Bible Reference: Judges 8.1-21.
God called Gideon to lead Israelites when Midianites and allies invaded the Promised Land. The Midianites were marauders who swarmed across Israel stripping bare farm lands. Gideon was from the Israelite tribe of Manasseh and lived west of the Jordan River. Gideon and 300 men routed a massive force (over 100,000 swordsmen) of Midianites near Morah.
Midianites fled south along the Jordan River. Some crossed the Jordan River near the Jabbok River. Gideon and his 300 men pursued them and came to the town of Succoth, in the tribal lands of Gad. Gideon told Succoth elders he was pursuing two Midian kings, Zebah and Zalmunna. Gideon asked the town for food for his worn-out men. Gideon had every expectation of receiving help from this Israelite town. All twelve Israelite tribes had pledged to assist each other in the face of foreign threats.
Not only did the elders of Succoth refuse Gideon food, they were insolent in their refusal. Elders told Gideon that he assumed a victory over Midianite kings which may not occur. Succoth wasn’t about to assist Gideon and his small army. Apparently, Succoth elders feared reprisal from Midianites. Stop reading and think a minute. Would you have been angry with the Succoth officials? Would you have been able to restrain yourself from attacking them verbally or physically? Would you have wanted to strike out at these elders? I am offended on Gideon’s behalf.
Hearing Succoth elders’ refusal, Gideon promised that he would return and punish them. Gideon proceeded with his main goal. Gideon and men routed 15,000 Midianites at Karkor and later captured both kings. Returning from battle, Gideon learned names of the seventy-seven Succoth elders, who had refused bread to his army. Then, Gideon went to Succoth, captured town elders, and punished them with desert thorns and briers.
Historical writers claimed that when thorns and briers were used as punishment, men were stripped of clothes. Thorns and briers were placed on both sides of their bared bodies. Then, heavy sledges (sleighs) were pressed on thorns and pulled across bodies so the skin was severely torn. Considering that Succoth elders refused food to the pursuing Israelite soldiers, they vigorously applied punishment to Succoth elders. Every time I read this story, I want to say, “You go, Gideon.”
In the episode of Gideon and Succoth elders, most likely thistles were the Syrian thistle (Notobasis syriaca or Cirsium syriacum). The Syrian thistle is native to Middle Eastern countries. It is an annual plant that grows in semi-desert areas. In Israel, it grows throughout the entire country including the desert south. Often, Syrian thistles are found in disturbed lands, i.e., sides of roads and construction sites. Leaves are deeply lobed and gray-green in color with white veins. Leaves have sharp spines on both leaf margins and apices (apexes). At times, leaves look more like spines than leaf blades. Flowers are purple and attractive.
At Succoth, the Syrian thistle symbolized retribution. Retribution is dispensing or receiving reward or punishment. Retribution is given or exacted in recompense for words or actions.3 Retribution is often confused with revenge, which means to avenge oneself usually by retaliating in kind.3 Although retribution and revenge are sometime confused, retribution includes justice.
In the United States, we have a judicial system where individuals stand trial for offenses against civil laws. The judicial system doesn’t exact revenge for persons who were harmed. Rather, the judicial system punishes individuals who break the law. Judicial punishment isn’t revenge, but, retribution because it includes justice.
I am fairly sure that if Gideon didn’t take retribution on Sukkoth elders, God would have repaid them for their fear and selfishness. Jeremiah wrote that God is a God of retribution and that God will repay in full.
The Old Testament stated that the Israelites weren’t to seek revenge or bear a grudge. They were to love their neighbors as they loved themselves. Neighbors included not only Israelites who lived near-by, but those who lived far distances, i.e., Succoth in the territory of Gad east of the Jordan River. Saint Paul directed New Testament Christians to not take revenge on those who persecuted them; rather, Christians are to leave room for God’s wrath. So much for my “You go, Gideon.”
Reflection: We don’t know what Gideon felt and thought when he punished the Succoth elders with thistles. Hopefully, he was exacting retribution, not revenge, from them. There is no record that God was displeased with Gideon’s actions. What do you think—retribution or revenge?
Copyright May 2019; Carolyn Adams Roth