Gideon (Judges 6–8)
In spite of his weak character, Gideon acted in faith, and God was with Gideon and Israel to defeat the Midianites.
- God can work through anyone to accomplish his plans.
- God at times indulges our weak faith to encourage us.
- God is able to work through few just as effectively as through many.
- God is the one who brings the victory.
God is with those who trust in him.
- We believe that God can use us for his work regardless of our social status or personal skills or how few our numbers.
- When we are faithful and responsible in small things, God may call us to bigger things.
- We must expect that when God uses us in his work, he may ask us to step out of our comfort zone.
The book of Judges shows the failure of the Israelites to keep their part of the covenant. The cycles (repeating periods of disobedience, punishment, cry for help, deliverance) show how God demonstrated his power and mercy by delivering them time after time after his justice had demanded that he bring punishment. The book shows that neither the leadership of the judges nor the tribal leadership succeeded in helping the people remain faithful. Instead, the leaders were often as bad as the people. Though God brings victory through Gideon, his weaknesses are evident throughout the narrative.
Interpretational Issues in the Story
Angel of the Lord (Judg. 6:11–12, 20–22). The angel of the Lord is a messenger who brings God’s word to people. In the ancient world direct communication between important parties was a rarity. Diplomatic exchange normally required the use of an intermediary. Messengers were like ambassadors and were vested with the authority to speak for the party they represented and were expected to be treated as if they were the dignitary in person. This is why in some contexts it is hard to distinguish whether God or the messenger is speaking. The messenger may speak in the first person as God.
“The Spirit of the Lord clothed Gideon” (Judg. 6:34). In the Old Testament, the Spirit of the Lord was usually seen in empowering people to a task. Today we talk of the Spirit’s indwelling people when they become Christians. These are very different things, and therefore this incident in Judges should not be viewed as the beginning of Gideon’s spiritual relationship with God. The endowment of the Spirit here has to do with his role as general.
Gideon’s fleece (Judg. 6:36–40). This most well-known part of the story is also the most misunderstood. Gideon lays out the fleece not in a grassy field but on the threshing floor, which was usually made of rock. Consequently, it is to be expected that the soft, absorbent fleece would be damp with dew while the rock of the threshing floor remained dry. Gideon is using the dew and the fleece for an oracle. In an oracle, a yes-or-no question was posed to deity, and some mechanism was designated for deity to answer. When something from the world around served as that mechanism, the procedure was to designate normal expected results as one answer and highly unusual, extraordinary results as the other. That is what Gideon was doing here. Since God had already sent an angel to tell him that he was supposed to lead the armies into battle, Gideon wanted to check to see if those orders were still in place. He designed this oracle to give the Lord a chance to communicate a change in orders. Gideon said, “If there is dew on the fleece alone, and it is dry on all the ground, then I shall know that you will save Israel by my hand, as you have said” (v. 37). If the answer was yes (orders unchanged), Gideon asked for the normal occurrence to take place: fleece wet with dew, threshing floor dry. After that happened, however, Gideon found himself still plagued with doubt—what if the Lord was simply ignoring him? So with great apology (appropriate, since God had already given instruction), he then asked for the indicator to be switched; having the fleece dry and the threshing floor wet. This does indeed show a lack of faith on his part.
Water test for warriors (Judg. 7:5–7). Many interpreters have seen in this test an indication of which soldiers were savvy and alert. Unfortunately, interpreters cannot agree on whether the savvy ones were the three hundred who were kept or the rest who were sent home. Others conclude that the test is arbitrary and has nothing to do with military skills. Since the text does not sufficiently clarify the situation, it would be best not to build a particular theory into the lesson.
Ephod (Judg. 8:27). The ephod was originally a piece of clothing (e.g., that worn by the priest, Ex. 28:6–14). In the ancient world around Israel, just as the gods were fed (sacrifices) and housed (temples) they were also clothed (that is, the images were). It is possible that Gideon’s ephod represented the clothing of Yahweh (not actually on an image) just as the ark was the footstool of Yahweh’s throne. As such it could be used as an oracular device. Since Gideon had been “successful” in gaining an oracle from God by means of the fleece, it would seem that he decided to exploit this success as he set up this oracular device so that he could serve as a mediator of God’s communication to the people. If the fleece showed a weakness, as we have suggested, the ephod institutionalizes that weakness.
Midianites. The Midianites were semi-nomadic people whose ancestry goes back to Abraham (Gen. 25:2). These were the people that Moses spent his time with during his exile and from whom he acquired his wife (Ex. 2:15–21).
Threshing wheat in a winepress. Threshing is the process by which the grain is separated from the stalk. It was usually done in a large open area of rock or hard pounded dirt (the threshing floor) because the next step was winnowing, which involved throwing the product high in the air so that the wind would blow away the waste and the seed would fall to the ground. The winnowing process could be observed from quite a distance, and, in this case, could draw the invaders who would then confiscate the harvest. The winepress was generally more compact and not necessarily out in the open. By using it, Gideon could not process nearly the volume of grain, but at least the Midianites would not be alerted to the activity. This was not the behavior of a coward but of a careful person trying to provide for his family.
Baal and Asherah. Baal was the storm god of the Canaanites and considered responsible for the fertility of the earth. Asherah was associated with the fertility of people. They were two of the principal gods of the Canaanites, the worship of which influenced those who remained in the land. We should not think that in adopting the worship of Baal and Asherah that the people had given up the worship of Yahweh. They had simply adopted other gods alongside Yahweh, as polytheists tended to do (cf. Judg. 6:13, 25).
Trumpets and torches. Trumpets (here the ram’s horn, shofar) were used for giving signals for the army, and torches were used to light up the battle arena and form a perimeter for night operations. Usually only a few soldiers were assigned to each task because most were engaged in the fighting. When the Midianites awoke to see three hundred torches and heard hundreds of trumpets sound, they must have immediately concluded that there was an enormous fighting force, since this many could be spared for the noncombat functions.
Mistakes to Avoid
Using a fleece-like test is not an appropriate way to discover God’s will. God indulged Gideon’s weakness, but that does not mean that he approved of Gideon’s procedure. The problem with Gideon’s procedure is that it, in effect, pushed God into a corner. No matter what happened, Gideon was going to take the result as God’s communication, thus demanding that God communicate in Gideon’s way and in Gideon’s time. This is not how God ought to be treated. He communicates in his own time in his own way. God is not obligated to respond to such contrived methods. Younger children would certainly have difficulty understanding the premise underlying oracles, which play a visible role in this story. It is interesting that sometimes Gideon is portrayed as a coward in the opening scene, where he was just trying to be cautious and responsible, but as a person of spiritual discernment in the fleece incident, when he was manipulating God. This shows how mistaken we can be when we try to turn the biblical characters into role models. As always, this is not about the hero Gideon; it is about the sovereign God.
John H. Walton and Kim E. Walton, The Bible Story Handbook: A Resource for Teaching 175 Stories from the Bible (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2010), 131–135.