Gideon's Ephod

Then the men of Israel said to Gideon, “Rule over us, you and your son and your grandson also, for you have saved us from the hand of Midian.” Gideon said to them, “I will not rule over you, and my son will not rule over you; the LORD will rule over you.” And Gideon said to them, “Let me make a request of you: every one of you give me the earrings from his spoil.” (For they had golden earrings, because they were Ishmaelites.) And they answered, “We will willingly give them.” And they spread a cloak, and every man threw in it the earrings of his spoil. And the weight of the golden earrings that he requested was 1,700 shekels of gold, besides the crescent ornaments and the pendants and the purple garments worn by the kings of Midian, and besides the collars that were around the necks of their camels. And Gideon made an ephod of it and put it in his city, in Ophrah. And all Israel whored after it there, and it became a snare to Gideon and to his family. So Midian was subdued before the people of Israel, and they raised their heads no more. And the land had rest forty years in the days of Gideon.

(Judges 8:22-28, ESV)

Within the context of the story, the author is setting up the reader to understand Gideon's fall, with Israel thinking to make him king, Gideon resisting the temptation in part, but yielding to the temptation to an opulent use of the spoil (verging on if not attaining idolatry) from the war with the Midianites. To do so, he orders the golden earrings and crescents to be collected. The story almost lends itself to be saying, "look how many Midianites were killed based on the earrings and crescents."

The meaning of the crescents are straightforward: they were probably moon worshipers. I'm wondering what it is about the earrings that made them significant. Why would it be considered tautological that Ishmaelites wear golden earrings?

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  • Are you asking about the earrings, that the Hebrews might have worn as well, or that they were golden? – gideon marx Jan 26 '15 at 17:54
  • No I'm asking what about the fact they were Ishmaelites made it clear they would all wear earrings. Was there symbolism? – Ben Mordecai Jan 26 '15 at 18:05
  • @All A "Good Question", but no "Good Answers"....Hmmmm. We need to find somebody with a good shovel and start digging...;-) – Tau Jan 30 '15 at 10:20

The answer isn't symbolism - it was that the Ishmaelites were wealthy traders of luxury items (gold, jewels, spices) who would travel to distant lands like Ethiopia and Yemen for their precious cargo. They would ride on camels because it was impossible to cross the hostile desert any other way. It was a dangerous trip, and they were well paid for their efforts.

In this passage in Judges, the Ishmaelites wore gold earrings because of their wealth from international trade. Even their camels wore expensive finery -- their collars were decorated with gold too.

Another place the Ishmaelites appear is Genesis 39:1, where a caravan of Ishmaelite traders purchase Joseph and sell him as a slave on their way through Egypt.

You can see a similar display of wealth when the queen of Sheba (Ethopia) visited Solomon in 1Kings 10. She too came on a caravan of camels and brought enormous quantities of gold, precious stones and spices. She wasn't an Ishmaelite, but she was coming from the country that was the source of their luxury items. See also Psalm 72:15 and Isaiah 60:6.

  • This answers so many other questions from Genesis that I've always had about the Ishma'eliym! – Adinkra Sep 1 '16 at 8:55

It is possible that the reference has some symbolic, or rather, religious inference, perhaps understood as common in the day, but lost to us. To the point, Islam has a term, 'Jaahiliyaah' (spelling?). It means 'darkness without the guidance of Allah' roughly, but also the 'The Time of Darkness before the arrival of Muhammed'. Before Muhammed brought Islam, Allah was a moon god that was worshipped throughout the middle east. I have read that Muhammed's own family worshipped Allah the moon god. It was widespread, to say the least. We, meaning I, know very little about their practices concerining golden earrings, perhaps this knowledge is findable. But I know that Allah moon god's symbol was the crescent, as the ornaments also are. Also, a 'tie-in'. Islam specifically forbids followers from wearing earrings and nose rings, and no gold at all. (For this last statement, I claim no expertise at all. I have read this from multiple islamic q&a type forums, mainly it came up related to questions concerning jewelry, and Jaahiliyaah always came up.). These Ishmaelites are the direct ancestors of the first Muslims. 'Jaahiliyaah' is talking about them. With the prohibition of earrings, specifically golden ones, in Islam, I suggest that it strongly hints some relativity of the earrings to pre-Islamic Allah worship. I truly wish there was some way to know if the earrings were likewise crescent moon-shaped.

  • Welcome to Biblical Hermeneutics Stack Exchange William, thanks for contributing! Be sure to take our site tour to learn more about us. We're a little different from other sites. – Steve Taylor Feb 15 '17 at 12:59
  • At first, I thought this was a really strange answer, especially given it contains almost zero hermeneutic reasoning. I think the 'Islam' side of your answer is conjecture and irrelevant to the OP's question. However, this is a somewhat helpful train of thought considering how pervasive moon-worship was in ancient Arabian people. This is not a great answer to the OP's question and provides very little basis for its claims, but has some useful thoughts. – Steve Taylor Feb 15 '17 at 13:12

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