “My father is king” (אבימלך, abimelekh; 8:31).

In ancient Near Eastern cultures, personal names were more than a label. They were often compressed sentences that included references to deities or ancestors—a sort of ancient advertising.

You can look up the meaning of a name using the ESV Hebrew-English Reverse Interlinear. This will get you to the underlying Hebrew word, which you can then look up in Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew and English Lexicon. The dictionary will tell you the name’s meaning and the words that comprise the name.

What’s in a Name?

What happened? Why would someone like Gideon seemingly refuse kingship and then name his child “My father is king”? Gideon’s words in Judges 6:15 hold the best clue: “Please LORD, how can I save Israel? Behold, my clan is the weakest in Manasseh, and I am the least in my father’s house.” Gideon was convinced that he didn’t have enough power.

Gideon’s initial response to God empowering him is to raise an army (6:35). The LORD has to pare down the army to emphasize His power and not human might (7:1–8). Even at the height of his success, Gideon couldn’t avoid self-aggrandizement: “For the LORD and for Gideon” (7:18, 20). He even becomes vindictive against his own people when they refuse to help him (8:5–9, 15–17).

Gideon centered worship in his hometown by placing the symbol of the priesthood, the ephod in Ophrah (Judg 8:27). The Tyndale Bible Dictionary tells us that an ephod is a garment that a priest wears when seeking messages from a deity (Exod 28:6–14). Sometimes, though, an ephod was a covering placed on an idol (see Judges 17–18).

The Mighty Fall

It’s ironic that much of the good that Gideon did for Israel was undone by his son Abimelech (Judges 9). Almost all of Gideon’s strategies for increasing his power were swept away. The problem with Gideon wasn’t what happened; it was what didn’t happen—he couldn’t change his perspective.

We all have skewed ideas about how our lives should look so that we can do what God wants us to do. God accomplished good through Gideon by decreasing Gideon’s power. But Gideon never seemed to understand that.

The Sunday school Gideon is a good example, and his faith and courage are worth imitating. The rest of the story shows how Gideon’s life and work were damaged by his own misperceptions. That’s an example to avoid. It’s nice to know that the Bible is something that I can grow into rather than grow out of.

» QUICKBITS:

The Great Baal Out

The deity Baal acquired arch-villain status as the rival to exclusive Yahweh worship in Israel. After tearing down his father’s altar to Baal, Gideon acquired the nickname, Jerubbaal (ירבעל, yerubba’al). Most embedded deity references are meant to honor the deity, but this name insults Baal: “Let Baal contend.”

Successive biblical writers seem uncomfortable with any reference to Baal. They scrambled references to Baal under the Hebrew word bosheth (בשׁת, “shame”). Thus, you have “Abimelech son of Jerubbesheth” in 2 Samuel 11:21. The transformation goes like this: Jerubbaal (ירבעל, yerubba’al), meaning “Let Baal contend,” to Jerub-bosheth (ירבשׁת, yerubbesheth), meaning “shame will contend.” It’s impossible to know the motivations behind such a switch, but marking reoccurring apostasy with a word like “shame” makes sense.

Order the Enhanced Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew and English Lexicon at Logos.com/BDB.

Article courtesy of Bible Study Magazine published by Faithlife Corporation. Originally published in print, Vol. 3 No. 5

For It Is Better

John D. Barry

2 Chronicles 31:1–32:33; 1 John 2:15–17; Psalm 104:16–35

“If your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it from you! For it is better for you that one of your limbs be destroyed than your whole body go into hell” (Matt 5:30).

We might struggle to relate to this outspoken Jesus; we prefer gracious Jesus, offering us a pardon from sin through His sacrifice. We like friendly, loving Jesus, who wraps His arms around us even when we act disgracefully. Jesus is all of these things, but He is also very serious about sin.

One of the most tragic trends in church history is the increasingly casual attitude toward sin. We so badly want people to receive God’s grace that we’ve stopped expecting others—and ourselves—to fight against sin. Yet Jesus knew that fighting sin was necessary. In Matthew 5:30, He is not suggesting that we can be sinless by our own merit; salvation comes solely from the free grace He offers through His death. Jesus is telling us that we must rip sin out of our lives. Doing so is how we experience heaven on this earth that is, at times, nothing short of a hell. Jesus is building on what He knew about idolatry and the need for it to be completely abolished.

When the Israelites were confronted with their idolatry, they ripped it out of their lives: “All Israel … went out and shattered the stone pillars, cut down the Asherahs, and destroyed the high places and the altars from all Judah, Benjamin, Ephraim, and Manasseh to the very last one” (2 Chr 31:1). We must do the same. What are we idolizing? What is causing us to sin? We need to rip that idol out or rip that arm off. Otherwise our sins will continue to torment us and prevent us from knowing God.

John the evangelist perhaps put it best: “Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him, because everything that is in the world—the desire of the flesh and the desire of the eyes and the arrogance of material possessions—is not from the Father, but is from the world. And the world is passing away, and its desire, but the one who does the will of God remains forever” (1 John 2:15–17).

Let’s allow the things that are passing away to be destroyed so we can embrace what is eternal.

What sins do you need to remove from your life? How can you do away with the things that are causing you temptation?

This article was originally posted in Connect the Testaments: A One-Year Daily Devotional with Bible Reading Plan.


John D. Barry is the CEO and founder of Jesus’ Economy, a nonprofit dedicated to creating jobs and churches in the developing world. To empower the extreme poor, Jesus’ Economy also has an online fair trade shop. John is also the general editor of Faithlife Study Bible and the former editor-in-chief of Bible Study Magazine. Learn more about John’s work with Jesus’ Economy at www.jesuseconomy.org.

Shelf Life Book Review: Matthew’s Gospel from Scratch

Matthew M. Whitehead

Matthew’s Gospel from Scratch: The New Testament for Beginners
Westminster John Knox Press, 2011

From beginning to end, Matthew’s Gospel emphasizes Emmanuel and the saving power inaugurated during His first advent. In the fifth volume of the Bible from Scratch series, authors Donald L. Griggs and Earl S. Johnson, Jr. provide an introduction for Christians studying Matthew for the first time.

The book is divided into two sections. The first half, the participant’s guide, takes the reader through Matthew in seven lessons. Each lesson covers several chapters of the biblical book and offers historical, cultural, geographical and literary details. The second half, the leader’s guide, gives instructions for facilitating discussion.

Although beneficial as an individual study, the book is intended for use in groups. It combines an overview of biblical scholarship with an introduction to the major issues in Matthew’s Gospel, making it a helpful tool for Sunday school classes or small group Bible studies.

Article courtesy of Bible Study Magazine published by Faithlife Corporation. Originally published in print, Vol. 3 No. 5

So Good, They Told It Twice

Eli T. Evans

The Israelites behave badly, so Yahweh turns them over to cruel occupation by a Canaanite general. An Israelite prophetess convinces one of her countrymen to muster an army. The Israelites win the battle, and the foreign general flees on foot, eventually hiding in the tent of a nomad woman who murders him as he sleeps. The oppressor is gone, and the land enjoys a period of peace.

These are the bare facts of the story of Judges 4–5. It wasn’t told this way, in summary fashion, but it might have been. The story of Othniel (Judg 3:7–11) is treated this way, and Shamgar (3:31) gets just one verse: He killed 600 Philistines with a cattle prod and saved Israel. Period.

But the story of Deborah and Barak is so good they told it twice, once in narrative (Judg 4), and again in poetry (Judg 5). The two versions of the story play off one another in terms of genre, time and viewpoint.

Prose vs. poetry
Judges 4 is a conventional narrative: a series of declarative sentences strung together to communicate information that advances the plot. It’s not that the sentences always proceed in chronological order; rather, events are recounted at the point in the story where they best drive the narrative. For example, Heber the Kenite’s relocation to Kedesh may have happened before Sisera’s occupation (for all we know), but it doesn’t become important to the story until 4:11.

Judges 5, on the other hand, is exemplary Hebrew poetry: short parallel lines, carefully crafted to evoke rather than explain. The story is told not as a series of plot points but as an artfully arranged selection of images: Yahweh thundering at Sinai (5:4–6; see Exod 19:16–20); the stars themselves fighting by Israel’s side (5:20; see Job 38:7); an army of chariots washed away by a flood (5:21; see Exod 14); a once-mighty warrior fallen at a woman’s feet, exhausted—dead (5:27).

Then vs. now
According to Judges 5:1, Deborah’s song (Judg 5:2–31) was composed the day Sisera was defeated, making the song itself an event in the story it tells. Where Judges 4 looks back on historical events, the song exists in the moment, at the scene. From there, Deborah looks back, forward, and sideways through time—hearkening back to the Exodus, blessing helpers and cursing shirkers in the present day, and then leaping forward to Sisera’s mother waiting for her son. Ironically, Deborah, physically bound within her own time, is free to let her version of the story roam through time and space. But the narrator, speaking from above and beyond the events, must keep his version firmly rooted within the temporal bounds of the plot.

His vs. hers
Judges 4 is told in the voice of the omniscient biblical narrator. He knows every detail of the events, why they happened, and how they fit into the larger structure of Judges and the history of Israel. Deborah, as one of the actors in the story, has a limited view of history as a whole, but a closer view of the events at hand. Her song reflects her concerns at the time: Who contributed most to the effort and who stood in the way. Never mind the gender-role reversal at the heart of the story (4:9).

Deborah’s feminine wit cuts deeper than any narrative voice could. She, the “mother” of Israel (5:7), depicts Sisera’s mother as fecklessly consulting her advisors and getting a wrong answer (5:28–30). Her son is not late because he is busy stealing embroidered cloth (5:30), he is lying dead under a “rug” (4:18 NRSV). He is not whiling away the hours violating young women (5:30), he has been penetrated by a woman with a tent spike (4:21). In the narrative, Sisera’s death is shamefully absurd. In Deborah’s recasting, it is poetic justice, divine retribution, and sexual politics all rolled into one.

There are other Old Testament stories that are reiterated by a poem or song: The Song of Moses and Miriam (Exod 15), The Song of Moses (Deut 32), David’s Lament (2 Sam 1:19–27), his song of deliverance (2 Sam 22:3–51; Ps 18), and his last words (2 Sam 23:1–7).

By listening to a character sing about what has just happened, we learn more about what the story meant to them, and in turn, more about what it means to us.

Article courtesy of Bible Study Magazine published by Faithlife Corporation. Originally published in print, Vol. 3 No. 5

Righting a Wrong

Michael S. Heiser

The story of Jephthah and his tragic vow is paralleled by other stories—including a New Testament story that subverts it.

The Story
After the brief judgeship of Jair (a man from Gilead), the people of Israel fell into idolatry by worshipping foreign gods (Judg 10:6). God then allowed a foreign enemy to oppress the Israelites as punishment. This time it was the Ammonites, who lived on the other side of the Jordan in a place also known as Gilead. The people immediately called on God for deliverance. Ironically, God responded by calling Jephthah, another judge from Gilead.

In Judges 11, Jephthah sends a message to the king of the Ammonites. He wonders why the king is not content with the land that his god Chemosh had given to the Ammonites. Jephthah’s plea is flawed: Milkom was the chief deity of Ammon—not Chemosh. It won’t be the last time he makes a theological blunder.

When Jephthah leads Israel against Ammon, the Spirit of the LORD comes upon him for battle. Just before the fight, he utters his horrible vow: “If you give the Ammonites into my hands, whatever comes out of the door of my house to meet me when I return in triumph from the Ammonites will be the LORD’s, and I will sacrifice it as a burnt offering” (11:30–31). Upon his victorious return, it is his only child, his daughter, who greets him.

The Story Behind the Story
The ancient Israelites believed that geographical areas and nations were under the dominion of other gods, put there by Yahweh, the God of Israel, who had rejected the nations as His people (Deut 4:19–20; 32:8–9). The Jephthah episode reflects that worldview.

Judges 11:10–11 tells us that the Israelites worshipped other gods, including Milkom. Human sacrifices were made to Milkom. Through his own theological ignorance, Jephthah wound up performing a human sacrifice, per Ammonite Milkom worship, to fulfill his foolish vow to Yahweh. He had Yahweh in view, but his perspective on worship was warped. Remember, at this time there was no king, no spiritual leadership, and no centralized system of worship.

The Story Repurposed
The tragedy of Jephthah is repurposed in the New Testament story of Jesus raising the daughter of Jairus (Luke 8:40–56). The details are subtle but theologically powerful.

COMMON ELEMENTS

Jephthah Story

Jephthah’s only daughter

Preceded as judge by Jair (spelled in the ancient Greek translation of the Old Testament, the Septuagint, as Ιαϊρ)

Land of Jephthah = Gilead (Judg 11:1)

Land of Jair = Gilead (Judg 10:3–5)

Gilead = east of the Jordan, ruled by the Ammonites in Jephthah’s day

Jairus Story

Jairus’ only daughter (Luke 8:42)

Jairus (spelled in Greek as Ιαϊρος)

Jairus encounters Jesus on the shore of the sea of Galilee, after Jesus’ return from Gerasa/Gadara = Gilead in the Old Testament

CONTRASTING ELEMENTS

Jephthah Story

An Israelite leader who worships Yahweh in the manner of false gods

Selfish vow results in the human sacrifice of his daughter

An Israelite girl is sacrificed to a foreign god

Daughter dies

Jairus Story

A Jewish leader who embraces Jesus

Unselfishly pleads to Jesus for the life of his daughter

A Jewish girl is raised by the true God incarnate

Daughter raised to life

As was the case in the original Jephthah story, this repurposing is about which god is king, and what territory is his rightful domain. Jesus is showing that Gilead is being taken back by the true God.

Immediately before the Jairus story in Luke’s account, Jesus casts out an unclean spirit in Gerasa/Gedara. In Old Testament times, this place was called Gilead. In Jephthah’s day, this was the territory of the Ammonites who worshipped Milkom, devourer of children. This is also the only Gospel event in which Jesus is addressed as “son of the Most High”—the title of God referenced in the Old Testament when the nations were divided and their people were put under other gods (Deut 32:8–9). The casting out of demons marked the onset of the kingdom of God in the Gospels (Matt 12:28). By casting out these demons in what used to be Gilead, Jesus is asserting His kingly dominion over that place.

On His way back from accomplishing that mission, Jesus meets Jairus, whose daughter has died. Seeing his faith, Jesus raises his daughter. The gospel writer is, in literary terms, reversing the other horror of Gilead: the human sacrifice of Jephthah’s daughter.

All biblical references are from the English Standard Version (ESV).

Article courtesy of Bible Study Magazine published by Faithlife Corporation . Originally published in print, Vol. 3 No. 5