In the morning Gideon by God's command called his ten thousand men out, and made them march down the hill, just as though they were going to attack the enemy. And when they were beside the water he noticed how they drank; and set them apart in two companies, according to their way of drinking. As they came to the water, most of the men threw aside their shields and spears, and knelt down and scooped up a draught of the water with both hands together like a cup. These men Gideon commanded to stand in one company.
There were a few men who did not stop to take a large draught of water. Holding spear and shield in the right hand, to be ready for the enemy if one should suddenly appear, they merely caught up a handful of the water in passing and marched on, lapping up the water from one hand.
God said to Gideon, "Set by themselves these men who lapped up each a handful of water. These are the men whom I have chosen to set Israel free."
Gideon counted these men, and found that there were only three hundred of them; while all the rest bowed down on their faces to drink. The difference between them was that these three hundred were earnest men, of one purpose; not turning aside from their aim even to drink, as the others did. Then, too, they were watchful men, always ready to meet their enemies. Suppose that the Midianites had rushed out on that army while nearly all of them were on their faces drinking, their arms thrown to one side,—how helpless they would have been! But no enemy could have surprised the three hundred, who held their spears and shields ready, even while they were taking a drink.
Some have thought that this test showed also who were worshippers of idols, and who worshipped God; for men fell on their faces when they prayed to the idols, but men stood up while they worshipped the Lord. Perhaps this act showed that most of the army were used to worship kneeling down before idols, and that only a few used to stand up before the Lord in their worship; but of this we are not certain. It did show that here were three hundred brave, watchful men, obedient to orders, and ready for the battle.
Then Gideon, at God's command, sent back to the camp on Mount Gilboa all the rest of his army, nearly ten thousand men; keeping with himself only his little band of three hundred. But before the battle God gave to Gideon one more sign, that he might be the more encouraged.
God said to Gideon, "Go down with your servant into the camp of the Midianites, and hear what they say. It will cheer your heart for the fight."
Then Gideon crept down the mountain with his servant, and walked around the edge of the Midianite camp, just as though he were one of their own men. He saw two men talking, and stood near to listen. One man said to the other:
"I had a strange dream in the night. I dreamed that I saw a loaf of barley bread come rolling down the mountain; and it struck the tent, and threw it down in a heap on the ground. What do you suppose that dream means?"
"That loaf of bread," said the other, "means Gideon, a man of Israel, who will come down and destroy this army; for the Lord God has given us all into his hand."
Gideon was glad when he heard this, for it showed that the Midianites, for all their number, were in fear of him and of his army, even more than his men had feared the Midianites. He gave thanks to God, and hastened back to his camp, and made ready to lead his men against the Midianites.
Gideon's plan did not need a large army; but it needed a few careful, bold men, who should do exactly as their leader commanded them. He gave to each man a lamp, a pitcher, and a trumpet, and told the men just what was to be done with them. The lamp was lighted, but was placed inside the pitcher, so that it could not be seen. He divided his men into three companies; and very quietly led them down the mountain, in the middle of the night; and arranged them all in order around the camp of the Midianites.
Then at one moment a great shout rang out in the darkness, "The sword of the Lord and of Gideon," and after it came a crash of breaking pitchers, and then a flash of light in every direction. The three hundred men had given the shout, and broken their pitchers, so that on every side lights were shining. Then men blew their trumpets with a mighty noise; and the Midianites were roused from sleep, to see enemies all round them, lights beaming and swords flashing in the darkness, while everywhere the sharp sound of the trumpets was heard.
They were filled with sudden terror and thought only of escape, not of fighting. But wherever they turned, their enemies seemed to be standing with swords drawn. They trampled each other down to death, flying from the Israelites. Their own land was in the east, across the river Jordan, and they fled in that direction, down one of the valleys between the mountains.
Gideon had thought that the Midianites would turn toward their own land, if they should be beaten in the battle; and he had already planned to cut off their flight. The ten thousand men in the camp he had placed on the sides of the valley leading to the Jordan. There they slew very many of the Midianites as they fled down the steep pass toward the river. And Gideon had also sent to the men of the tribe of Ephraim, who had thus far taken no part in the war, to hold the only place at the river where men could wade through the water. Those of the Midianites who had escaped from Gideon's men on either side of the valley were now met by the Ephraimites at the river, and many more of them were slain. Among the slain were two of the princes of the Midianites, named Oreb and Zeeb.
A part of the Midianite army was able to get across the river, and to continue its flight toward the desert; but Gideon and his brave three hundred men followed closely after them; fought another battle with them, destroyed them utterly, and took their two kings, Zebah and Zalmunna, whom he killed. After this great victory the Israelites were freed forever from the Midianites. They never again ventured to leave their home in the desert to make war on the tribes of Israel.
The tribe of Ephraim, in the middle of the land, was one of the most powerful of the twelve tribes. Its leaders were quite displeased with Gideon, because their part in the victory had been so small. They said to Gideon, in an angry manner, "Why did you not send word to us, when you were calling for men to fight the Midianites?"
But Gideon knew how to make a kind answer. He said to them, "What have I done as compared with you? Did you not kill thousands of the Midianites at the crossing of the Jordan? Did you not take their two princes, Oreb and Zeeb? What could my men have done without the help of your men?" By gentle words and words of praise Gideon made the men of Ephraim friendly.
And after this, as long as Gideon lived, he ruled as judge in Israel. The people wished him to make himself a king. "Rule over us as king," they said, "and let your son be king after you, and his son king after him." But Gideon said, "No; you have a king already; for the Lord God is the King of Israel. No one but God shall be king over these tribes."
Of all the fifteen men who ruled as judges in Israel, Gideon, the fifth judge, was the greatest, in courage, in wisdom, and in faith in God.
If all the people of Israel had been like him, there would have been no worship of idols, and no weakness before the enemies, Israel would have been strong and faithful before God. But as soon as Gideon died, and even before his death, his people began once more to turn away from the Lord and to seek the idol-gods that could give them no help.