Sunday, August 25, 2013


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


  1. Right...the Bible accounts are much bloodier, how accurate are the accounts of the civil war that the children read in school and whose side was God on? Does He take sides? Or does He love all His children...even Abraham's and the mess they made of their lives. They were in Egypt for 400 years, brought up in a pagan society...they had no concept of God. They killed his prophets...even King David, who was called a man after God's own heart was a murderer...what made the difference? The desire for good, the desire for a clean heart. Tell me who tend to live better lives...those that want to live responsible upstanding lives or those that are constantly breaking the rules? Character matters...maybe Israel had a lot a character to develop yet. Also maybe their historical account of their experience is the only nation that recorded a knowledge of God...maybe it was a very warped view. God wanted to given them so much make their lives heaven on earth and the resisted. Since He believes that love and sincere obedience cannot be forced, He gave them He does with us all. What kind of savior were they expecting...someone to free them from the rule of Rome. Certainly not a meek and lowly carpenter, turned healer who broke every rule they held dear. No wonder His ministry only lasted 3 years...what an imposter!

    1. Lisa,
      You raise some good points. It may be that we know of the Hebrew God because the Israelites just happened to preserve their scripture, whereas the other peoples in the region did not. Did the others worship the same God? Do Muslims worship the same God as Christians and Jews?

      In stating the the Jews' account (the Old Testament) may have been "very warped," are you saying that the scriptures are simply a human attempt to understand God, rather than being directly inspired by God?

  2. A God construct can be so varied...I think the world began with a basic understanding, but it has been so twisted that unless we look to Jesus and His character of love we can easily be misled....even at the SDA churches. That is not to say the there aren't many who see God through the lense of Jesus. He came to reveal yes, I think men were inspired to write, by God...but did they always paint an accurate picture?...probably not. And yet I believe carefully and look for the evidence of a loving God it is there, even in the old testament...pointing to the time of Jesus. Isn't the Bible filled with human stories of life and death and all the same things that are happening today, in many respects? And some blame God for the terrible things that happen and others see it as a consequence of poor judgement or just the result of a world gone wrong. I do believe in inspiration...I do think the writers were men of God, but it might be a bit like me trying to tell someone about Queen Elisabeth...unless I lived in the place and knew her on a personal level I would only be able to tell some of the truth about her and even get a few things wrong. But if she has Charles come and tell us about her we would get a pretty true picture...hence the Son of God coming to earth so we might know what He is truly like.

    1. Lisa, First of all, thanks for hanging in there.

      I agree with you that human nature has not really changed. However, our interpretation of events has changed enormously. We no longer see the miracles that were in great abundance in the Bible. People are not being raised from the dead; lepers are no longer being instantaneously healed; water is not being turned into wine. Instead, we have advances in science that have led to inventions that would have been considered miraculous even 50 years ago--access to the internet, skyping, eradication of smallpox.

      Am I understanding you correctly that not only were the OT writers fallible, but so were the NT writers? We don't have any writings of Christ; we have writings about Christ. So how does one decide what is truth if all scripture is simply men trying their best? Do we simply choose those passages that fit with our sensibilities and ignore or reinterpret or discount those that don't? Again, I know this is difficult, but if you put yourself in the position of a secularist who doesn't come to the process with belief in Christianity, that is what it looks like. And, by the way, as you know, that is how most of the world views the Christian faith.

      Try this: Many of my Christian friends believe that a number of the Mormon beliefs are incredible--Joseph Smith, lost tribes in the US, the marriage of the deceased--and cannot understand how Mormons can believe such things. But from the perspective of the 21st century are Christian tenets any more reasonable--a virgin birth, multiple miracles, bread and wine that somehow becomes the actual body of Christ (I know that is a Catholic belief, but millions of Catholics accept it), a resurrection that somehow serves to save humanity?

  3. I don't know about anyone else, but I'm enjoying reading every word of these replies...on both sides! By the way, have either of you read, "God Behaving Badly: Is the God of the Old Testament Angry, Sexist and Racist?" by David Lamb? Very enlightening.

    1. HI, Grace,
      I know that you responded before but I don't know if we have met. If we have, I have forgotten and I hope you will forgive me.
      I very much appreciate your comments and the fact that you can draw on what must be a broad background to be able to bring cogent reading sources into the "fray." I had heard of God Behaving Badly but have not read it. I assume it is intended for a Christian audience, but it sounds like it may provide some real points for discussion. I will be looking into it. Thanks.
      I hope that you will add to your comments going forward.

  4. There are many quotes in the NT attributed to Jesus...these quotes don't contradict each other. And 4 writers wrote them at different times. So I usually consider that as truth. If 4 scientists agree on a topic, based on research done separately there is a good chance they are on to something. So then go from there and compare the rest of scripture with these teaching. And I always read with a question, what does this mean?...sometimes that takes some effort...comparing texts, research word origins, checking how others see it....such as Lewis. You have to agree that something compelled these early followers of Christ to give everything to spread His message...most went to their death by execution, rather than deny their Lord and Savior. Nothing has taken such a hold of countless believers through the centuries and influenced peoples lives as this simple gospel of love.

    Yes, there are many new innovations that astound the mind... miracles in many respects, yet explainable by science. Dan. 12:4 predicted this happening...Verse 4. - But thou, O Daniel, shut up the words, and seal the book, even to the time of the end: many shall run to and fro, and knowledge shall be increased. And because knowledge has increased so dramatically these past 100 years, and man is really trying to know God like never might mean something.

    Yes, there are some interesting beliefs...where is the source of these? Man or God? I would check to see how these agree with what the Bible says about God. Many churches that have these beliefs admit they are established by men and not God...but claim authority to ask their worshippers to obey them.
    Even Jesus was accused of not living according to Jewish law. He "broke" the Sabbath laws numerous times and and called Himself the Son of God, hung out with all the "wrong" people and did the most outrageous things, like wash the feet of His disciples, talked to the unclean, treated women as equals, liked to party with "sinners" etc. How outrageous to the established church! Actually God's ways are pretty simple, a child can understand unto others as you would they do unto you.

    Grace, I have not read God Behaving Badly...sounds interesting.

    1. I would agree that if there are four scientific experiments that come to the same conclusion respecting a matter, then "there is a good chance that they are on to something." But that is a far cry from saying that if four writers agree on something then that is "truth." Frankly, one can probably find four writers that would agree on just about anything. Moreover, if you asked scientists if they had the "truth," they would say," No, we are just closer than we were before."

      But what is even more troubling to me is how you handle the question of reliance on authority. We have covered this before and I don't think there is much benefit in spending more time on it, but to reiterate briefly: Questioning scripture as authority does not mean questioning how to interpret passages or the meaning of words. It means questioning whether scripture should be the source for belief in the first place. And as I have said elsewhere, I do not accept scripture--or any other writing--as the truth. Instead, I look to scientific experimentation and rational thought, which have been supremely successful in furthering our understanding of the world.

      This reminds me of the story of two Medieval scholars who were debating how many teeth a horse has, both citing authorities who are in disagreement. And then a youngster listening to their debate says, why don't you just look in the horse's mouth?

      80 years ago there was a great debate between Albert Einstein and Niels Bohr, two of the greatest intellects of the 20th century, about certain aspects of quantum physics. The issue had to do with whether nature is fundamentally probabilistic. Although Einstein didn't concede that Bohr won the argument, most physicists would agree that Bohr got the better of the debate. But here's the point. No one said that they were taking Einstein's position or Bohr's because of who they were. Rather, they said, "Let's try to figure out an experiment and see which side it favors."

      Lisa, I'm afraid you missed the point of my last reply. I was saying that the fundamental beliefs of the Christian church--virgin birth, a resurrection that somehow is the reason for man's salvation--are, frankly, bizarre to a nonChristian. And to say that one should test their truth value by reference to the Bible is simply circular.

      Otherwise, after reading your last few paragraphs several times I am at a loss to understand their relevance to this post. Again, it may just be my denseness.

  5. I don't know that I would use the word "fallible" when talking about the writers of the Bible...I just don't see how they could have a complete understanding of God. I do believe we see a truer picture, or maybe I should say clearer picture of God in the NT...they had first hand experience with Jesus/God. Many of the OT writers did too. Moses talked to God on the mountain... Abraham had Godly visitors...some had dreams and visions. I would hate to short change their knowledge of God, because I don't know. I think customs of the times influenced their the NT there are rules of women that I don't think apply to today or even how Jesus related to women.

    God to me is a there such word? He isn't concerned about form..He was in a pillar of clouds by day and a pillar of fire by night, He came as an angel or stranger to various men in the OT...He represented Himself as a Lamb, the Light of the World, the Truth, and He came as an infant. Jesus said that human is what He will remain. A son of Man and of God....It's hard to pin down the concept of God...He even calls Himself God with us. He is something that will take eternity to understand, the great "I Am"....who can know all there is to know about Him?

    1. Your first paragraph states that NT writers may have had a better understanding of God, but then you say the many OT authors did too. Point? I just don't understand the relevance, particularly to the discussion at hand.

      And the second paragraph is in my opinion, I am sorry to say, simply some Christian rhetoric that doesn't relate to the discussion.

      Lisa, I think i have to say at this point that I had a number of goals in mind when I started this blog. One was to explain how I personally got to where I am from a philosophical/religious perspective. The other was to try to articulate some of my views on matters of skepticism, science, religion, and related matters. I am hoping that anyone who reads my comments will feel comfortable providing their opinions on those topics, whether they are in agreement or disagreement with mine. Through such a dialogue, I would hope to clarify my thinking or at least my articulation of that thinking. On the other hand, I did not intend this as an open forum for the expression of one's personal religious beliefs, irrespective of how they might relate to the topic at hand. I'm afraid this has gotten somewhat out of control in that regard. I hope that you will continue to contribute to this discussion, in part, because your views are so very different from mine. However, I would ask that you do so in a way that is germane to the point that has been raised. I do have a lot more topics that I am eager to cover and would like to get on with them.