Cowards Punished with Thistles

Notobasis syriaca

The episode of Succoth refusing to assist Gideon and his punishment of them is in Judges chapter 8:1-21.

God called Gideon to judge Israel when the Midianites and allies invaded the land. The Midianite army was marauders who swarmed across Israel stripping the farm land bare. Gideon was from the tribe of Manasseh which held land on both the east and west side of the Jordan River. Gideon’s home was Ophrah, a town southeast of the hill of Moreh on the west side of the Jordan.  

Prior to the incident at Succoth, Gideon and 300 men routed a massive force (over 100,000 swordsmen) of Midianites near Morah. The Midianites fled south along the Jordan River. Some crossed the River in the area of Succoth and Peniel near the Jabbok River. Gideon and his 300 men pursued them and came to the town of Succoth, in the tribal lands of Gad. Gideon told the elders of Succoth that he was pursuing two Midian kings, Zebah and Zalmunna, and asked for bread for his worn-out men. The elders of Succoth refused to give Gideon any provisions and were insolent in their refusal saying that Gideon and his men were assuming a victory that was not yet realized. Possibly, the Succoth elders were unsure that Gideon would defeat the Midianite kings. They feared reprisal from the kings. Hearing the Succoth elder’s refusal, Gideon promised that he would tear their flesh with desert thorns and briers when he returned. 

Gideon and his 300 men routed Zebah and Zalmunna and 15,000 Midianites at Karkor and later captured both of them. Returning from battle, Gideon captured a young man of Succoth and learned the names of the 77 elders of Succoth who refused bread to him and his men. Gideon proceeded to Succoth, took the elders of the town, and punished them with desert thorns and briers. The Bible does not describe how the elders were punished, but historical writers’ claimed that when thorns and briers were used as punishment, men were stripped of clothes. Thorns and briers were placed on both sides of their body; heavy sledges (sleighs) were pressed on thorns and pulled across the body so the skin was severely torn. Considering the Succoth elders refused food to the pursuing Israelites, their punishment would have been severe and probably eagerly applied by the Israelite soldiers.

The Syrian Thistle

The thorn described in the episode of Gideon and the elders of Succoth is thought to be the  Syrian thistle. The Syrian thistle is native to Middle Eastern countries and southern Europe. It is an annual plant that belongs to the semi-desert flora. In Israel it grows throughout the entire country including the desert south. The Syrian thistle is often found in disturbed lands, e.g., sides of road and construction sites.  Leaf margins or edges are deeply lobed and gray-green in color with white veins. Leaves have sharp spines on both the leaf margins and the apex; at times leaves look more like spines than leaf blades. Israeli researchers suggested that over centuries or millennia, leaves developed into spines as a protection against mammalian grazers.

Symbolism: Retribution

The Syrian thistle symbolized retribution in the episode at Succoth. Retribution is the dispensing or receiving of reward or punishment; or something given or exacted in recompense. Retribution is often confused with revenge, which means to avenge oneself usually by retaliating in kind, e.g., to inflict injury in return for an insult. Although retribution and revenge have many of the same synonyms, e.g., retribution includes the synonyms a reckoning and justice.  

In the United States we have a judicial system where men and women stand trial for offenses against the civil laws. The purpose of the judicial system is not to exact revenge for persons who were harmed. Rather the judicial system punishes individuals who break the law. Judicial punishment is not revenge, but retribution because it includes justice.

I am fairly sure that if Gideon had not taken retribution on the elders of Succoth, God would have repaid them for their fear and selfishness. Jeremiah wrote that God is a God of retribution and that God will repay in full (Jeremiah 51:56).

The Old Testament stated that the Israelites were not to seek revenge or bear a grudge against their people (Leviticus 19:18). They were to love their neighbors as they loved themselves. Neighbors included not only Israelites who lived near-by, but those who lived far distances, e.g., Succoth in the territory of Gad. Saint Paul wrote to New Testament Christians not to take revenge on those who persecuted them (Romans 12:14, 19); rather, Christians were to leave room for God’s wrath.

We do not know what Gideon was feeling and thinking when he punished the Succoth elders with thorns. Hopefully, he was exacting retribution, not revenge,  from the elders of Succoth for refusing to feed his weary, hungry men. There is no record that God was displeased with Gideon’s actions.

Reflection.  Retribution and revenge are inextricably tied together. Often it is not possible to determine if individuals are exacting retribution or revenge. Ideally, God’s people will followed God advice and let him apply vengeance for what is done against them.   

I love Bible plants along with their symbolism. If you want to learn more about them, read my two books: 1) Rooted in God and 2) God as a Gardener. You can purchase them from my website: Carolyn Roth Ministry at

Copyright August 23, 2013, Carolyn A. Roth

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