Bereishit

A Ripe Old Age: Abraham, Gideon and David

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Daniel Lifshitz

And Abraham breathed his last, dying at a good ripe age, old and contented; and he was gathered to his kin. (Genesis 25:8)

Gideon son of Joash died at a ripe old age and was buried in the tomb of his father Joash at Ophrah of the Abiezrites. (Judges 8:32)

He [David] died at a ripe old age, having enjoyed long life, riches and honor, and his son Solomon reigned in his stead. (I Chronicles 29:28)

Resh Lakish said, “It was said of three people ‘ripe age’: Abraham, and it was fitting for him; David, and it was fitting for him; Gideon, and it was not fitting for him. Why? ‘And Gideon made it into an ephod’ for idolatry.” (Genesis Rabbah 62:1)

Abraham, Gideon and David seem like an odd trio. The Bible describes their deaths with the word seivah/ripe age to contrast the ambiguous Gideon with the unequivocally heroic Abraham and David. But of all biblical heroes, why these two in particular? A careful reading of the three narratives may provide an answer.

Abraham and Gideon

Many (R’ Amnon Bazak, R’ Yaakov Medan, R’ Nathaniel Helfgot, et al.) have noted the connections between Abraham and Gideon. Beyond the semantic link identified by Resh Lakish, there are several remarkable parallels between the two narratives. Abraham  and Gidon both fight a coalition of armies whose leaders are identified by name (Genesis 14:1; Judges 7:12, 7:25, 8:5). Abraham takes three hundred eighteen soldiers with him (Genesis 14:14), while Gideon takes three hundred (Judges 7:8). Abraham and Gideon both attack at night and divide their forces (Genesis 14:15; Judges 7:16-19). Both characters have angels appear to them, and provide the angels with food as they sit under a tree (Genesis 18:2-8; Judges 6:11-19). In addition to the narrative similarities, there are also semantic similarities between the two stories. When Abraham is promised the land of Israel, he asks, “ba-ma eda,” how can I know (Genesis 15:8)? When Gideon is told he is to be God’s messenger, he uses similar wording, “ba-mah oshi’a,” how can I deliver (Judges 6:15)? When Abraham argues with God to save Sodom, he says, “al na yihar la-Adonai, va-adabra akh ha-pa’am,” let not my Lord be angry if I speak just once more (Genesis 18:32). When Gideon asks God for a sign that he will be the savior of the Jews, he similarly says, “al yihar apekha bi, va-adabra akh ha-pa’am,” do not be angry with me if I speak just once more (Judges 6:39).

Such extensive textual links between the two figures cannot be coincidental, but the conceptual connection is not apparent. Abraham is a paragon of faith and generosity; Gideon is not particularly distinguished in either of these areas. Abraham is the founder of the chosen nation; Gideon becomes a historical footnote. The thematic relation between them becomes clearer when we look beyond the biblical text and in one of the most well-known midrashim about Abraham.

Genesis Rabbah 38:13 tells us that that Terah, Abraham’s father, operates an idol shop. He travels out of town one day and leaves his son to mind the store. Abraham, who has already recognized the folly of idolatry, begins his iconoclasm gently, by discouraging his father’s customers from purchasing the merchandise. Eventually, he smashes all but the largest statue, into whose hand he places a hammer. When his father returns and inquires about the damage, Abraham explains that the idols had had an argument and the largest idol destroyed the others. Terah takes the bait, rejecting the story as impossible – “Do idols know anything?” – and Abraham springs his trap: “Let your ears hear what your mouth is saying!” Abraham is then put on trial for heresy, thrown into a fiery furnace, and miraculously survives due to his faith in God.

This midrash fills in a crucial gap in the narrative of the Book of Genesis, which begins Abraham’s story in medias res. God tells a man named Abram to leave his homeland, and promises him a great future, but we have no idea why He selected this particular man. The tale of Terah’s idols provides the needed backstory, revealing Abraham’s faith and courage. The scholars mentioned above posit that this story does in fact appear in the Bible itself, only it appears in Judges, not Genesis. The Sages, they argue, understood the textual parallels as an indication that Abraham’s backstory was similar. Abraham smashes his father’s idols, just as Gideon destroys the altar of Ba’al and the Ashera of his father (Judges 6:25-27). In both stories, townspeople want to kill the iconoclast (Judges 6:30). Abraham mocks the impotence of idols who cannot defend themselves, just as Gideon’s father does (Judges 6:31). In the words of R’ Bazak, “The nature of the explicit choice of Gideon is, according to the midrash, the same as the nature of the mysterious choice of Abraham.” 

This approach compellingly explains where the Sages got the story of Abraham smashing the idols. (Depending on one’s preferred understanding of midrash, this can be expressed in two different ways. Either the textual parallels are an allusion to a pre-existing tradition about Abraham, or they inspired the Sages to suggest what his origin story might be.) What remains to be explained is how David fits into the puzzle.

David

There are quite a few obvious parallels between Gideon and David. They are both mighty warriors who protect their people from powerful enemies (the Midianites and Philistines respectively.) The Bible uses similar language to describe them:

Gideon:

The angel of the LORD appeared to him and said to him, “The LORD is with you, valiant warrior!” (Judges 6:12)

David: 

One of the attendants spoke up, “I have observed a son of Jesse the Bethlehemite who is skilled in music; he is a valiant warrior and a man of war, sensible in speech, and handsome in appearance, and the LORD is with him.” (I Samuel 16:18)

They couple their martial exploits with religious faith, attributing their success not to their own power, but to God:

Gideon: 

Returning to the camp of Israel, he shouted, “Come on! The LORD has delivered the Midianite camp into your hands!” (7:15)

David:

David replied to the Philistine, “You come against me with sword and spear and javelin; but I come against you in the name of the LORD of Hosts, the God of the ranks of Israel, whom you have defied.” (17:45)

Both leaders win great victories that usher in years of peace.

They are also unlikely heroes. When given his mission by God, Gideon demurs: “My clan is the humblest in Menashe and I am the youngest in my family” (Judges 6:15). Likewise, David is the youngest of his brothers, and Jesse does not even bother to invite him to the feast with Samuel and the rest of the family (I Samuel 16:10-11).

In another parallel, both men are offered the kingship:

Then the men of Israel said to Gideon, “Rule over us—you, your son, and your grandson as well; for you have saved us from the Midianites.” (Judges 8:22)

All the tribes of Israel came to David at Hebron and said, “We are your own flesh and blood. Long before now, when Saul was king over us, it was you who led Israel in war; and the LORD said to you: You shall shepherd My people Israel; you shall be ruler of Israel.” (II Samuel 5:1-2)

A big difference is that David accepts the offer whereas Gideon does not:

But Gideon replied, “I will not rule over you myself, nor shall my son rule over you; the LORD alone shall rule over you.” (8:23)

All the elders of Israel came to the king at Hebron, and King David made a pact with them in Hebron before the LORD. And they anointed David king over Israel. (5:3)

In short, Gideon can be seen as a “proto-David,” a young man plucked from obscurity due to his courage in standing up to Israel’s enemies in the name of God. A grateful nation offers him the throne. However, unlike David, who had been anointed as king by the prophet Samuel, Gideon lacks a divine imprimatur and therefore correctly refuses the crown.

Turning to the connection between David and Abraham, we find some clear clues in chapter thirty of Samuel I. Once again, the parallels are striking. Abraham’s relative (Lot) is taken as prisoner of war and property is looted (Genesis 14:11-12). David’s relatives (wives) are taken as prisoners of war and property is looted (I Samuel 30:5). Both Abraham and David set out with a small band of soldiers (Genesis 14:14; I Samuel 30:9). They then both defeat the enemy and rescue the captives and the spoils (Genesis 14:15-16; I Samuel 30:17-19). When dividing the spoils, they both insist that that the non-combat soldiers should share in the spoils as well (Genesis 14:24; I Samuel 30:24). Genesis Rabbah (43:9) explicitly connects these last two verses. After David’s victory, some of his men suggest that only the combat troops get a share in the booty. David rejects the idea out of hand. Based on linguistic irregularities in the verses, the midrash gives the source of his strong conviction: “From whom did he learn [this principle]? From his forefather Abraham.” 

This blatant link between the two figures illuminates some other connections between them. In many ways, David represents a culmination of God’s covenant with Abraham, elevating it from a familial and tribal plane to a truly national level.

Abraham:

I will make you exceedingly fertile and make nations of you; and kings shall come forth from you. I will maintain My covenant between Me and you, and your offspring to come, as an everlasting covenant throughout the ages, to be God to you and to your offspring to come. (Genesis 17:6-7)

For I have singled him out, that he may instruct his children and his posterity to keep the way of the LORD by doing what is just and right, in order that the LORD may bring about for Abraham what He has promised him. (Genesis 18:19)

David:

When your days are done and you lie with your fathers, I will raise up your offspring after you, one of your own issue, and I will establish his kingship. (II Samuel 7:12)

Your house and your kingship shall ever be secure before you; your throne shall be established forever. (7:16)

David reigned over all Israel, and David did what was right and just among all his people. (II Samuel 8:15)

Abraham is promised a dynasty of kings in an everlasting covenant. David is the first king in this eternal line. Abraham is chosen to teach his descendants to act in a righteous and just manner. When David reigns as king, he does just that. These allusions tell us that Abraham, like Gideon, should be viewed as a predecessor to David. Going back to our initial question, it is not arbitrary that the Bible and midrash contrast Gideon to Abraham and David as opposed to any other biblical protagonists; the three share a clear thematic connection.

Haftarat Hayei Sarah

The next question is what this thematic connection comes to teach us. Perhaps we can find an answer if we look at the Torah portion that includes Abraham’s death and the haftarah about David’s death that goes with it.

In Hayei Sarah, we read:

Abraham willed all that he owned to Isaac; but to Abraham’s sons by concubines Abraham gave gifts while he was still living, and he sent them away from his son Isaac eastward, to the land of the East. 

This was the total span of Abraham’s life: one hundred and seventy-five years.

And Abraham breathed his last, dying at a good ripe age, old and contented; and he was gathered to his kin. (Genesis 25:5-8)

Abraham is a man of great wealth and social stature with many children. He is wise enough to realize that without clear guidance, his family would fight over his material and spiritual legacy; thushe is very explicit. The sons of the concubines receive gifts, presumably generous ones, but Isaac is the undisputed heir. To avoid doubt, they are also sent away, leaving Isaac as the only child of Abraham in the land that God had promised him.

Gideon also has many offspring:

Gideon had seventy sons of his own issue, for he had many wives. A son was also born to him by his concubine in Shekhem, and he named him Abimelech. Gideon, son of Joash, died at a ripe old age and was buried in the tomb of his father Joash at Ophrah of the Abiezrites. (Judges 8:30-32)

However, unlike Abraham, he does not think about succession planning. The result is horrific:

Then he [Abimelech] went to his father’s house in Ophrah and killed his brothers, the sons of Jerubbaal [Gideon], seventy men on one stone. Only Jotham, the youngest son of Jerubbaal, survived, because he went into hiding. All the citizens of Shekhem and all Beth-millo convened, and they proclaimed Abimelech king at the terebinth of the pillar at Shechem. (9:5-6

Gideon dies at a ripe old age, giving him plenty of time to set his affairs in order. His failure to do so leads to fratricide and the extermination of his family. The contrast with Abraham could not be more extreme.

The haftarah for Parshat Hayei Sarah (I Kings 1:1-31) begins with David an old, tired man. We immediately see a superficial parallel to the parsha: David is “old, advanced in years” just like Abraham in Hayei Sarah (Genesis 24:1). However, the connection runs deeper than this single verse. Unlike Abraham, who had made clear who would inherit his legacy, David has not yet announced a successor. His sons start jockeying for advantage, and his oldest surviving son, Adonijah, assembles a group of supporters and proclaims himself the heir apparent. David wants another son, Solomon, to be the next king, but has done nothing to further this objective. The prophet Nathan recognizes that Adonijah wants the throne badly enough to kill for it.

David has two contrasting paths from which to choose. Without decisive action, his family would end up like that of Gideon, with brother killing brother. But there is another option, the path of Abraham. To avoid tragedy, David has to seize control of his legacy. Nathan, with the assistance of Solomon’s mother, Bathsheba, steers David onto the right track:

The king said to them, “Take my loyal soldiers, and have my son Solomon ride on my mule and bring him down to Gihon. Let the priest Zadok and the prophet Nathan anoint him there king over Israel, whereupon you shall sound the horn and shout, ‘Long live King Solomon!’ Then march up after him and let him come in and sit on my throne. For he shall succeed me as king; him I designate to be ruler of Israel and Judah.”

With David’s will made known, Adonijah’s support melts away and Solomon is able to consolidate power. Mass bloodshed is averted. Unfortunately, Adonijah fails to understand the new situation and continues scheming. Solomon eventually is forced to have him executed, but David’s line survives. David’s delay in acting costs him, but his eventual decision allows him to avoid the catastrophic outcome suffered by Gideon’s family and instead achieve the continuity of Abraham.

“Gideon, and it was not fitting for him”

Now that we have shown the connection and contrasts between Abraham, Gideon, and David, we can explain the final section of Genesis Rabbah 62:1 quoted at the beginning of the article. The midrash had concluded that unlike Abraham and David, the phrase “ripe age” was unfitting for Gideon, because of the verse “And Gideon made it into an ephod,” which is considered an act of idolatry.

The verse cited by the midrash refers to Gideon’s final act. After he turns down the kingship, he requests his soldiers give him the golden earrings they captured as booty. This they gladly do. But the jewelry is not put to good use: “Gideon made an ephod of this gold and set it up in his own town of Ophrah. There all Israel went astray after it, and it became a snare to Gideon and his household” (Judges 8:27).

The nation had a bit of a history with donating golden earrings. The first incident, and the most obvious association, was the sin of the Golden Calf, wherein the men give their golden earrings to Aaron to make an idol (Exodus 32:2). The second incident was forty years later, when after the war with Midian, the officers give the gold jewelry they captured as an offering to God (Numbers 31:50). The intent in these two cases was unambiguous. In Exodus, the people want the gold to make a god; in Numbers they give the gold as an offering to God.

Exodus 32:1

Come, make us a god who shall go before us, for that man Moses, who brought us from the land of Egypt—we do not know what has happened to him.

Numbers 31:50:

So we have brought as an offering to the LORD such articles of gold as each of us came upon: armlets, bracelets, signet rings, earrings, and pendants, that expiation may be made for our persons before the LORD.

Gideon’s motivation is much less clear. The Sages understand that he means the ephod as a monument to God’s salvation, but there is no evidence in the verse pointing in either direction. Gideon’s contemporaries may have known the ephod’s purpose, but the ambiguous verse suggests it was unclear to them as well. This monument ends up the object of idol worship, but the Book of Judges does not explain why. 

David also wants to build a monument for God in the form of a sanctuary. Unlike Gideon, he makes his intent clear:

Then he summoned his son Solomon and charged him with building the House for the LORD God of Israel. David said to Solomon, “My son, I wanted to build a House for the name of the LORD my God.” (I Chronicles 22:6)

Now, my son, may the LORD be with you, and may you succeed in building the House of the LORD your God as He promised you would. (I Chronicles 22:11)

David’s son Solomon ends up building the Temple in Jerusalem, which serves as a central house of worship for four centuries. Gideon’s project was much less ambitious than David’s, yet it still failed. Perhaps it was for the same reason Gideon’s line ended in tragedy. Just as Gideon fails to put his family affairs in order, he also sets up his shrine without making its purpose clear. For a leader to be successful, those who follow him must understand the program. Gideon is a competent wartime commander, but when it comes to long-term plans, he does not communicate well, and such an approach results in disaster. 

This, then, is the message of the midrash. It puts the career of David into the larger biblical context of two precursors, Abraham and Gideon. Abraham understands that serving God and passing his legacy on to future generations requires a certain amount of managerial skill. It does not happen by itself. Gideon tragically lacks this awareness. David, with some help from the prophet Nathan, is able to follow in the footsteps of Abraham and establish an eternal dynasty of servants of God.




Daniel Lifshitz
Daniel Lifshitz lives in Passaic, New Jersey with his wife and four daughters. He studied at Yeshivat Har Etzion and Yeshiva University’s Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary and received rabbinic ordination from Rabbi Zalman Nechemia Goldberg. He is the author of Pachim Ketanim, a collection of brief essays on the weekly Torah portion.