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Judges 7:1-3 Then Jerubbaal, who is Gideon, and all the people that were with him, rose up early, and pitched beside the well of Harod: so that the host of the Midianites were on the north side of them, by the hill of Moreh, in the valley. And the LORD said unto Gideon, The people that are with thee are too many for me to give the Midianites into their hands, lest Israel vaunt themselves against me, saying, Mine own hand hath saved me. Now therefore go to, proclaim in the ears of the people, saying, Whosoever is fearful and afraid, let him return and depart early from mount Gilead. And there returned of the people twenty and two thousand; and there remained ten thousand.
One Skeptic called this story "an example of military goofiness." Not so, according to Chaim Herzog and Mordechai Gichon, authors of Battles of the Bible [73ff]. Both of these guys have extensive military experience, so let's take a listen.
Gideon was faced with a difficult situation. His opponents had swift dromedaries and were interested in looting, not conquest. It would be easy for them to disengage in battle and go looting elsewhere in the land. If the Israelite infantry were caught at a disadvantage, the raiders would get in on their camels and make Israeli mincemeat pie.
What to do? What was needed was a surprise attack while the enemy was dismounted and caught off guard. Night was the time, and a small force was needed to minimize discovery. Much of the force could be directed to block a westward flight, but a few were needed to initiate the surprise.
But how many overall? And what sort of men?
7:4-7 And the LORD said unto Gideon, The people are yet too many; bring them down unto the water, and I will try them for thee there: and it shall be, that of whom I say unto thee, This shall go with thee, the same shall go with thee; and of whomsoever I say unto thee, This shall not go with thee, the same shall not go. So he brought down the people unto the water: and the LORD said unto Gideon, Every one that lappeth of the water with his tongue, as a dog lappeth, him shalt thou set by himself; likewise every one that boweth down upon his knees to drink. And the number of them that lapped, putting their hand to their mouth, were three hundred men: but all the rest of the people bowed down upon their knees to drink water. And the LORD said unto Gideon, By the three hundred men that lapped will I save you, and deliver the Midianites into thine hand: and let all the other people go every man unto his place.
The habits of the 300 told all that was needed to know. The spring they were brought to was out in the open where they could be attacked at any moment. Those who remained cautious by gathering water in their hands (rather than going belly-down, meaning only more water was in their sight) were the most alert and the best qualified to do the job of a surprise attack against odds -- a veritable Delta Force.
Gideon and his one servant do some spy work, and then:
7:16-18 And he divided the three hundred men into three companies, and he put a trumpet in every man's hand, with empty pitchers, and lamps within the pitchers. And he said unto them, Look on me, and do likewise: and, behold, when I come to the outside of the camp, it shall be that, as I do, so shall ye do. When I blow with a trumpet, I and all that are with me, then blow ye the trumpets also on every side of all the camp, and say, The sword of the LORD, and of Gideon.
What's up with this? We'll see:
7:19-23 So Gideon, and the hundred men that were with him, came unto the outside of the camp in the beginning of the middle watch; and they had but newly set the watch: and they blew the trumpets, and brake the pitchers that were in their hands. And the three companies blew the trumpets, and brake the pitchers, and held the lamps in their left hands, and the trumpets in their right hands to blow withal: and they cried, The sword of the LORD, and of Gideon. And they stood every man in his place round about the camp: and all the host ran, and cried, and fled. And the three hundred blew the trumpets, and the LORD set every man's sword against his fellow, even throughout all the host: and the host fled to Bethshittah in Zererath, and to the border of Abelmeholah, unto Tabbath. And the men of Israel gathered themselves together out of Naphtali, and out of Asher, and out of all Manasseh, and pursued after the Midianites.
Gideon purposely waited for the change of the watch to make his move. The eyes of the new watch had yet to adjust to the dark surroundings and attune their ears to the quiet of night. By shouting, blowing trumpets, and exposing the bright light of the torches, the Israelites blinded and disoriented the new watch, who would not be able to tell friend from foe with their eyes yet adjusted.
Herzog and Gichon also suggest that some of the torches were thrown at the flammable tents, causing more confusion and fear. The results were predictable -- and are a solid testimony to the military prowess of Gideon, and in turn, confirmation of the veracity of the Biblical account.