What does Judges 8:16 mean?
ESV: And he took the elders of the city, and he took thorns of the wilderness and briers and with them taught the men of Succoth a lesson.
NIV: He took the elders of the town and taught the men of Sukkoth a lesson by punishing them with desert thorns and briers.
NASB: Then he took the elders of the city, and thorns of the wilderness and briers, and he disciplined the men of Succoth with them.
CSB: So he took the elders of the city, and he took some thorns and briers from the wilderness, and he disciplined the men of Succoth with them.
NLT: Then Gideon took the elders of the town and taught them a lesson, punishing them with thorns and briers from the wilderness.
KJV: And he took the elders of the city, and thorns of the wilderness and briers, and with them he taught the men of Succoth.
Verse Commentary:
Gideon made a grim promise to the men of Succoth when they refused to feed his exhausted soldiers (Judges 8:7). At the time, Gideon's troops were pursuing the Midianite army. Their fellow Israelites refused to help them, out of fear that Midian would retaliate if Gideon lost. So, Gideon told the leaders of the town that, once the Lord had given the two enemy kings into his hands, he would return and beat them with wilderness plants. Now, as promised, he has presented the two captured kings to the townspeople (Judges 8:15).

Several English translations indicate that Gideon "taught the men of Succoth a lesson," which is undoubtedly true. The Hebrew word describing Gideon's action here is yada', which suggests knowledge, perception, or understanding. Apparently, he formed switches of some kind: light whips used for non-lethal punishment. In accordance with his threat, these are embedded with the thorns and briers of the wilderness east of the Jordan River. Gideon uses these implements to yada' the faithless town leaders: to literally "make them understand" the error of their ways.

When Gideon first met the Lord, he had been threshing grain. This involved using a flail, and a flailing motion, to pound the grain in such a way as to separate the wheat from the chaff. Gideon's punishment, as delivered here, might have been a subtle reference to his past. The same basic movement—swinging a flail—could also be used to to punish the men who refused to side with him and the Lord against their enemies.
Verse Context:
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.
Chapter Summary:
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.
Chapter Context:
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.
Book Summary:
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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