“Go in the strength you have and save Israel out of Midian’s hand. Am I not sending you?” (Jdg. 6:14)The hesitant hero of this story did ask God for reassuring signs. And God did graciously reassure him. Gideon’s experience teaches an important lesson about “putting out the fleece.” But not, perhaps, the lesson we expect.
Definition of Key Terms
Angel of the Lord. Many believe the Old Testament Angel of the Lord is a theophany, an appearance of God in human form. It is important to distinguish between such Old Testament appearances and the Incarnation. In Jesus Christ, God the Son took on human nature and became a true human being. The Angel of the Lord simply looked like a human being.
Israel’s southeastern tribes were severely oppressed by the Midianites when the Angel of the Lord commissioned Gideon to deliver them (6:1–16). Gideon obeyed God and tore down a local altar to Baal (vv. 17–35), but asked for miraculous signs to confirm God’s commitment to keep His promise (vv. 36–40). Gideon’s army was reduced to 300 men (7:1–8). After further confirmation (vv. 9–14), Gideon attacked and routed the Midianites (vv. 15–25). Gideon’s humility avoided intertribal war (8:1–5), but he decisively punished Israelite towns that refused aid when he was pursuing the Midianite kings (vv. 6–21). Later Gideon made a gold ephod which became an idol to Israel (vv. 22–35).
Understanding the Text
“The power of Midian was so oppressive” Jdg. 6:1–6. The Midianites were a nomadic people who periodically invaded Israel to steal the harvest. These southwestern people led a coalition of Midianites and other races of the Syrian desert. When Israel originally conquered them, they had relied on donkeys for transportation (Num. 31:32–34). Here they are described riding camels, perhaps the first large-scale military use of these animals in history. The Midianites penetrated deeply into southern and central Israel, stealing or ruining crops and forcing the Israelites to hide in caves. “You have not listened to Me” Jdg. 6:7–10. An unnamed prophet reminded the Israelites that God had been faithful in His commitment to them. The disaster came because the Israelites were not faithful to the Lord. It’s foolish to blame God for the evil consequences of our own sins. Even so, God heard Israel’s prayers (v. 6) and determined to save His disobedient people once again. How good to realize when we have sinned that God will hear us if we turn to Him. “Where are all His wonders?” Jdg. 6:11–14 When the Angel of the Lord appeared, Gideon was threshing grain in a winepress. The normal place for threshing was a windy hilltop, where the breeze would separate wheat and chaff. Gideon used a winepress, usually a walled area at the bottom of a hill, to thresh. The act illustrates how fearful the Israelites were that they might be seen by the Midianites and their crop stolen. It’s no wonder that Gideon, forced to look fearfully in every direction as he surreptitiously threshed his grain, responded with sarcasm when the angel told him, “The Lord is with you, mighty warrior.” If Gideon was a mighty warrior, why was he hiding in a winepress? If God was really with Israel, where were the miracles of deliverance He performed for the fathers? All too often our circumstances rob us of a sense of God’s presence too. Yet often, as in Gideon’s case, when we feel most deserted, or even most cynical, God has already begun to act. God told Gideon, “Go in the strength you have.” Each of us is to act in the strength we have, relying on the fact that God is truly with us even if we do not sense His presence. “Gideon . . . did as the Lord told him” Jdg. 6:15–29. Gideon’s “offering” was the kind of gift normally given to a visitor, not a sacrifice such as would be made to God. When fire flared from a rock and burned up the food Gideon brought, he realized that his guest was the Angel of the Lord. Though Gideon was perhaps too aware of his weakness (v. 15), he obeyed God’s command and destroyed the local altar of Baal and the associated Asherah pole. This might well have taken Gideon’s 10 men all night! One Baal altar found at Megiddo was 4–1/2 feet high and 26 feet across, made of bricks cemented in mud! Gideon’s fear of the men of the town was a result of his accurate assessment of the situation. If he had acted in the daytime, the townspeople would surely have stopped him. God did not command Gideon to tear down the altar by daylight. Gideon’s choice suggests wisdom, not cowardice. It’s not necessary to advertise our obedience. It’s enough to obey. “They called Gideon ‘Jerub-Baal’ ” Jdg. 6:30–35. The furious citizens were put off by the ridicule of Gideon’s father, apparently an influential man. The name, when first given to Gideon, suggested Baal was at war with Gideon. Later, after the victory over Midian, the emphasis subtly shifts, and “Jerub-Baal” is used proudly in the sense of “Baal fighter.” “If You will save Israel . . . as You have promised” Jdg. 6:33–40. Gideon acted boldly and sent messengers to several tribes to recruit an army. His public actions were bold, but Gideon still experienced private doubts and fears. Gideon’s prayers about the fleece were not an effort to determine what God’s will was. Gideon knew that. The requests were made for Gideon’s own personal encouragement, and were made only after Gideon had already demonstrated his willingness to obey God. “You have too many men” Jdg. 7:1–8. Gideon needed that reassurance. In a series of steps God reduced Gideon’s army from 32,000 to a mere 300. The reason is instructive. Victory won by 300 over thousands would make God’s role clear. Sometimes we are asked to undertake great tasks with few resources, that the glory might belong to God. “If you are afraid to attack” Jdg. 7:9–15. Gideon was given one last encouragement by the Lord, in the form of a dream reported by a Midianite as Gideon lay hidden near the enemy camp. The specification of “barley bread” is significant. Barley was the grain used by the poor to make bread. It symbolized downtrodden Israel. In the ancient world, dreams were viewed as a channel by which the gods communicated with men. In this case, God did give the dream and its interpretation. God is not limited in the means He uses to communicate with us—or in the instruments He chooses. “A sword for the Lord and for Gideon!” Jdg. 7:16–25 Gideon’s primary weapon in the battle was terror. The sudden appearance of flaming torches on the hillside, accompanied by a cacaphony of loud, harsh notes blown on 300 rams’-horn trumpets, threw the Midianite camp into such turmoil that in the confusion the enemy soldiers struck out at each other. The Midianite army fled, and the Israelites appeared and took up pursuit. It’s easy to join the fight when our side is obviously winning. It’s harder to be 1 of 300 who take that first stand against an enemy. Yet without the first, bold 300, there could be no victories at all. Let’s remember this when you or I are challenged to take a stand on any moral issue in our church or society. “Their resentment . . . subsided” Jdg. 8:1–3. Gideon’s original call for volunteers had not gone to the tribe of Ephraim. Now this group, which did pursue the fleeing Midianites, criticized Gideon. Gideon did not try to explain. He did not take offense. Instead he very wisely gave the Ephraimites credit for what they had accomplished, and suggested humbly that they had done more than he himself had. Let people who want credit have it. Those who most deserve credit, like Gideon, seldom find it important. “The officials of Succoth” Jdg. 8:4–17. The attitude of the officials of Succoth and Peniel, who not only refused to aid Gideon but even ridiculed him, called for repayment. These Israelites refused to join in the battle, and displayed contempt for the God who had called Gideon to lead Israel in a holy way. “During Gideon’s lifetime, the land enjoyed peace” Jdg. 8:22–35. Gideon, still carrying the name “Baal-fighter,” kept Israel from worshiping Baal during his lifetime. But Gideon showed two signs of weakness. One, he made a gold ephod (like a vest, worn by Israel’s high priest), which in time was worshiped as an idol. Two, though Gideon overtly refused an offer of kingship, he later named one of his children Abimelech. The Hebrew means “My father is king!” Later this son took his name too much to heart. After Gideon died, Abimelech killed all of his brothers, and for a time served as a petty king ruling over a tiny part of the land of Israel.
Put Out Your Fleece? (Jdg. 6:25–7:21)
How can you know the will of God for your life? Well, one way is not by “putting out the fleece.” That act by Gideon has another meaning entirely. Gideon sought reassurance, not knowledge of God’s will. God graciously answered Gideon’s prayer, because Gideon had already demonstrated his readiness to obey. There’s a pattern in these chapters that is very important. A fearful Gideon obeys God and tears down Baal’s altar (6:25–32). A Spirit-filled Gideon summons the Israelites to battle (6:33–35). A very human Gideon asks God for reassurance, and is given it when he puts out the fleece (6:36–40). An obedient Gideon sends home nearly all of the Israelite army (7:1–7). A fearful and very human Gideon is reassured by the dream God gives a Midianite soldier (7:8–15). A now-confident Gideon leads the attack on Midian. Note that reassurance was given after Gideon had obeyed a command of the Lord, not before. Sometimes we mistakenly put out our fleece, or beg God for some sign, before we obey Him. Then we wait, miserable, when no sign is given. What the experience of Gideon tells us is that obedience precedes reassurance. God may graciously give us a sign of His presence. But such signs are given to those who have already demonstrated faith by beginning to do His will.
If you know what God’s will is for you, don’t wait for a sign before you obey.