The ‘Real’ Gideon
NOTE: all translations in this column are taken from the Authorized King James Version, King James Open Bible, Thomas Nelson Books, 1985.
The story of Gideon in Judges chapters 6-8 and the continuation of the tale with his son and heir, Abimelech in chapter 9 presents on the surface a fairly simple story: Gideon, a God-fearing Israelite, rises from humble beginnings to lead the Israelites in a successful campaign against wicked neighbors. He holds the line against polytheism, but after his death his son Abimelech turns back to the Canaanite god Baal, creating a shrine to Baal-berith (Lord of the Covenant).
But what was Gideon’s real name? The answer would seem obvious: Gideon, of course. That’s what we always call him. But that’s not what the Israelites always called him, and an examination of the passage demonstrates that Gideon was not his “real” name.
The romantic tale of his early life (Judges 6:11-32) calls him “Gideon” seven times, “Gideon the son of Joash” once, and once “Jerubbaal” (“Baal contends”) implying that he was so named because he had thrown down an altar to Baal and his father had challenged Baal to defend himself if he existed. But the first discrepancy in the passage is this: Baal did not “contend” at all in the passage, so the name is an oddity if this was its origin.
The narrative that follows (Judges 6:33 – 8:21) tells the tale of Gideon’s campaign against the Midianites. The narrative begins referring to him as “Jerubbaal who is Gideon” and thereafter he is called “Gideon” 14 times and once “Gideon son of Joash.”
After this, Gideon becomes the Judge of the Israelites (Judges 8:22-32), a passage in which he is six times called “Gideon” and once each “Jerubbaal son of Joash” and “Gideon son of Joash.”
In the narrative of his demise and its aftermath (Judges 8:33-35) he is called once “Gideon” and once “Jerubbaal” with the explanatory “Gideon” attached as if to clarify.
So far Jerubbaal is a nickname, but it is strange to see him referred to as “Jerubbaal son of Joash.” The patronymic (a name including the name of the father) in ancient societies was generally a very formal and formulaic way of naming a man. In Roman and Greek societies a man was known primarily by his own name and his father’s, and any surnames were less formal or less useful in identifying the man. For example, the famous Roman statesman Cicero was formally known (for example on an official inscription) Marcus Tullius Marci Filius Cicero (Marcus Tullius, son of Marcus, Cicero). The practice of the Hebrews from all indications was the same. The simplest mentions of ancient men usually include the father’s name. These stand in the same place as Cicero’s formal name as used on inscriptions: this was his name for historical record. (Those men in the Old Testament who were the most famous or who had eclipsed their father’s greatness seem not to have been referred to very frequently by their patronymics, whereas the less prominent men very frequently were, especially if they had a great father).
Gideon was occasionally referred to with his father’s name, but of the three times he was so called in the passages mentioned so far, one called him “Jerubbaal son of Joash.” If his true name was Gideon, this was a strange thing, as was the identification of him as “Jerubbaal who is Gideon.” This phrase suggests that Jerubbaal was a well-known name, and the author felt compelled to make sure that the audience recognized that when he said “Gideon” he was referring to a man they might know better by the name “Jerubbaal.”
And, as a matter of fact, the passages following make clear that the official, historical name of this man was not “Gideon,” but “Jerubbaal.”
In the following passage (Judges 9) retailing the intrigue between Gideon’s sons, Gideon is never called Gideon. His sons are “sons of Jerubbaal”, Abimelech is “son of Jerubbaal”, and Jotham is “son of Jerubbaal”. Obviously Jerubbaal was the official historical name of Gideon, and the name therefore which must have been given to him by his father.
The implications are clear: In the first place, Jerubbaal was a man who belonged to a polytheistic family. Monotheistic Israelites would not name their children after false gods. Given that the Jews of later times clearly knew this, it would have been an embarrassment for one of the great Israelite leaders, in the tradition of Moses and Joshua, to be guilty of violating one of the Ten Commandments by putting another god before Yahweh. Since Jerubbaal was supposed to be one of the “good guys,” they had to change his name, and perhaps the story of a woodsman who became a Judge over Israel provided a rationalization. This Jerubbaal and the woodsman Gideon were the same man, and the good monotheistic warrior Gideon had thrown down an altar of Baal, creating the situation from which his name might have developed. But they couldn’t expunge the references to Jerubbaal from all the historical documents. Thus were Abimelech and Jotham “sons of Jerubbaal.” Thus when Samuel calls him to mind as a great example of an Israelite leader, he is not “Gideon”, but “Jerubbaal” (I Sam. 12:11).
This is yet another example that tends to prove that polytheism was not an aberration in the Mosaic society, but that monotheism is a retrojection imposed on the early material by later generations who had taken the first Commandment much more literally than had their ancestors.
Persecuted and suffering, the response of the Hebrews was to continue striving by ever more strict interpretations of the Law to find a way to appease the God who seemed never to be satisfied. They grew to be completely monotheistic in their obsession to please the God who had supposedly helped them out of bondage once, assuming that somehow all those who were actually released from bondage had failed to understand the message.
Their tenacity is admirable, but the evidence shows that they ended up sacrificing the truth in their attempt to call their people to greater adherence to the stricter interpretation of the Law.
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