March 05, 2008

Judges 6-7: Prove it!

Today's reading is Judges 6-7 (read it in the KJV or NIV)

Today's passage covers Gideon's selection as God's chosen warrior; his mobilization of the northern Israelite army; and his defeat of Midian.

It happened again. The Israelites fell back into corruption and God sent a conquering army to, well, conquer them. In this case, the enemy was Midian, and they reigned over Israel for seven years. Their rule was so oppressive that the Israelites were forced to hid in caves while the Midianites destroyed all their crops and cattle. (Judg. 6:1-6)

Of course, the Israelites called to God. And, of course, God answered.

This time, God chose Gideon to lead his army. However, unlike the previous judges we've encountered, Gideon isn't so quick to accept God's word at face value.

In the initial encounter between Gideon and God's angel, Gideon is downright skeptical. In fact, we haven't seen a man this skeptical of God's message since Moses faced the burning bush. (Ex. 3-4) The exchange, from Judg. 6:11-23, goes something like this (and I paraphrase):
God: The Lord is with you, mighty warrior.
Gideon: If the Lord is with us, why did He let Midian conquer us?
God: I'm sending you to oust them. Can't you see that?
Gideon: But I'm a nobody. I'm the least son of the weakest family in Manasseh.
God: I'll be with you, and you will kill the Midianites. Don't worry.
Gideon: Wait, don't leave! Show me a sign first.
God: Fine, I'll wait.
Gideon: [runs home, slaughters a goat, bakes a cake, and brings them back to God.]
God: Put the offering on this rock.
[Gideon does so; God lights the whole thing on fire and disappears.]
Gideon: Oh no, I've seen the face of God! Now I'm going to die!]
God: (somehow reappearing) You're not going to die. Don't worry.

Admittedly, my rendition is somewhat tongue-in-cheek, but through it we can see the extent of Gideon's skepticism. He asks what we might consider normal questions: "If God is with us, why did He let us get conquered?" Please note that God never actually answers the question.

Even after God's repeated reassurances, Gideon refuses to agree unless God shows him a sign. He refuses to accept God's word at face value, but only trusts in signs. To an extent, this is quite practical: the ancient Mediterranean was full of false prophets and, as Gideon mentioned, he's not a particularly likely candidate. It's possible that someone was playing a practical joke on him.

However, even after receiving this first sign, Gideon continually asks for more.

Gideon assembles a 30,000-man army from Manasseh, Asher, Zebulun, Naphtali, and the Abiezerites (in other words, the northern tribes west of the Jordan). However, before leading them into battle, he asks God for not one, but two more signs. He puts a fleece on the floor and asks that the first night the fleece be full of dew while the surrounding ground is dry, and the second night he asks for the opposite. In both cases, God delivers and Gideon is, for the moment, satisfied. (Judg. 6:36-40)

God requests that Gideon winnow down his army, lest the Israelites think that they repulsed the Midianites on their own. Gideon cuts his army to 10,000 and then finally to 300 before God is happy. On the other hand, this is the Bible, so extreme inferiority of numbers isn't a hindrance if God is on your side. (Judg. 7:1-8)

The time is ripe for attack. God gives the order to Gideon to lead his men in victory. But first, it's time for another sign! God tells Gideon that if he's afraid, he should take his servant and sneak down to the Midianite camp and listen to what they say. Gideon dutifully agrees, and hears a Midianite talking about his dream, in which a barley cake tumbled into the camp and destroyed a tent. His fellow soldier interprets this dream (for truly obscure reasons) to mean that the barley cake is in fact Gideon. Gideon hears the interpretation, breathes a sigh of relief, walks back up the hill, and routs the Midianites in a night-time sneak attack. (Judg. 7:8-21)

What strikes me about this entire story is the number of times Gideon asks for proof of God's intentions. The first time, it's understandable; one needs to know one's associates. After that first time, though, the skepticism is somewhat overbearing, especially by Biblical standards. It's a wonder that God doesn't get exasperated with Gideon and smite him just for the sake of it.

True, Gideon is perhaps more modern than Ehud or Barak, who both took their nomination as God's messenger at face value. On the other hand, his skepticism seems at odds with other Biblical values, namely unwavering faith in God. Perhaps this is just another example of the Book of Judges putting twists on previously unified themes.

1 comment:

Katkol said...

My name is Katherine and I came across your blog today. It's nice to see someone with so much faith.

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