The Book of Judges portrays one of the most depressing eras in Israel’s history. What a solemn lesson: that a nation so miraculously rescued from 400 years of slavery in Egypt and unfailingly sustained by Jehovah’s timely provision through a 40-year wilderness odyssey, could, in just one generation, fall to the level described in the Book of Judges.
Someone Dropped The Ball
The first two chapters of Judges summarize the book; later chapters detail events and the succession of judges. Judges 2:7-11 states the book’s tragic background: “The people served the Lord throughout the lifetime of Joshua and of the elders who outlived him and who had seen all the great things the Lord had done for Israel … After that whole generation had been gathered to their fathers, another generation grew up, who knew neither the Lord nor what He had done for Israel. Then the Israelites did evil in the eyes of the Lord.”
The tragedy of Judges is that the torch of God’s witness had not been effectively passed from generation to generation, and a vicious cycle – of sin, subjugation, supplication, salvation, serenity, and then sin again – repeated itself, over and over. They were God’s people but they did not know their God,
Gideon may have judged Israel in the middle of the 400+ year period covered by Judges. He does not at first appear to be hero material, but he does stand out for his faith and courage against the background of an entire nation cowering in caves, completely demoralized and at the mercy of the marauding Midianites. With their allies, the Midianites had “camped on the land and ruined the crops and did not spare a living thing … They came up with their livestock and their tents like swarms of locusts. It was impossible to count the men and their camels; they invaded the land to ravage it. Midian so impoverished the Israelites that they cried out to the Lord for help” (6:1-6).
God’s first answer to their cry was a prophet who reminded them that Jehovah had delivered them from their Egyptian oppressors and had given them this rich land, instructing them to worship Him alone and stay away from pagan gods. “But,” he concluded, “you have not listened to Me” (6:7-10).
Faith Might First Appear Timid
Nevertheless the ever-compassionate, ever-patient God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob also sent His angel to their rescue. Many scholars believe that Old Testament appearances of “the angel of the Lord” were really pre-incarnate visits to earth of Jesus Christ. If so, it was not simply one of the millions of angels at God’s command, but God the Son Himself who came directly to where Gideon was “threshing wheat in a winepress to keep it from the Midianites” (6:11). Awesome spectacle: the Lord of Glory paying a visit to a humble, oppressed Israelite furtively eking out a few grains of wheat. Jehovah is a personal God who cares about His people.
It was an unusual place for threshing wheat, but the winepress, a pit carved out of rock, offered some protection against discovery by an enemy sworn to deprive Israel of all sustenance. A threshing floor, by contrast, exposed to the winds that carry away the chaff, would have left Gideon and his enterprise exposed. It may seem cowardly, but Gideon was doing what he had to do to provide for his family.
“The Lord is with you, mighty warrior” (6:12). That sure didn’t seem to fit, and Gideon was shocked, though not so much by the “mighty warrior” part. He reacted with another question: “If the Lord is with us, why has all this happened to us? Where are all His wonders that our fathers told us about?” (6:13). I do not believe this is cynicism nor doubting on Gideon’s part. He is just trying to get the perspective. The miserable conditions in Israel seem incontrovertible proof of Jehovah’s absence. He’s really saying, “Please help me understand this.”
Notice, it’s “the Lord (in person) who turned to him and said, ‘Go in the strength you have and save Israel out of Midian’s hand. Am I not sending you?’” (6:14) At Horeb the Lord brought Moses a similar message: “I am the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob” (Ex. 3:15).
Like Moses, Gideon had objections. He was a nobody from a weak clan in an undistinguished tribe: credentials of the ultimate non-candidate for mighty deliverer, it would seem. But God saw a strength in Gideon’s confessed inability (6:14). Like Paul, to whom God said, “My grace is sufficient for you, for My power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Cor. 12:9), Gideon’s lack of qualifications made him a perfect fit as a glove for God’s almighty hand: “I will be with you,” He says, “and you will strike down all the Midianites together” (6:16).
Gideon asked for a sign by bringing an offering to the Lord, who graciously accepted, and brought fire out of the rock-altar to consume the sacrifice. Then he disappeared, and Gideon realized for the first time that he had been talking with the “Sovereign Lord” (6:22). Mere mortals were not supposed to survive such encounters, but the Lord reassured him. Humans too easily take God for granted and treat encounters with Him too casually. When it’s really God, the contact cannot be taken lightly, and Gideon felt the full gravity of the wonder he had witnessed.
This Is A Test
Gideon’s availability to the Lord was not in question; his personal weakness and lack of humanly recognizable qualifications were. He had serious self-doubts, but he seemed eager to be convinced and truly see the God he’d heard so much about prove Himself. God graciously obliged with a series of proofs designed to nurture and solidify Gideon’s growing faith.
The first event required his faith to act: tear down his father’s idolatrous altar to Baal and its Asherah pole, build a proper altar to Jehovah and offer his father’s choice bull on it. Gideon did not have the courage to do it in daylight, but he did at night. Enraged at their shrine’s desecration, the townspeople decreed death to the culprit. Investigation soon led them to Gideon. But Jehovah arranged a wonderful surprise to reward and strengthen His servant’s faith: Gideon’s father, Joash, owner of the shrine and the sacrificed bull, chose to defy the people and honor his son’s courage. Let Baal, the pagan god himself, if he be a god at all, prosecute the offender. In the process, Gideon got a nickname that stuck – Jerub-Baal, meaning “let Baal contend” – and a permanent identity as the man who dared to challenge Baal and Baal worship in Israel.
Perhaps this affront to their god Baal was a last-straw to provoke the Midianites to intensify their strangle-hold on the Israelites. Difficult situations often worsen when faith stands up and God takes up His people’s cause.
The Spirit of God came upon Gideon; Jehovah, Himself, encouraged His timid servant to sound a call to arms. The response was huge, but our hero’s faith had matured enough that he didn’t begin to indulge either self-confidence nor trust in a large army.
Nor did his faith crumble in the face of the escalated threat. It simply reached out to its source for further strengthening. Gideon’s “fleece tests” were not faithless questionings of God, but rather a growing faith asking God to blow away any remaining doubt. And Gideon’s patient God gently obliged to reassure His servant’s willing-but-hesitant obedience.
One commentary notes that Gideon’s army was a public affair and could not have escaped notice by Midian and her allies. They, however, would never consider such a small force a serious threat.
Too Much Room For Self-confidence
His faith strengthened, Gideon now faced another test: cut that army down to size! Gideon’s confidence in his God had obviously not spread to most of his army. Having responded initially to a euphoric rush, twenty-two thousand out of thirty-two thousand of his troops, given the option, returned home for sheer fear. Now what?
God says, in effect, “Still too many. This victory must be Mine; I won’t share it with men.” So God took them for a drink, and indicated He wanted those who “lap the water with their tongues like a dog” but not those who “kneel down to drink” (7:5). It might have been arbitrary, to simply show Gideon which ones were selected. It might also be that those who knelt showed less alertness to the enemy than those who brought water to their mouths with one hand while keeping eyes sharp, and holding a weapon ready in the other hand. Whatever the rationale, Gideon was left with only 300 hundred men, less than 1% of his original army!
There seems to be no hint of dismay or protest on Gideon’s part at this drastic reduction. His faith was growing. Beginning with these 300 men, God overwhelmed the Midianites: in the ensuing battle, 400 times their number, 120,000 were destroyed (8:10); and in the final rout, the remaining 15,000, another 50 times the 300, fell. All this evidently without a loss to Gideon’s army. Obviously, God doesn’t calculate the odds; He just overwhelms and outnumbers all opposition. Fight on His side and you can’t lose.
But we’re getting ahead of the story. God had one more boost for Gideon’s faith. He sent him and his servant into the camp where the enemy covered the land as “thick as locusts,” and their camels were as numerous as “the sand on the seashore” (7:9-12). “If you are afraid,” God said, “go down to the camp … and listen to what they are saying.” (We may wonder about Midianite security, but we know God can breach the best security for His people.) Gideon went and heard a Midianite soldier telling his dream: a barley loaf came tumbling into the camp and collapsed his tent. The man’s companion interpreted the dream: “This can be nothing other than the sword of Gideon … God has given the Midianites and the whole camp into his hands” (7:13-14). God promised Gideon a resounding victory by the enemy’s own mouth! Hearing it, Gideon “worshiped God” (7:15) – a primary purpose of God in all He does with us. Gideon was now ready.
Is This Military Strategy?
All this leads up to the account of what is probably history’s most unconventional battle. By God’s instruction, Gideon “armed” his men with 300 trumpets and 300 lighted torches hidden inside 300 clay jars. The fact that Gideon had been able to get into the enemy’s camp to overhear a conversation in a tent probably served to strengthen his faith to have his army of 300 surround the camp “at the beginning of the middle watch, just after they had changed the guard” (7:19). Had a reassuring cry of “ten o’clock, and all’s well!” just echoed through the camp?
In the darkness Gideon’s men took their places in three groups of 100 each around the camp. At the signal cry of “A sword for the Lord and for Gideon!” the men blew the trumpets and smashed the jars, shattering the night with a blast of sound and a blaze of light. The shock totally confused the enemy. Thinking themselves to be surrounded by an enormous army, and confused by the light and the trumpet sounds, they grabbed their swords, and began killing each other. Then they fled, and Gideon pursued them to a total rout.
The rest of the details, and Gideon’s later failure need not be discussed here. God is certainly grieved when His people, whose faith honors Him and whom He uses mightily, fail. But He graciously honors their faithfulness and commends their victories, as is witnessed by many – like Abraham, Moses, David, and many others, including Gideon.
Treasure In Jars Of Clay
I sometimes wonder whether Paul had Gideon’s victory in mind, as a kind of parable of our ongoing victory in Jesus’ power, when he wrote these words: “We have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us. We are hard-pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed. We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body” (2 Cor. 4:7-10).
By Bill Van Ryn
By Tim Hadley
With permission to publish by: Sam Hadley, Grace & Truth, 210 Chestnut St., Danville, IL., USA. Website: www.gtpress.org