Friday, December 31, 2021

The Judges. Day 35, The Downfall Of Abimelek, Part Two

Abimilek's vain ambitions and violent personality led him to have all his half-brothers slaughtered (with the exception of Jotham who escaped) in a bid to promote himself as the successor to his late father Gideon. Abimelek thought of his father, a former judge of Israel, as a king and he thinks of himself as a king. After the men of his hometown of Shechem financed his hiring of mercenaries to kill his brothers, they declared him king. We don't know whether they pronounced him "king of Israel" at his coronation but at no time was he a legitimate king of all Israel. As far as we know, though his influence may have extended past the borders of lower West Manasseh in which Shechem was located, he never held authority over all Israel and was probably never considered a king by anyone outside of his local region.

As we learned yesterday, after reigning for three years in Shechem, Abimelek's own people are tired of recognizing him as king. We don't know what caused them to become disenchanted with him. Perhaps he has not attained the widespread power they'd hoped for. Perhaps his political policies are displeasing to them. Perhaps he has levied onerous taxes upon them. Perhaps after backing him and financing him, they expected to be able to control him but he is unwilling to be a puppet king. Whatever their reasons are for turning against him, they are looking for someone to take his place. A new guy in town offers himself as Abimelek's replacement.

"Now Gaal son of Ebed moved with his clan into Shechem, and its citizens put their confidence in him." (Judges 9:26) The men of Shechem are treacherous and fickle. They turn against Abimelek, who is their fellow townsman, and put their confidence behind this newcomer whom scholars believe was of a roving clan of Canaanite marauders. We've all heard the term "con man" and it's derived from "confidence man", who is a person who gains people's trust in order to get something he wants from them. In modern times what a con man wants is usually money, but a con man may also be interested in power or fame. I think this Gaal son of Ebed is looking primarily for political power. Wealth and fame will naturally come along with political power but I think Gaal pictures himself as becoming ruler of the region. He's been in town long enough to figure out that Abimelek has fallen out of favor with the people. He sees this as an opportunity for himself and he begins campaigning for Abimelek's spot.

Gaal's efforts begin bearing fruit around the same time the grape harvest comes in. At a feast held to celebrate this year's vintage and to thank their pagan god for the bountiful harvest, Gaal makes his ambitions known in no uncertain terms. "After they had gone out into the fields and gathered the grapes and trodden them, they held a festival in the temple of their god. While they were eating and drinking, they cursed Abimelek. Then Gaal son of Ebed said, 'Who is Abimelek, and why should we Shechemites be subject to him? Isn't he Jerub-Baal's son, and isn't Zebul his deputy? Serve the family of Hamor, Shechem's father! Why should we serve Abimelek? If only this people were under my command! Then I would get rid of him. I would say to Abimelek, 'Call out your whole army!'" (Judges 9:27-29)

Though he is newly come to the city, Gaal says "we Shechemites" in order to identify himself with the natives of Shechem. This is a method many politicians use in order to gain people's confidence. In their speeches they will use the words "we" and "us" in an attempt to identify themselves with the working man. Average citizens don't typically feel like they have much in common with career politicians or with extremely wealthy men, so using words like "we" and "us" is a tactic for making the average voter say, "This guy isn't so different from me. He lives in my same country under my same laws. If the country goes down the tubes it will affect him too. It's just as he says: we're all in this together!" 

Gaal points out that although Abimelek is half-Shechemite, he is also half-Israelite. He is the son of a man nicknamed "Jerub-Baal" because Gideon tore down the altar of Baal. The Shechemites, by and large, still worship Baal and the temple at which they are currently celebrating the wine harvest is almost certainly a temple devoted to Baal. Gaal is saying, "Abimelek may be half-Shechemite but his father eschewed Baal in favor of the God of Israel. How can we be sure Abimelek won't do the same? How can we know how much influence his Baal-hating father had on him? If Abimelek offends Baal---the one who provided us with this bountiful harvest---what might Baal do to our city? Do we want to take that chance? Even if Abimelek does not forsake Baal as his father did, perhaps Baal is still angry with his family line. Perhaps that's why Abimelek's reign has not provided us with the prosperity we hoped for. If we dethrone him, this will please Baal and he will reward us with great success." 

We don't know what Gaal has against Zebul except that he is Abimelek's right hand man. Zebul is likely in agreement with everything Abimelek does, either because it's politically expedient for him or because he thinks exactly like him, and Gaal is telling the people that they can't trust Zebul anymore than they can trust Abimelek. I believe he makes this suggestion in order to remove any possibility of the people promoting Zebul to Abimelek's place after he has been dethroned.

Gaal promises to restore the town and its surrounding territories to the glory it had under Hamor, Shechem's founder. He promises to reinstate the political policies of Hamor. He's saying that the current conditions in the town and the current political policies are inferior to what they were under Hamor and that, if he is elected, he will usher in an era of prosperity not seen since that great leader (that "father") was in charge. 

Gaal is successful in gaining the confidence of the people of Shechem but he will not be successful in becoming their king, as we'll see in Saturday's study. Nevertheless, the Lord will use the way he's stirred up the people to bring about the downfall of Abimelek. In tomorrow's study Abimilek will manage to run this usurper out of town but, in the passage we'll look at on Sunday, will not be able to turn the tide that is against him. 

Thursday, December 30, 2021

The Judges. Day 34, The Downfall Of Abimelek, Part One

The wicked Abimelek has been crowned king by the men of Shechem which is his mother's hometown. The Lord allowed him to think of himself as a king and to behave like a king for three years before the curse began to come true which Jotham, Abimelek's half-brother, pronounced against him in our last study.

"After Abimelek had governed Israel three years, God stirred up animosity between Abimelek and the citizens of Shechem so that they acted treacherously against Abimelek." (Judges 9:22-23) These men had a treacherous spirit to begin with. If this were not so, they would not have given Abimelek seventy shekels of silver so he could hire mercenaries to help him kill all the other sons of his father Gideon. For the first three years after crowning him king, these men either liked or tolerated having him in authority over them. But for whatever reason, the honeymoon is over (so to speak), and they wish to depose him. That's the thing about treacherous people: they can't be trusted. One day they'll be on a person's side and the next day they'll be against him, and when they turn against him they'll behave just as treacherously toward him as they once behaved for him. 

Three years must have seemed like a long time to anyone who despised having this half-Canaanite upstart behaving as if he is a legitimate ruler in Israel. Whenever we are waiting for the Lord to judge the enemies of His children, time seems to move slowly, but the Apostle Peter encourages us to hang in there. God is not going to break His promise to avenge all the wrong that's been done to His children. But what seems to us as a delay in judgment is actually an opportunity the Lord is giving the wrongdoer to repent. "The Lord is not slow in keeping His promise, as some understand slowness. Instead He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance." (2 Peter 3:9) The Lord knows who will and who will not accept His offer of redemption and who will come to Him in sorrow over their sins. But He gives the opportunity to all so that no one can ever claim He never gave them a chance. During the three years when Abimelek comports himself as a king, the Lord is giving him time to repent. 

But Abimelek does not repent. The Lord knew he would not but Abimelek can never claim he didn't have time to think about his sins and feel sorry for them. When the time allotted for his opportunity of repentance has passed, the Lord allows the treacherous Shechemite men to turn their treachery on the man they once supported. "God did this in order that the crime against Jerub-Baal's seventy sons, the shedding of their blood, might be avenged on their brother Abimelek and on the citizens of Shechem, who had helped him murder his brothers." (Judges 9:24) 

Blood is on the hands of the men of Shechem, although they themselves didn't wield the swords that put Abimelek's brothers to death. They financed this slaughter and are as guilty as anyone else involved in it. Without their monetary support, Abimelek would have had a hard time convincing mercenaries to go with him to Ophrah to round up and murder all his half-brothers. I sincerely doubt Abimelek's half-brothers or the people of Ophrah gave in without a fight. Abimelek could scarcely have persuaded men to attack this town without financially compensating them to risk their lives. 

A prosperous trade route ran through the region and the men of Shechem begin disrupting it. The disruption of the trade route is a disruption in Abimelek's prosperity. "In opposition to him these citizens of Shechem set men on the hilltops to ambush and rob everyone who passed by, and this was reported to Abimelek." (Judges 9:25) They are hitting him where it hurts: in his wallet. He can't and won't ignore their actions. 

But, as we'll see tomorrow, there's a new man in town whom the Shechemites prefer over Abimelek. He intends to usurp Abimelek, with their support. He'll announce his candidacy at a drunken idolatrous feast and the people will get behind him. This new contender is not half-Israelite like Abimelek, which is a fact he'll use to his advantage. In tomorrow's study the people of Shechem show their true colors of racial prejudice when they give their allegiance to a man who basically says, "Why should this half breed rule over you?" If Abimelek thought he already had troubles, he hasn't seen anything yet.

Wednesday, December 29, 2021

The Judges. Day 33, Jotham's Curse Against Abimelek And The Shechemites

Jotham is standing at a place on Mount Gerizim where he can address the treacherous men of Shechem. These men backed his half-brother Abimelek when he hired mercenaries to go with him to his father Gideon's hometown of Ophrah to kill all of Gideon's other sons. The only reason Jotham is alive is because he managed to hide from these violent men. 

Yesterday Jotham spoke a parable against Abimelek and the Shechemites. Today he pronounces a curse upon them.

First he asks, "Have you acted honorably and in good faith by making Abimelek king? Have you been fair to Jerub-Baal and his family? Have you treated him as he deserves? Remember that my father fought for you and risked his life to rescue you from the hand of Midian. But today you have revolted against my father's family." (Judges 9:16-18a) 

While Gideon (Jerub-Baal) was judge of Israel, everyone in the region was freed from Midianite oppression. Everyone in the region enjoyed forty years of peace after Gideon and his soldiers defeated the Midianites and their allies in battle. The Shechemites were happy enough to enjoy the prosperity of those decades but as soon as Gideon died they turned on him by supporting Abimelek's plan to wipe out his competition: his half-brothers. Jotham is asking them, "How could you betray my father this way? He was good to you! Under his judgeship you enjoyed peace and prosperity. You were able to travel on the roads safely. You were able to plant crops without fear of Midianite raiding parties coming in to destroy them. You were able to build houses and live in them without fear of enemy attacks. Yet you repaid my father's goodness by murdering his sons in order to make Abimelek your king."

Abimelek is the son of a concubine and most scholars believe his mother, of the town of Shechem, was a heathen Canaanite. Typically, a son of a concubine could not be the chief heir of his father unless he was his father's only son. A concubine might be a woman taken captive from a conquered enemy city. A concubine might be a slave purchased by a family or given to a family as a gift. (You'll recall that Abraham's concubine, Hagar, was his wife Sarah's Egyptian slave.) A concubine might be a citizen of a city or town that was subject to a foreign government: for instance, Canaanites of the town of Shechem being subject to Israel. It was usually only a son of a free woman who could inherit the chief portion of his father's estate and any accompanying political or royal titles. Abimelek knew that as the son of a concubine he was not in the running as his father's successor. His father had seventy sons in all and Abimelek knew he could not compete with them. So his intention was to kill them all, leaving himself as the only living son of the now-deceased judge of Israel. Gideon's power and popularity were so great that Abimelek probably thought all the people would get behind him in time because he was Gideon's son. 

But the judgeship of Israel didn't follow family lines. It wasn't something handed down from generation to generation from father to son. The Lord Himself chose the judges of Israel and He chose them from various families and from various tribes. In addition, at this point in the Bible it is not the Lord's will to allow Israel to have a king, and that's what Abimelek really wants to be. The name given to him by his father, which means "my father is king", likely contributed to his selfish ambitions. Gideon was never the king of Israel but he was so powerful and so wealthy and so loved by the people that he almost might as well have been a king, although he eschewed the title. In Abimelek's estimation his father was a king and Abimelek doesn't see why he can't assume his father's leadership role and become not just a judge but a king. 

Next Jotham points out that the only reason the men of Shechem elected Abimelek as king is because he is half-Shechemite. It's not because he's a worthy leader. It's not because he's a godly man. It's because they preferred having one of their own townsmen ruling over them than any of the other sons of Gideon. Gideon himself would not have chosen Abimelek as his chief heir or as a leader in Israel. The men of Shechem have gone against Gideon's will (and against the Lord's will) in supporting Abimelek in his deadly bid for power. "You have murdered his seventy sons on a single stone and have made Abimelek, the son of his female slave, king over the citizens of Shechem because he is related to you." (Judges 9:18b)

Now Jotham closes by pronouncing a curse upon the Shechemites. "So have you acted honorably and in good faith toward Jerub-Baal and his family today? If you have, may Abimelek be your joy, and may you be his, too! But if you have not, let fire come out from Abimelek and consume you, the citizens of Shechem and Beth Millo, and let fire come out from you, the citizens of Shechem and Beth Millo, and consume Abimelek!" (Judges 9:19-20) He says, "If this is truly a good thing and you did right, then may Abimelek prosper and may you prosper along with him. But if you are in the wrong, then may Abimelek meet a bad fate and may his fate be yours also."

Jotham knows they've done wrong, of course, and he knows the curse will fall on them. But Abimelek wants him dead now more than ever so he flees for his life. "Then Jotham fled, escaping to Beer, and he lived there because he was afraid of his brother Abimelek." (Judges 9:21) 

This is the last we will hear of Jotham but not the last we will hear of the curse he uttered against Abimelek and his supports. To quote a passage from Deuteronomy, the Lord says this concerning the wicked: "It is Mine to avenge; I will repay. In due time their foot will slip; their day of disaster is near and their doom rushes upon them." (Deuteronomy 34:35) " These wicked men will not get away with what they have done. In due time the curse will fall on them.

Tuesday, December 28, 2021

The Judges. Day 32, Jotham's Parable Against The Men Of Shechem

Jotham, the youngest son of Gideon, escaped the slaughter of his brothers at Ophrah by hiding from Abimelek. Today he preaches a parable against the men of Shechem who supported Abimelek.

Abimelek, the son of Gideon by his Shechemite concubine, has just been crowned king by the men of Shechem. It's important to note that at no time was Abimelek king over all Israel. He was elected only by the people of his mother's hometown. His realm may have included a good portion of West Manasseh, or at least the lower half, but it likely did not extend further than that. The map below shows us that Shechem was located at the lower end of West Manasseh near the border of Ephraim. I very much doubt that the Ephraimites wanted Abimelek as king over them (or even as a judge); the Ephraimites previously harbored some animosity toward Abimelek's father Gideon and could hardly be expected to welcome the idea of having his half-Canaanite son ruling over them. 
Though Abimelek's circle of influence is quite small, Gideon's youngest son Jotham knows that this wicked man, who wiped out all of Gideon's male heirs with the exception of Jotham himself, must be stopped before his circle of influence grows. When Jotham hears that Abimelek has been proclaimed king, he goes to a location in lower West Manasseh where the twin mountains of Gerizim and Ebal create a natural amphitheater. He ascends Mount Gerizim from which he addresses the sinful men of Shechem.

"When Jotham was told about this, he climbed up on top of Mount Gerizim and shouted to them, 'Listen to me, citizens of Shechem, so that God may listen to you. One day the trees went out to anoint a king for themselves. They said to the olive tree, 'Be our king.' But the olive tree answered, 'Should I give up my oil, by which both gods and humans are honored, to hold sway over the trees?' Next, the trees said to the fig tree, 'Come and be our king.' But the fig tree replied, 'Should I give up my fruit, so good and sweet, to hold sway over the trees?' Then the trees said to the vine, 'Come and be our king.' But the vine answered, 'Should I give up my wine, which cheers both gods and humans, to hold sway over the trees?' Finally all the trees said to the thornbush, 'Come and be our king.' The thornbush said to the trees, 'If you really want to anoint me king over you, come and take refuge in my shade; but if not, then let fire come out of the thornbush and consume the cedars of Lebanon!'" (Judges 9:7-15) 

Jotham's parable tells us that worthier men than Abimelek (who are represented by the olive tree, the fig tree, and the vine in the parable) were offered the opportunity to become king. We already know from Chapter 8 that the people wanted to make Gideon king after he defeated the Midianites. He refused the crown, though his later behavior indicated he considered himself the closest thing to a king. It's possible that the offer of kingship had been made to judges prior to Gideon or that the offer of kingship was made to several of his sons after his death. But everyone to whom the crown was proffered rejected it because it was not the will of God for their lives or for Israel. They preferred instead to serve the Lord in whatever roles He chose for them. Finally, the crown was offered to Abimelek, who is the thornbush in the parable. Unlike olive trees, fig trees, and grapevines, a thornbush is useful for nothing. 

In this parable Abimelek says to his supporters something like, "I will be a shelter for you. I will protect and provide for you. If you want to enjoy good things, you need to be on my side. If you are not on my side, I will consider you my enemy and my wrath will destroy you!" Though he lacks the power to carry out his threat except primarily against those in his locality, he's saying, "It's my way or the highway! Give your allegiance to me and enjoy the good life with me. Deny me your allegiance and I'll take your life." 

We find Abimelek doing what the author of Psalm 94 says wicked men do: "They pour out arrogant words; all the evildoers are full of boasting." (Psalm 94:4) But in tomorrow's study Jotham pronounces a curse upon him and upon the men of Shechem who support him. Then will come true another saying of the psalmist. The Lord "will repay them for their sins and destroy them for their wickedness; the Lord our God will destroy them." (Psalm 94:23) 

Monday, December 27, 2021

The Judges. Day 31, The Wicked Abimelek, Son Of Gideon

In Chapter 8 we were told that Gideon had seventy sons, including a son named Abimelek by his concubine who lived in Shechem. This son, whose name means "my father is king", intends to set himself up as successor to his father who passed away in our last study. Abimelek is not in the clear line of succession; Gideon's eldest son Jether should have been next in line for the judgeship of Israel if it had been the Lord's will for all the judges of Israel to spring from one family. As we have seen so far, the judges of Israel have not been from the same family or even from the same tribe. The Lord will continue to select judges from different families and different tribes.

But Abimelek sees himself as the leader of Israel, though he has not been chosen by God for this role. He even sees himself as more than a judge; he wants to be king. It is not important to him whether he is chosen by God or elected by the people. Indeed, it's quite likely he doesn't worship the God of Israel at all, for his hometown had been an ancient city of the Canaanites and scholars believe Abimelek's mother was probably a Canaanite and a worshiper of Baal. If that's the case, Abimelek's mother was not in a position to be a godly influence on him. 

Gideon was not the godly influence he could have been because after he defeated the Midianites he set up a golden image of a priestly ephod in his town of Ophrah and the people (including Gideon and his family) used the location of this image as a center of worship. The Bible is not clear about how the Israelites "prostituted" themselves to this image but I think perhaps they forsook worship at the tabernacle in Shiloh for bringing offerings and sacrifices to the location in Ophrah. I think they ended up blending their own manmade rituals or some type of pagan rituals with their worship of the one true God. Judges 8 told us that the golden ephod became a "snare" to Gideon and his family, so it's clear that Gideon was not living a life wholly committed to the Lord. Because of this, he was not able to set the example for his children that he should have set. 

"Abimelek son of Jerub-Baal went to his mother's brothers in Shechem and said to them and to all his mother's clan, 'Ask all the citizens of Shechem, 'Which is better for you: to have all seventy of Jerub-Baal's sons rule over you, or just one man? Remember, I am your flesh and blood.'" (Judges 9:1-2) Chapter 8 ended with the burial of Gideon (also known by the name of Jerub-Baal) and Abimelek is probably returning to Shechem after attending his father's funeral. He wastes no time in speaking with his uncles, who I suspect are men of influence since it was common for great leaders in ancient times to take wives from the royal families/most powerful clans of other cultures. Gideon, who appeared to be prideful about himself in his last four decades of life, may have married his Shechemite wife because she was the daughter of a powerful clan leader. Abimelek says to his uncles something like this, "Gideon has seventy sons in all. Do you want them ruling over the whole region and telling you what to do? Or would you rather have just one of his sons--the one who is your kinsman---as leader?"

We don't know the cities of origin of Gideon's other wives. We don't even know how many wives he had but the majority of them may have been Israelites. Naturally, men who consider themselves Canaanites and who do not worship the God of Israel would prefer to have a man who is half-Canaanite ruling the region than a man who is a full Israelite. 

Abimelek's uncles agree with his words and begin campaigning for him. "When the brothers repeated all this to the citizens of Shechem, they were inclined to follow Abimelek, for they said, 'He is related to us.' They gave him seventy shekels of silver from the temple of Baal-Berith, and Abimelek used it to hire reckless scoundrels, who became his followers." (Judges 9:3-4) Baal-Berith, which means "lord of the covenant", is a god whom many of the Israelites began to worship after the death of Gideon, as we learned at the end of Judges 8. Apparently there was a temple to Baal-Berith in Shechem and the men of Shechem take seventy shekels of silver from this temple and give it to Abimelek so he can hire mercenaries to help him assassinate the other sons of Gideon.

"He went to his father's home in Ophrah and on one stone murdered his seventy brothers, the sons of Jerub-Baal." (Judges 9:5a) Abimelech's soldiers-for-hire rush into the town armed and round up his half-brothers and drag them to a large rock, perhaps in the city center, and either they execute them for Abimelek or Abimelek personally kills each of them one by one. When the Bible says Abimelek murdered his brothers it can either mean they were killed by his own hand or that they were killed upon his orders. Either way, he is responsible for their deaths. 

Abimelek's men were not able to capture all of Gideon's sons. One managed to conceal himself. "But Jotham, the youngest son of Jerub-Baal, escaped by hiding." (Judges 9:5b) In tomorrow's passage Jotham will make an impassioned speech from Mount Gerizim in which he will prophetically pronounce a curse upon the men of Shechem for their support of Abimelek. 

While Jotham makes good his escape from Ophrah, Abimelek is crowned king by his kinsmen. "Then all the citizens of Shechem and Beth Millo gathered beside the great tree at the pillar in Shechem to crown Abimelek king." (Judges 9:6) This is the great tree beside which Joshua set up a monument to the Lord, writing upon it the words of the law---of the covenant---and what's taking place here is an abomination. Abimelek is rejecting the one true God and His holy covenant for a false god and a false covenant. He's desecrating this sacred spot by allowing himself to be crowned king, which is something that is not the Lord's will. But never fear: though it may seem as if the wicked prosper for a time, their day of judgment is coming. As Asaph said about the wicked who are lifted up in pride about their prosperity, the Lord knows how to deal with them at the right time and in the right way, for the Lord has placed them on "slippery ground" and at the right moment He will "cast them down to ruin". (See the entirety of Psalm 73 for Asaph's discourse on the wicked and their bitter end.) Abimelek is currently doing whatever he pleases but the Lord will have the final word.

Sunday, December 26, 2021

The Judges. Day 30, The Death Of Gideon

When we concluded our last study we learned Gideon fashioned an ephod (a priestly garment) out of the gold earrings of the conquered Midianites and set it up in his hometown of Ophrah. The Bible does not explain to us why he melted the gold and cast it into the shape of an ephod, although we discussed some possible motives for it. The only thing we know for certain about it is that it became an object toward which worship was directed in some form or fashion because according to Judges 8:27b, "All Israel prostituted themselves by worshiping it there, and it became a snare to Gideon and his family."

Gideon's life, like the lives of several Bible characters who became famous and enormously wealthy, was not as spiritually admirable as it was before he gained fame and fortune. Although he declined the Israelites' offer to crown him king, I believe he began to think of himself as a king. As we move through our text today we'll see some indications that his fame and fortune went to his head, causing him perhaps to think more of himself than he should have. And when a person lifts himself up too much in his own eyes, he begins giving the Lord less credit that He deserves for battles won and he begins giving himself more credit than he should. 

"Thus Midian was subdued before the Israelites and did not raise its head again. During Gideon's lifetime, the land had peace forty years." (Judges 8:28) Israel's military victory was so decisive that no one dared to mount an attack against the nation for four decades. The story of how Gideon's small army routed tens of thousands of enemy soldiers spread far and wide. The fear of Israel and of Israel's God came upon all the peoples round about them. If only Gideon and all his fellow citizens had remained as close to the Lord as they were while the battle was being fought, no one would ever have dared to mount an attack against the nation again, for earlier in the Bible we found the Lord promising them peace and security if they would remain faithful to Him. 

But Gideon fashioned an object that took his and the people's focus off the Lord. Gideon began thinking of himself as a king, even though he refused to wear a crown, and he began doing things the kings of pagan nations did. "Jerub-Baal son of Joash went back home to live. He had seventy sons of his own, for he had many wives. His concubine, who lived in Shechem, also bore him a son, whom he named Abimelek." (Judges 8:29-30) (You'll recall that Gideon was given the name of Jerub-Baal after he tore down his father's altar to Baal.) Pagan kings maintained numerous wives and concubines. Siring many sons helped secure and defend the family's hold on the crown. In addition, it was a way pagan kings ostentatiously displayed their wealth, by proving to the world that they could afford to support multiple wives and offspring. Gideon is behaving like the kings of foreign nations, and although he has refused to accept the title of king, it's clear he considers himself one when he names one of his sons "Abimelek" which means "my father is king". (There is a reason why this one son, out of all Gideon's sons, is mentioned by name and we will get to that in Chapter 9.)

If Gideon thinks of himself as a king, he should be following the Lord's rules for kings. When we studied the book of Deuteronomy we found the Lord predicting that a day would come when the Israelites would want a king over them in order to be like all the other nations. The Lord is going to permit Israel to have kings later on in the Old Testament, but He laid down rules that these kings must follow. One of the rules is that, "He must not take many wives, or his heart will be led astray." (Deuteronomy 17:17a) It was customary for ancient kings to marry women of other cultures in order to form political alliances. But the Lord told the Israelites to make no treaty with any other nation, for all the nations surrounding them were heathen idolaters. Marrying foreign women, and making alliances with foreign kings, meant becoming friendly with idolaters and becoming comfortable with idolatry. Disobeying the Lord's rule about taking many wives likely became a snare to Gideon, just as it will become a snare to King Solomon, whose heart will not remain fully committed to the Lord because of all the pagan women he marries. 

So we see Gideon behaving like a pagan king in the taking of many wives. We find Gideon thinking of himself as a king when he names one of his sons "Abimelek". We don't know exactly how he and his family and many of the Israelites use the golden ephod at Ophrah that caused them to waver in their loyalty to the Lord, but whatever they did set them up for failure after Gideon's death. This next passage indicates that they remained at least somewhat true to the Lord during the remainder of Gideon's lifetime but that they fell headlong back into Baal worship upon Gideon's death. "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. 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 the Lord 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." (Judges 8:32-35)

I think that during Gideon's lifetime, after he and his soldiers conquered the Midianites and after he set up the golden object at Ophrah, the people were probably not completely forsaking the Lord but were blending heathen elements in with their worship of the Lord. Many of them---and especially the citizens of Gideon's own town---were probably forgoing worship at the tabernacle (where they were commanded to bring their sacrifices and offerings) in favor of worshiping at the location of the golden ephod in Ophrah. This separated them from the house of worship, separated them from the godly influence of the priests and Levites, and separated them from the location where they would have heard the public reading of the law (the covenant) every year. This separation set them up for failure, although I sincerely doubt this was Gideon's intention when he first fashioned the ephod, and after Gideon's death we learn there had been so much drifting from the Lord that the people set up a heathen center of worship at which they bow to "Baal-Berith" which means "lord of the covenant". They have forsaken the true Lord and the true covenant, exchanging them for false and useless religion. 

The Lord will have to administer discipline for idolatry, just as a loving and responsible father must correct the dangerous and disobedient behavior of his child. But the Lord won't disown Israel, just as a good father doesn't disown his child. The history of that nation, like the history of every individual person, is made up both of admirable deeds and of deeds that brought shame. But the Lord is a redeemer of nations and individuals. Even Gideon, whose beginning was better than his ending, is still named in the well-known passage of the New Testament frequently called "The Hebrews Hall Of Faith". The Lord didn't wipe out Gideon's name from the pages of the Bible even though he messed up in several ways. The Lord didn't wipe out Israel even though in ancient times many of the citizens fell in and out of idolatry over and over. And the Lord hasn't wiped us out either! We've all made mistakes we wish we hadn't made but the Lord hasn't disowned us and cast us far away from His light and His love. He may have had to correct us from time to time, and He will no doubt have to correct us from time to time in the future, but He is still our Father. He still loves us. He still wants what's best for us. We'll end by quoting the words from a song often taught to children in Sunday school:

"He's still working on me
to make me what I ought to be. 
It took Him just a week to make the moon and the stars, 
the sun and the earth and Jupiter and Mars. 
How loving and patient He must be 
'cause He's still working on me." 

Thursday, December 23, 2021

The Judges. Day 29, Gideon Refuses A Crown But Fashions An Unwise Object Of Gold

Following Gideon's great victory over the Midianites, the Israelites offer to make him their king. 

"The Israelites said to Gideon, 'Rule over us---you, your son and your grandson---because you have saved us from the hand of Midian.'" (Judges 8:22) Up until now the Lord has been the king of Israel. He has appointed leaders to guide the people but He is the head of the nation. In Deuteronomy 17:14 He predicted that a day would come in which the Israelites would want to have a king like all the other nations around them. He provided guidelines they must follow when choosing a king, but this is an example of the Lord's permissive will. His perfect will was that He be enthroned in the people's hearts as king of Israel, not that they would enthrone a human being as their head of state. 

What the Israelites of Gideon's day are proposing is to set up a dynasty. They are offering to make him the first king of Israel and to make his descendants the royal line of Israel. But although a time is coming in which the Lord will allow a king and a royal family line in Israel, this is not the time, Gideon is not the man, and his tribe is not the correct one. You'll recall from our study of Genesis that Jacob, when blessing his sons, prophesied that the tribe of Judah would be the royal line of Israel, saying that to the tribe of Judah will belong the "scepter" and the "ruler's staff". (Genesis 49:10a) 

Gideon wisely refuses the people's offer and turns their focus back to the King of kings. "But Gideon told them, 'I will not rule over you, nor will my son rule over you. The Lord will rule over you.'" (Judges 8:23) Even if this had been the right time and place for a king, the people's motive for choosing Gideon is wrong. They choose him because he has won a mighty victory against the enemy. They believe if they promote him to the office of king, none of the nations surrounding them will dare to try to lay a finger on them. His victory over the Midianites and over the Midianites' allies will remain prominent in the minds of everyone in the region. Even if Gideon had been the right man to wear the crown, their reasons for selecting him were the wrong reasons. They're seeking a man to defend a nation, not a man to set a spiritual example for the nation.

Gideon makes a wise choice when he refuses the crown. He says the right thing when he reminds the Israelites their government is a theocracy, not a monarchy. But he makes a request of the people for the purpose of fashioning an unwise object, as we'll soon see. "And he said, 'I do have one request, that each of you give me an earring from your share of the plunder.' (It was the custom of the Ishmaelites to wear gold earrings.)" (Judges 8:24) In Genesis 37, when the brothers of Joseph sold him into slavery, we found the caravan of people they sold him to being referred to as both Midianites and Ishmaelites. Both these groups were connected to Abraham: Ishmael was Abraham's son by his Egyptian slave Hagar; Midian was one of Abraham's son by Keturah, a wife he took later in life. In Genesis 25 we were told that Abraham left everything he owned to Isaac---his son and heir by his first and chief wife, Sarah---and that he gave gifts to the sons of his concubines and sent them away to the land of the east. He had already sent Hagar and her son Ishmael away long before. It is believed that the descendants of the sons of his concubines joined together and intermarried, hence the traveling together of the Midianites and the Ishmaelites in the caravan of Genesis 37. This is why, here in Judges 8, the author refers to the Midianites as the Ishmaelites. 

It was customary for the victorious army to plunder the goods of the enemy. The Israelites have taken all the goods of the men they conquered in battle. Gideon asks each Israelite to give him only one earring out of everything they've taken. This is a very small amount for each man to give and they are happy to give it. "They answered, 'We'll be glad to give them.' So they spread out a garment, and each of them threw a ring from his plunder onto it. The weight of the rings he asked for came to seventeen hundred shekels, not counting the ornaments, the pendants and the purple garments worn by the kings of Midian or the chains that were on their camels' necks." (Judges 8:25-26) Though the amount each man gave was small, it amounted to quite a bit when added up. This was about fifty pounds of gold. To put it into perspective, this amount of gold would be worth $1,445,656 in the current market.

The people probably believe Gideon is asking for the gold earrings as his pay for having led the army of Israel against the Midianites. They gladly gave him fifty pounds of gold. They would gladly have given him much more, had he asked for it. But instead of using this gold for his personal wealth, he does something strange and unexpected with it. "Gideon made the gold into an ephod, which he placed in Ophrah, his town." (Judges 8:27a) 

An ephod was a garment worn by the high priest of Israel, as we learned earlier in the Old Testament. But Gideon is no priest and he is not of the priestly tribe. However, he does not appear to have taken upon himself any of the duties of a priest, nor can we assume he ever wore the ephod since it would be impractical if not impossible for a man to move about in a stiff and heavy ephod of gold. Instead the Bible tells us the ephod was "placed in Ophrah", indicating it was on public display. The author of Judges doesn't tell us why Gideon made the ephod. He may have fallen victim to pride, setting the ephod up as a monument to himself and to his family line. Although he refused to be crowned king, we'll see later in Judges 8 that he named one of his sons Abimelek, which means "the king is my father". This suggests that he thought of himself as more than a victorious army general or a judge of Israel. He may not have accepted the title of king but in his heart he may have regarded himself as a king. 

Or, giving him the benefit of the doubt, it could be that the golden ephod on public display was intended by Gideon to remind the people of what the Lord had done for them. But if this was his intention, it backfired terribly, for the ephod itself became an object of worship. The author of Judges concludes our passage today by saying, "All Israel prostituted themselves by worshiping it there, and it became a snare to Gideon and his family." (Judges 8:27b) We are not told exactly how or why the people began to worship it. Israel's house of worship (the tabernacle) is located in Shiloh at this time, within the borders of the tribe of Ephraim. Earlier in Chapter 8 the men of Ephraim found fault with Gideon because they felt slighted that he had not called their soldiers to arms when making up his army to attack the Midianite camp. Some scholars have proposed that Gideon placed the ephod in Ophrah and created a center of worship there so that his people (he was of the clan of Abiezer of the tribe of Manasseh) would not travel to Ephraim to worship the Lord at the tabernacle. They think he set up a rival altar in West Manasseh due to his strained relationship with the Ephraimites. If this is the case, Gideon acted in direct opposition to the Lord who had commanded all Israel to worship only at the place of His choosing, which was at the tabernacle. 

Whatever the reason for the creation and the display of the golden ephod, it became an object of worship. It led the people away from the Lord's house at Shiloh. It kept them from the nation's center of worship and from the godly influence of the priests at the house of God. Staying away from the house of God caused the people to create their own rules and rituals. They were doing things their way instead of doing things God's way. This is why the Bible says the Israelites prostituted themselves; they were unfaithful to their covenant relationship with the Lord. This is why the Bible says the ephod became a snare to Gideon and his family; it lured them away from true religion and entrapped them in idolatry. I don't believe for a minute that Gideon meant for this to happen. It's just that small compromises lead to bigger compromises, as we've discussed before, and compromising leads to sin.

Wednesday, December 22, 2021

The Judges. Day 28, The Defeat Of Two Midianite Kings

Gideon and his men are in pursuit of the fleeing Midianite army. In particular, they are after two kings of Midian: Zebah and Zalmunna.

"Now Zebah and Zalmunna were in Karkor with a force of about fifteen thousand men, all that were left of the armies of the eastern peoples; a hundred and twenty thousand swordsmen had fallen." (Judges 8:10) The Midianite soldiers, and the soldiers of the nations allied with them, had once numbered 135,000. In the fighting that has taken place since they fled their camp, they have lost 120,000 men. But they still have 15,000 compared to Gideon's 300. It doesn't matter that the army of Israel is outnumbered though; the Lord is on Israel's side. Gideon is following the Lord's battle plan and it will be successful. "Gideon went up by the route of the nomads east of Nobah and Jogbehah and attacked the unsuspecting army. Zebah and Zalmunna, the two kings of Midian, fled, but he pursued them and captured them, routing their entire army." (Judges 8:11-12) 

These kings and their army must have thought Gideon wouldn't cross the Jordan River to come after them. But he did, afterwards using a nomadic trail east of the town of Nobah (located in East Manasseh) and the town of Jogbehah (located in the territory of Gad). The Midianites failed to take into account that East Manasseh and Gad were still part of Israel, though these regions lay on the opposite side of the Jordan from the territories of the pursuing Israelite soldiers. Naturally the people of East Manasseh and Gad permitted passage to Gideon and his men. 

Yesterday we learned there were two towns east of the Jordan River who refused to refresh them on their journey. The officials of those towns gave no support to Gideon because they did not have enough faith to feel certain the Lord would give him victory over the Midianites. They had more fear of the Midianite kings than they had reverence for the Lord. As a result, they withheld the bread Gideon's army needed, causing them to have to continue their pursuit and engage in the battle ahead with growling, empty tummies. Gideon vowed to avenge himself and his men on the officials of the town of Sukkoth and the town of Peniel. Today he makes good on this ominous promise.

"Gideon son of Joash then returned from the battle by the Pass of Heres. He caught a young man of Sukkoth and questioned him, and the young man wrote down for him the names of the seventy-seven officials of Sukkoth, the elders of the town. Then Gideon came and said to the men of Sukkoth, 'Here are Zebah and Zalmunna, about whom you taunted me by saying, 'Do you already have the hands of Zebah and Zalmunna in your possession? Why should we give bread to your exhausted men?' He took the elders of the town and taught the men of Sukkoth a lesson by punishing them with thorns and briers. He also pulled down the tower of Peniel and killed the men of the town." (Judges 8:13-17) It is unclear whether he put the men of Sukkoth to death. Some scholars believe he did but others believe he administered a severe whipping. If he did not put them to death, the men of Peniel's offence must have been much greater than that of the men of Sukkoth since he did put the officials of Peniel to death. It's my opinion that capital punishment was carried out against the officials of both these towns. 

The officials of Sukkoth and Peniel had shown no mercy to the army of Israel, not caring if the men fainted of low blood sugar along the way, not caring whether their lack of sustenance meant they lost the battle (which was also the Lord's battle!), not caring if they were all slain by the enemy army, not caring if the enemy continued to oppress the Israelites who resided east of the Jordan River. They had shown no mercy to the army of Israel and no faith in Israel's God, preferring instead to be able to affirm (should Zebah and Zalmunna attack their towns) that they had provided no aid whatsoever to Gideon and his men. We must keep in mind that Gideon was not only the general of the army but that he was also the judge of Israel at this time. Being judge of Israel means he has the political authority to judge cases and hand down penalties, including the death penalty. He doesn't put these officials to death just because he is offended and righteously indignant about how his fellow Israelites denied mercy to the soldiers under his command. He puts them to death because he is the head of law and order in the nation. He puts them to death because, in his judgment, they have committed an offense worthy of death. Had the Lord not sustained the army, the actions of these officials would have meant certain death for Gideon's soldiers. They had already fought hard battles and run great distances; they were at the end of their endurance when he begged bread of the officials of the two towns. They were almost completely out of strength. They were running on empty. If the Lord had not provided them with the energy to endure, they would not have made it to the enemy camp, much less have been able to fight and win the battle. 

Having taken care of the heartless officials of Sukkoth and Peniel, Gideon turns his attention to the Midianite kings. "Then he asked Zebah and Zalmunna, 'What kind of men did you kill at Tabor?' 'Men like you,' they answered, 'each one with the bearing of a prince.' Gideon replied, 'Those were my brothers, the sons of my own mother.'" (Judges 8:18-19a) We were not previously told of a battle or skirmish that occurred in Tabor. Now we learn that Gideon has been pursuing these kings not only because they represent a threat to Israel but because he has a personal grudge against them. He believes they are the men responsible for slaughtering his brothers and their confession proves he was correct. 

Many scholars believe Gideon brought these kings back to his hometown where they could be executed publicly in the sight of his remaining family members. That would explain why Gideon's eldest son, in a moment, is offered the opportunity to avenge the blood of his uncles. We will learn that he is under the age of adulthood which means he was almost certainly not in Gideon's army. Earlier in the Bible we were told a man had to be twenty years old to be eligible for the army. This lends credence to the supposition that Gideon led the kings back to his hometown as prisoners where they stood trail before him (Israel's judge) and where their trial and execution could be witnessed by those to whom these proceedings mattered the most. "Turning to Jether, his oldest son, he said, 'Kill them!' But Jether did not draw his sword, because he was only a boy and was afraid." (Judges 8:20) 

In the original Hebrew text we find Jether referred to as "a youth". My guess would be that he's not under the age of twelve; he is likely somewhere between twelve and eighteen since he's wearing a sword. A boy smaller in stature than that of a twelve-year-old would probably be too short and too thin to maneuver easily while wearing a battle sword, plus there would be an element of danger involved. So I feel it's fairly safe to assume he is a teen or pre-teen, not quite a man and not old enough to serve in the army but of sufficient age and stature to wear a sword and scabbard and to wield that sword if necessary.

But he's never been in battle. He's never stabbed a man or cut off a man's head. He is frightened and intimidated by this prospect and does not step forward. The two kings, prideful and unrepentant to the end, taunt Gideon. Zebah and Zalmunna said, 'Come, do it yourself. As is the man, so is his strength.' So Gideon stepped forward and killed them, and took the ornaments off their camels' necks." (Judges 8:21) These kings say something like, "You're the man here. Kill us yourself if you want us killed." It could be that they preferred being killed by a warrior such as Gideon rather than by an untrained youth. There is no glory in having their heads lopped off by a teenage boy who's never been in battle. This may be the reason why Gideon gave his son the opportunity to avenge their kinsmen, so no descendants of Zebah and Zalmunna can brag that they were struck down by a worthy opponent.

The author of Judges takes special care to tell us that Gideon removes the ornaments (in the original language, "crescent moons") from the camels of the kings. These ornaments are idolatrous objects and are a clue about something to come in our next segment.

Tuesday, December 21, 2021

The Judges. Day 27, Two Towns Deny Support To Gideon And His Men

Gideon and his soldiers are in hot pursuit of the fleeing Midianites and they are especially eager to capture and execute two Midianite kings. The leaders of the Midianite nation have severely oppressed Israel for seven years. The Israelites could not even bring crops to harvest because the Midianites would swoop in and destroy everything they grew. Chapter 6 told us that the Midianites had completely impoverished them. Gideon must make an end of these two kings or else they will gather more support, build their army even bigger, and return. Then the conditions in Israel will be even worse than they are now. 

As Gideon and his men chase these kings, the officials of two towns will refuse food to him and his hungry soldiers. It's important to note that Gideon's request is being refused not by people unrelated to him but by his fellow Israelites residing on the east side of the Jordan River. In the book of Numbers, when Moses allowed the tribe of Reuben, the tribe of Gad, and the half-tribe of Manasseh to claim as their inheritance the land east of the Jordan, he secured a promise from them that they would go with their fellow Israelites across the Jordan to help them win the land on the west side. This they did but now, when Gideon and his soldiers enter their territory on a mission from God as they seek the two wicked kings, they refuse to refresh them on their journey. Gideon doesn't ask them to take up arms and fight with him; he simply asks for bread. Yet he and his men are denied this small mercy.

"Gideon and his three hundred men, exhausted yet keeping up the pursuit, came to the Jordan and crossed it. He said to the men of Sukkoth, 'Give my troops some bread; they are worn out, and I am still pursuing Zeba and Zalmunna, the kings of Midian.' But the officials of Sukkoth said, 'Do you already have the hands of Zeba and Zalmunna in your possession? Why should we give bread to your troops?'" (Judges 8:4-6) Why should they give bread to Gideon's troops? Because these men are their fellow citizens. Because Gideon is marching on the orders of the Lord Himself. Because the Lord is using Gideon to deliver Israel from oppression. Because to sin against their fellow citizens, by denying them bread, is a sin against God.

Since this offense is so great, Gideon speaks ominous words regarding the coming fate of the officials of Sukkoth. "Then Gideon replied, 'Just for that, when the Lord has given Zebah and Zalmunna into my hand, I will tear your flesh with desert thorns and briers.'" (Judges 8:7) Why did these men refuse mercy? I think it's because they feared man more than they feared God. They don't want to give aid to Gideon and his troops because Zeba and Zalmunna have not yet been captured. This is what they mean by saying, "Do you already have the hands of Zeba and Zalmunna in your possession?" They are worried that the Lord won't give these kings into Gideon's hand and that, upon hearing they supplied aid to Gideon, the kings will come and attack Sukkoth. If the officials of Sukkoth had been living in close relationship with the Lord, they would have known He intends to give Gideon victory and they would have been more than happy to give their support in every way possible.

Gideon and his troops, still tired and hungry, move on to the next town. "From there he went up to Peniel and made the same request of them, but they answered as the men of Sukkoth had. So he said to the men of Peniel, 'When I return in triumph, I will tear down this tower.'" (Judges 8:8-9) There was apparently a tall fortress in Peniel. Gideon's words indicate that the men of Peniel trusted more in the power of man than in the power of God. Perhaps they thought the tower would keep them safe if Gideon returned in vengeance but they are not trusting the Lord to keep them safe from Zeba and Zalmunna. In refusing aid to Gideon they are fighting against God. They are shunning the One who is the strong tower and mighty fortress, for King Solomon said, "The name of the Lord is a fortified tower; the righteous run to it and they are safe." (Proverbs 18:10)

If only the officials of Sukkoth and Peniel had had the attitude of Solomon! If only they had said, as David did, "The Lord is my light and my salvation---whom shall I fear? The Lord is the stronghold of my life---of whom shall I be afraid?" (Psalm 27:1) If these officials had revered God more than they feared the heathen kings of the Midianites, they would have received blessing instead of cursing. But as it is, when the Lord has delivered the kings into Gideon's hand, Gideon will return and make good on his threat.

Monday, December 20, 2021

The Judges. Day 26, An Episode Of Disunity

In yesterday's passage Gideon and his 300 men put the Midianite camp to confusion by surrounding it in the middle of the night and shouting and blowing trumpets and breaking clay jars and waving torches. A great number of the Midianite soldiers and their allies fled the camp, believing thousands of men were about to attack them. Those who didn't flee started stabbing each other with swords because in the dark and in their great panic they though they were fighting Israelite soldiers. Two army leaders of Midian were killed in yesterday's text by men from the tribe of Ephraim. But the men of Ephraim have a bone to pick with Gideon. They feel like they were slighted by him. 

You'll recall from yesterday's passage that it wasn't until after the Midianites fled their camp that Gideon sent messengers to the fighting men of Ephraim to seize control of the Jordan River as far as Beth Barah. Gideon wanted to cut off that avenue of escape. The men of Ephraim did as he asked and were able to capture and execute two Midianite army generals, Oreb and Zeeb, whose heads they brought to Gideon. But the fighting men of Ephraim complain that Gideon should have called them to arms when he called up the Abiezrites (his own clan among the Manassites), then the men of West Manasseh in general, then the men of Asher, Zebulun, and Naphtali. These were the men Gideon summoned in Chapter 6 to go out and fight against the Midianites. 

He did not call up anyone from the tribe of Gideon, though they were as close to his territory of West Manasseh than any of those he did call---closer, in fact, than Naphtali or Asher. In addition, there was a closer family connection between Manasseh and Ephraim than between Manasseh and the other tribes, for Manasseh and Ephraim were the two sons of Jacob's son Joseph. Why did Gideon not call the men of Ephraim to join the fight in the very beginning? I believe Gideon called those whom the Lord instructed him to call. If we take a look back at Judges 6 we'll find that Gideon makes the call to arms while he is under the influence of the Holy Spirit, for lack of a better way of phrasing it, and he called the men the Holy Spirit directed him to call: "Then the Spirit of the Lord came on Gideon, and he blew a trumpet, summoning the Abiezrites to follow him. He sent messengers throughout Manasseh, calling them to arms, and also into Asher, Zebulun and Naphtali, so that they too went up to meet him." (Judges 6:34-35)

The Lord doesn't place the same calling on every person's life. The Lord doesn't give everyone the same talents and abilities. This doesn't mean He values one person's life more than another. It doesn't mean He's slighted somebody because He called a different person to do a particular thing. But the men of Ephraim feel slighted and they confront Gideon in a spirit of wounded pride. "Now the Ephraimites asked Gideon, 'Why have you treated us like this? Why didn't you call us when you went to fight Midian?' And they challenged him vigorously." (Judges 8:1)

Gideon answers the men wisely, in a manner intended to pacify their anger. He reminds them that their help was invaluable after the Midianites fled their camp and he points out that without Ephraimite help the two great Midianite generals would still be on the loose. "But he answered them, '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?' At this, their resentment against him subsided." (Judges 8:2)

The glory of capturing the two generals and cutting off their heads goes to the tribe of Ephraim, not to the tribe of Manasseh. No doubt the Ephraimites killed many other Midianite soldiers than just these two but these were the most important two. Gideon says something like, "Neither I nor my men were the ones who cut off the heads of the two leaders of the Midianite army. That was you! I didn't even have to fight the men in the Midianite camp. When my soldiers and I took them by surprise in the night, they either fled or began fighting each other. But you guys---you're the real heroes of the day! Who am I, the youngest of my father's sons, compared to you? What is my clan of Abiezer, the smallest clan of Manasseh, compared to the great tribe of Ephraim? You did the fiercest fighting of anyone in this battle. We could not have been victorious without you."

In my background study I found several commentators offering opinions as to why the men of Ephraim were so upset. Some scholars think it has to do with Jacob's prophecy in which he said the descendants of Ephraim would be greater than the descendants of Manasseh even though Manasseh was Joseph's eldest son. Others think the Ephraimites would not have allowed Gideon to dismiss any of them after they had been summoned to war. You'll recall how Gideon began with 32,000 men and the Lord pared his army down to 300 men. If Gideon had called the men of Ephraim to arms, he'd have begun with far more men and still would have had to dismiss all but 300, for 300 is all the Lord wanted him to have. But I think we don't have to look too deeply for an explanation. The main principle at work here is probably just plain old human pride. It's part of our carnal natures to seek recognition. We enjoy fame and glory. When Gideon didn't call up the men of Ephraim in the beginning, they felt he was cheating them of some of the glory. They may also have felt cheated of plunder since Gideon and his 300 men who took the Midianite camp would have taken the belongings of the Midianites as the spoils of war. But anytime you put together a group of people to accomplish anything, conflicts are going to crop up. There will be those who feel slighted because somebody else was assigned a task that seems more glorious than the one they were assigned. 

This kind of thing happens in the church all the time, not just in our day but even in the days of the early Christian church. In his first letter to the church at Corinth, the Apostle Paul had to devote a considerable amount of time to discussing the importance of unity in the church. He had to stress the fact that though the church is made up of many members, it is but one body. Every member of that body is valuable but every member won't be assigned the same calling. Every member won't possess the same gifts and talents. Paul compared the church to the human body and pointed out that every part of the body can't be a foot or a hand; it takes all the different parts of the body working together to make a whole, completely functional human being capable of performing whatever tasks are needed. You can read his discourse on this subject in 1 Corinthians 12:12-31. Paul said that we aren't to envy the talents of our fellow church members because we are all important for the health and strength of the body. For example, I'd love to be a talented singer because I love to sing. But I wasn't given that gift. I can carry a tune but that's about all that can be said of my voice. Nobody is going to be asking me to sing a solo in church anytime soon but that doesn't mean I have the right to be envious of those who are gifted singers and it doesn't mean I have the right to feel slighted by God because He didn't give me the gift of a beautiful singing voice. God gave me other things to do and, if I want to honor Him by living in obedience to Him, my duty is to concentrate on doing the things He's called me to do. 

When the Lord told Gideon who to call up for the initial strike against the Midianites, He didn't tell him to call the soldiers of Ephraim. But that doesn't mean the soldiers of Ephraim weren't important. The Lord had work for them to do after the attack on the Midianite camp. There was no need for these men to feel envious of Gideon and his men just because they were assigned a different task at a later date. In this same way, you and I don't need to be looking around us feeling bitter and jealous because somebody else has a different talent or assignment than we have. The Lord has work for us all to do and He has chosen the talents that are best suited for each individual. If we want what's best for the church---for the body---as a whole, we each must do what we've been assigned to the best of our ability. In that way all the parts are working together to make one strong, whole, effective body.

Sunday, December 19, 2021

The Judges. Day 25, Gideon Defeats The Midianites, Part Three

In yesterday's study Gideon and his servant Purah snuck up to the Midianite camp during the night and heard a conversation between two soldiers that confirmed that the enemy army was terrified of the Israelite army. Gideon bowed and thanked God for this encouraging news. Now he takes action.

"He returned to the camp of Israel and called out, 'Get up! The Lord has given the Midianite camp into your hands.' Dividing the three hundred men into three companies, he placed trumpets and empty jars in the hands of all of them, with torches inside. 'Watch me,' he told them. 'Follow my lead. When I get to the edge of the camp, do exactly as I do. When I and all who are with me blow our trumpets, then from all around the camp blow yours and shout, 'For the Lord and for Gideon.'" (Judges 7:15b-18) In yesterday's passage we learned that the Midianites knew Gideon's name. If they've spied out the name of Israel's army general they probably have some idea of how many soldiers Gideon originally had. But they don't know that the Lord pared down Gideon's army from 32,000 men to 300 the evening before. And they can't know whether other men may have joined the army within the last few hours. After all, you'll recall that at the end of the book of Numbers there were over 600,000 Israelite men who were eligible for army service. Gideon is going to attack the Midianite camp at night and he's going to approach the camp from three sides, with lots of noise and lots of lights, so the enemy army will believe they are surrounded by thousands of soldiers. This is intended to take them by surprise and cause panic and confusion--and it will have its intended effect.

"Gideon and the hundred men with him reached the edge of the camp at the beginning of the middle watch, just after they had changed the guard." (Judges 7:19a) The middle watch is believed to have been from midnight to 4am. This is the time of night when sleep is most likely to take place, even in those who are anxious about what the next day may bring. Exhaustion tends to take over during the middle watch of the night and that's why it's the best time of night for Gideon and his men to go on the attack. His unusual battle plan will produce the optimal amount of surprise and fear during those hours.

"They blew their trumpets and broke the jars that were in their hands. The three companies blew the trumpets and smashed the jars. Grasping the torches in their left hands and holding in their right hands the trumpets they were to blow, they shouted, 'A sword for the Lord and for Gideon!' While each man held his position around the camp, all the Midianites ran, crying out as they fled. When the three hundred trumpets sounded, the Lord caused the men throughout the camp to turn on each other with their swords. The army fled from Beth Shittah toward Zererah as far as the border of Abel Meholah near Tabbath." (Judges 7:19b-22) The Midianites are so panicked and confused in the dark and in the noise that those who haven't fled the camp altogether start stabbing each other with their swords, thinking their fellow soldiers are enemy soldiers. The Israelites haven't had to fight a single one of them so far; the Midianites are either fleeing or killing each other. 

This is the thing about the enemies of the Lord's people: they often do themselves in. Their sins catch up with them. Their foolish mode of living takes a toll on them. A lot of times we work ourselves up into a tizzy thinking about defending ourselves against an enemy and then we don't end up having to even lift a finger. 

I'll give you an example from my own life. Some years back there was a person in my community who enjoying gossiping. He didn't have a lot to do so he spent a lot of time loitering around in downtown businesses spreading tales. At this particular time my family had become the target of his gossip. I'm not really sure why we became his target but I suspect he shared the first story, which was actually true, and that he enjoyed the attention so much he started making up extra stories. The lies grew more sensational as time went on. I kept hearing about these tales because I work in that same area of downtown. It was very upsetting to me because people who didn't know me or my family very well probably believed some of his wild stories were true. I felt like I couldn't walk down the sidewalk with my head up. But before long this person who enjoyed bringing notoriety and shame upon others ended up bringing shame and notoriety on himself. A policeman pulled him over for driving erratically and it turned out he was under the influence. He got into a verbal altercation with the policeman during which he used all sorts of filthy language and refused a sobriety test and ended up being handcuffed and arrested. Within a day or so the whole encounter was in all the local papers because this man also happened to hold a small elected position in our town. If anybody had previously been thinking about the tall tales he'd made up about us, they certainly weren't thinking about them now, not with this much bigger story in the headlines. He lost re-election and pretty much faded into obscurity after that and I haven't seen or heard of him in years. 

The Midianites in today's passage are their own worst enemies, just as that fellow in my town was his own worst enemy. Gideon and his troops have not so far had to lift a finger against the Midianites and their allies. These wicked people have turned on each other in panic. They were already afraid the night before; people who are against the Lord and against the Lord's people often harbor fear in their heart because deep down they know they're on the wrong side. But now they're in a blind panic. They start thinking their fellow soldiers are enemy soldiers. Those who didn't flee shamefully in the noise and confusion are thrusting each other through with swords.

Those who fled the camp aren't going to get away. Israelites dwelling in the region through which they are fleeing are going to take care of them. "Israelites from Naphtali, Asher and all Manasseh were called out, and they pursued the Midianites. Gideon sent messengers throughout the hill country of Ephraim, saying, 'Come down against the Midianites and seize the waters of the Jordan ahead of them as far as Beth Barah.' So all the men of Ephraim were called out and they seized the waters of the Jordan as far as Beth Barah. They also captured two of the Midianite leaders, Oreb and Zeeb. They killed Oreb at the rock of Oreb, and Zeeb at the winepress of Zeeb. They pursued the Midianites and brought the heads of Oreb and Zeeb to Gideon, who was by the Jordan." (Judges 7:23-25) I assume the rock and the winepress were named for Oreb and Zeeb after Oreb and Zeeb were executed at those locations. These two Midianite leaders, who were probably famous at one time for their military exploits, are now famous for having fled a major battle and for being caught and having their heads removed. Their names are no longer names of honor but names of shame.

The Lord never turns a blind eye when someone harms one of His children. Sooner or later, judgment falls. Sometimes the Lord simply waits for them to reap the consequences of their own actions because He knows those consequences are on the way. Other times He brings discipline by His own hand. But you and I can be absolutely certain that it never escapes the Lord's attention when we've been wronged. We can say with faith, as David did, "Away from me, all you who do evil, for the Lord has heard my weeping. The Lord has heard my cry for mercy; the Lord accepts my prayer. All my enemies will be overwhelmed with shame and anguish; they will turn back and suddenly be put to shame." (Psalm 6:8-10) 

Saturday, December 18, 2021

The Judges. Day 24, Gideon Defeats The Midianites, Part Two

We continue on with Chapter 7 today and Gideon's attack on the Midianites. I apologize for missing a couple of study sessions this week. I suffer from cluster headaches every year in the fall months and I've been waking up with them a lot lately. They make it difficult to look at a computer screen til later in the day but I'm at work by then and unable to do the blog. But I'm feeling great this morning and am happy to be able to study with you.

In our last session we learned that the Lord whittled Gideon's army down from 32,000 men to only 300 men. The Lord wants all Israel to know that the victory will be due to His power, not to man's strength and ingenuity. This is for the people's own good because they've been dabbling in idolatry and this faith lesson will help turn their hearts fully back to the Lord. Have you ever had the Lord work a situation out in such a way that it was impossible for you to credit yourself or anyone else with the victory? He does this not because He needs thanks and praise; He does it because we need to give thanks and praise. It strengthens our faith. It solidifies our resolve to obey Him. It gives us hope and courage for the future. He knows we live in a world that appears scary and uncertain and He knows we need to be able to hold onto something that is secure---and the only true security is Him. 

Sometimes we make the mistake of placing our confidence in ourselves. That's easy to do when we're not sick and when nothing hurts and when life is going along pretty routinely. I think that may be what happened with the generations that were born in the promised land. They'd never endured the hardships of Egypt. They'd never wandered in the wilderness. They'd never fought in the battles that drove so many heathen idolaters out of the land. As a result of their comfort and ease, I think many of them neglected a close relationship with the Lord. That left them open to the temptation of becoming curious about the religious practices of the pagan cultures of the region. As we've discussed before, it's possible for anyone to become comfortable with a mediocre relationship with the Lord, especially when the circumstances of life are comfortable. I'd like to suggest that praying and reading the word of God is even more important in times of prosperity than in times of difficulty. Nobody really has to convince us that we need to call on the Lord for help during the hard times. But the enemy of our souls knows it's a human weakness to slack off spiritually in prosperous times. He knows that's when we're more likely to let down our guard, making it a good opportunity for him to confront us with a temptation we didn't see coming. 

Gideon has 300 men with which to fight the coming battle and I bet nobody in his army was slacking off on their praying at this time. The Midianites and their allies combined have at least 135,000 troops, according to information we'll be provided in the next chapter, and the Israelites are vastly outnumbered. During the night before the battle I believe Gideon and his men were probably praying instead of sleeping. While Gideon seeks guidance from the Lord, the Lord tells him what to do. "Now the camp of Midian lay below him in the valley. During that night the Lord said to Gideon, '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.'" (Judges 7:8b-11a) 

The Lord gives Gideon two options which will produce the same outcome: he can either go ahead and attack the camp right now or he and Purah can spy out the camp first and then attack it. I love the way the Lord is patient with Gideon's anxiety about the coming battle. Gideon believes the Lord is going to give victory but that doesn't mean he isn't experiencing some apprehension. He wouldn't be human if he wasn't concerned about his own life and about the lives of the 300 men under his authority. He wouldn't be a responsible army leader if he didn't care about the welfare of his troops. The Lord tells Gideon that, if it will make him feel better, to first sneak down to the camp and listen to what the enemy troops are saying to each other. Something he hears in the camp will give him the extra boost of courage he needs.

"So he and Purah his servant went down to the outposts of the camp. The Midianites, the Amalekites and all the other eastern peoples had settled in the valley, thick as locusts. Their camels could no more be counted than the sand on the seashore. Gideon arrived just as a man was telling a friend his dream. 'I had a dream,' he was saying. 'A round loaf of barley came tumbling into the Midianite camp. It struck the tent with such force that the tent overturned and collapsed.' His friend responded, 'This can be nothing but the sword of Gideon son of Joash, the Israelite. God has given the Midianites and the whole camp into his hands.'" (Judges 7:11b-13) The enemy army, which far outnumbers the army of Israel, is afraid of the army of Israel. I think this fear has been weighing heavily on their minds, which is what caused one of the soldiers to have his bad dream. This fear is what caused his friend to immediately interpret the dream as a sign that the Lord is going to give Israel the victory. The soldiers of the enemy army have heard the stories of Israel's military successes in the past. They have heard the fame of Israel's God. If they've been able to spy on Israel enough to learn the name of the army general then they must know that Gideon doesn't have as many men as they have, yet they are trembling in fear at the thought of facing Israel's soldiers on the battlefield. The knowledge that the enemy is terrified of him and his troops gives Gideon the last bit of encouragement he needs to move boldly forward with the attack in tomorrow's passage. 

But first he gives thanks to the Lord: "When Gideon heard the dream and its interpretation, he bowed down and worshiped." (Judges 7:15a) I bet it was all he could do not to jump up and down and shout hallelujah but, being where he was, he had to bow quietly on his knees at the edge of the camp. In his spirit I believe he was shouting the praises of the Lord who has so patiently dealt with his need for reassurance. Gideon is a man willing to do whatever the Lord tells him to do; it's just that he needs extra help to always be certain that the Lord actually is telling him to do something. On several previous occasions we've seen the Lord having to provide Gideon with signs that he's on the right path. At no time has the Lord scolded Gideon for asking for signs. The Lord who created him understands how his mind works. The Lord knows Gideon's personality better than Gideon knows it himself. The Lord deals with everyone as individuals, adjusting His methods to suit each person's personality and circumstances. Gideon doesn't ask for signs because He doesn't believe the Lord is able to do what He says He's going to do; he asks for signs because he's afraid that, in his human weakness, he'll misunderstand the Lord's instructions. Gideon's faith in the Lord isn't weak, which is why the Lord finds no fault with his requests for reassuring signs. It's Gideon's faith in himself and in mankind in general that's weak, and rightly so, for we are all capable of deceiving ourselves and making mistakes. But Gideon's faith in the Lord is so great that he's mentioned in the portion of Scripture known as "The Hebrews Hall Of Faith". (Hebrews 11:32) 

Join us tomorrow as Gideon, in the strength of the Lord, wins a great battle. 

Thursday, December 16, 2021

The Judges. Day 23, Gideon Defeats The Midianites, Part One

In our last study we found Gideon asking the Lord for two more confirming signs that he is to lead the army of Israel against the Midianites. The Lord patiently and lovingly sent the signs Gideon asked for. Now, feeling reassured, Gideon is ready to go out against the enemy.

"Early in the morning, Jerub-Baal (that is, Gideon) and all his men camped at the spring of Harod. The campe of Midian was north of them in the valley near the hill of Moreh." (Judges 7:1) You'll recall from Chapter 6 that Gideon's townspeople gave him the nickname "Jerub-Baal" after he demolished his father's pagan altar to Baal and built an altar to the Lord in its place. This name means, "Let Baal contend with him." The townspeople wanted to kill Gideon for destroying the altar but Gideon's father said to them, "If Baal really is a god, he can defend himself when someone breaks down his altar." And the people went away, saying, "Let Baal contend with him." Baal did not contend with Gideon; he couldn't, since Baal doesn't exist. No doubt this helped to turn many of the townspeople's hearts fully back to the Lord and encouraged them, along with thousands of others in Israel, to join the fight against the Midianites. In fact, more men answer the call to arms than will be necessary for the battle. 

"The Lord said to Gideon, 'You have too many men. I cannot deliver Midian into their hands, or Israel would boast against Me, 'My own strength has saved me.' Now announce to the army, 'Anyone who trembles with fear may turn back and leave Mount Gilead.' So twenty-two thousand men left, while ten thousand remained." (Judges 7:2-3) Gideon originally had thirty-two thousand soldiers under his command. Why did so many men join up to fight and then leave the army before the battle ever began? In Chapter 8 we'll learn that the enemy forces numbered at least 135,000. When Gideon's men viewed the enemy army and all their camels and equipment, the hearts of twenty-two thousand of them were filled with fear. We'll be told later in our current chapter that the Midianite camp lay in the valley below the Israelite camp and this means Gideon's men could see that, "The Midianites, Amalekites and all the other eastern peoples had settled in the valley, thick as locusts. Their camels could no more be counted than the sand on the seashore." (Judges 7:12) With this intimidating sight in view, some of the men's knees began to shake. Some of them lost their resolve. They could not imagine charging down into that valley and emerging victorious. They could only imagine defeat and loss of life.

Could thirty-two thousand Israelite soldiers have defeated 135,000 enemy soldiers? Realistically, probably not, not without the help of the Lord. But the Lord does not want anyone to be able to convince themselves, in times to come, that they won the battle because so many valiant men of Israel joined the fight. He doesn't want them to forget how badly they were outnumbered and start thinking thirty-two thousand soldiers were enough to beat the enemy or that they devised such a cunning battle strategy (on their own) that they caught the enemy off guard. Instead He intends for them to say, "We defeated our enemy with the help of the Lord. Without His help we would have had no hope of victory." The Lord wants to build their faith and that means they must have total dependence on Him. They must be able to clearly see that they owe all their success to Him. This will help them stop dabbling in useless idolatry and rededicate their lives to Him.

Gideon is down to ten thousand soldiers now. The Lord says he still needs to reduce the number of troops. "But the Lord said to Gideon, 'There are still too many men. Take them down to the water, and I will thin them out for you there. If I say, 'This one shall go with you,' he shall go; but if I say, 'This one shall not go with you,' he shall not go.'" (Judges 7:4) The Lord will devise a test by which Gideon will know which men are to go with him and which men are to be sent home. The Lord is going to make it quite easy for Gideon to determine which is which. Gideon doesn't have time to stop and interview and pray over every man in order to determine who should go or stay. That would not be efficient or practical. The Lord will do this work for him.

"So Gideon took the men down to the water. There the Lord told him, 'Separate those who lap the water with their tongues as a dog laps from those who kneel down to drink.' Three hundred of them drank from cupped hands, lapping like dogs. All the rest got down on their knees to drink. The Lord said to Gideon, 'With the three hundred men that lapped I will save you and give the Midianites into your hands. Let all the others go home.' So Gideon sent the rest of the Israelites home but kept the three hundred, who took over the provisions and trumpets of the others." (Judges 7:5-8) All the men believe they are fortifying themselves for battle when they are taken down to the water. Some rush to the water and fall to their knees to drink from the spring directly with their mouths. Others take time to gather water in their cupped hands to drink. A number of scholars propose that these differing attitudes toward slaking their thirst demonstrated which men would easily let down their guard. A man down on his knees with his face to the water, guzzling greedily, is not keeping an eye out for the enemy. Also I think perhaps it demonstrates a lesser amount of self-control and a lesser ability to think before acting. The men who bend down to cup water in their hands and bring the water to their mouths to drink are able to remain alert to an approaching enemy. Because they are still on their feet they can react more quickly and draw their swords.

As Gideon was observing the scene by the water he probably thought the Lord was going to tell him to send the three hundred home and take the 9,700 with him into battle. But the Lord's ways are not man's ways and His thoughts are not man's thoughts. (Isaiah 55:8) The method that appears most logical to man is not necessarily the method the Lord will use. He knows what needs to be done and He knows exactly how it needs to be done. Israel is about to meet 135,000 troops on the battlefield with only 300 men. That's all that will be needed. The battle will be won because the Lord is with the army of Israel, not because of how many soldiers Israel has. This will help them to place their trust in the Lord and not in their own human ability. 

I've found myself in circumstances that seemed impossible to resolve. They were impossible to resolve by human ingenuity and by human strength. The Lord got all the credit for turning things around because it was abundantly clear that no one but Him was responsible for turning things around. That's what's going to happen when He turns Israel's circumstances around here in the book of Judges. The people won't be able to take any credit for themselves. They'll be compelled to give all the credit to the Lord because it will be abundantly clear that victory could not have been won without Him. This will strengthen their faith. This will help them resist the lure of idolatry, at least for a while. It is for their own good that they are outnumbered in battle. 

Tuesday, December 14, 2021

The Judges. Day 22, Gideon Needs More Reassurance

Most of the commentaries I checked in my background study were critical of Gideon's need for further reassurance from the Lord in our passage today. I don't feel the criticism is warranted. The Lord is telling Gideon to lead Israel into battle. This is an enormous responsibility and the weight of it lies heavy on his shoulders. It's not just his own life he's risking but the lives of all the men he's calling to arms. Unless a person has ever been in his shoes and has not requested additional reassurance from the Lord, I don't think they're in a position to criticize Gideon. I personally am glad Gideon displays this human weakness because it comforts me that I'm not the only person who sometimes needs extra assurance from the Lord. It also comforts me that the Lord is patient with Gideon's weakness and doesn't scold him for it. 

"Now all the Midianites, Amalekites and other eastern peoples joined forces and crossed over the Jordan and camped in the Valley of Jezreel." (Judges 6:33) This is no small force. Israel's foes are formidable. The Midianites are powerful enough to have made the Israelites pay tribute to them for seven years and now, realizing the Israelites are about to revolt, they come out with their allies to stomp down harder than ever on the nation. 

Gideon calls soldiers to join him to face down the enemy army. "Then the Spirit of the Lord came on Gideon, and he blew a trumpet, summoning the Abiezrites to follow him. He sent messengers throughout Manasseh, calling them to arms, and also into Asher, Zebulun and Naphtali, so that they too went up to meet him." (Judges 6:34-35) Gideon calls the Abiezrites first because they are probably the clan to which he belongs. We learned earlier in Judges 6 that Gideon is of the tribe of Manasseh. The Abiezrites were descendants of Manasseh. It's natural that Gideon would call soldiers first from his own clan because they would be the closest in proximity to him and because they would be most likely to support him. As soon as he gathers supporters from his own clan he starts calling men from other regions of the nation.

Gideon is about to go to war. Men's lives are at stake. The safety of the men's families is at stake. The freedom and perhaps even the continued existence of the nation is at stake. Gideon needs a sign from the Lord, and understandably so. "Gideon said to God, 'If You will save Israel by my hand as you have promised---look, I will place a wool fleece on the threshing floor. If there is dew only on the fleece and all the ground is dry, then I will know that You will save Israel by my hand, as You have said.' And that is what happened. Gideon rose early the next day; he squeezed the fleece and wrung out the dew---a bowlful of water." (Judges 6:36-38) 

Gideon asks for a sign that contradicts that laws of nature; he asks for dew to fall only on a specific item within the vicinity of a threshing floor. You'll recall that earlier in our chapter we said that threshing floors tended to be out in the open on hilltops. They were not in sheltered places where a person might rationalize this miracle by saying, "Well, the dew was only able to land on the fleece because of the layout of the terrain.". Threshing floors were not located where anything could block them because they were located where the wind could blow chaff away while the grain was being threshed. There's no way the dew could naturally have fallen on the fleece without also falling on the whole threshing floor. Gideon requests this particular sign because it can only occur supernaturally.

Bless his heart, the task ahead of him is so great and his awareness of his human weakness is so strong that he asks for one more sign. I don't think it's because he doubts the Lord can give victory to Israel. I think it's because he's still worried he's not the right man to lead Israel's army. He knows the angel of the Lord called him a "mighty warrior" but he doesn't feel like a mighty warrior. He knows the Lord could have (and in his opinion should have) chosen a man with more bravery, more influence, more status, more age and wisdom, and more experience. I believe what Gideon is doing is giving the Lord one more chance to choose someone else. "Then Gideon said to God, 'Do not be angry with me. Let me make just one more request. Allow me one more test with the fleece, but this time make the fleece dry and let the ground be covered with dew.' That night God did so. Only the fleece was dry; all the ground was covered with dew." (Judges 6:39-40)

I love the way Gideon says something like, "Please be patient with me, Lord. I'm so sorry but I just need one more sign. Please forgive me for that." The Lord has no words of criticism for Gideon at all. Gideon feels bad about having to ask for this final sign but there's no evidence that the Lord finds fault with him. There's no indication that the Lord is impatient or angry. Instead I think He feels very loving and compassionate toward him. Just as a father teaching his kid how to ride a bike is patient about when his child is ready to have the training wheels taken off, the Lord is patient about giving Gideon the support he needs to feel ready to lead the troops.

Sometimes I think we're more critical of ourselves than we ought to be. We feel bad about asking for reassurance from the Lord but I think that's because we expect more of ourselves than we should. We think we should never experience any fear when answering our calling. We think we should never struggle with doubts or discouragement as we walk through this fallen world. But the Lord who created us knows we are but dust, as the psalmist says (Psalm 103:14) and He knows how frail these mortal bodies and minds are. He knows we are going to need extra encouragement from time to time, especially when we're facing the bigger tasks in life. He knows we may doubt (as Gideon did) whether we're the right person to do a particular thing and that we might need our calling confirmed to us. So I must respectfully disagree with the scholars who find fault with Gideon in today's passage. If the Lord doesn't find fault with his need for extra signs, we are hardly in a position to do so. And perhaps the Lord's gentle treatment of Gideon will help us be less critical of ourselves when we need a word of encouragement.

Monday, December 13, 2021

The Judges. Day 21, Gideon Tears Down His Father's Pagan Altar

As we closed yesterday's study we found Gideon setting up an altar at the location where the angel of the Lord showed him a sign. That night the Lord asks Gideon to do something. He must remove a pagan altar at his family's homestead. Gideon needs to make a clear statement (for his own sake as well as his people's sake) that he intends to serve no god but the Lord. The reason the people are enduring oppression by the Midianites is because some dabbled in idolatry and some fell headlong into it. Gideon, whom the Lord has chosen to lead Israel to victory, must set a godly example for the people to follow. He must be first to cast down idols.

"That same night the Lord said to him, 'Take the second bull from your father's herd, the one seven years old. Tear down your father's altar to Baal and cut down the Asherah pole beside it. Then build a proper kind of altar to the Lord your God on the top of this height. Using the wood of the Asherah pole that you cut down, offer the second bull as a burnt offering." (Judges 6:25-26) The Lord asks for a specific bull from the herd of Joash, Gideon's father. Scholars have offered a variety of opinions on this. Some say the Lord asked for a bull seven years old because seven years is how long the Israelites have been subject to the Midianites and that the sacrifice of this bull indicates the end of the seven years of hardship. Others think this particular bull was being fattened for sacrifice to Baal and that, as part of Gideon's repudiation of idolatry, he was to offer it to the Lord instead of allowing it to be offered to Baal.

Gideon does what the Lord asks but he does it before sunup. The angel of the Lord may have called him a "mighty warrior" but he still doesn't feel like one. He knows the townspeople, and some of his own relatives, are going to be upset enough to attack and even kill him. This is how invested they are in their worship of Baal. "So Gideon took ten of his servants and did as the Lord told him. But because he was afraid of his family and the townspeople, he did it at night rather than in the daytime." (Judges 6:27) 

"In the morning when the people of the town got up, there was Baal's altar, demolished, with the Asherah pole beside it cut down and the second bull sacrificed on the newly built altar. They asked each other, 'Who did this?' When they carefully investigated, they were told, 'Gideon son of Joash did it.'" (Judges 6:28-29) It did not occur to them to suspect Gideon at first. They probably assumed he shared his father's religious beliefs and would not have dared touch his father's altar to Baal. We don't know who spilled the beans on him but, considering that ten other men knew what he had done, and considering that those men probably told their wives or other household members or friends what had happened, I doubt it took long for the townspeople to learn the identity of the one who destroyed the heathen altar.

We see now why Gideon did this work at night. The people are so angry that they want him dead. "The people of the town demanded of Joash, 'Bring out your son. He must die, because he has broken down Baal's altar and cut down the Asherah pole beside it.'" (Judges 6:30) They form a mob and march to Joash's house to demand he deliver up his son immediately so they can put him to death.

But the example Gideon is setting has already produced godly results. His father---the man who set up the altar to Baal to begin with---defends his son's actions. He not only defends his son's actions but acknowledges that if Baal were really a god at all, he should have been able to prevent his altar from being destroyed. "But Joash replied to the hostile crowd around him, '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.'" (Judges 6:31) Joash is probably the head of his family clan or a respected elder in his town. He talks like a man of authority and evidently has the manpower to back up his words that anyone who resorts to violence over this altar incident will be put to death. Also, the fact that his altar to Baal was apparently the whole town's center of pagan worship indicates that Joash is a man who holds a position of leadership. Thirdly, the people give up on their idea of killing Gideon when they hear Joash's stern words. I believe they are used to taking instructions from him.

The mob disperses. "So because Gideon broke down Baal's altar, they gave him the name Jerub-Baal that day, saying, 'Let Baal contend with him.'" (Judges 6:32) I can't decide if they mean this as a threat, such as, "Fine, we'll go. But Baal will deal with him.", or if they are agreeing with Joash's words, saying, "If Baal is god, then he will defend his honor. If nothing happens to Gideon, then we accept that Baal is not a god at all." The fact that Baal does nothing to Gideon in retribution serves as a sign to the people that Baal is not worthy of worship.

Later in the Old Testament we'll find the prophet Elijah facing down four hundred and fifty prophets of Baal along with four hundred prophets of Asherah. He will build an altar to the Lord and they will build an altar to Baal. Elijah will say to them, "How long will you waver between two opinions? If the Lord is God, follow Him; but if Baal is God, follow him." Then he will announce that whichever deity sends down fire to consume the offering on the altar is the one true God. The pagan worshipers will call out to Baal all day but will receive no answer. However, when Elijah calls upon the Lord, the Lord will send fire from heaven to consume Elijah's offering. Something similar is happening in today's passage. If Baal had been a god, he should have been able to keep his altar from being torn down. If Baal had been a god, he would not have needed the townspeople to defend his honor against Gideon; he would have taken action himself. But nothing happens. The altar to the Lord remains standing. Gideon keeps living. I think the townspeople are forced to conclude that Baal either does not exist or that he lacks the power to do anything on his own behalf. And a god who cannot do anything on his own behalf can scarcely be expected to do anything on man's behalf.

Gideon proves to us that it's possible to set a godly example for anyone. Sometimes we feel intimidated about sharing our testimony or displaying our faith around someone in authority over us or someone who is our elder. But Gideon set an example for his father even though he was probably the youngest son of the family since he said in yesterday's passage, "I am the least in my family." His father appears to have been a man of authority who may not have been in the habit of consulting any of his sons, much less the youngest son, when making decisions. But in our passage today he defends his youngest son and speaks words that everyone in the crowd (including himself) needs to hear: If Baal is God, he needs no defender. If Baal can't defend himself, he isn't God. 

If Baal isn't God, then who is? The God of Israel. The God of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob. The God who brought the Israelites out of Egypt. The God who drove out heathen nations from the promised land and planted Israel in their place. The God who is going to deliver them from the oppression of the Midianites by the hand of Gideon, a man who is willing to risk everything on the basis of his belief that the Lord is God.