Notes on Gideon and the God of Israel: Fire and Dew, Evening and Morning

angel-and-gideonThe account of Gideon requiring a sign from the God who has called him to rise up as a deliverer for Israel, has long puzzled interpreters (Judges 6.33-40). Gideon receives a messenger from Yahweh who calls him to action. This angel of Yahweh (6.11, 21; or “of God” in verse 20) is asked for a sign of confirmation by Gideon that he will indeed be successful in battle against the armies of the east and that it is indeed Yahweh (the god of Israel) that is calling him. Gideon prepares an offering of food, is commanded to put it on a rock. The angel  touches the food with his staff and fire flames from the rock consuming everything on it. The god of Israel has answered by fire for the man sent to destroy the altar of Baal and the Asherah pole.

He sets out in the cover of night to destroy the shrine to Baal and Asherah  that apparently is situated on his own father’s property. The people discover his act the following morning and intend to kill him. His father rescues him by arguing for Baal to be responsible in dealing with Gideon who thus receives the nick-name Jerubbaal (which is interpreted by Judges as “let Baal contend [with him]”). Yet Baal is silent against Gideon.

dewImmediately following this account, the Spirit of Yahweh clothes* Gideon and Gideon thus musters the armies of some of the northern tribes of Israel (6.34-35). Yet before he sets out to wage war, he calls upon this god to respond with a further sign of assurance. The sign is that of a wool fleece on the ground being soaked by “dew” (Heb. טָּל tal) in the morning and the ground being dry (6.36-37). The sign is granted (6.38). Then he asks for a further confirmation with the ground being wet in the morning with dew and the wool fleece being dry (6.39). The sign is granted (6.40).

The first testing of Yahweh was answered by fire. The second (and third) testing was by dew. As it turns out, both signs challenge the power of Baal as the Canaanite god who sends both fire and dew. The god of the storm (Baal Hadad) alone sends fire. Yet it is Yahweh’s emissary who answers by fire. Further, it is Baal who is so identified with the dew that in the Ugaritic literature (KTU 1.3 I.23-25) he is described as having a daughter called “Morning Dew” (tallay) which is the cognate term with the Hebrew tal in our narrative. Yet Baal is not the god who answers by controlling the dew in Judges 6.

Gideon (that is Jerubbaal) is not testing whether Yahweh can overcome Baal in battle (as if Baal were the god of his enemies, the Midianites, Amalekites and others of the east), he is testing which god has the power in the land he dwells in to act and to deliver. He is testing which god is the proper god of Israel. And it is decisively Yahweh who is god in Israel and this god alone can deliver any time of the day: evening and morning. In the morning, the citizens of Ophrah find their god Baal unable to protect his shrine. In the morning, Gideon (and the armies of Israel) find Yahweh able to control the “dew”. It was at night that Gideon destroyed the altar of Baal and build the altar of Yahweh and it was at night that Gideon shared in the destruction of the Midianite horde under the authority of Yahweh as god of Israel. Baal could not act nor could Baal rescue Israel. For the writer of Judges, Baal was the very reason for the troubling Midianites (6.1, 10). It was only in obedience to Yahweh that this community could enjoy peace in the land.

_______________________________

* “clothes” might literally be translated that the Spirit puts Gideon on as clothing if one follows the normal sense of the Qal stem for the Hebrew labash.

Advertisements

A Window for Death

 As I prepare for my course on Jeremiah this fall I noticed that the commentaries I was using (Brueggemann, Feinberg, Harrison, Kidner, Lalleman, Wright) were not covering the Ugaritic connection in Jeremiah 9:21 (English versions; vs. 20 in the Hebrew) which reads:

‘Death has climbed in through our windows. It has entered into our fortified houses. It has taken away our children who play in the streets. It has taken away our young men who gather in the city squares.’ (‭Jeremiah‬ ‭9‬:‭21‬ NET)

In fact, only one (Fretheim p. 162) even mentions any Canaanite connection at this passage and even so draws in the connection to death overcoming Baal and leaving him “strewn across the countryside”.

The Ugaritic Baal Cycle contains a whole account of the Baal’s house (temple or palace) being built by Kothar-waHassis. As he builds the house, Kothar-waHassis is emphatic that he wants to put a window in, but Baal is concerned about having a window for fear of Mot (death) entering his house. At last he relents and the window gets installed. Mot enters and defeats Baal. At Baal’s death El and Anat weep and mourn.

This is precisely what seems to be at play in Jeremiah’s call for lament in chapter nine. In fact, verse 14 had already mentioned their commitments to Baal:

Instead they have followed the stubborn inclinations of their own hearts. They have paid allegiance to the gods called Baal, as their fathers taught them to do. (‭Jeremiah‬ ‭9‬:‭14‬ NET)

It would only seem fitting that their end should follow Baal who found his house also invaded via a window for death to enter and the call for mourning has been issued.

Instead they have followed the stubborn inclinations of their own hearts. They have paid allegiance to the gods called Baal, as their fathers taught them to do. (‭Jeremiah‬ ‭9‬:‭14‬ NET)

____________________________

Addendum

Having just looked over Thompson’s comments (p. 317), I note that while he gives attention to the Ugaritic account stating at the first that is has “a significant parallel in Canaanite mythology” he concludes stating, “despite the apparent closeness of the parallel it may be no more than a coincidence arising from Jeremiah’s personification of death”.

Craigie, et al, (pp. 150-1) notes that this account in Jeremiah has “occasioned much debate” because of the potential connection. They cite an article by S. Paul as having “argued persuasively that the proposed connection is not correct”. They further offer (via Paul) a connection to the Babylonian account of a demon named Lamashtu. In Paul’s article, the primary contention against any Baal myth connection (or at least the argument for direct dependence which I would also oppose) is, first, that Mot is not engaged in conflict (nor mentioned) in the window building section and, second, that there are no extant texts that Mot ever enters windows (pp. 373-6: here S. Paul also notes the development of the notion of connecting Jeremiah 9.20 to the Baal Cycle giving treatment to those who argued for it and added to the notion citing Cassuto, Pohl, Albright, Ginsberg, Singer, Lowenstamm and Hyatt).

Finally, Smith (pp. 602-10) explains at length that the function of the window in the Baal Cycle is not for Mot to enter (noting that Mot is never connected to the window in any of the extant texts), but only for Baal to exercise his kingly dominion. It becomes the means by which Baal will thunder his voice and send the rains and bring fertility to the earth. He cites a number of scholars who did not go as far as those S. Paul noted that argued for direct connection (see above), but mentions those who still see connections between the window and Mot (Caquot and Sznycer, Gordon, and Pardee; p. 604).

Upon further reflection from reading Paul and Smith, I note now that my reading of the connection owed its origin to a number of the writers each indicated. I had not read either of their work on this particular passage. While they are correct to note that Mot is not connected directly to the window in Baal’s house, it still seems that Baal had trepidation (unnamed though it is as to its cause) about the installation of the window. That the cycle continues from that point with the conflict with Mot is striking. Further, that Baal is actually named in the same poetic unit (v. 14) is also striking. My own understanding might be that there is not a direct literary connection, but a common myth (perhaps shared in the Babylonian texts noted above) of death entering via the window (though Mot is not seen to enter Baal’s window).

Bibliography

Brueggemann, Walter. A Commentary on Jeremiah: Exile and Homecoming. Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans, 1998.

Craigie, Peter C., Page H. Kelley, and Joel F. Drinkard. Jeremiah: 1-25. Word Biblical Commentary. Dallas, TX: Word Books, 1991.

Feinberg, Charles L. Jeremiah, a Commentary. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Pub. House, 1982.

Fretheim, Terence E. Jeremiah. Macon, GA: Smith & Helwys Pub, 2002.

Harrison, R. K. Jeremiah and Lamentations: An Introduction and Commentary. Tyndale Old Testament Commentary. Downers Grove, IL: Inter-Varsity Press, 1973.

Kidner, Derek. Jeremiah. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2014.

Lalleman, Hetty. Jeremiah and Lamentations. Tyndale Old Testament Commentary. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2013.

O’Connor, Kathleen M. Jeremiah: Pain and Promise. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2011.

Paul, Shalom M. “Cuneiform Light on Jer 9:20.” Biblica 49, no. 3 (1968): 373-376.

Smith, Mark S. The Ugarit Baal Cycle: Volume 1: Introduction with Text, Translation and Commentary of KTU I.1-I.2. Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1994.

Thompson, J. A. The Book of Jeremiah. New International Commentary of the Old Testament. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1980.

Wright, Christopher J. H. The Message of Jeremiah: Against Wind and Tide. Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2014.