4. Gideon's Tragic Mistake (Judges 8:22-35)

by Dr. Ralph F. Wilson
Audio (25:33) |

Gideon Seeking Guidance (c. 1500), Stained glass window, St. Mary's Church, Fairford, Gloucestershire, UK
"Gideon seeking guidance" (c. 1500), St. Mary's Church, Fairford, Gloucestershire, stained glass window. Larger image.
When you consider what Gideon has done in the last few days, it's astounding. He has gone from a fearful farmer to a courageous, unrelenting warrior. Through his vision, faith, and obedience to the Lord, Gideon has vanquished the Midianite army, scattered its last remnants in the desert of Moab, and executed its evil leaders.

Imagine what his countrymen think of him now! In contemporary speech they might say, "Gideon, you are the Man!" He is offered the kingship and humbly declines. But the little he does ask for -- and that not even for himself -- becomes a horrible mistake, one that will plague several generations in the future. And herein lies the lesson for disciples today.

The Lord Will Rule over You (8:22-23)

When Gideon and his band of 300 men return home, they are met with a hero's welcome. The Israelites, who have been leaderless for years, now see in Gideon the marks of leadership. They need him, but in their request they commit two grave errors.

"The Israelites said to Gideon, 'Rule over us -- you, your son and your grandson -- because you have saved us out of the hand of Midian.'
But Gideon told them, 'I will not rule over you, nor will my son rule over you. The LORD will rule over you.'" (8:22-23) 

Gideon the Savior (8:22-23)

First, they attribute to Gideon rather than God their rescue from the Midianite armies. "You have saved us," they say. "Saved" (NIV) or "delivered" (KJV) is the Hebrew verb yāsha`, "save, deliver, give victory, help, take vengeance, preserve." The names Joshua and Jesus (Hebrew yeshû`â, meaning "salvation, deliverance") are derived from this word.1 The Israelites saw Gideon as savior; Gideon saw the Lord as Savior, and to his credit, humbly points them to God.

Here is the ancient deception -- that great men and women are what we need. Years ago I heard a powerful speaker introduced at church in flowery and extravagant terms, as was the custom for a speaker of his renown, concluding with the words, "... a great man of God." Dr. Costa Dier, when he came to the pulpit that day delivered a mild rebuke. "There are no great men of God," he told us. "Only men of a great God." How true. We must never forget to deflect to our God people's blind appreciation of our successes, for they truly belong to him alone.

But isn't Gideon a savior? A great man? Yes, in a sense, so long as he continues to follow God with all his heart. But he -- and we -- are only saviors in a derivative sense. We can experience the heady flush of God's glory as God uses us in some great way, but we must never forget that we are instruments of God's salvation, not the source of it.

Gideon Refuses the Kingship (8:22-23)

"The Israelites said to Gideon, 'Rule over us -- you, your son and your grandson -- because you have saved us out of the hand of Midian.' But Gideon told them, 'I will not rule over you, nor will my son rule over you. The LORD will rule over you.' " (8:22-23)

The Israelites' second error was to seek to make Gideon the first in a hereditary dynasty of kings. What an honor, to have your countrymen invite you to be their king! The word "rule" is the Hebrew verb māshal, "rule, have dominion, reign."2 But Gideon rightly recognizes that this as a kind of sacrilege.

We're used to the idea of a king over Israel, since a couple hundred years later Saul, David, and then Solomon ascend the throne. But to understand why Gideon demurs, we need to understand the nature of the Kingdom of God.

Suzerain-Vassal Treaty

As the people of Israel gathered at the base of Mt. Sinai in the Wilderness to receive the law, they were actually entering into covenant or relationship with God as their King. Some scholars who have studied Exodus and Deuteronomy see in their reference to the covenant each of the essential elements of an ancient suzerain-vassal treaty as would take place between a great king and a subservient people who would come under his protection and pledge allegiance to him.

"You yourselves have seen what I did to Egypt, and how I carried you on eagles' wings and brought you to myself. Now if you obey me fully and keep my covenant, then out of all nations you will be my treasured possession. Although the whole earth is mine, you will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.' These are the words you are to speak to the Israelites." (Exodus 19:4-6)

The suzerain (our English word means "a superior feudal lord to whom fealty is due, overlord") would stipulate the rules under which the covenant was made, which the vassal would agree to. This structure is particularly evident in Deuteronomy. The king would then make promises to the vassal about protection from enemies and responsibility for their welfare (Exodus 23:20-33). There would be a statement of the dire consequences that would occur if the vassal broke the terms of the covenant (Deuteronomy 28). Finally, there would be a ceremony of agreeing to the covenant (Exodus 24 and a renewal in Deuteronomy 29).3

God was Israel's king. He was their sovereign and suzerain. As such he promises to go with them as they enter the Promised Land.

The Tabernacle Throneroom

For the mighty sovereign to travel with this pilgrim people requires the proper accommodations for a king. So God gives commands to Moses to build him a tabernacle -- literally a tent -- in which he will dwell. The tent has two parts -- an outer room and an inner sanctum (called "the holy of holies") where the king dwells. The only furniture in this inner room is the ark of the covenant, with its mercy seat between two cherubim. This ark is the portable throne of the desert monarch. Centuries later under David and Solomon a glorious temple is built in Jerusalem appropriate to God's presence among a settled rather than nomadic people.

This God who inhabits the tabernacle is invisible, unseen -- yet he is king. That is Israel's unique monotheistic faith.

With this understanding of God as the nation's sovereign, it would be treason, sacrilege, for Gideon to allow himself to be named king. Centuries later when the people clamor, "Give us a king to lead us," God says to Samuel, "It is not you they have rejected, but they have rejected me as their king" (1 Samuel 8:6-7; see 12:12).

To his credit, Gideon refuses to rule as king, though he will act as judge and kind of interim leader throughout his lifetime.

Q1.  (Judges 8:22-23) Why does Gideon refuse to be king over Israel? In what sense would becoming king be treason? Why didn't the Israelites see bestowing kingship as treason?




Gideon's Share of the Spoils (8:24-26)

But Gideon does ask for some consideration in light of his victory.

"And he said, 'I do have one request, that each of you give me an earring from your share of the plunder.' (It was the custom of the Ishmaelites to wear gold earrings.)
They answered, 'We'll be glad to give them.' So they spread out a garment, and each man threw a ring from his plunder onto it. The weight of the gold rings he asked for came to seventeen hundred shekels, not counting the ornaments, the pendants and the purple garments worn by the kings of Midian or the chains that were on their camels' necks." (8:24-26)

Modern soldiers are paid for their services, but in ancient times a soldier's pay was from the plunder stripped from the corpses of the opposing army or taken from the villages of the defeated. Pretty terrible, but then, war was and still is terrible.4

In this case, tens of thousands of slain Midianites have been plundered for jewelry. "Earring" is the Hebrew word nezem, "a ring (usually of gold) which was part of one's (man, woman, or idol) ornamentation worn in nose or ears."5 The "Pendants" (NIV) or "collars" (KJV) that the Midianite kings wore is the Hebrew noun netîpâ, "drop, i.e. pendant, used of dropshaped earrings."6

The gold from earrings and other plunder is willingly dropped in a pile and comes to 40 to 75 pounds, depending upon whether the light or heavy shekel is referred to. It is a sign of the esteem in which the men hold Gideon.

Q2. (Judges 8:24-27) What does Gideon ask for his reward? Was Gideon wrong to take a reward? Where did the sin begin?




Gideon's Ephod (8:27)

Taking the gold isn't wrong. It is appropriate to reward the courageous commander of a successful military victory. The problem comes with what Gideon does with the gold. Money is like that. Money is a neutral element. It is in how we hoard it and in how we spend it that sin creeps in.

"Gideon made the gold into an ephod, which he placed in Ophrah, his town. All Israel prostituted themselves by worshiping it there, and it became a snare to Gideon and his family." (8:27)
Old artist's recreation of the high priest's ephod and breastplate Artist's re-creation of the high priest's ephod and breastplate.

"Ephod" is a transliteration of the Hebrew noun ΄ēpôd, and seems to refer to a sacred garment, though there is a lot of scholarly speculation. The word occurs 48 times in the Old Testament with parallels in Assyrian, Ugaritic, and Cappadocian texts. In the Old Testament the word is used of the high priest's garment (Exodus 28, 39). Others who wore less extravagant linen ephods were Samuel (1 Samuel 2:18), priests (1 Samuel 22:18), and David (2 Samuel 6:14). Sometimes the Urim and Thummim in the high priest's ephod were used for determining the will of God.7 In periods of idolatry, sometimes the ephod is mentioned alongside teraphim and graven images (Judges 17:5; 18:14, 15, 17, 20; Hosea 3:4).8

In ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia, golden garments were reserved to clothe either statues of the gods or a select group of high officials -- royalty and top priestly ranks. "Golden garments," used to clothe the statues of deities in Mesopotamia, were thought possess in themselves a kind of sanctity. These were apparently used in rituals meant to secure the god's or goddess's presence and availability."9 Perhaps the high priest's ephod when not used was hung on a wall or placed on a stand, possibly of roughly human shape, which may explain Gideon's golden ephod.10

Gideon wouldn't have intentionally created an idol; he had torn down Canaanite idols to Baal and Astarte (6:28). But the precious golden garment he created was an abomination. It appears to substitute for the ephod reserved for the high priest's use only, and may have set Gideon up as a seer to determine God's will for Israel instead of the high priest.11 And even if Gideon didn't worship the ephod as an idol, certainly many worshipped it as such. The ephod in Ophrah became a source of sin.

Spiritual Unfaithfulness (8:27)

"Gideon made the gold into an ephod, which he placed in Ophrah, his town. All Israel prostituted themselves by worshiping it there, and it became a snare to Gideon and his family." (8:27)

The phrases "prostituted themselves" (NIV, NRSV) and "went a whoring" (KJV) translate the Hebrew verb zānâ, "commit fornication, be a harlot, play the harlot." The root idea is "to commit illicit intercourse (especially of women)."12 In the Bible Israel is spoken of as Yahweh's betrothed wife, in the same way as the Church is pictured as the bride of Christ (Isaiah 54:5; 62:3-5; Jeremiah 3:14; Ezekiel 16:8; Hosea 2:19-20; 2 Corinthians 11:2; Ephesians 5:25-27; Revelation 19:7-9; 21:2, 9-10). For God's people to worship another god amounts to spiritual adultery -- a concept found throughout the Old and New Testaments (Exodus 34:15-16; Leviticus 17:7; 20:5; Deuteronomy 31:16; Judges 2:17; etc; Jeremiah 3:9; Hosea 3:1; James 4:4).

Q3. (Judges 8:24-27) Why is spiritual unfaithfulness looked at as prostitution or adultery? What is the concept of God's relationship to his people which underlies this analogy? What kinds of temptations to spiritual adultery do you face today? (This is not a place to dump on denominations or sects, but to examine your own personal temptations to spiritual adultery.)




Spiritual Snares that Divert our Focus

The ephod is not only a source of spiritual unfaithfulness, it is also a trap. "Snare" is the Hebrew noun môqēsh, "trap." The noun and verb both refer to setting a trap or noose to catch some prey, but more frequently in a metaphorical sense of entrapping people. The wicked entrap people (Jeremiah 5:26; Isaiah 29:21). So does idolatry, as in Gideon's case (Exodus 23:32-33; Deuteronomy 7:16, 25; 12:30; Joshua 23:13; Judges 2:3; 1 Samuel 18:21; Psalm 106:36; cf. 2 Timothy 2:26). 13 Idolatry entraps people and lures them away from the worship of the true God.

Not only does Israel begin to worship Gideon's ephod as an idol, it also ensnares Gideon and his family. Gideon's father had been the caretaker of Baal's altar in Ophrah (6:25). Now Gideon and his family become caretakers of a new object of worship. Rather than serving the invisible God, they focus their attentions on caring for the golden ephod which draws many pilgrim worshippers -- with their money -- into the town.

Many cathedrals in Europe have been built from the offerings of worshippers who came to view and pray before the bones and relics of the saints. In the same way as Gideon's ephod, they became the focus of worship rather than the invisible God himself. Maintaining and beautifying a church building has become the focus of many a church's energy rather than real worship and obedience to the Great Commission. Holy things need not be evil in and of themselves. But they can become snares unless we guard against this very real possibility.

The entrapments today may not be literal idol worship. The New Testament identifies greed with idolatry (Colossians 3:5). Mammon or Money with a capital "M" can function in the same way to lure people away from pure devotion to God. Jesus taught, "No one can serve two masters. Either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and Money" (Matthew 6:24). Paul warns Timothy, "The love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs" (1 Timothy 6:10).

Q4. (Judges 8:24-27) What is a snare? In what way does Gideon's ephod ensnare his family and the people of Israel? How can something be a sin if we don't see it as a sin? What was the essence of the sin the Israelites committed? What is the essence of Gideon's sin?




40 Years of Peace (8:28-31)

Finally, the author of Judges concludes Gideon's story.

"Thus Midian was subdued before the Israelites and did not raise its head again. During Gideon's lifetime, the land enjoyed peace forty years.
Jerub-Baal son of Joash went back home to live. He had seventy sons of his own, for he had many wives. His concubine, who lived in Shechem, also bore him a son, whom he named Abimelech. Gideon son of Joash died at a good old age and was buried in the tomb of his father Joash in Ophrah of the Abiezrites." (8:28-31)

Wealthy rulers in the Old Testament era sometimes have many wives -- Jacob, David, and Solomon are examples. Today God's standard for leadership, however, is a single spouse (1 Timothy 3:2, 12; Titus 1:6).

Even though Gideon's ephod leads people into idolatry, yet God blesses Gideon's influence in Israel as a judge. His leadership keeps Israel strong enough both spiritually and militarily that they are not troubled by invaders during his lifetime.

Q5.  (Judges 8:28-31) How does Gideon influence Israel during his life? What is the positive continuing effect of his leadership as judge?




Return to Baal Worship (8:33-35)

But there is a recurring cycle in the book of Judges:

  1. Misery and oppression.
  2. Calling out to God.
  3. God answers with a leader or judge who delivers Israel.
  4. When the judge dies, the people return to their idolatry, and
  5. To misery and oppression.
"No sooner had Gideon died than the Israelites again prostituted themselves to the Baals. They set up Baal-Berith as their god and did not remember the LORD their God, who had rescued them from the hands of all their enemies on every side. They also failed to show kindness to the family of Jerub-Baal (that is, Gideon) for all the good things he had done for them." (8:33-35)

Strong leadership is key to continued blessing for God's people -- for any people, for that matter. We need to value our leaders and to treat them well. We must also train leaders so that the next generation can experience God's blessing too. Christianity is always just one generation removed from apostasy and unbelief.

Gideon: Discipleship Lessons from the Bronze Age, by Dr. Ralph F. Wilson
Available in e-book formats.

Lessons from Gideon's Later Years

I wish we could end Gideon's saga on the upswing, but that just isn't accurate. His legacy ends with sadness. God wants us to learn some things here:

  1. We must deflect to God the praises that people give us when they receive a spiritual blessing.
  2. We must never let others put us in the place reserved for God himself.
  3. We must be careful that what we establish as traditions and practices in our families and churches do not carry within them the seeds of our descendents' destruction. Clearly, our legacy to others includes not only our strengths but our weaknesses as well. We must be careful to live with integrity before them.


Father, it is disturbing to read of the sins of a great follower of Yours. He did so well, and resisted temptations of glory and power that would have seduced many of us. But he didn't act with full obedience when he set up the ephod. He meant well, I guess, but he wasn't careful to obey your Word. Help me to have eyes to discern my own invisible errors. Forgive me my sins and keep me from sin, that my life might be a blessing, not a curse, to those who come after me. I depend upon you to rescue me from my faults and areas of blindness. In Jesus' name, I pray. Amen.

Key Verses

"The Israelites said to Gideon, 'Rule over us -- you, your son and your grandson -- because you have saved us out of the hand of Midian.' But Gideon told them, 'I will not rule over you, nor will my son rule over you. The LORD will rule over you.'" (Judges 8:22-23)

"Gideon made the gold into an ephod, which he placed in Ophrah, his town. All Israel prostituted themselves by worshiping it there, and it became a snare to Gideon and his family." (Judges 8:27)


Common Abbreviations of References

  1. John E. Hartley, yāsha`, TWOT #929.
  2. Robert D. Culver, māshal, TWOT #1259.
  3. Mark W. Chavalas, "Moses," DOTP 577; Richard A. Taylor, "Form Criticism," DOTP 340; Paul R. Williamson, "Covenant," DOTP 146, 152. P.C. Craigie, The Book of Deuteronomy (NICOT series; Eerdmans, 1976), pp. 36-45, 79-83. J.A. Thompson, Deuteronomy (Tyndale OT Commentaries; InterVarsity Press, 1974), pp. 16-21.
  4. "Plunder" (NIV) or "prey" (KJV) is the Hebrew noun shālal, "plunder, spoil, booty." Taking spoil or booty, was customary (Hermann J. Austel, TWOT #2400a).
  5. Leonard J. Coppes, nzm, TWOT #1338a.
  6. Marvin R. Wilson, nāṭap, TWOT #1355c.
  7. See my article "Inquiring of the Lord," Paraclete, Fall 1986, pp. 23-26. www.joyfulheart.com/scholar/inquire.htm
  8. Charles L. Feinberg, ΄ēpôd, TWOT #142.1.
  9. Carol Meyers, "Ephod," ABD 2:550, cites A.L. Oppenheim, "The Golden Garments of the Gods," JNES 8:172-193 (1949)
  10. R.K. Harrison, "Ephod," ISBE 2:117-118.
  11. Brown, Judges, p. 203.
  12. Leon J. Wood, zānâ, TWOT #563.
  13. John E. Hartley, yāqōsh, TWOT #906c.

Copyright © 2021, Ralph F. Wilson. <pastor@joyfulheart.com> All rights reserved. A single copy of this article is free. Do not put this on a website. See legal, copyright, and reprint information.

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