Though Gidon and Shaul might initially appear to have little in common, the narratives of the two leaders actually have significant overlap. A study of the parallels reveals that in the beginning of their paths, Shaul and Gidon are much alike. However, with time, Shaul gradually moves in a different direction, until he turns into a tyrannical ruler, much closer in nature to Gidon's son Avimelekh, than to the Shofet.1
There are many content similarities between the two narratives. Some relate to the early stages of the leaders' careers, others to their main battle, and finally, several concern not Shaul and Gidon, but Shaul and Avimelekh.
I. The Early Stages of Gidon and Shaul's Careers
- Background to appointment – The appointment of both leaders comes on the backdrop of oppression by an enemy and follows a prophetic speech about how Hashem consistently saves His nation.
- Refusal – After being appointed as a leader by Hashem's representative, both Gidon and Shaul initially refuse to accept the position due to their families' low stature and size.
- Three signs – Before Gidon commits to battle, he is given three different signs as encouragement. When Shaul leaves Shemuel, he is similarly told of three events which will serve as signs that Hashem is with him.
- Battle preparations and tactics – In preparation for each of their initial battles (against Midyan and Amon) both leaders send out messengers to collect soldiers to fight and split their army into three sections.
- Recognition of Hashem's Role – Both Gidon and Shaul recognize Hashem's role in the battle, as Gidon tells the people, "קוּמוּ כִּי נָתַן י"י בְּיֶדְכֶם אֶת מַחֲנֵה מִדְיָן" and Shaul similarly says, "כִּי הַיּוֹם עָשָׂה י"י תְּשׁוּעָה בְּיִשְׂרָאֵל".
- Post-battle conflict – Following the battle, the men of Ephraim complain to Gidon, but he manages to pacify them without any deaths. Following Shaul's battle, there is an attempt to kill anyone opposed to Shaul, but Shaul also manages to prevent any bloodshed.
- Kingship offer – As a result of the victory, both Gidon and Shaul are asked to be king over Israel.
II. Gidon's Battle with Midyan and Shaul's Battle at Michmas
- The nation hides – In both stories, the Israelites hide from the enemy in various caves and other inaccessible places.
- Diminishing army– Gidon gathers an army through a shofar blast. He then dismisses the fearful soldiers and following a further winnowing process, he reduces the army to only three hundred elite soldiers. Shaul similarly calls his men by blowing the shofar, but the fearful flee to Gilad, leaving him only six hundred soldiers.
- The enemy – Both the Midianites and the Philistines are described as having armies as vast as the sand by the sea.
- Battle Tactics – Gidon and Shaul make use of confusion in the enemy's ranks, causing the enemy to turn on itself. The enemy is then chased by reinforcements summoned from Mount Ephraim.
- No food during pursuit – Following a lengthy pursuit, Gidon attempts to secure food for his fatigued army but is refused. While pursuing the Philistines, Shaul prohibits his army from eating, causing them to become tired.
III. Avimelekh and Shaul
- Destruction of competitors – Avimelekh kills all seventy of his brothers,2 with only the youngest son, Yotam, escaping. Shaul orders the death of all the priests of Nov,3 with only one priest, Evyatar, escaping.
- Rebuke from the mountain – After escaping, Yotam stands on top of Mount Gerizim, accusing Avimelekh's supporters (בעלי שכם) of ingratitude. When fleeing Shaul, David calls out from the top of the mountain, asking what wrong he has done to deserve Shaul's desire to kill him.
- Evil spirit – An evil spirit is sent by Hashem to plague both leaders.
- Death – When death is imminent in battle, both leaders ask their arms-bearer to stab them so that they can die at their hand rather than by others.4
The above similarities in content are buttressed by several linguistic parallels.
I. The Early Stages of Gidon and Shaul's Careers: Open Table 1
- The prophet's rebuke – Before Gidon's appointment, an unnamed prophet speaks to the Israelites, mentioning how Hashem took them out of Egypt and saved them from their enemies. Before Shaul's crowning, Shemuel speaks to the nation using almost identical language.
- Hashem's support – Both Gidon and Shaul are sent to rescue Israel ("וְהוֹשַׁעְתָּ אֶת יִשְׂרָאֵל"/ "וְהוֹשִׁיעַ אֶת עַמִּי"), and are promised Hashem's support (כִּי אֶהְיֶה עִמָּךְ"/ כִּי הָאֱ-לֹהִים עִמָּךְ"). A heavenly spirit ("רוּחַ י"י" / "רוּחַ אֱ-לֹהִים") then descends upon each.
- Battle preparations and tactics – Gidon sends out messengers ("וּמַלְאָכִים שָׁלַח") to gather an army. He then splits it into three sections ("שְׁלֹשָׁה רָאשִׁים"), and comes to ("וַיָּבֹא") the enemy camp ("הַמַּחֲנֶה") at midnight ("הָאַשְׁמֹרֶת הַתִּיכוֹנָה"). Shaul also sends out messengers ("וַיְשַׁלַּח... הַמַּלְאָכִים") to gather an army. He then splits it into three sections ("שְׁלֹשָׁה רָאשִׁים"), and comes through ("וַיָּבֹאוּ") the enemy camp ("הַמַּחֲנֶה") at dawn ("בְּאַשְׁמֹרֶת הַבֹּקֶר").
II. Gidon's Battle with Midyan and Shaul's Battle at Michmas Open Table 2
- Sending to the tents – Both Gidon and Shaul gather an army ("וַיִּצָּעֲקוּ הָעָם"/ וַיִּזָּעֵק אֲבִיעֶזֶר אַחֲרָיו) through a shofar blast (""תָּקַע בַּשּׁוֹפָר"/"וַיִּתְקַע בַּשּׁוֹפָר"), and then send the rest back to their tents ("שִׁלַּח אִישׁ לְאֹהָלָיו").
- Size of enemy army – Both the Midianites and the Philistines are described as being as vast as the sand on the shore. ("כַּחוֹל שֶׁעַל שְׂפַת הַיָּם לָרֹב").
- Confusion in enemy camp – During the battle, both the Midianite and the Philistines turn on themselves ("חֶרֶב אִישׁ בְּרֵעֵהוּ") and there is trembling in the camps ("חֲרָדָה בַמַּחֲנֶה"/ "וְכׇל הַמַּחֲנֶה הֶחֱרִיד")
III. Avimelekh and Shaul Open Table 3
- Evil spirit – Both Avimelekh and Shaul are plagued by an evil spirit ("רוּחַ רָעָה") sent by Hashem.
- Rebuke from the mountain – Both Yotam and David stand ("וַיַּעֲמֹד") on top of a mountain ("בְּרֹאשׁ הַר" / "עַל רֹאשׁ הָהָר") and call out ("וַיִּקְרָא").
- Death – Avimelekh and Shaul both ask their arms-bearer ("נֹשֵׂא כֵלָיו") to unsheathe their sword ("שְׁלֹף חַרְבְּךָ") and stab them ("וַיִּדְקְרֵהוּ" / "וְדׇקְרֵנִי").
As much of each narrative revolves around battle it is perhaps not surprising that there should be similar language in the respective chapters. In addition, much of the parallel language is not unique to these stories. Nonetheless, the abundance and concentration of the examples might point to some level of intentionality and not simply sheer coincidence
- Distinctive phrases
- The Early Stages of Gidon and Shaul's Careers – Though not unique, the phrases "שְׁלֹשָׁה רָאשִׁים" and the term "אַשְׁמֹרֶת" are found only rarely. 5 Similarly, only a handful of other individuals are given the epithet "גִּבּוֹר חָיִל".6 Most of the other parallels, however, do not contain singular language.
- Gidon's Battle with Midyan and Shaul's Battle at Michmas – The phrases "שִׁלַּח אִישׁ לְאֹהָלָיו" and "חֶרֶב אִישׁ בְּרֵעֵהוּ" appear only in these stories,7 and there is a "חֲרָדָה בַמַּחֲנֶה" in only two other instances.8 The phrase "כַּחוֹל אֲשֶׁר עַל / שֶׁעַל שְׂפַת הַיָּם לָרֹב", while not unique, is also found only rarely,9
- Avimelekh and Shaul – The term "רוּחַ רָעָה", the combination of phrases "וַיַּעֲמֹד" and "בְּרֹאשׁ הַר" / "עַל רֹאשׁ הָהָר", and the request "שְׁלֹף חַרְבְּךָ" appear only in these stories. The term arms-bearer "נֹשֵׂא כֵלָיו" and the verb "דקר" are also found only in only a handful of other places in Tanakh.10
- Degree of similarity – Though the speech of the prophet to both Gidon and Shaul is almost identical, and there are several parallels which have a high degree of similarity,11 many of the other parallels are not exact. In several of them synonyms substitute for a certain word,12 or there is a change in order, number or speaker.
Points of Contrast
Most of the points of contrast between the narratives relate to the difference between Shaul's behavior in the battle of Michmas and that of Gidon in his war against Midyan:
- Small army – In Shofetim, it is explicit that Hashem is behind the small size of the army, as He actively has Gidon send men home. Hashem wants it to be obvious that victory is due to Him and not a valiant fighting force: "פֶּן יִתְפָּאֵר עָלַי יִשְׂרָאֵל לֵאמֹר יָדִי הוֹשִׁיעָה לִּי". In Shemuel, in contrast, the soldiers desert on their own, from fear and not via command. It is possible, however, that the reader is meant to learn from one story to the other and in Sefer Shemuel, too, it is Hashem who was working behind the scenes to reduce the number of Shaul's soldiers. The goal is the same, that the people do not attribute success to their monarch but rather to Hashem.
- At war – While Gidon actively participates in reducing the size of his fighting force and then goes to attack with only 300 men, Shaul attempts to prevent more soldiers from leaving his army, and then abstains from fighting with the small numbers left him.
- God versus man – As he goes to war Gidon tells the people, "קוּמוּ כִּי נָתַן י"י בְּיֶדְכֶם אֶת מַחֲנֵה מִדְיָן". They cry out, "חֶרֶב לַי"י וּלְגִדְעוֹן", attributing salvation to Hashem. No equivalent is found in Shaul's war. In fact, his constant focus on the human aspects of battle (the size of his army etc.) suggest that he thinks victory is due to the might of man, not God.
- Seeking out Hashem – While Gidon constantly asks Hashem for signs and encouragement before fighting, Shaul consistently acts without the guidance of prophet or priest. Thus, fearful regarding the outcome of battle, he brings offerings without waiting for Shemuel as commanded (13:8-12), and tells the priest to stop seeking God (Shemuel I 14:18-20).
- Food – Whereas Gidon worries that his tired army should have food, Shaul insists that they fast so as not to lose the momentum of battle.
The comparison of the two narratives serves to highlight both the potential and the ultimate downfall of Shaul. The beginning of his career is promising. Like Gidon before him, he is appointed savior of Israel, given encouragement by God, and merits that the spirit of God descend on him. He is victorious in war, and, like Gidon, attributes the success to Hashem. As his reign continues, however, he begins to move in a different direction, beginning to rely on himself rather than God. The words of the prophet at the opening of the story, that Hashem is the nation's true savior, have been forgotten. It is not long before the once modest and forgiving king, becomes an honor-seeking, tyrannical ruler, ready to kill those who stand in the way of his power.