What does Judges 8:10 mean?
ESV: Now Zebah and Zalmunna were in Karkor with their army, about 15,000 men, all who were left of all the army of the people of the East, for there had fallen 120,000 men who drew the sword.
NIV: Now Zebah and Zalmunna were in Karkor with a force of about fifteen thousand men, all that were left of the armies of the eastern peoples; a hundred and twenty thousand swordsmen had fallen.
NASB: Now Zebah and Zalmunna were in Karkor, and their armies with them, about fifteen thousand men, all who were left of the entire army of the people of the east; for the fallen were 120,000 swordsmen.
CSB: Now Zebah and Zalmunna were in Karkor, and with them was their army of about fifteen thousand men, who were all those left of the entire army of the people of the east. Those who had been killed were one hundred twenty thousand armed men.
NLT: By this time Zebah and Zalmunna were in Karkor with about 15,000 warriors — all that remained of the allied armies of the east, for 120,000 had already been killed.
KJV: Now Zebah and Zalmunna were in Karkor, and their hosts with them, about fifteen thousand men, all that were left of all the hosts of the children of the east: for there fell an hundred and twenty thousand men that drew sword.
This verse reveals how many Midianites and other "people of the East" Gideon and his band of 300 men have been chasing. According to traditional interpretations, this fleeing army numbers around 15,000 men. That's a daunting number, but it's only a fraction of the 135,000–man army which first occupied and oppressed Israel. Fully 120,000 swordsmen had been killed already, many by the blades of their own countrymen when God brought chaos on their camp after the sound of Gideon's 300 trumpets (Judges 7:22–23).
Scholars note that the Hebrew terminology used here allows for numbers smaller than tens of thousands, while still being large. The word 'eleph is often translated as "thousands," but it can also mean "divisions" or "clans." In fact, that's exactly how Gideon used the word when first responding to God's call (Judges 6:15). The literal text indicates "15 'eleph" are fleeing, and "120 'eleph" have fallen, pursued by Gideon's tiny group of 300. If the Midianite army were more than 135,000, it would have rivaled the armies of any ancient superpower. That's not impossible, of course, but it's not the only faithful interpretation of the text.
Also revealed is just how long this chase has gone. The kings Zebah and Zalmunna have led this remnant of their former armies to Karkor. Unfortunately, this reference was much more meaningful to the original readers; modern commentators differ on where exactly this was. In any case, Gideon finally catches up to his prey.
Judges 8:1–21 begins with a confrontation between Gideon and the men of Ephraim. Gideon defuses the situation with diplomacy. With his original 300 fighters, he chases down the remnant of the Midianite army led by two kings known as Zebah and Zalmunna. Once the Midianites are defeated and the kings are captured, Gideon punishes the men of two Israelite towns who refused to help him. He then reveals to the captured kings that they murdered his own brothers at Mount Tabor. He kills them and takes their distinctive jewelry as spoils of war.
Gideon soothes the anger of the men of Ephraim. Then, with his 300 fighting men, he chases the remnant of the Midianite army. After a difficult pursuit, he finally catches and defeats them in the wilderness. Gideon then returns to two Israelite towns who refused to help him along the way. He flogs the leaders of one town and kills the men of the other. He then executes the captured enemy kings. Gideon collects tribute from Israel but declines to become their official king. He lives to gain seventy sons, many wives, and at least one Canaanite concubine. When Gideon dies, Israel immediately returns to idol worship.
Judges 8 follows the great victory described at the end of the previous chapter. This passage begins with Gideon awkwardly soothing the anger of Ephraimites while trying to chase down an escaping enemy. After capturing the Midianite kings, Gideon punishes two towns for failing to aid their fellow Israelites. Gideon refuses to become a literal king but collects tribute from the people and lives like a king all his days, with many wives and sons. The people return to idol worship after his death. Soon after, the concubine's son, Abimelech, murders Gideon's other sons and briefly rules before meeting a gruesome death.
The Book of Judges describes Israel's history from the death of Joshua to shortly before Israel's first king, Saul. Israel fails to complete God's command to purge the wicked Canaanites from the land (Deuteronomy 7:1–5; 9:4). This results in a centuries-long cycle where Israel falls into sin and is oppressed by local enemies. After each oppression, God sends a civil-military leader, labeled using a Hebrew word loosely translated into English as "judge." These appointed rescuers would free Israel from enemy control and govern for a certain time. After each judge's death, the cycle of sin and oppression begins again. This continues until the people of Israel choose a king, during the ministry of the prophet-and-judge Samuel (1 Samuel 1—7).
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