For my write-up today of Meir Sternberg’s Poetics of Biblical Narrative, I will quote something that Sternberg says on page 420, then I will elaborate on the biblical passage to which Sternberg is referring.
“For a more intricate example of betraying motive by misquotation, consider the charge leveled by Gideon at the people of Succoth after his victory over Midian” ‘Behold Zebah and Zalmunah [the kings of Midian], concerning whom you taunted me, saying, Is the fist of Zebah and Zalmunah now in thy hand, that we should give bread to thy weary men?’ (Judg 8:15). However villainous the quoted people of Succoth, they could hardly go so far as to load the dice against themselves by referring to the army they refuse to feed as ‘weary men.’ Indeed, checking the quotation against their actual words given earlier, we find that they did nothing so foolish. Gideon has simply effected a montage between his original appeal (‘Give, pray, loaves of bread to the people that follow me, for they are weary’) and their original response (‘Is the fist of Zebah and Zalmunah now in thy hand, that we should give bread to thy army?’), so as to blacken the accused before destroying them.”
I talked about the Scriptural passage a while back in my post here. Here was my summary of this particular story:
“In Judges 8, when the people of Succoth and Penuel refuse to feed Gideon’s exhausted army because he has not yet captured the Midianite kings, Gideon promises to trample their flesh on thorns and briers, which is a horribly painful way to die. And, after he catches the kings, that’s exactly what he does. According to my trusty E-Sword commentaries, the people of Succoth and Penuel were afraid to support Gideon because they feared Midianite retaliation. They weren’t sure Gideon would win! What would happen to them if they supported Gideon and he lost?”
Sternberg’s point is that Gideon misquotes the people of Succoth, who refused to support his weary army. Gideon said to them, “Give, pray, loaves of bread to the people that follow me, for they are weary.” The people of Succoth refuse, responding, “Is the fist of Zebah and Zalmunah now in thy hand, that we should give bread to thy army?” And, after Gideon captures the two Midianite kings, he quotes the people of Succoth as saying, “Is the fist of Zebah and Zalmunah now in thy hand, that we should give bread to thy weary men?” But Gideon is misquoting the people of Succoth, for they themselves said nothing about Gideon’s army being weary. Gideon was the one who told them that his men were weary.
So why is Gideon misquoting the people of Succoth? According to Sternberg, his aim was to “blacken the accused before destroying them.” Gideon may have been castigating the people of Succoth for refusing to support his men when they were weary, or for denigrating his men as weak, which Gideon and his army proved to be wrong when they captured the Midianite kings.