Growing up, we were taught the story of Gideon at least two or three times over the course of our elementary school years, and he was something of a hero of mine. A natural born leader, Gideon became a commando of sorts, routing the Israelites’ arch-enemies, the Midianites, with a relatively small band of hand-picked warriors. But what kept my attention were his unusual requirements for a sign from God. When I decided to write an essay about those signs, I felt I should reread the Biblical account, which is located in the book of Judges, chapters 6-8. But when I actually read those chapters, I was surprised to learn some of the aspects of the account that had been omitted in the story we were taught as kids. So instead of just telling Gideon’s story from a skeptic’s point of view (my original intent), I decided to compare the story we were taught with the “real” one in the Bible.
So, to start, here is my recollection of the story I learned in school at Battle Creek Academy.
The Israelites, after having escaped bondage in Egypt, had finally settled in the land of Canaan. But in Gideon’s time they were losing out to the neighboring tribes, particularly the Midianites, who were taking the best lands and pretty much pushing the Israelites around with a show of force, consisting of a standing army of warriors. Enter Gideon. As a young man he was approached by an angel of God who pointed out that the reason the Israelites were doing so poorly was because (once again) they had turned away from the worship of God and had begun worshipping the false god, Baal. The angel told Gideon that God would bring victory to the Israelites provided they turned from the worship of Baal and began worshipping God once again. The angel said that God had chosen Gideon to achieve that victory.
Gideon then demanded a sign to prove that this was truly a message from God. He said that he would leave a fleece out on the ground overnight. He asked that in the morning the fleece be wet with dew while the ground remained dry. The next morning, sure enough, the fleece was sopping wet, while the ground was dry. Gideon was not satisfied with this. (And this is where it got really interesting for me.) He demanded a second sign. The next night he would leave the fleece out again but this time he asked that the fleece remain dry while the ground around it was wet with dew. Once more, God complied and the fleece remained dry while the ground was wet with dew. Now Gideon was satisfied that the call had come from God.
Gideon then tore down his tribe’s shrine to Baal and announced his plan to rout the Midianite army by what was essentially to be a commando raid. With God’s help he winnowed his selected troops down from 22,000 to a mere 300 men. Using the elements of surprise and a night attack, his men, each equipped with a trumpet and a torch, came running through the enemy camp, blowing their trumpets and waving their torches. Confused, the Midianites thought they were being attacked by a much larger force and in a panic began attacking each other and wound up fleeing the area. Gideon became a hero to the Israelites, who then turned back to the worship of God.
OK, so that was pretty much the story I was taught. However, when I actually read the account, it turns out there were a number of facts--and nuances--that had been omitted from the childhood story.
First, Gideon, when initially approached by the angel of God, had asked for a sign, and the angel had complied by miraculously setting fire to a gift of food that Gideon had prepared and then vanishing. Shouldn’t that have been enough? And that’s what makes Gideon’s demand for not one but two additional signs all the more interesting--a skeptic of sorts! If only his understanding of the scientific method had matched his skepticism.
Second, as a result of the commando raid, the Midianites didn’t just decamp; they were pursued by what was now a much larger Israelite force and were trapped at the River Jordan, where the Israelites, by the way, beheaded two of the main Midianite military leaders, bringing their heads back. Later, after 120,000 of the enemy troops had been slain (wow!), Gideon personally executed two of the Midianite kings. A bloody time, I would say.
Following the vanquishment of the neighboring tribes, the Israelites asked Gideon to be their hereditary leader--king, if you will. He declined but did ask the soldiers to give him the gold booty they had acquired in the battles. He then used this gold to produce an “ephod” which was some sort of sculpture. Unfortunately, the Israelites began worshipping that ephod as an idol, “and it became a trap to catch Gideon and his household.” Even so, the Israelites lived in peace for the remainder of Gideon’s life.
Gideon, for his part, retired to his own home, where he lived to “a ripe old age.” He had many wives who produced for him 70 sons (not to mention daughters). He was, it seems, a very busy man. In addition, he had concubines, one of whom produced a son that Gideon named Abimelech.
Following Gideon’s death, the Israelites again turned against God and began worshipping Baal. (What was with them, anyway?) Abimelech brought all of Gideon’s 70 sons together and in an act of extraordinary treachery personally butchered all but one of them on a stone block. Abimelech then assumed the role of strongman-dictator. He was killed in battle three years later, when he was besieging a city and a woman from the city fractured his skull by throwing a millstone down on his head. For his part, Abimelech, knowing he was mortally wounded, then asked an aide to “run him through” so it could not be said of him that he was slain by a woman.
So what do I make of all this? First, the Biblical account is much bloodier that we were taught. And I know that these sorts of brutal accounts are common throughout the Old Testament. Second, we were also spared the fact that polygamy was common and apparently fully accepted in the OT culture. I understand that it would have been difficult to explain some of this to young children. However, at some point it could have been an opportunity to explain and discuss these differences.
More importantly, though, a clear-eyed reading of the Biblical account reveals a God who was not just jealous but vengeful. Because the Israelites had turned from the worship of God, He allowed bad things to happen to them, including letting their neighboring tribes dominate and persecute them. One could argue, I suppose, that this should be viewed as the natural consequence of their failure to respect God. God protects those who worship and honor Him and when they fail, bad things just naturally happen. But that’s not really how things were. The Israelites’ neighbors, who clearly did not worship God, were allowed to be successful vis-a-vis the Israelites, the so-called “chosen ones.” If bad things naturally happened to nonbelievers, then why wasn’t that true for the neighboring tribes? To me a better, more natural interpretation is simply that God insisted on the loyalty of His people and took revenge on them when they didn’t show that loyalty.
I know a lot of Christians will say that the Gideon story as well as similar such accounts were Old Testament and that Christ’s life and sacrifice changed all of that. But that begs the question of why the OT is considered holy scripture at all. Are they saying that the stories aren’t true? Are they saying that the accounts of God’s jealousy and, frankly, pettiness in punishing the Israelites for their failure to worship Him are not accurate? How does one distinguish between what is considered inerrant fact, say, the creation story, and what is simply allegory or study lesson, say, God’s peevishness in dealing with the unfaithful Israelites?
It doesn’t say much for a God who supposedly has total understanding of our human frailty but who nevertheless allows terrible things to happen to us--or more accurately causes those terrible things to happen--when our actions reflect that weakness.
© 2013 John M. Phillips