Read the passage here.
Last week we began our short series on the book of Judges by looking at chapter 2:6-3:6, which served as our introduction. If you recall, the largest part of the book of Judges involves a series of stories about the judges (from which the book gets its name) who delivered Israel during times of struggle and oppression. The stories of these judges involves a pattern, as follows:
- Israel does evil in the eyes of the Lord
- This evil results in oppression
- The Israelites cry out to the Lord
- The Lord raises up a deliverer (judge)
- There is a time of peace in the lifetime of the judge.
You will also recall that this repeating cycle isn’t static – that is, we don’t return to the same starting point each time. Rather, the cycle is declining – it’s a downward spiral in which we see Israel getting worse and worse with each cycle.
So, with that brief review, we’re looking today at the story of Gideon. This is the longest single story in Judges (by which, we shouldn’t understand this to mean it’s the most important – we’re looking at this in part because it’s a story with which many of us are already familiar).
So, having said that, let’s take a look at Gideon.
6 The Israelites did evil in the eyes of the Lord, and for seven years he gave them into the hands of the Midianites. 2 Because the power of Midian was so oppressive, the Israelites prepared shelters for themselves in mountain clefts, caves and strongholds. 3 Whenever the Israelites planted their crops, the Midianites, Amalekites and other eastern peoples invaded the country. 4 They camped on the land and ruined the crops all the way to Gaza and did not spare a living thing for Israel, neither sheep nor cattle nor donkeys. 5 They came up with their livestock and their tents like swarms of locusts. It was impossible to count them or their camels; they invaded the land to ravage it. 6 Midian so impoverished the Israelites that they cried out to the Lord for help.
7 When the Israelites cried out to the Lord because of Midian, 8 he sent them a prophet, who said, “This is what the Lord, the God of Israel, says: I brought you up out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery. 9 I rescued you from the hand of the Egyptians. And I delivered you from the hand of all your oppressors; I drove them out before you and gave you their land. 10 I said to you, ‘I am the Lord your God; do not worship the gods of the Amorites, in whose land you live.’ But you have not listened to me.”Judges 6:1-10
Now we should immediately recognize a couple of the refrains from the repeated cycles – firstly, the opening “The Israelites did evil in the eyes of the Lord…” (v. 1), and “[the Israelites] cried out to the Lord for help” (v. 6). We also read that when the Israelites cry out to the Lord, they hear through a prophet that their situation is a direct result of their sin, which is that they have chosen to reject or forget God, worshiping the gods of the Amorites instead.
Nevertheless, God doesn’t reject their cry for help. Like in the previous cycles, God raises someone up to deliver Israel from their situation.
11 The angel of the Lord came and sat down under the oak in Ophrah that belonged to Joash the Abiezrite, where his son Gideon was threshing wheat in a winepress to keep it from the Midianites. 12 When the angel of the Lord appeared to Gideon, he said, “The Lord is with you, mighty warrior.”
13 “Pardon me, my lord,” Gideon replied, “but if the Lord is with us, why has all this happened to us? Where are all his wonders that our ancestors told us about when they said, ‘Did not the Lord bring us up out of Egypt?’ But now the Lord has abandoned us and given us into the hand of Midian.”
14 The Lord turned to him and said, “Go in the strength you have and save Israel out of Midian’s hand. Am I not sending you?”
15 “Pardon me, my lord,” Gideon replied, “but how can I save Israel? My clan is the weakest in Manasseh, and I am the least in my family.”
16 The Lord answered, “I will be with you, and you will strike down all the Midianites, leaving none alive.”
17 Gideon replied, “If now I have found favor in your eyes, give me a sign that it is really you talking to me. 18 Please do not go away until I come back and bring my offering and set it before you.”
And the Lord said, “I will wait until you return.”Judges 6:11-18
The chapter then continues with a description of Gideon preparing and presenting an offering, and then realizing that this is indeed an angel of the Lord God that he has been speaking with. Picking up at verse 25, we read:
25 That same night the Lord said to him, “Take the second bull from your father’s herd, the one seven years old. Tear down your father’s altar to Baal and cut down the Asherah polebeside it. 26 Then build a proper kind ofaltar to the Lord your God on the top of this height. Using the wood of the Asherah pole that you cut down, offer the secondbull as a burnt offering.”
27 So Gideon took ten of his servants and did as the Lord told him. But because he was afraid of his family and the townspeople, he did it at night rather than in the daytime.Judges 6:25027
It’s hard to miss the significance of this – that Gideon tears down the altar to Baal and the Asherah pole at night. He doesn’t want to be seen by the people. And in the next verses, we read that it is Gideon’s father, Joash (not Gideon himself) who defends Gideon. It’s also noteworthy, though we won’t discuss this further, that Joash does this (defends Gideon) not by asserting the supremacy or superiority of Yahweh, but by demonstrating skepticism of Baal.
However, carrying on:
33 Now all the Midianites, Amalekites and other eastern peoples joined forces and crossed over the Jordan and camped in the Valley of Jezreel. 34 Then the Spirit of the Lord came on Gideon, and he blew a trumpet, summoning the Abiezrites to follow him. 35 He sent messengers throughout Manasseh, calling them to arms, and also into Asher, Zebulun and Naphtali, so that they too went up to meet them.
36 Gideon said to God, “If you will save Israel by my hand as you have promised— 37 look, I will place a wool fleece on the threshing floor. If there is dew only on the fleece and all the ground is dry, then I will know that you will save Israel by my hand, as you said.” 38 And that is what happened. Gideon rose early the next day; he squeezed the fleece and wrung out the dew—a bowlful of water.
39 Then Gideon said to God, “Do not be angry with me. Let me make just one more request. Allow me one more test with the fleece, but this time make the fleece dry and let the ground be covered with dew.” 40 That night God did so. Only the fleece was dry; all the ground was covered with dew.Judges 6:33-40
It’s particularly this episode with the fleece with which most folks are familiar in the story of Gideon. Following this affirmation of God’s presence, we read in chapter 7 about Gideon’s campaign against the Midianites et. al. and see how God rescues the Israelites through Gideon.
Now, that’s a pretty quick run-through of the story. Again, in chapter 7, we read about the victory over the enemies of Israel. And there’s more to come after the battle, which we’ll get to. However, as we consider our verses today, I want to pause to note that Gideon is mentioned in the famous “heroes of the faith” chapter in Hebrews 11. Hebrews 11 opens with the famous verse:
1 Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see. 2 This is what the ancients were commended for.Hebrews 11:1-2
And then we get a number of verses focusing mostly on the faith of Abraham and Moses. The point being that they were faithful to God’s calling, even though they never saw the fulfillment of God’s promise – that is, the kingdom that is inaugurated and fulfilled in Jesus Christ. But continuing on in Hebrews 11, we read:
32 And what more shall I say? I do not have time to tell about Gideon, Barak, Samson and Jephthah, about David and Samuel and the prophets, 33 who through faith conquered kingdoms, administered justice, and gained what was promised; who shut the mouths of lions, 34 quenched the fury of the flames, and escaped the edge of the sword; whose weakness was turned to strength; and who became powerful in battle and routed foreign armies.Hebrews 11:32-34
Now I point this out because the writer of Hebrews, who likely shared an opinion with other scholars of the Torah, considered Gideon (and the other judges) to be a noteworthy example of faith.
But I would argue – and I think most OT scholars would agree – that Gideon was hardly a person worth emulating. Gideon’s faith seems lukewarm at best – and I think this is how he’s presented in the book of Judges.
Now having said that, there’s a couple of things to keep in mind. The first is that I don’t mean to suggest that Gideon is (here) a wholly despicable person. When I say that Gideon doesn’t actually seem to have great faith (here), that doesn’t mean I’m saying that Gideon has no faith – and I am certainly not saying that Gideon is a reprehensible person. I’m merely saying that Gideon’s faith is pretty shaky. The second thing that I want us to keep in mind is that Old Testament narrative often doesn’t tell us what to think. In presenting the stories of the Judges (for example), it’s interesting that there’s very little by way of interpretation or assessment of the Judges. The writer doesn’t tell us what we’re supposed to make of them. It merely presents them. In other words, what we get is a picture rather than a thesis.
And it seems to me that what we get in this chapter is a picture of a man who is pretty shaky as to his faith in God. In order to understand this, I want to take a moment to compare Gideon with another biblical character who seemed to demonstrate reluctance when encountering and being called by God – Moses.
Though I don’t necessarily think that the writer of Judges intends us to see a comparison with Moses, I think there are some notable similarities in the stories. In Exodus, Israel (or pre-Israel) had been in slavery for many, many years. God saw their situation and purposed to do something about it. God chooses Moses and speaks to him from the burning bush. We read in Exodus 3:
3:7 The Lord said, “I have indeed seen the misery of my people in Egypt. I have heard them crying out because of their slave drivers, and I am concerned about their suffering. 8 So I have come down to rescue them from the hand of the Egyptians and to bring them up out of that land into a good and spacious land, a land flowing with milk and honey—the home of the Canaanites, Hittites, Amorites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites. 9 And now the cry of the Israelites has reached me, and I have seen the way the Egyptians are oppressing them. 10 So now, go. I am sending you to Pharaoh to bring my people the Israelites out of Egypt.”
11 But Moses said to God, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?”Exodus 3:7-11
Now if we remember the story, Moses multiple times hesitates at God’s call. Apart from verse 11, we read:
3:13 Moses said to God, “Suppose I go to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ Then what shall I tell them?”Exodus 3:13
Essentially, it seems to me, Moses is asking, “what if they don’t believe me?” This is followed by the revelation of God’s name. After this, Moses explicitly replies:
4:1 Moses answered, “What if they do not believe me or listen to me and say, ‘The Lord did not appear to you’?”Exodus 4:1
This is followed by the staff into snake and the leprous hand signs. After this display of miraculous signs (which Moses is to use to convince the people), Moses is still not convinced:
10 Moses said to the Lord, “Pardon your servant, Lord. I have never been eloquent, neither in the past nor since you have spoken to your servant. I am slow of speech and tongue.”
11 The Lord said to him, “Who gave human beings their mouths? Who makes them deaf or mute? Who gives them sight or makes them blind? Is it not I, the Lord? 12 Now go; I will help you speak and will teach you what to say.”
13 But Moses said, “Pardon your servant, Lord. Please send someone else.”Exodus 4:10-13
There’s more to Moses’ story, as we know, but what we can infer (at least this is my understanding) is that Moses’ hesitation is due to lack of faith in himself. He’s unsure that he can convince the Israelites and the Egyptians that he is the one chosen by God. Moses’ doubt is self-doubt.
However, when we look at Gideon, his doubt is in God Himself. Now to be fair, Gideon does express doubt that he is fit to lead Israel because he is from the weakest clan and is the youngest in his family. But most of his expressions of doubt seem to be whether or not God is who He says He is. Gideon’s doubt is skepticism.
- 6:13 “Pardon me, my lord,” Gideon replied, “but if the Lord is with us, why has all this happened to us? Where are all his wonders that our ancestors told us about when they said, ‘Did not the Lord bring us up out of Egypt?’ But now the Lord has abandoned us and given us into the hand of Midian.”
- 6:17 Gideon replied, “If now I have found favor in your eyes, give me a sign that it is really you talking to me.
And prior to the two episodes with the fleece:
- 6:36 Gideon said to God, “If you will save Israel by my hand as you have promised—
In other words, if you (God) will really do what you say you will do.
Now again, I want to make it clear that I’m not trying to make absolute statements. I’m not trying to say that Moses was wholly faithful to God in spite of his doubt of himself and that Gideon was wholly faithless. People are complex. And the picture that we get of Gideon is complex. And it seems to me that Gideon is likely a product of his time. That is, all of Israel has grown further and further away from the knowledge of the God of Abraham. It has been many years since the time of Joshua and many more years since the time of Moses. They have forgotten the ways of their ancestors and are becoming more and more like the people in the lands around them. But what we see in the story of Gideon and in Judges is that God is faithful.
So what I want to suggest is that the faithfulness of Gideon (as we read about in Hebrews) is not remarkable for its magnitude but in the simple willingness to allow God to demonstrate His faithfulness. Let me try to say that a little differently: What we see in this chapter is not a man who had tremendous faith, but a man who had just enough faith to allow God to work through him. It’s almost someone who was just willing enough to say, “okay God, show me what You can do.”
Now I’m not saying that we should make a habit of making God prove Himself. We shouldn’t think that bargaining with God is somehow admirable – that if we’re a little stubborn, we can get what we want from God. What I’m trying to say is something along the lines of, if we have just a little bit of faith, we can get in on what God is doing. If we have a little bit of faith (the faith of a mustard seed?), we can participate in God’s kingdom work in history.
Now it’s worth taking a moment for a bit of an aside here because the temptation is often to think that we need to have sufficient faith in order to get what we want (from God). And I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with asking God for what we need or what we want – we should be doing this. But what we see throughout scripture is God breaking into history, God moving in people’s lives, God displaying mighty works of power, not in order to make people’s lives better but in order to bring about His kingdom (and certainly the betterment of the lives of the people usually result from this). The signs and wonders we see Jesus perform in the gospels, for example, are not about fulfilling people’s wishes but about announcing the kingdom of God.
So, again, what I’m trying to say is that the call towards greater faith is so that we can see that God is faithful.
This is what we see in the next chapter. As Gideon is preparing the Israelite forces for battle, God tells Gideon that he needs to reduce the number of his forces. He does this until the army of Israel is down to only 300 men. And he tells Gideon:
7:2 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 7:2
In other words, God wants to make it clear to Gideon and to Israel that it is God who saves them, not any strength of their own. God is reminding them once again that it is only because of God’s faithfulness that Israel can be saved.
Now I hope it is obvious why this is significant in the overall arc of Judges. As we see throughout the book of Judges, the situation in Israel grows more and more troubling. But as we also know from the story of scripture, God’s redemptive purposes are not thwarted by the failures of humankind. God doesn’t wait until we are good enough, He doesn’t wait until we prove ourselves.
God is moving, God is working, and God will bring about the fulfillment of His kingdom. He calls us into faith so that we can see His mighty works. He calls us into faith so that we can participate in it. He calls us into faith so that we know that He is faithful and His will is being done in spite of our doubt and in spite of our skepticism. Come, taste and see that the Lord is good.