I realize I’m spending a lot of time dealing with Gideon in comparison to the other judges, but he’s a really interesting figure, and I’m trying to work out what it is that makes him so compelling.
Gideon’s listed in Hebrews 11 as a paragon of faith alongside several other men from the Judges account including Barak, Jephthah (whom we haven’t yet met, although he’s a doozy of a judge), and Samson. I should probably say now that I’m trying to figure this passage out in relation to Gideon because he’s the least problematic of the paragons from Judges (Barak might be a simpler case, but there’s very little about him besides his military conquest, which Hebrews 11 seems to explain as the evidence for his faith). Jephthah and Samson are unsympathetic figures in their own accounts, but we’ll deal with them when we get to where we’re going.
So after bashing the Baal altar and burning a bull, Gideon questions God about his plans for Gideon. This leads to the famous miracles of the fleece, where Gideon asks God to first make only a sheep’s fleece collect dew on the threshing floor overnight, and then asks God to make it so everything except the fleece collects dew on the second night.
Now, this pair of miracles is interesting because Gideon knows that he’s being demanding. He asks for one sign to prove that God really wants him to liberate Israel from the Midianites, and God gives it to him, but then Gideon goes back and says, “don’t be angry, but I want another sign.” One interpretation of this story suggests that Gideon really was asking for more than he should have. I mean, imagine you’ve asked God for a sign that you’re supposed to do something, and the sign you request is very specific and unlikely to happen by coincidence (asking God to do nothing if you’re supposed to go out and buy a fancy new whatever doesn’t count). God obliges your request and gives you the clear sign. Now, instead of doing what you’ve been told to do by God, you decide to say, “Y’know, I’m still not quite convinced this is the right course of action. God, could you give me another sign exactly the opposite of the last one, but still extremely specific and unlikely to happen by coincidence?”
Some people might read that kind of attitude as willfully disobedient (disobedience to God is a big no-no in Christianity, although different branches of the Church interpret what constitutes disobedience very differently). God made your job clear with the first sign, so why did you need a second one?
This is the attitude I had when I was a less experienced believer. Obedience is something that was highly valued in the branch of the Church where I first received my spiritual education as an adult, and I had a lot of trouble trying to parse out why Gideon was listed as an example of faithfulness when he stops and questions God’s instructions every step of the way.
As I’ve gotten older (and, I hope, wiser), I’ve started to realize that Gideon really does demonstrate faithfulness in his reluctance to do everything that God tells him. Gideon’s defining personality trait is caution. He’s introduced to us while hiding in a winepress so he doesn’t get attacked and robbed, he questions the angel that appears to him (who he thinks is just a man at first) about God’s presence with the Israelites in light of the Midianite oppression, and then he questions whether he’s really hearing God’s voice when the angel tries to explain to him what Gideon’s purpose is going to be. It’s not fear of disobeying God that seems to motivate Gideon, but fear of attributing to God a course of action that he knows is imminently risky.
In a lot of ways I’d say that Gideon’s an excellent example of conservative faith, because he doesn’t want to proceed in any course of action that he isn’t absolutely certain is honoring to God. Unlike Christians today, who may rush to attribute a plan they have to God’s guidance in order to put that plan above criticism (Rachel Held Evans recently wrote a good post exploring ways that we put God’s stamp on things we don’t want others to criticize), Gideon prefers to be cautious to the point of possibly offending God by his insolence so as not to bring a greater offense in claiming God’s guidance on something that turns out to be foolhardy.
Of course, after the thing with the fleece, Gideon apparently gets with the program because we aren’t told about any more instances where he questions what God tells him to do for the military campaign (although I think we’re supposed to infer that Gideon’s still very cautious about everything he’s doing, since God gives Gideon one more reassurance in the form of instructions to spy on the Midianite camp before the attack just to see how spooked the enemy troops are by his 300 man army). Beyond that, I think it’s telling that Gideon’s biggest missteps come when his confidence gets built up to the point that he stops consulting God for advice. After routing the Midianite army, there are a couple towns where Gideon and his men stop for rest during their pursuit of the fleeing enemy. In these towns the leaders refuse to offer food to the Israelites for fear of Midianite reprisal (a sensible thing, considering the small size of the Israelite force and the fact that they are essentially rebels against a much more powerful nation), and as a consequence, Gideon swears to ransack the towns once he’s finished with the Midianites.
It’s probably the worst part of Gideon’s story, and I think it points to Gideon losing sight of his earlier wisdom about undertaking tasks in God’s name.
Of course, even after pillaging a couple of towns and killing all their men, Gideon’s not the most troubling judge. I’ll move on to a strong contender for that title next time.