The Pursuit of God

Serious Topics for Serious Christians

Gideon: Idolatrous to the End

Gideon: Idolatrous to the End

There is much more to the story of Gideon than a man who was wringing out some soggy fleeces and scaring an army with lanterns. The story of Gideon we usually hear from the pulpit is only the first part. The point of this post is to familiarize you with the entire account.

It’s been seven years of misery for the Israelites. They are being viciously oppressed by the nasty Midianites, Amalekites and other people groups to the east of them, but Midian is highlighted as the main oppressor. The Midianites are aggressive bullies. They take up camp in the land in huge numbers. The author of Judges describes them as “swarms of locusts” (Jud. 6:5). They purposely destroy Israelites crops and animals, not sparing a living thing. Their victims’ only defense is to hide out in mountain clefts, caves and other strongholds (Jud. 6:2). By the time of Judges 6, Israel is on the defensive, Midian has the upper hand, and the Israelites are sick of it.

As they always do in times of great distress, the Israelites cry out to Yahweh for help and at the same time complain about His lack of care. Yahweh responds by sending them a prophet to remind them why He is making their lives so hard. As the prophet speaks, we find Yahweh referring back to the time of Exodus: a common pattern when He is summarizing Israel’s long history of idolatry. He tells the people:

“I brought you up out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery. 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. I said to you, ‘I am Yahweh your God; do not worship the gods of the Amorites, in whose land you live.’ But you have not listened to Me.” (Jud. 6:7)

Now you’d think this word from God would travel fast. But apparently Gideon hasn’t heard about it for when an angel visits him in the next scene, he has the gall to suggest Yahweh is being unfair. In response to the angel’s famous “Yahweh is with you, mighty warrior” greeting, he says:

“Pardon me, my lord, but if Yahweh 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 Yahweh bring us up out of Egypt?’ But now Yahweh has abandoned us and given us into the hand of Midian” (Jud. 6:13).

As usual, God gets nothing but complaints. We’ll soon see evidence that Gideon is well aware of the rampant idolatry in the land, but he doesn’t give God one ounce of sympathy in this exchange. POINT TO PONDER: Do we stop to consider God’s point of view today when complaining to Him about the problems our nation is facing?

In yet another display of incredible grace and mercy, God doesn’t address Gideon’s bad attitude, but instead moves the conversation forward with:

“Go in the strength you have and save Israel out of Midian’s hand. Am I not sending you?” (Jud. 6:14)

Now the game plan is revealed: God has decided it’s time to beat Midian back and He’s choosing Gideon to be His front man. Gideon answers with a protest (no surprise there):

“Pardon me, my lord, but how can I save Israel? My clan is the weakest in Manasseh, and I am the least in my family.” (Jud. 6:15)

Here’s the same old protest God always gets: “I’m so small, I’m so weak, I come from a family of nobodies.” We’re reminded here why God was so very pleased with David: a young man who marched out in full confidence of God’s abilities without a bunch of silly arguments. But David hasn’t even been born yet, so God’s working with what He has. Once again He assures Gideon that He’s going to massacre the Midianites, leaving no survivors.

It’s become clear that this “angel” is God Himself and that God came and sat down under a tree at the start of this conversation, so Gideon is talking to a Being that he can both see and hear. Yet at this point he asks God to wait around while he whips up an offering.

“If now I have found favor in Your eyes, give me a sign that it is really You talking to me.” (Jud. 6:17)

Amazing us all again with His patience, God agrees to twiddle His thumbs while Gideon gets the ingredients for his goat offering. When Gideon finally comes back with some unleavened bread, goat chunks and goat broth, God has him put the ingredients on a rock which He then causes to burst into flame supernaturally. The Lord now vanishes. Finally convinced he’s been talking to God, Gideon has the usual moment of panic that he’s going to somehow fall over dead for having seen God’s face but once again, God assures him that he’ll be alright.

Gideon builds a little altar to memoralize the spot where all this excitement happened. Now the Lord is wanting to get down to business so He tells Gideon to cut down his father’s offensive altar to Baal and its accompanying Asherah pole (symbolizing the goddess Asherah, one of Baal’s many co-deities in the pagan mind). Afraid of how his family might react (after all, it is daddy’s pole), Gideon waits until the cover of darkness to obey. POINT TO PONDER: If we try to obey God when no one’s looking, aren’t we insulting Him? Shouldn’t God be treated like a friend we’re proud to be seen with instead of like Someone that we’re embarrassed to be associated with?

When the town wakes up the next morning and finds their idolatry materials mangled, they’re quite ticked. Gideon’s buddies of course blab that he did it, and the townspeople are ready to murder in cold blood but daddy Joash comes to the rescue.

“Are you going to plead Baal’s cause? Are you trying to save him? Whoever fights for him shall be put to death by morning! If Baal really is a god, he can defend himself when someone breaks down his altar.” (Jud. 6:31)

Joash deserves some applause for this little speech which sends the people packing, but not before they give Gideon the nickname “Jerub-Baal” which means something like “the one Baal contends with.” You’ll see Gideon referred to by both names during his story in Judges, which can be rather confusing.

Something riles up Israel’s bullies to the east because we’re told they all group up in one massive camp on the other side of the Jordan River. The Holy Spirit comes on Gideon and he starts sending word out to amass his own army of volunteers from various tribes and his hometown.

And here we come to the famous fleeces. Although God has already promised Gideon victory multiple times, Gideon wants to review the whole thing again. He puts out first one fleece, and then another, both times asking God to do what his little human mind considers impossible. God patiently gives him the two additional confirmations that yes, He did mean what He said.

Now we move into Chapter 7 and Gideon is finally done asking God to repeat Himself. God wants to be sure the glory for this whole affair goes in the right direction, so He whittles Gideon’s army down from over 32,000 men to a mere 300. Now God feels comfortable.

“With the three hundred men that lapped I will save you and give the Midianites into your hands.” (Jud. 7:7)

Night comes and God says this is the moment to attack. But He knows Gideon’s petrified, so this time He volunteers to give him yet another sign of assurance before our little doubter can ask.

“Get up, go down against the camp, because I am going to give it into your hands. If you are afraid to attack, go down to the camp with your servant Purah and listen to what they are saying. Afterward, you will be encouraged to attack the camp.” (Jud. 7:9-11)

Gideon doesn’t need to be asked twice. He sneaks down to eavesdrop and hears one Midianite telling his buddy about a creepy dream he had in which their whole camp was overturned by a little loaf of barley bread that came rolling in. His friend’s reply is so obviously from God that it’s rather hilarious:

“This can be nothing other than the sword of Gideon son of Joash, the Israelite. God has given the Midianites and the whole camp into his hands.” (Jud. 7:14)

Finally locating his courage, Gideon goes back to his boys, arms them all with trumpets, jars and torches, then they spread out in a very thin circle around the massive camp in the valley below. On cue, they all shout and break their jars then hold up their torches. Hardly threatening. But we’re told the Lord strikes terror into the camp and everyone starts killing his neighbor in panic. The survivors flee in fright and Gideon goes in hot pursuit, sending out messengers through the land of Ephraim for men to come and help. Ephraim responds and at the end of the chapter, they’re bringing back the heads of their enemies.

Chapter 8 begins with Ephraim getting all miffed because they weren’t called in to help in with the first attack on Midian. We’re told they are challenging Gideon aggressively and he answers:

“What have I accomplished compared to you? Aren’t the gleanings of Ephraim’s grapes better than the full grape harvest of Abiezer? God gave Oreb and Zeeb, the Midianite leaders, into your hands. What was I able to do compared to you?” (Jud. 8:2-3)

Downsizing his own accomplishment as nothing in comparison with the mighty men of Ephraim beheading the Midianite leaders, Gideon avoids more personal harassment. But notice God doesn’t exactly get applauded for the initial Midian attack. One can’t help but wonder if Gideon downsized the Lord’s work a little too much in an effort to butter up his prideful allies.

With their egos properly petted, the Ephraimites decide to drop the subject. Now we are surprised to find out the battle still isn’t over. There are still enemies on the run and Gideon and his very tired band of 300 press on after them. Crossing the Jordan, they get to Sukkoth where Gideon demands some quick sustenance for his men, explaining to everyone that they’re still in pursuit of the Midian two kings: Zebah and Zalmunna. But the officials of Sukkoth aren’t about to help a bunch of ragged men who are fighting to help save all of Israel. Gideon is justifiably ticked by this lack of support. His response, however, seems a bit over the top.

“Just for that, when the LORD has given Zebah and Zalmunna into my hand, I will tear your flesh with desert thorns and briers.” (Jud. 8:7)

He promises to return for revenge, and then he and his men press on to another town where he makes the same appeal for sustenance and gets the same snarky answer. So he swears to come back and rip down that town’s tower. So much for the trembling leaf who couldn’t take down Baal’s altar in broad daylight. Gideon is now on the warpath of revenge and we aren’t told whether or not his nasty plans are approved of by God.

Once again, Gideon gets the victory over his enemies: slaughtering masses of them with only a handful of men. Taking the two Midian kings captive, he hauls them back on the same route he came in on. He runs into a youth from the town of Sukkoth and coerces the lad into writing down the names of all the town elders. We know revenge is on his mind. Hauling his prisoners to Sukkoth, he rubs his victory in their faces and then beats their seventy elders up with desert briars and thorns. Rather reminds us of the scourging Jesus receives. Gideon obviously doesn’t flinch at the role of torturer. One can’t help feeling like he’s gone too far. He also goes to that second nasty town, Peniel, and pulls down their tower as promised. Then he takes things a step further and kills all the men of that town before finally killing his two regal prisoners.

Returning home after intense bloodshed of both his enemies and kinsmen, Gideon finds the Israelites ready to vote him into office as their new ruler. But he turns down the offer, saying:

“I will not rule over you, nor will my son rule over you. The LORD will rule over you.” (Jud. 8:23)

With his adrenaline rush over, Gideon’s disinterest in leading seems to fit well with his earlier pattern of behavior. We have a hard time picturing him with the courage or stamina needed to rule over a bickering people who are so prone to going astray. He does, however, show enough cunning to take advantage of this moment. After turning down the people’s offer, he gives them a smaller counteroffer that he knows they can’t refuse. Just one simple earring from each person’s pile of plunder. Turns out the Midianites loved their jewelry because Gideon’s pile of earrings ends up weighing an estimated forty-three pounds. And of course he has a nice stash of personal plunder besides.

Now at last Gideon can relax in his hometown of Ophrah. We expect the story to end here but instead we get a shocking bit of news. Our hero melts down the gold in his plunder and forms it into an ephod (breastplate). He displays it in some public spot in Ophrah and the next thing we know everyone’s bowing down worshiping this stupid hunk of metal.

“All Israel prostituted themselves by worshiping it there, and it became a snare to Gideon and his family.” (Jud. 8:27)

Notice the language used. Some versions say “played the harlot with it.” God continuously likens idolatry to sinful sex throughout the Bible and His unfaithful bride as a harlot. POINT TO PONDER: Sexual relations are the most intimate form of bonding that we humans know. For God to describe idolatry as watching His wife having sex with other men tells us just how deeply betrayed and violated this particular sin makes Him feel. If we care about God’s heart, we should be extremely guarded about who or what we express devotion towards. Admiration for other humans, our jobs, or even our material possessions can easily turn into idolatry if we are not careful.

In Judges 8:28, we’re told that for the rest of Gideon’s life (forty years), Israel had peace. Verse 29 is confusing, for we’re told “Jerub-Baal son of Joash went back home to live.” Remember this is the nickname Gideon was given for tearing down Baal’s altar two chapters ago. Interesting that the author suddenly brings up this name again, perhaps it is intended as a derogatory reminder that Gideon tore down one set of idolatrous monuments only to invent a new one. We rarely hear this sour note which Gideon’s story ends on. The last details we’re given about him is that he has seventy sons from a harem of wives, including one son from a concubine living in Shechem. Obviously Gideon’s been busy in bed, and when we learn that he names his concubine’s son Abimelech–which means “my father is king”–it confirms our suspicion that Gideon’s refusal to lead his people had nothing to do with humility.

In Judges 8:32 we’re told “Gideon son of Joash died at a good old age and was buried in the tomb of his father Joash in Ophrah of the Abiezrites.” After reminding us all of Gideon’s crummy nickname, the author parts company with Gideon on a dignified note. But the name games aren’t quite over yet.

“No sooner had Gideon died than the Israelites again prostituted themselves to the Baals. They set up Baal-Berith as their god and did not remember Yahweh their God, who had rescued them from the hands of all their enemies on every side. They also failed to show any loyalty to the family of Jerub-Baal (that is, Gideon) in spite of all the good things he had done for them.” (Jud. 8:33-35)

We later learn that a temple to the god Baal-Berith exists in the city of Schechem (where Gideon’s concubine lover lived). Notice how the author once again refers to Gideon by his idolatrous nickname when describing how quickly the people fell away from God. Somehow we have trouble mourning the fact that Gideon’s heirs aren’t being doted on for their father’s heroism. He did, after all, make an idol the minute he got back into town. Hardly a role model for loyalty to God.

Gideon is often upheld as a great icon of faith who stumbles at the starting gate, but then races boldly forth. Having examined the entire account of his life which God has chosen to provide for us, we will argue that this man’s interest in God was merely a flash in the pan. Sex was a common means by which people worshiped the Baal gods and Schechem was the temple bearing capital of Baal worship. Knowing Gideon has a mistress living in Schechem, plus the fact that his father had erected a family altar to Baal suggests that Gideon had pretty strong personal ties to Baal himself. He certainly never paid the real God much mind. He simply moved from Baal to a substitute ephod idol. We never hear of him worshiping God, nor do we hear God making any comment of being pleased with this man. It seems more likely that God was simply using the tools at hand, and Gideon was just one of a bunch of bad options. The fact that he came from such a nothing family perhaps made him more useable to God because he had no clan pride in his way, unlike the pompous Ephramites. But once he got going, Gideon seemed too eager to brutalize anyone who didn’t jump at his orders. Even though he needed constant reassurances from God at the beginning, we don’t hear of him ever consulting the Lord while he’s on the warpath. Instead he seems to rely solely on gut instinct and emotional flare-ups—hardly the kind of man we’d like to model after. In the next chapter, we’ll learn that Gideon’s son does rise up to take charge of Israel and he is a bloodthirsty creep. Again, we wonder what kind of character Gideon modeled for his kids. Yet considering his widespread sexual romps, idol worshiping and plunder hoarding, it’s doubtful that fathering was ever a priority in Gideon’s mind.

The fact that Gideon’s name is mentioned as an aside in the Hebrews “Hall of Faith” (Heb 11:32) has led some to conclude he must have been some kind of faith icon. But Samson is also mentioned in that list and it’s hard to find an uglier combination of hormones and rebellion than him. As always, we must be careful not to jump to conclusions without thoughtful consideration of the text and we must always judge with God’s priorities in mind. The author of Hebrews only mentions Gideon in a context of naming people who experienced God doing miraculous things through them. We know that it was the Lord, not Gideon’s mighty faith, which set the Midian camp in chaos. We also know that Gideon’s faith was anything but mighty, and his lack of reverence before and after his brief triumph show him to be a real spiritual loser. God likes to work through the unlikely and even the disobedient (such as Jonah) in order to get His Divine agenda done. The lesson we can glean from Gideon is this: God’s power and His approval are two very separate concepts. Just because God works miracles through a particular human does not mean that human is commendable in His eyes. In an attempt to treat God’s power like a water faucet that we can turn on and off at will, we have invented formulas for how He works that completely ignore Biblical history. For example, many healers in the church today boast that personal righteousness is a key to their success, and then they blame those who do not get healed at their hands as “blocking” God’s power through unconfessed sin. This, of course, is total hogwash. God will work through whomever He wants, even people who generally annoy Him. The sincere Christian must not get derailed by wishing to be a channel for God’s power on earth. Instead, we must seek to please God’s heart with our sincere reverence and deep concern for His feelings. Far better to be a soul that God considers to be “one after My own heart” than to be a fickle Gideon who speaks with God face to face and witnesses His great power up close, only to end up lusting after a lifeless lump of gold.

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