Gideon is another antitype of the Israelite religious hero. In another chapter of Jewish history the Midianites threaten to overrun Israel. An angel (living by a tree) seeks out Gideon and promises him victory if he leads his tribe against the foreign host. Gideon declares that he is from the tribe of Manasseh (the least of the tribes) and that he is from the poorest family in the tribe and he is the poorest member of his family (Judges 6.15). In other words, Gideon is the last person anyone would suspect as a tribal chief let alone a military hero.
The Lord shows Gideon a couple of signs and this highly hesitant protagonist relents and leads the Israeli army against the Midianites. But God cautions Gideon, saying that he leads too many men into battle and if they are victorious they will take the credit and not give it to the Lord (7.2). So God tells Gideon to take his army to the waters, and every soldier who gets on his hands and knees to drink will be exiled from the military campaign, while every soldier who kneels and drinks with his cupped hands will accompany Gideon to the battlefield. Through this winnowing, Gideon’s army of 10,000 is reduced to 300 soldiers.
Through stratagem Gideon defeats the Midianites. He arms each of his soldiers with a horn and a pot containing a lamp. His army of 300 men enter and spread throughout the Midianite encampment during the night. At a given signal, each man breaks his pot revealing his lit lamp, and then blows his horn. The sleeping Midianites awake confused and alarmed and mistake each other as the enemy, and thus they slay themselves whilst Gideon’s men retreat. The Midianites are defeated and Gideon, the least of all the warriors, overcomes a massive enemy host without raising a single sword.
There are both religious and literary themes throughout this tale. The interesting thing to me, however, is that it parallels the episode of Samson and his 300 fox-tails in curious ways. Later, another war chief named Samson will battle the Philistines by lighting 300 foxtails on fire and sending them through the ripe fields burning them down. In response, the Philistines gather an army and march against Samson, who uses the jawbone of an ass to slay 1,000 warriors. Defeated, the Philistines retreat, while Samson, thirsty from a hard days work, seeks out water when a hollow within the jawbone opens pouring forth water (Judges 15.19).
Curious images to be sure, but the fact that Gideon procures 300 men at the waters and then sends them out into the fields with lit lamps is to close a coincidence to Samson’s escapade that includes 300 burning foxes in the fields and a miracle at the waters. What are we to make of these parallels?
No explanation is forthcoming. These images may be allusions to some military strategy used in antiquity. They may be allusions employed in the secret myth and cult of the Israelite temple order. They maybe shorthand for cultural or linguistic idioms whose original meanings have been long lost behind the veil of history. In the least, we can see that Old Testament history is not constructed like literate histories, but have contained within them oral historical patterning. Mythic motifs are employed within historical narrative to create an oral history easy to remember. Repeated motifs of the inexplicable 300 helpers in the fields with their fires belong to oral tradition. Perhaps this tradition was already lost when the literate scribes first wrote it down?