by Patrick Reardon
It is a point of historical irony that the military success of Barak and Deborah, narrated in Judges 4–5, is what produced the crisis faced by Gideon in the chapters that follow. By his overthrow of the powerful Canaanite kings, Barak’s forces had removed a formidable military presence which prevented various tribes of Bedouin nomads, notably the Midianites and their confederates, from ravaging the cultivated fields, orchards, vineyards, and granaries of the Promised Land. Now, with the elimination of that impediment, those marauders could ride in on their camels and pillage the countryside at will.
Fearsome and unscrupulous predators, the Midianites were also cunning, for they habitually scheduled their invasions at harvest times, causing economic disaster, even famine, among the Israelites (cf. Ruth 1.1). Judges 6 describes how the Lord raised up Gideon as a champion to meet this crisis.
Gideon’s task, however, would be more than merely political and military, because the crisis itself was more than political and military. In the Bible’s analysis, the theological root of the problem was Israel’s infidelity to the Covenant of Mount Sinai. Beyond the political aspects of their plight, it was clear to Gideon that God was punishing the Israelites for their involvement in the worship of Canaanite gods, whose chief was Baal. Indeed, Gideon’s own father was a worshipper of Baal. The success of Gideon’s mission would depend, therefore, on his first addressing that theological root of the difficulty.
He did so at once, taking ten men to assist him in the overthrow of the Baal shrine maintained by his father. From that point on, events began to unroll pretty rapidly, for a large invasion force of Midianites and others suddenly arrived from the east, crossed the Jordan River, and camped in the fertile valley of Jezreel. Probably impressed by the sheer boldness of Gideon, manifest in his attack on the worship of Baal, his countrymen spontaneously accepted his leadership to meet the impending attack.
It was clear to everyone, anyway, that Gideon was in charge of the situation, for the Spirit of the Lord took decisive hold him (Judges 6.34). The Hebrew verb used to describe this transformation, is especially striking, for it literally says that the Spirit ‘clothed itself’ (labshah) with Gideon. This expression, sometimes used for the putting on of armour, indicates that Gideon would serve as the instrument of God’s Spirit in the events to come.
The transformation of Gideon was evident to all. Whereas fear had prompted him to use the cover of night in destroying Baal’s shrine (6.27), Gideon now began to act with open, executive boldness, sending out messengers to the other Israelites for their assistance in the impending battle.
Three scenes in particular have rendered most memorable the story of Gideon. First, there was a consultation of the Lord by means of ‘putting out a fleece’ (6.36-40). The purpose of this experiment was to determine whether Gideon’s resolve was truly of God, and not simply a human impulse for glory and vengeance. Just as Israel’s crisis was radically spiritual, its resolution would have to be radically spiritual, so Gideon wanted to be quite certain that the new strength he felt was truly of the Holy Spirit, and not just a burst of what we today call adrenaline. It is most important not to confuse the flesh and the Spirit, especially during a crisis.
Second, there was the curious exercise by which, at the Lord’s bidding, Gideon reduced the size of his gathered army. Indeed, the reduction was of ridiculous proportions – from thirty-two thousand to three hundred! (7.1-8) If this victory was to be truly of God, it was important that no human being could take credit for it, because the Sprit of God is not to be identified with any human force or fleshly impulse.
Third, there was Gideon’s defeat of the Midianites by the singularly improbable means of the breaking of jars and the blowing of trumpets (7.15-23). This latter action is, of course, reminiscent of Joshua’s overthrow of the walls of Jericho and conveys the identical message. Namely, that God, alone victorious over His enemies, alone deserves the praise, a truth to which Gideon himself bore witness by his subsequent refusal to become king (8.22f). This was a lesson God’s humbled people needed to learn, and their defeat of the Midianites would be in vain, if they did not learn it.