History Theology

Gideon: The Conflicted Hero & the Heroic Ideal in Ancient Israel

Many of the stories contained in the Book of Judges have been said to represent miniature Exoduses in of themselves, bear striking similarities to the Exodus narrative structure, or recall the Exodus narrative explicitly. This cannot escape the reader in the opening passages of Judges 6, where the “Messenger of the Lord” comes to commission Gideon as judge to deliver the Israelites out of bondage. Throughout the literary development of Judges 6-8, Gideon bears immediate resemblance to Moses and Joshua which strengthen this similarity between the story of the Judges and the Exodus—but at the same time, Gideon also serves as an inversion of the prophetic archetype in other significant ways. 

It is important to remember that Judges comes in the immediate aftermath of the Exodus narrative, which culminates in the Book of Joshua where Joshua leads the Israelites across the Jordan and into Canaan. The opening of Judges even reminds the reader of this part of history, “After the death of Joshua, the Israelites asked the Lord, ‘Who of us is to go up first to fight against the Canaanites?’” The beginning of the Book of Judges clearly indicates Israelite tribal consciousness as it recalls Joshua from the very beginning (Jg. 1:1), thereby marking an identifiable continuity with the books of Joshua (and Exodus) from the onset. It is in the person of Gideon that tribal consciousness harkening back to Moses (the Exodus) and Joshua (the conquest) is most profound and visible, if not otherwise fully developed and synthesized. Whatever the reality of the historical Gideon, the Gideon of Scripture embodies the best of Moses and Joshua from that preceding wilderness period of Israelite history.

The first thematic unit of the Judges 6 narrative emphasizes Israel’s sin and their need for a judge to deliver them from the hands of Midian. The failure of the Israelites to keep to God’s commandments is reminiscent of the constant failures to adhere to the Covenant with God back in the Exodus. Israel’s sins have led to punishment by foreign peoples—in this case Midian—and only after the Israelites have wallowed in abuse and have cried out to God does God answer in raising up a judge to free the Israelites. This cycle of sin and punishment is already established in Exodus and reaches more concrete explanations in Judges.

Although Gideon has not yet been commissioned (Jg. 6:1-10), Gideon’s role as judge bears striking literary similarity to Moses insofar that Moses was to lead his people from bondage out of Egypt. In a similar role, Gideon is to lead Israel from bondage out of the hands of the superior Midianites. One might interject, here, that the same could be said for the various other judges who are all commissioned to deliver Israel from bondage. Ehud, Deborah (and Barak), Jephthah, and Samson are among the more famous judges, each with devoted chapters to their exploits and tragedies incurred as judge.

Ehud bears little resemblance to either Moses or Joshua; he is left-handed assassin who infiltrates Eglon’s Moabite palace under the pretext of presenting tribute to Eglon whereby he assassinates him in his royal chambers. Where, precisely, does a similarity to Moses or Joshua fit?

Deborah and Barak are standalone characters, and as Susan Ackerman has argued, Deborah bears a much stronger literary role as a non-deified version of the Canaanite goddess Anat from the Baal-Anat Cycle that is common in Canaanite literature. Since Yahweh functions much like Baal as both storm god and war god, and just as Baal needs Anat in the Baal-Anat cycle to complete the story, Yahweh needs Deborah—a woman—to complete the cycle; the male-female literary dichotomy of the Baal-Anat Cycle is seen in the functionary union between Yahweh and Deborah (and then Jael in her slaying of Sisera) throughout Judges 4-5. Barak, by contrast, was never the intended judge—just a military commander called upon by Deborah who wavered in his faith and therefore lost the honor of killing Sisera (perhaps intentionally in the Judges narrative, so that Sisera could be killed by the hands of a woman in sticking with the literary trope of the Baal/Yahweh-Anat/Deborah and Jael).

Finally, neither Jephthah nor Samson strike an accord as being similar to Moses or Joshua; Jephthah is another military commander who makes a rash vow that ends in the sacrifice of his daughter, and Samson is the more classical archetype of ancient hero—strong, powerful, but with an insatiable weakness toward women which is his undoing. While all these narratives within Judges still reflect miniature Exoduses in their own right, none of the judges can be said to reflect either Moses or Joshua in the same manner and literary content than Gideon.

Having dispensed the notion that other judges may reflect the archetype of Moses and Joshua, let us return to the role of Gideon as the prophetic and heroic archetype. The second thematic unit of Judges 6 is Gideon’s commissioning and conversation with God (Jg. 6:11-24). As mentioned, Gideon is introduced following Israel’s sin and call for repentance, to which God has answered and is seeking out a deliverer. This too is remarkable similarity to Moses’ rise in Exodus. God is seeking a deliverer to free Israel and chooses Moses. In the other cases of the Judges, God does not explicitly search for a candidate and have a conversation with his chosen candidate as he does with Gideon. Gideon’s commissioning includes all of the same literary scenes and typology in Moses’ call.

The first scene of Gideon’s commissioning has an angel/messenger of God seeking him out, just as an angel/messenger of God seeks out Moses (cf. Ex. 3:2-3 and Jg. 6:11-12). However, a switch occurs, and Gideon is no longer talking to an angel/messenger but to God directly just as in Moses’ call there is a literary switching of the angel/messenger to God. Gideon and God converse—just as Moses did with God—and Gideon, much like Moses, is wrought with doubt and needs re-assurance that God is truly God (cf. Ex. 4:1-17 and Jg. 6:11-24). Moses needs signs to know that he is speaking to God and has found his favor (Ex. 4:1-9), and in much the same way, Gideon also seeks signs to indicate that he too has found favor with God (Jg. 6:17-20). Furthermore, Moses is hesitant despite God’s signs, and makes an excuse, “I am slow of speech and tongue” (Ex. 4:10), and in the same vein, Gideon also produces an attempted excuse when God informs him of having found favor with the Lord, “[H]ow can I save Israel? My clan is the weakest in Manasseh, and I am the least in my family” (Jg. 6:15). Of all the judges, only Gideon’s commissioning bears structural literary similarity to Moses’ commissioning: God deliberately seeks out both Moses and Gideon with an angel, both have a conversation with God (rather than the angel that first encounters them) concerning their commissioning, both require signs of divine favor as evidence of their commissioning, both make excuses as a reflection of initial disbelief, and only after all of this is completed do both take up their mantle to free God’s people from bondage.

It should be understood that this literary similarity between Gideon’s and Moses’ commissioning is not an argument that Gideon is a Prophet in the same stature as Moses (or Joshua for that matter), but an argument that the prophetic hero archetype introduced in the Book of Exodus in the person of Moses carries forth in many respects in the person of Gideon in the Book of Judges. And in continuing the continuity between Moses and Gideon, following Gideon’s commissioning, Gideon carries out a commandment from God that is nearly the same commandment given to Moses in Exodus 34, “Break down their altars, smash their sacred stones and cut down their Asherah poles. Do not worship any other god, for the Lord, whose name is Jealous, is a jealous God” (Ex. 34:13-14). Befitting of Gideon as reflecting Moses, Gideon destroys the foreign altar of Baal and cuts down the Asherah pole of his father (Jg. 6:25-27).  This is Gideon’s first direct act in leading the Israelites to deliverance and it harkens back to parts of the Covenantal Code introduced in Exodus concerning the forbiddance of worshiping foreign idols/deities; this harkening back to Exodus again seems to implicitly entail the continuity of the Moses archetype into Judges—again, finding its fullest expression in Gideon.  As hitherto stated, the story of Gideon reflects almost all the same literary tropes and themes as the story of Moses in Exodus.

But Gideon is not just an archetypical Moses; he also bears features similar to Joshua. Whereas Moses was a liberating and law-giving prophet, Joshua is a warrior prophet. Gideon is both liberator and warrior tied together in one. (While other judges like Ehud, Jephthah, and Samson are also liberating warriors, none share Gideon’s literary tropes that seemingly connect him to Moses and Joshua.) Having examined Gideon as the Moses archetype, it is time to examine him as the Joshua archetype, principally found in Judges 7 where Gideon is no longer a commissioned hero, but a military leader—much like Joshua—fighting Israel’s enemies and leading the people to direct deliverance (something denied to Moses who died outside of Canaan).

Joshua was Moses’ successor, a military prophet of conquest. Once more we see that Gideon shares the composite nature of both Moses and Joshua—but now, through his fighting with the Midianites, shares a stronger similarity to Joshua than Moses (as was the case during his commissioning). Besides being a military commander, both Joshua and Gideon begin their military careers in fulfilling God’s commands by crossing the Jordan (cf. Jsh. 3:1-16 and Jg. 7:24-25). In both cases, the fulfillment of conquest/liberation entails crossing over the Jordan River, albeit Joshua crosses east to west while Gideon crosses west to east. Furthermore, one of the more episodic natures of Joshua’s conquest is the blowing of trumpets and horns at the Battle of Jericho (Jsh. 6:20) that scatters Israel’s enemies. In similar fashion, when Gideon and his men approach the Midianite camp—despite being outnumbered—they sound their advance with the blowing of trumpets that scatter the Midianites and precipitate Israel’s victory (Jg. 7:22-23).

In Judges, one recognizes the Moses archetype in Gideon as evolution to a Joshua archetype when it comes time for military action. Gideon suddenly evolves from commissioned prophet (Moses type) to military conqueror/liberator (Joshua type); the transformation of Gideon into war-like hero reminiscent of Joshua is apparent when one examines the literary features of the story as demonstrated above. But what is overlooked is how both men respond prior to their battles that further signify this evolution of Gideon from Moses type to Joshua type. Joshua meets a man who tells him that his arrival is miraculous, a sign that Joshua takes as divine favor whereby Joshua falls to the ground and worships prior to entering battle (Jsh. 5:13-14). Likewise, Gideon encounters a man speaking of a dream, to which Gideon also interprets as divine favor and bows down to the ground and worships in honor of God (Jg. 7:15). Afterward, both Joshua and Gideon achieve miraculous victories against superior foes by the playing of trumpets and horns that scatter their opponents and lead to Israelite victories. It seems rather clear, looking at the literary structure and style, Gideon bears similarity to both Moses and Joshua and that he is remembered by the Israelites as a synthetic hero embodying the best qualities and characteristics of Moses and Joshua.

But the continuity of Gideon as a new Moses and Joshua is not the only literary symbolism and connectivity at play in Judges 6-8. While Gideon serves as a new Moses and Joshua, of sorts, Gideon is neither Moses nor Joshua—and this is reflected in the same scenes which bear literary similarity between the two prophetic heroes of the exodus narrative with Gideon in Judges 6-8. While Gideon is built up in literary symmetry to Moses and Joshua, there are also important inversions of Gideon’s role as the prophetic archetype.

The first concerns Gideon’s destruction of the shrine of Baal and cutting down of the Asherah pole. Gideon destroys the shrine and Asherah pole under the cover of darkness for “he was afraid of his family and townspeople” (Jg. 6:27-28) despite having previously been ensured of his divine favoritism in his commissioning. Some have noted that this separates Gideon from Moses, that while Gideon bears intentional similarity to Moses he is still Gideon (and not Moses)—so much the importance in this inability to accept God’s assurance “do not be afraid” (Jg. 6:23) that one can see this as a sign of lack of faith on Gideon’s part. If a hero is fearless, then Gideon clearly represents a hero who is very much afraid despite his divine commissioning. And while Gideon does succeed in fulfilling God’s commands, there is in that fulfillment a slight inversion of the prophetic archetype.

One of the most memorable scenes in Exodus is Moses and the Golden Calves (Ex. 32). Moses is enraged at what he witnesses after descending the mountain back to the Israelite camp and does not hesitate to destroy the calves in earnest (Ex. 32:19-20). Moses reflects the prophetic zeal for commitment to God rather than idols (even though the calves did not represent foreign gods, their composition of gold as containing the spirit of God was idolatrous). In breaking with the continuity of the prophetic archetype that Gideon was built up as in his commissioning, Gideon falls short of being a new Moses despite his success and divine commissioning. Moses feared not, Gideon constantly shows fear.

Following the triumph over Midian, Gideon oversees the smelting of gold plunder into an ephod (Jg. 8:25-27). While Gideon rejects the Israelite request that he be their king (Jg. 8:22), which seems to be a mark of prophetic continuity that Israel should only worship God alone, Gideon nevertheless fails to embody fully the Moses type in this mistake by Gideon. Taking the plunder from the Midianites, Gideon creates an ephod to which the Israelites “prostituted themselves by” (Jg. 8:27)—idolatry to which Gideon is directly responsible for. Moses destroys the idols that threaten to enslave the Israelites; Joshua, we can infer from the Book of Joshua in contradistinction to the Book of Judges, keeps Israel from sliding into sin while alive. Gideon, however, leads the Israelites into that backsliding into sin after this Joshua-like moment of success while living. In these two most explicit cases of Gideon falling short of the prophetic archetype, one story includes an implicit lack of faith and the other an explicit lack of judgment that leads to idolatry, neither case is a pristine example of what the prophetic archetype should be.

Despite this, Gideon’s inversion of the prophetic archetype seems to be after the fact. In Israel’s need for a deliverer, Gideon mirrors both Moses and Joshua explicitly—Gideon’s lore reminded the Israelites of Moses and Joshua. In Gideon’s commissioning, he is clearly embodying a Moses type character. In Gideon’s fights against the Midianites, he is clearly embodying a Joshua type character. Only after Israel has been delivered can Gideon as the prophetic hero be torn down.  That is, Gideon resembles Moses and Joshua in Israel’s time of need because Moses and Joshua would have been the figures to match—which Gideon most certainly does. 

However, Moses and Joshua are venerated figures; by contrast, Gideon is just a judge of many judges in the Book of Judges (though Gideon is listed among the heroes of the Old Testament in Hebrews 11).  Gideon is Moses and Joshua when the Israelites need him to be, Gideon then becomes the inverted hero after deliverance. This, in of itself, is a work of remarkable literary construction—in building Gideon up in symmetry to Moses and Joshua but to subsequently tear him down when Gideon is no longer necessary to resemble Moses and Joshua. Therefore, while sharing continuity, the inversion is the most important aspect of Gideon’s story—while bearing continuity and similarity to both Moses and Joshua, he is ultimately not a “new” Moses or “new” Joshua. Gideon simply takes on the cloak of Moses and Joshua as he needs only to have it taken off at the proper moment in the story to remind the readers that Gideon is not, in fact, a new Moses or Joshua though he bears similarities to both ancient heroes.

Gideon serves both as a continuity and inversion of the prophetic archetype seen in Moses and Joshua. Many of the same literary features and symbolisms reappear in Gideon’s narrative, from his commissioning to his military exploits. At the same time, Gideon is neither Moses nor Joshua as already stated, so Gideon must also fall short of the prophetic archetype ideal to keep him contained in the status of judge rather than venerated prophet. Thus Gideon becomes a conflicted hero, one who is commissioned to lead Israel out of bondage from the hands of the Midianites, but is equally a hero of filled with fear and self-doubt. He is, however, the hero who begins anew the cycle of sin-bondage-deliverance-sin in the Judges narrative. On one hand, it is patently clear that Gideon’s story bears intentional similarities with both Moses and Joshua; on another it is also clear that Gideon falls short of the exultated archetype represented in Moses and Joshua.

The inversion of the archetype seems to be the more important element of the story, even if sparsely encountered, and despite the obvious consciousness of Gideon as a great hero who is included by the writer of the Epistle to the Hebrews as among the great heroes of the faith alongside Moses and Joshua. But the construction of Gideon in the consciousness of the Israelites is the most remarkable feature of him. It indicates a longstanding desire, a need, for heroes to return and slay the enemy and bring forth deliverance like in times gone by. Seeking that hero, Gideon draws on the two great heroes of recent Old Testament memory: Moses and Joshua. Or, perhaps more accurately, the Deuteronomist wanted to make the rogue Gideon more acceptable by fusing him with the memory of Moses and Joshua while not obliterating this ancient hero in the process. Gideon as the conflicted hero embodies the conflicted desires of the ancient Israelites and their struggle to search for a king, and thus paves the way for the story we are already familiar with—the rise of Saul, David, and Solomon.

*This essay was written for a course in the book of Judges when I was a student at graduate student at Yale.

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Hesiod, Paul Krause in real life, is the editor-in-chief of VoegelinView. He is writer, classicist, and historian. He has written on the arts, culture, classics, literature, philosophy, religion, and history for numerous journals, magazines, and newspapers. He is the author of The Odyssey of Love and the Politics of Plato, and a contributor to the College Lecture Today and the forthcoming book Diseases, Disasters, and Political Theory. He holds master’s degrees in philosophy and religious studies (biblical studies & theology) from the University of Buckingham and Yale, and a bachelor’s degree in economics, history, and philosophy from Baldwin Wallace University.

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