Gideon’s narrative is the second longest in the Book of Judges, and it tells pretty much his entire life story from his calling to save Israel through his exploits to the end of his life when he lives peacefully in the liberated Israel where he doesn’t want to be king because he thinks God should rule over them (then he takes his spoils of war to make a priestly garment that people begin to worship, so whatever).
We first meet Gideon when he’s hiding inside a wine press while threshing his wheat. The reason he’s doing this is that the Israelites are currently being oppressed by the Midianites, who like to come along and take all their stuff. It’s quite a sensible thing to do if you’re constantly being harassed by raiders who steal your crops and livestock. It’s also a wonderful setup for when an angel appears to Gideon in the wine press and calls him a “mighty warrior.”
Because, you know, I imagine Beowulf hiding in a wine press when Grendel comes knocking at Heorot’s doors.
Like a lot of stuff that happens in Judges, I think we’re supposed to find this incident funny since “mighty warrior” is a translation of Gideon’s name, and he’s literally hiding from his enemy. It’s also a fine piece of foreshadowing, since Gideon later proves to be a very successful military leader despite his inauspicious beginning.
Besides the humorous tone, this introduction also serves to tell us a little about Gideon’s character. He’s a shrewd man, seeing as he knows it’s better to hide his wheat rather than threshing out in the open, and when he talks with the angel (whom he doesn’t yet realize is an angel) he asks the pointed question of how God can be with the Israelites (which the angel exclaims right off the bat) if they’re currently suffering under the Midianites and all the wonders that they’ve heard about from the period of Exodus are no longer present.
As an aside, I think this passage raises an important question that the writer of Judges and their contemporaries would have been asking in the days of the Babylonian Exile. The whole book’s looking for an explanation of foreign suffering when God says that he’s with his people, but Gideon gets right in there and says what everyone’s actually thinking about these cycles of oppression. Of course, the answer that God gives him (and the answer that the entire book seems to be pushing towards) is that he should just trust God to do what he does. Also, apparently, that if you find yourself in a bad situation and God tells you to do something about it, then you better get to it (I like that last bit, though I’m sure there’s endless discussion to be had about what constitutes God telling you to get to work).
Gideon, being the shrewd hider of wheat that he is, decides it’s probably best to make sure he’s actually getting a command from God, so he proceeds with a series of tests. First there’s the test where Gideon asks the angel to wait for him to get together materials for an offering, so he can receive a sign that he’s definitely getting instructions from God. The angel does this whole rigamarole where it sets the food for the offering on fire with its staff before disappearing into the flames, and Gideon freaks out because he realizes he’s just been face to face with an angel of God. God, being the chill Deity that he is, reassures Gideon that he’s not going to die.
The second and third tests are slightly more famous. Gideon puts a fleece out and asks God to perform two miracles two nights in a row that are exactly the opposite of each other. God does both miracles, and then Gideon’s convinced that he’s received a divine visitation.
And for all this testing of God, Gideon is named a paragon of faith in the Letter to the Hebrews from the New Testament. I’m formulating some ideas on why that is, which I’ll get into next time.