Ehud's victory over the Moabite king Eglon results in Israel having peace from her enemies for the next 40 years. At the end of 40 years, though, Ehud dies and the people once more lapse into idolatry. This time in order to discipline His people, God sends the Midianites to oppress the Israelites for a period of 7 years. Who were the Midianites? They were actually related to the Israelites. Both nations had descended physically from Abraham but not from the same mother: the Israelites descending through Abraham's first wife Sarah and the Midianites, through his second wife Keturah. Whereas the Israelites dwelt in Canaan, the Midianites were roaming nomads living in the Arabian Desert beside the Red Sea (in modern-day Saudi Arabia).
The blood ties between the 2 did not prevent the Midianites from being vicious foes of the Israelites. The author of Judges describes them as being like a plague of locusts which devour everything in sight. The Midianites each year at harvest time would emerge from the East and devastate the land, making off with the crops and cattle the Israelites had spent all year cultivating and raising. They were so hostile that the Israelites were forced to abandon regular places of dwelling and live instead in caves in the mountains. Although the oppression of the Midianites lasted for only 7 years, the intensity of the oppression was so great that it constituted probably the worst of all the oppressions Israel faced during the time of the Judges. Israel once more cries out to God who responds by raising up Gideon.
THE CALLING OF GIDEON (6:11-24)
The angel of the Lord appears to Gideon, the son of Joash, who is busy threshing wheat at a wine press by an oak tree in the city of Ophrah in the hill country bordering both the territories of Manasseh and Ephraim in the central portion of Canaan. (Because of the danger from the Midianites, Gideon was unable to thresh the wheat out in the open but had to thresh it in secret, in a place the Midianites would not suspect—a wine press). The angel greets Gideon: "The Lord is with you, might man of valor!"
At first Gideon does not recognize the angel and questions him as to how he could ever claim that God was with Gideon. (He will object to the second part of the greeting a little later.) There is nothing in Gideon's external circumstances or in Israel's circumstances which indicate that God is with them. If God were with them, then the Midianites surely would not be oppressing His people; the fact that they were oppressing them indicates just the opposite—God was NOT with them! If God were with them, He would be performing miracles just like He had done for the Israelites during the time of the Exodus; the fact that He was not PROVED (in their eyes) that God had abandoned His people.
The truth, though, was that the oppression of the Midianites proved that God actually was with them. Gideon had made the mistake of thinking that God is for us only when things are going well, when we are prospering. Well, that is only one side of God being with us. Most of the time God is prospering us when we are obeying Him. On the other hand, He does not prosper us whenever we reject His leadership; instead, He disciplines us. His discipline is just as much a sign of God being with us as His prospering us. Ignoring us would be the sign that He had abandoned us.
Most of us as parents can relate to this same principle. There are a lot of children in our world who to a large degree we don't care about. We don't wish them any harm; however, we don't check up on them nightly to make sure that they've done their homework. Neither do we check their plates to make sure they're eating their vegetables. The fact that we don't check up on them, that we neither reward them nor discipline them proves that we don't have a relationship with them. We reward and discipline only those children we have a relationship with, that is our own children. So contrary to what Gideon was thinking, the oppression of the Midianites proved that God was indeed with him and the Israelites because discipline is just as much a sign of God being for us as reward is.
The angel informs Gideon that the time of oppression is over because God is instructing Gideon to deliver His people from the Midianites. Gideon questions, though, how this could be since his family is least of the tribe of Manasseh and he the youngest in his father's household. The Lord informs Gideon, though, that He will be with him and that God's power will be so might upon Gideon that he will crush the Midianites with one blow—as if the Midianites were simply just one man instead of tens of thousands.
Gideon asks for a sign from the angel to make sure that the messenger is not simply a man deceiving Gideon but is actually a divine messenger from the Lord. At first blush it appears that Gideon is just like Moses, always doubting the Lord. There is a radical distinction, though, between Gideon and Moses. Moses knew right from the start that the Lord was the One addressing him; he just didn't want to do what God was commanding him to do. Gideon, on the other hand, is just trying to make sure that he is getting the message straight. If the Lord is really going to be with him and give him success, then he will go. He's just trying to determine whether or not it is the Lord who is communicating with him. There is absolute nothing wrong about that. For this reason, the Lord is not angry with Gideon.
Gideon goes and brings back for the angel a sacrificial gift made up of meat, bread, and broth. The angel instructs Gideon to place the bread and meat on a rock which serves as a type of altar, and then to pour broth on top of the 2. After Gideon complies, the angel touches the concoction with the tip of his staff. Fire shoots from the rock and consumes the offering. At this point the angel disappears. Gideon has his answer—the message and messenger were from the Lord!
When Gideon beholds the offering going up in a burst of fire, he trembles, saying: "I have surely seen the Lord face to face." This realization would frighten any man, especially at that time in Israel’s history since people believed that the person who saw God face to face would automatically die. The Lord, though, informed Gideon that he was not going to die. Instead, the Lord was revealing to Gideon that He was peace. Gideon in turn called the altar, "The Lord is Peace"—"Yahweh-Shalom."
Before we go any further, we need to understand that whenever God reveals something about Himself in a particular episode, we should interpret that episode in light of that revelation. For example, when God reveals Himself to Gideon as "The Lord is Peace," then we are to interpret that episode in light of the revelation that God is peace, security. In this episode, we are going to discover the way to find real, genuine peace and security—the true peace that comes only from God. Ultimately, we shall see that God's peace comes solely from following His directions no matter how absurd they may seem. For example, it was absurd that God should choose Gideon because not only was his family the "least" of the tribe of Manasseh, he himself was the "least" of that family. In other words, God was choosing the "least of the least." Well, Gideon is going to follow God's directions anyway, and the result is going to be that God will give peace to Israel through Gideon and that Gideon was going to discover real peace.
SUMMONING GIDEON'S ARMY AND THE EPISODE OF GIDEON'S FLEECE (6:33-40)
Following God's instructions, Gideon sounds the trumpet throughout the regions of Naphtali, Zebulon, and Asher (in the northern part of Israel) in order to call the men to arms. Upon this call to arms, 32,000 Israelites respond and join Gideon's army. This may not sound all that much due to the fact that the Midianites numbered 132,000 (8:10); however, the ratio is only 4:1 in favor of the Midianites. The greatest battle of the Middle Ages was won by the British at Agincourt; the French, likewise, outnumbered the Brits 4:1. So in truth, things were beginning to look good for the Israelite army.
That evening, though, Gideon is not at peace with the situation. He wonders if God is really going to give him the victory over the Midianites. He asks God for a sign. He will know that God is going to give him the victory if some woolen fleece left on the ground overnight attracts dew, whereas the ground around it will be dry. The next morning, whereas the ground is dry, the fleece is so full of water that when Gideon squeezes out the water, he is able to fill up a whole bowl with the water.
The more Gideon probably thought about it, the more he realized that dew is normally attracted to woolen objects even when the ground is not wet; therefore, Gideon asks once more for a sign. This time, if the ground around the fleece is wet from the dew but the fleece is dry, then he will know for sure that God will be with him—something totally contrary to the laws of nature. The next morning, the ground is wet, whereas the fleece is totally dry. Gideon has his answer—God is truly going to give him the victory.
Note 2 things about this episode. First, it is all right for us to put out our own Gideon's fleece whenever we are truly seeking to discover God's will. A little over 2 months ago, my mother-in-law was debating whether or not she should go to Israel with us. She was beginning to have some severe medical problems, and she did not know if these problems were from the Lord, or if they were from Satan who was trying to prevent her from experiencing Lord in the Holy Land. So she went to the Lord in prayer and told Him that if she felt good the next day—something she had not felt in quite a long time, then she would know He wanted her to go to the Israel; however, if she still felt bad the next day, then she knew that He did not want her to go. She went to sleep that night fully confident of God’s ability to communicate to her through this sign. The next day, she felt wonderful. She went with us about 10 days later to Israel and experienced major relief from her physical problems. After she returned, her physical condition seriously deteriorated so that she now is awaiting surgery. Was she glad she went? Yes, because not only did she know that God was wanting her to go because of His honoring her putting out the fleece, but also because she had a wonderful spiritual encounter with the Lord while in Israel.
The second thing is that we are not to put out the fleece whenever God has already made known His will. For example, the person who puts out his fleece wondering whether or not he should leave his family is wasting his and God's time. When God has explicitly revealed His will on a subject, putting out the fleece is nothing less than a subtle way to try to get around God's will. What Gideon was seeking to determine and what my mother-in-law was seeking to determine had no parallels in the Bible. Only through means like they adopted could they discover God's will.
MAKING SURE GOD GETS THE GLORY (7:1-8)
After the army has assembled, Gideon is prepared to fight the Midianites; however, God is not. When He looks at the size of the Israelite army (32,000), He instructs Gideon to reduce the army by commanding those who were afraid to fight to leave and return to their homes. Why does God command this when the ratio is already 4:1 and not in the favor? Because He wants to make sure that He and He alone will get the credit for the victory. (For example, at the Battle of Agincourt in which the Brits beat the French with the 4:1 ratio, Henry V of England received the glory for the victory, not God--something God wants to avoid here). God is not interested in feeding your or my pride. He is out to glorify Himself, and He will honor only the ways which glorify Him. After Gideon follows God's instructions, he is left with an army of only 10,000. (I doubt Gideon is feeling a lot of peace right now.)
Ten thousand are still too many in God's eyes. (Can you imagine the panic that Gideon was beginning to experience? Had God totally lost it? He was intent, though, on showing Gideon the true source of peace.) This time God commands Gideon to take the men down to the water to drink and separate them on the basis of the way they drink. Gideon is to include in his army only those men who dip their palms into the water and draw them up to their mouths to drink, whereas he is to reject those who kneel down on all fours to drink the water directly. Some scholars attempt to find some clever principle operating in this instruction; yet the command is for the purpose of confounding human wisdom. God does not operate on the basis of human wisdom; otherwise, He would have never chosen Gideon who was the "least of the least," and He would have built up an army numbering at least 132,000 people. As our children learned in Team Kids: "'For My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways My ways,' declares the Lord!" This leaves him with only 300 men! God says, "That's just the right amount! Now when it is all said and done, all will know that I and I alone gave Israel the victory. I just honored Gideon and the 300 by allowing them to participate in the wonderful thing that I am about to do!" God was indeed being good to Gideon by allowing him to participate in His great victory.
That night, Gideon apparently is still justifiably nervous about the prospects of victory. God instructs Gideon to spy out the Midianite camp. Taking along his servant Purah, Gideon approaches the outer perimeter of the Midianite camp. He overhears 2 soldiers discussing a dream one of the soldiers had had the night before. One man dreamt that a loaf of barley bread had rolled down the hill and flattened the tent of the commander of the Midianite forces. The soldiers interpreted the dream as meaning that Gideon (the loaf of barley bread) would completely annihilate the Midianite forces. They were terrified of the prospects of meeting Gideon in battle. Gideon takes heart when he hears this message for now he knows for sure that God is going to be with him since He has already struck terror into the hearts of the Midianites, even before Gideon and his army have struck a blow.
Notice that Gideon was following instructions when he dismissed the 22,000 and reduced the army even further to 300. Many times when we read stories like this, we get it into our minds that we can go out and do the same thing and be successful. We will be successful if God has told us to do this; however, if we are just selecting different modes of operation in the Bible and applying them to our specific situation, we can be in serious jeopardy. God is obligated to reward only those actions He initiates, not the ones we initiate. Many times we do things on our own and then expect God to rescue us. Well, He just might; however, He is not obligated to—and that is really scary. I would hate to take an army of 300 into battle against an army of 132,000 if God had not commanded me to; likewise, I would hate to taken an army of 32,000 into battle against any army unless God had directed that. The size of the army and the mode of operation are not what are important. What is important and what guarantees success is doing what God has commanded us to do.
THE BATTLE (7:15-23)
That same evening, Gideon assembles the 300 warriors he has left and instructs them to take their trumpets (most likely a ram's horn) and a torch covered by a pot. Gideon and his army surround the Midianites, and at his signal all the Israelites blow their trumpets, break their pots, thereby exposing the torches, and cry out: "A sword for the Lord and for Gideon!" The noise and torches terrify the Midianites who believe a large army is attacking them in surprise. They panic to such a degree that they even turn on each other and begin slaying one another.