Read the passage here.
Last week we began the story of Gideon with chapter 6 which has mostly to do with Gideon’s calling. What we saw in that chapter was that Gideon was someone who maybe had only a middling faith in God, but he had faith nonetheless. He was ultimately able to respond to God’s call to lead the Israelites against their oppressors, the Midianites. In the intervening chapter and a half (which we are skipping), we see that because of his faith and obedience to God, Gideon has success over the Midianites. However, even Gideon’s success isn’t without problems. We still don’t get a clear picture of whether Gideon is a good or a bad character.
By way of preview, our passage today doesn’t really clear up the matter. We are still given a picture of Gideon that is complex and doesn’t lend itself to easy conclusions. Having said that, let’s take a look at the passage:
So the verses that we’re looking at today deal with the aftermath of Gideon’s military campaign. Again, in those verses (chapter 7 to ch. 8:21) Gideon is shown as following God, being obedient to God, but also don’t show him in a particularly great light. Or to put it another way, they seem to show that Gideon has significant flaws. This shouldn’t be unexpected to us as we remember our overview of the book of Judges, in which we discussed the progressive decline of Israel through the book. Nevertheless, the Israelites are impressed enough with Gideon that they invite him to be their king.
Now the word ‘king’ isn’t used here, but the implication is pretty clear. They ask Gideon to rule over them as well as his son and his grandson – an indication of a hereditary sort of kingship that would be familiar to the peoples in the region.
Gideon’s response here is the subject of a certain amount of debate. His actual words are:
22 The Israelites said to Gideon, “Rule over us—you, your son and your grandson—because you have saved us from the hand of Midian.”
23 But Gideon told them, “I will not rule over you, nor will my son rule over you. The Lord will rule over you.”Judges 8:22-23
Now Gideon’s response here sounds like a good response. It sounds like the appropriate perspective of someone who wants to serve God and wants the people to serve God. And it’s entirely possible that we should understand it this way – Gideon, inasmuch as he’s able (that is, inasmuch as he’s a sinner, an imperfect person, like all of us are) Gideon seems to be trying to turn his and the people’s hearts and minds to God. Some interpreters view it this way, or at least agree that it’s a distinct possibility.
However, like the previous passage that we looked at, the picture that we get is not so simple. To put it another way, there seems to be good reason to not take Gideon’s response at face value.
Firstly, looking at the actual response, when we read the Israelites’ invitation to Gideon to take rulership, the reason that they give is that Gideon has saved them from the hand of Midian. Now, on the face of it, this is correct. Gideon did indeed lead the armies of Israel and he did kill the kings of Midian (as seen in the verses prior to this passage).
However, remembering a couple of verses we referred to last week, at the beginning of the campaign against Midian, we read:
7:1 Early in the morning, Jerub-Baal (that is, Gideon) and all his men camped at the spring of Harod. The camp of Midian was north of them in the valley near the hill of Moreh. 2 The Lord said to Gideon, “You have too many men. I cannot deliver Midian into their hands, or Israel would boast against me, ‘My own strength has saved me.’Judges 7:1-2
Then, through a process of discernment to decide who would actually go to battle, we read:
7 The Lord said to Gideon, “With the three hundred men that lapped I will save you and give the Midianites into your hands. Let all the others go home.” 8 So Gideon sent the rest of the Israelites home but kept the three hundred, who took over the provisions and trumpets of the others.Judges 7:7-8
In short, God causes Israel’s army to be reduced to a mere three hundred men so that there would be no doubt that it was God who gave Israel the victory and not the strength, ability, or prowess of human beings. It’s God, not Gideon, who brings Israel victory.
However, in Gideon’s response to the Israelites’ invitation of kingship, he does not correct the Israelites’ wrong assumption. He denies the office, but he doesn’t seem to give glory to God for Israel’s deliverance.
Now having said that, I grant that it’s possible to read too much into what Gideon doesn’t say. In other words, just because Gideon doesn’t actually say (or isn’t reported to say), “actually guys, it was God who saved us all from Midian,” it doesn’t mean that he therefore accepted the premise that he, Gideon, deserved the glory.
So let’s carry on in the passage. We read from verse 24, that Gideon (having refused the kingship) asked for jewelry from the Israelites and made an ephod. An ephod was one of the articles of clothing that the high priest wore in his duties. We encounter the ephod first in Exodus as something that Aaron, Moses’ brother, was supposed to wear in his function as the high priest. In Israelite history and understanding, then, the ephod had special significance because it related to the high priest, which in turn was related to Israel’s relationship with God. What we read here in Judges, however, is as follows:
24 And he said, “I do have one request, that each of you give me an earring from your share of the plunder.” (It was the custom of the Ishmaelites to wear gold earrings.)
25 They answered, “We’ll be glad to give them.” So they spread out a garment, and each of them threw a ring from his plunder onto it. 26 The weight of the gold rings he asked for came to seventeen hundred shekels, not counting the ornaments, the pendants and the purple garments worn by the kings of Midian or the chains that were on their camels’ necks. 27 Gideon made the gold into an ephod, which he placed in Ophrah, his town. All Israel prostituted themselves by worshiping it there, and it became a snare to Gideon and his family.Judges 8:24-27
Paying particular attention to verse 27, we see t that the ephod “became a snare to Gideon and his family,” and that “all Israel prostituted themselves by worshiping it [the ephod] there…”
Now again, the writer of Judges tells us what happened but doesn’t really give explanation or interpretation. But there are a couple of things that we can glean from what is told.
Firstly, we know that the making of the ephod was a bad thing for Israel – this much we know because of the explicit outcome (in v. 27). We are told that the ephod essentially became an idol – the Israelites worshipped it (again, v. 27). Pointing to this, it’s worth recognizing that Gideon made the ephod and placed it in his home town, Ophrah. This is maybe not noteworthy itself except to note that an ephod is meant to be worn. That is, the ephod is part of the sacred ceremonial garb of the high priest. And the high priest is supposed to mediate or facilitate the relationship between the people and God. Gideon made an ephod and set it up in his home town, but there is no high priest. There is an object, but no connection to a person – or, nothing about a relationship with God.
The second thing to note is a point I borrow from one of the biblical interpreters. He notes the similarities between Gideon’s call for earrings to make the ephod and the incident with the Golden Calf in Exodus:
- Jud. 8:24 And he said, “I do have one request, that each of you give me an earring from your share of the plunder.” (It was the custom of the Ishmaelites to wear gold earrings.)
- Ex. 32:1 When the people saw that Moses was so long in coming down from the mountain, they gathered around Aaron and said, “Come, make us godswho will go before us. As for this fellow Moses who brought us up out of Egypt, we don’t know what has happened to him.” // 2 Aaron answered them, “Take off the gold earrings that your wives, your sons and your daughters are wearing, and bring them to me.” 3 So all the people took off their earrings and brought them to Aaron. 4 He took what they handed him and made it into an idol cast in the shape of a calf, fashioning it with a tool. Then they said, “These are your gods, Israel, who brought you up out of Egypt.”
Coupled with this is the report that the clothing and jewelry of the defeated Midianite kings is incorporated into the ephod:
- 26 The weight of the gold rings he asked for came to seventeen hundred shekels, not counting the ornaments, the pendants and the purple garments worn by the kings of Midian or the chains that were on their camels’ necks.
This seems to point to the ephod as a symbol of wealth and military victory. It’s a symbol of dominance rather than worship. In other words, it seems to have very little to do with God.
Moving on from the ephod, it appears that Gideon, though he expresses a refusal of the kingship, in fact lives as if he were a king. Commentators point us to, for example, verse 30, which reads:
30 He had seventy sons of his own, for he had many wives. 31 His concubine, who lived in Shechem, also bore him a son, whom he named Abimelek.Judges 8:30-31
The “seventy sons” and “many wives” is an indication of a kind of royal privilege. Kings in the area and the time famously would have many wives – this is a symbol of power and privilege. Further, the name Abimelek (who was born to a concubine – i.e. in addition to Gideon’s wives) literally means, “son of a king.”
So even though he refuses the kingship in words, Gideon claims the privileges of being a king without taking any of the responsibility of kingship.
Now to consider what the responsibility of kingship is, it’s worth jumping all the way back to Deuteronomy 17:
14 When you enter the land the Lord your God is giving you and have taken possession of it and settled in it, and you say, “Let us set a king over us like all the nations around us,” 15 be sure to appoint over you a king the Lord your God chooses. He must be from among your fellow Israelites. Do not place a foreigner over you, one who is not an Israelite. 16 The king, moreover, must not acquire great numbers of horses for himself or make the people return to Egypt to get more of them, for the Lord has told you, “You are not to go back that way again.” 17 He must not take many wives, or his heart will be led astray. He must not accumulate large amounts of silver and gold.
18 When he takes the throne of his kingdom, he is to write for himself on a scroll a copy of this law, taken from that of the Levitical priests. 19 It is to be with him, and he is to read it all the days of his life so that he may learn to revere the Lord his God and follow carefully all the words of this law and these decrees 20 and not consider himself better than his fellow Israelites and turn from the law to the right or to the left. Then he and his descendants will reign a long time over his kingdom in Israel.Deuteronomy 17:14-20
Now we’re not going to spend time reviewing this passage, but you may remember that we discussed (many moons ago) how the warnings in vv. 16-17 – the warnings against horses, wives (which particularly pertains to our passage today), and riches – appear to have to do with the usual practices of the kings of the time and region. God is calling Israel – and specifically the king of Israel – to set up the nation in a very different way than all the other kingdoms of the world. Rather than seeking power, prestige, and wealth, the foundations of the people of God are to be found in the Law of the Lord (what we see in vv. 18-20). Israel is called to be a people set apart.
Now, before we wrap up, I want us to notice that, in all of the other stories of the judges so far (Othniel, Ehud, and Deborah), all of the narratives wrap up with a form of the phrase, “and Israel had peace for x years.” We would expect to see that in Gideon’s story also – and we do. But Gideon’s story doesn’t end there. In verse 28, we see:
28 Thus Midian was subdued before the Israelites and did not raise its head again. During Gideon’s lifetime, the land had peace forty years.Judges 8:28
But then we get an extended epilogue which includes, as we’ve already seen, the outcome of Gideon’s life. But in addition, we get an extended account of Gideon’s son, Abimelek. We’re not going to go into that here, but suffice it to say it’s a pretty horrific story involving arrogance, betrayal, and fratricide.
All that to say, though Gideon did indeed fulfill the role of deliverer, rescuing Israel from the Midianites, the outcome of Gideon’s story sees Israel in a pretty dire situation. Gideon’s life and leadership don’t lead Israel back to God. In fact, Israel seems to be even further from the kind of people that God had intended them to be.
Now, after all of that, we may feel like we are in a place to judge Gideon. But it’s important to recognize that none of the characters we encounter in scripture are presented to us as perfect (apart from Jesus). So what can we take from the story of Gideon? Well, we remember that it is always by grace, and grace alone, that we can find ourselves justified before God. And the book of Judges, as part of the history of Israel, serves to tell us how impossible it is to be justified, to establish God’s kingdom, by human effort. As we follow the biblical story, the history of Israel, it is revealed that it is only in and through Jesus that God’s plan for redemption is or ever could be fulfilled. And one of the things that we see in Judges is that God’s intention to redeem us cannot be frustrated. Even though human beings persist in our sin, God insists that He will save us. He insists that redemption is coming.
Now another thing that’s certainly important to understand from the book of Judges is how it can function as a warning to us on a variety of levels – not the least of which is as a warning against becoming like the people, or adopting the customs and worldview, of the world around us.
So I’d like to close with a couple of reflections that I personally derive from the Gideon narrative.
We must constantly be pursuing God. That is, because we are fallen people in a fallen world, we must consistently seek and pursue God’s desire for us. I wonder if, based on his previous experiences and successes, Gideon took it for granted that he was in a good relationship with God. I don’t know if he thought about it. But what the Gideon story seems to show us (and what Judges overall shows us) is that what relationship he had with God was in decline through his life – he did not continue to seek God.
And by constantly and consistently seeking God, I don’t mean to say that we should be seeking to work our way to God. I don’t mean to say that we should doubt that our justification in Christ, the forgiveness of sins through Him, is less than complete or isn’t completely by grace. I simply mean to say that we live in a world that is persistently pulling us away from the life we were meant to live in Christ. But Christ came that we might have life and have it to the full. Therefore, we seek first His kingdom.
My second reflection is decidedly reflection and not instruction and it’s simply this. What we see in Judges (and indeed in scripture) is the degree to which spirituality (which is not a simple term) is communal. And we’ve talked about this a lot and there’s a lot more to say about this, but I simply want to say that what we see is that Gideon’s story is Israel’s story. And Israel’s story is Gideon’s story. Gideon’s faith and apostasy does not happen outside of the context of the community. That is, he’s not an isolated individual. As Gideon goes, so Israel goes. And vice versa.
Now there’s certainly an extent to which this is because Gideon is in some way, shape, or form, a leader in Israel. But it’s not just because of this. It’s because he’s part of the community. And the community is a part of him.
The simple truth that I’d like to reiterate – as we’ve said this many times and in many ways before – is that we are in this together. I know it’s tempting in our current cultural climate to think of spirituality as purely a private matter. And there’s certainly a sense in which spirituality must be personal. But personal is not the same thing as private.
I won’t expand on this further – because, again, we talk about this a lot. But suffice it to say that we lift each other up because we are indeed in this together. Together, we seek to become the people that God has intended us to be. Together, we seek to understand and to be faithful to the word of God. Together, we seek to be salt and light in the world.
So, in closing (in actual closing), as we continue in the book of Judges, we find both warning and promise. In the coming week, I’d invite us all to continue the practice of examining ourselves. Continue the practice of examining our stories. This is all, I believe, a part of the practice of repentance. And out of that, I invite us all to consider the book of Judges and remember that out of the warning comes a promise. And cling to the promise that we find in God, that is fulfilled in Jesus Christ, and can be ours because of His unending grace and mercy.