In Judges 7:5-7, God tells Gideon to make a test and to decide, based on the test, who will stay with him and who will leave. This is what what we are told from verse 5 about the test:
And the LORD said to Gideon, “You shall separate everyone who laps the water with his tongue as a dog laps, as well as everyone who kneels to drink.” (NASB)
And in verse 7
The LORD said to Gideon, “I will deliver you with the 300 men who lapped and will give the Midianites into your hands; so let all the other people go, each man to his home.”
From this it becomes clear that God chose the ones who lapped over the ones who knelt on the ground to drink. This is very important to keep in mind as some seem to be confused about this. From the verses above it should become clear that god chose the men who lapped and not the men who knelt. So far the test seems pretty straightforward: those who will lap with their tongues like dogs lap with their tongue — they who drink with their mouth without any aid are to be chosen, while those who kneel to the ground (which means that they use their hands to scoop up the waters) are to be left behind.
The problem arises from verse 6
Now the number of those who lapped, putting their hand to their mouth, was 300 men; but all the rest of the people kneeled to drink water.
From this verse it becomes evident that those who lapped didn't lap the water like dogs at all, they actually used their hands to scoop up the water! But the verse before that seems to suggest that the chosen ones are to drink the water exactly like dogs lap with their tongues: You shall separate everyone who laps the water with his tongue as a dog laps. How do we reconcile this?
In the JPS notes I found an attempt to reconcile this contradiction. In verse 5 they note on the words "laps the water with his tongue as a dog laps"
Actually, using their hands as a dog uses its tongue: see v. 6.
Leaving aside the grammatical difficulties which arise from this approach, it is unsatisfying for the following reason: the Bible seems to contrast the two groups' mannerisms of the drinking:
- those who lap like dogs with their tongue
- those who don't lap like dogs with their tongues (kneeling in this case is another way of saying that they use their hands instead of their mouths to scoop up the water).
According to the JPS interpretation, that those who lapped also used their hands, the difference between the two groups cannot lay in their lapping with their tongues (since they both drank the same way by bringing their hands to mouth) but in some other mannerism, perhaps in their kneeling to the ground, but in this case why would the Bible mention the lapping of their tongues like dogs at all as it is completely irrelevant to the test. In other words, in which way did the first group of 300 resemble dogs more than the second group? According to the JPS the contrast should be between those who kneel and those who didn't; the 'lapping' in this case is completely misleading as this group didn't resemble dogs at all and neither was it a relevant factor in this test. This is what leads me to reject this interpretation.
Summary of the question
What was the difference between the first and second group in their way of drinking? Verse 5 seems to suggest that one group lapped up the water with their tongues while the other used their hands to scoop up the water. But verse 6 seems to contradict this by saying that those who lapped used their hands as well! A satisfactory solution would also have to explain how the lapping was a relevant factor in this test, and how the group of 300 resembled more the way dogs drink than the other group.