Mysteries of the Bible

"Unanswered Questions of the Bible"

A Battle Without Swords

Posted by foryourfaith on January 5, 2010

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Themes and images recur in the Bible.  Faith is rewarded, idol worship is punished.  So it was that when pagan altars appeared in Israelite villages, the people were brought to their knees by their enemies.  In the story of Gideon, told in the Book of Judges, the enemies were the Midianites, an Arabic tribe who were distant blood relatives of Israel.  Now, responding to prayers for help, an angel in human form appeared and picked an unlikely champion, a farmer named Gideon.

Without at first realizing that he was face to face with the Divine, Gideon met God’s angel under an oak in Ophrah, just as Abraham had encountered three angels beneath the oaks of Mamre (Genesis 18:1-8).  Like Abraham, Gideon offered his visitor food.  Just as Abraham visit with the Lord marked the birth of Israel, so Gideon’s divine encounter marked a spiritual and physical deliverance of Israel.  Not only did Gideon rout the desert raiders, he led a renewal of faith in Yahweh.

Like Moses before him, Gideon was skeptical when his visitor told him to go and deliver Israel.  He asked for a sign.  The angel drew fire from a rock with his staff, which consumed a meal of goat’s meat, broth, and unleavened cakes.  Then he vanished.  Gideon forthwith built an altar to Yahweh.

The choice of Gideon becomes the more remarkable as the story reveals how deeply his own family and city were committed to the worship of the Canaanite god, Baal.  Now, at God’s command, Gideon tore down his father’s altar to Baal as well as the Asherah, a totem to a pagan goddess, using a harnessed bull.  The villagers were outraged at such sacrilege and wanted to kill Gideon, but his father, Joash, stopped them by saying:  “If Baal is a god, let him contend for himself.”  Thus Gideon gained the name Jerubbaal, “Let Baal contend.”  Since Gideon had been called by god to deliver his people from the Midianites, his first act was to put an end to pagan worship among his own people.  For it was not until this was done that he could hope to defeat the enemy.

In addition to being pagans, the Midianites in Gideon’s time were a major military threat.  Moreover, Gideon had a personal reason to hate the Midianites:  they had murdered two of his brothers.  There was finally, an ancient blood feud between the Midianites and the Israelites.  Stories of the Midianites in the Book of Numbers show that they were thought of as people who forsook God for Baal and enticed the Israelites to the same apostasy.

When Gideon saw that the Midianites and Amalekites had encamped in Israelite territory, “the spirit of the Lord took possession of Gideon” (Judges 6:34), and he blew a shofar, or ram’s-horn trumpet, and prepared to do battle.  Gideon then asked for another sign that God would indeed fight for Israel.  He granted the sign he requested.  A fleece laid down on the ground at night was soaked with dew the next morning, though the ground all around it was dry.  Begging God not be angry with him, Gideon asked to be shown a miracle in reverse.  Next morning, on the dew-soaked ground, the fleece was dry.  According to one of the legends that grew up around the Bible story, Gideon’s mother sewed a piece of this miraculous fleece into the mantle he wore into battle.

In order to reinforce the meaning of these signs, God ordered Gideon to reduce the size of his army, so that Israel would not claim credit for the victory about to take place.  The glory belonged to God alone.

Gideon allowed those afraid of battle to leave.  More than 2 out of 3 of his soldiers departed, but 10,000 remained, and that was still far too many.  God told Gideon to take his men down to the water, and to keep only those who drank from the river by putting their hands to their mouths and lapping like dogs.  This seemingly arbitrary test has produced a variety of interpretations over the centuries – that God was choosing those who were least fit for battle, or most alert, or most humble.  So far as the narrative of Judges is concerned, this strange test was simply a way to reduce the numbers of soldiers to a force of 300.

That same night God spoke with Gideon one more time, again commanding him to deliver Israel.  If Gideon wanted more reassurance, God said, he could go visit the enemy camp.  So Gideon spied on the Midianites.  He listened to one soldier tell another of a dream he had had.  The second soldier said the dream was a prophecy that the Midianites would surely lose the battle.

With this last sign from God, Gideon became invincible.  He armed his men with trumpets, swords, and lighted torches concealed in jars.  Under cover of night, the Israelites surrounded the enemy with these companies of soldiers.  Suddenly, they blew their trumpets, smashed the jars containing the torches and shouted, “A sword for the Lord and for Gideon.”  The Midianites were thrown into confusion and fled.  Gideon and his army pursued them through the desert and beyond the Jordan River till at length Gideon captured two Midianite kings and threw their entire force into a panic.  Thus “the day of Midian” came to stand for true Israelite victory (Isaiah 9:4).

Gideon delivered Israel from the destructive raids and achieved a peace that lasted for 40 years.  He lived out his days with his harem, like a king; according to the Bible he had 70 sons.  But he refused to be anointed as king or to establish a dynastic succession for his sons, saying:  “I will not rule over you, and my son will not rule over you; the Lord will rule over you.”

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