Take a stroll through history and recall some of the great people who started in obscurity, poverty, or oppression yet rose through the ranks to distinguish themselves through contributions we continue to celebrate. We call those people heroes. The Old Testament character, Gideon, certainly makes the roster. His name appears in the Bible’s lineup of giants of the faith (Hebrews 11:32) alongside such superstars as Samson and Samuel. Who was Gideon and what did he accomplish? Gideon’s story is found in Judges 6-8.
In Gideon’s day the nation of Israel faced relentless oppression by the Midianites, a nomadic people group who had introduced religious compromise and pagan idolatry to Israel during the exodus from Egypt (Numbers 31). Though God forbade these practices Israel succumbed to temptation. By Gideon’s time Israel had become subservient to the Midianites because, in God’s words (Judges 6:10), “…you have not obeyed Me.”
The Midianites roamed the land like a hoard of locusts and devoured the crops. What could not be eaten or carried away was destroyed. Livestock belonging to Israel became the property of the Midianites. The people of Israel survived in caves and dens hidden in the mountains, and they cried to God for deliverance.
Gideon enters the pages of Scripture in a wine press of all places. Was he treading grapes? No, Gideon was hiding from the Midianites as he threshed his meager wheat crop. Threshing was usually performed on an elevated site to take advantage of ambient breezes that might separate the chaff from the wheat. Gideon was making do in an undesirable situation. He was surviving by his wits.
What about our attitude, outlook, and demeanor in such circumstances? Can we control them? Are we responsible to do that or are we justified in becoming professional grade complainers? The Apostle Paul left us a word on this topic.
Not that I speak from want, for I have learned to be content in whatever circumstances I am. I know how to get along with humble means, and I also know how to live in prosperity; in any and every circumstance I have learned the secret of being filled and going hungry, both of having abundance and suffering need. I can do all things through Him who strengthens me. Philippians 4:11-13 NASB
The name Gideon means tree feller or hewer. I’ve dropped a number of trees with an axe or handsaw, and the secret is to whack at it until the job is done. Perhaps that image gives us a clue as to Gideon’s determination. Note that God sees us. God knows us. He has awareness of what we are capable of accomplishing and how we fit into His plan. He often calls us to roles that seem far beyond our abilities as He did in Gideon’s case.
The angel of the Lord visited Gideon. In the Old Testament this angel of the Lord is a pre-incarnate visit from Jesus Himself. In other words, God, in a visible form, came to see Gideon.
The angel addressed Gideon, “The Lord is with you, O valiant warrior.” God saw what Gideon could become, not the timid man hiding in wine press.
Where was Gideon faith-wise? His father and the surrounding community had embraced the false god, Baal. Gideon’s faith in God was weak at best, and he struggled with doubts as revealed by his comments.
- “If the Lord is with us…”
- “Why is all this happening?”
- “Where are all His miracles?”
- “God has abandoned us.”
- “God has given us to the Midianites.”
The angel of the Lord allowed Gideon to vent then stated His expectation for the man.
Then the LORD turned to him and said, “Go with the strength you have, and rescue Israel from the Midianites. I am sending you!” Judges 6:14 NLT
Gideon, certain God had made a mistake, declined the job.
- “How can I deliver Israel?”
- “My family is the least important family in Manasseh.”
- “I am the youngest in my family.”
God does not accept our excuses for refusing to step out in obedient faith, but He certainly understands our concerns. His response to Gideon can encourage us when timidity overcomes our need to serve.
But the LORD said to him, “Surely I will be with you, and you shall defeat Midian as one man.” Judges 6:16.
Why is remembering God’s presence vital to our success in kingdom work? John 15:5 holds an important clue. We are the branches not the vine. We need to live dependently with reliance on the resources the vine provides if we are to bear fruit.
Gideon sought the first of the signs he felt as necessary to confirm God’s call (Judges 6:17-24).
So Gideon said to Him, “If now I have found favor in Your sight, then show me a sign that it is You who speak with me.” Judges 6:17 NASB
The angel of the Lord patiently demonstrated His identity and bolstered Gideon’s faith. Gideon built an altar to worship God and gave it the name “The Lord is Peace.”
Gideon’s First Assignment.
The road from threshing wheat in a wine press to conquering an overwhelming enemy invasion force has, thankfully, some twists and turns with intermediate milestones. God is not going to dump His servants into arenas where He does not accompany us, and often, in His mercy and kindness, God takes us along a path that allows us to gain skill and build some confidence.
God assigned Gideon to destroy Joash’s (Gideon’s father) altar to Baal and replace it with a carefully constructed altar to God (Judges 6:25-32). Gideon took ten men and did the deed at night. Was he using stealth as a strategy? Was his choice made after consulting some dusty book on sound battle tactics? What drove this valiant warrior to attack the altar at night?
Then Gideon took ten men of his servants and did as the LORD had spoken to him; and because he was too afraid of his father’s household and the men of the city to do it by day, he did it by night. Judges 6:27 NASB
Recall Gideon’s solution for threshing the wheat. Can we sense his timidity and understand his desire to fly under the radar? And now God placed him in direct confrontation with established public opinion and practices. Gideon would remain hidden in the background no longer. What positives might Gideon take away from this encounter?
Was Joash, Gideon’s father, a leader in the community and possibly in the worship of Baal? The context seems to indicate he held great influence among his neighbors. As Joash surveyed Gideon’s work that morning he defended his son’s actions. Had the light dawned in Joash’s heart and did he realize how foolish he had been in following Baal instead of Jehovah? Joash’s words against Baal quieted the mob.
But Joash said to all who stood against him, “Will you contend for Baal, or will you deliver him? Whoever will plead for him shall be put to death by morning. If he is a god, let him contend for himself, because someone has torn down his altar.” Judges 6:31 NASB
Joash gave his son a nickname that morning, Jerubbaal, which means let Baal contend. Of course, Baal, the non-existent deity could not respond to Gideon’s destruction of the altar.
Gideon’s Second Assignment.
The Midianites, the Amalekites, and the sons of the East crossed the Jordan River and set up camp in the valley of Jezreel, not too far from Gideon’s location in the territorial lands of Manasseh. God collected the enemy into one location and brought the fight to Gideon (Judges 6:33-7:8). The Spirit of the Lord came upon Gideon and beginning with his own relatives he gathered an army from the tribes of Manasseh, Asher, Zebulun, and Naphtali.
Scripture includes an account in the middle of these preparations for battle that remains controversial among believers (Judges 6:36-40). Gideon used a fleece from a sheep and asked God to provide confirmation that God truly intended to deliver Israel through Gideon’s leadership. In both versions of Gideon’s test, God confirmed His plan. Perhaps this moment was a chance for Gideon to demonstrate before his collected forces that God had indeed called him? Or was Gideon having second thoughts about the job ahead? We aren’t given an explanation, and Gideon’s actions give rise to the question, “Should believers use fleeces when searching for God’s will?” BibleBuildingBlocks offers an article, What about fleeces?, that might help the inquiring reader answer the question.
Would Gideon’s army, 32,000 strong, be sufficient to topple the invaders? According to Judges 7:12 the Midianites and their allies were “as numerous as locusts; and their camels were without number, as numerous as the sand on the seashore.” As Gideon pondered these odds and considered battle tactics he heard from God.
The LORD said to Gideon, “The people who are with you are too many for Me to give Midian into their hands, for Israel would become boastful, saying, ‘My own power has delivered me.’ Now therefore come, proclaim in the hearing of the people, saying, ‘Whoever is afraid and trembling, let him return and depart from Mount Gilead.’” So 22,000 people returned, but 10,000 remained. Judges 7:2-3 NASB
Would 10,000 soldiers be adequate for the battle ahead? Gideon heard from God again. God gave Gideon’s soldiers a test and only the 300 who passed would go with Gideon to defeat the Midianites. Some of us would think this an appropriate moment to panic as fear pounded in our veins. Was God aware of the troop numbers and the sheer magnitude of what He asked of Gideon?
Gideon’s Third Assignment.
Many assignments that God gives to His people trigger fear, uncertainty, and a sense of inadequacy. Does God understand how those emotions can immobilize and defeat us? Consider David’s words in this Psalm.
Just as a father has compassion on his children, So the LORD has compassion on those who fear Him. For He Himself knows our frame; He is mindful that we are but dust. Psalm 103:13-14 NASB
God gave Gideon the command, “Charge!” God loves us. God cares. And God has a purpose for our lives. For Gideon that purpose lay in the valley below him, the defeat of the Midianites.
Now the same night it came about that the LORD said to him, “Arise, go down against the camp, for I have given it into your hands. But if you are afraid to go down, go with Purah your servant down to the camp, and you will hear what they say; and afterward your hands will be strengthened that you may go down against the camp.” So he went with Purah his servant down to the outposts of the army that was in the camp. Judges 7:9-11 NASB
Don’t race by God’s words, “But if you are afraid to go down…” God was fully aware of Gideon’s state of mind, and He grasped completely Gideon’s heightened uncertainty over the reduction in forces from 32,000 soldiers to a mere 300. In Gideon’s record to this point we find instances of his fear:
- Judges 6:11 – He hid from the Midianites in a wine press.
- Judges 6:22-23 – He feared that he would die after seeing the angel of the Lord.
- Judges 6:27 – He destroyed Baal’s altar at night.
- Judges 7:10 – He hesitated to launch the attack with his reduced forces.
God patiently, mercifully, and graciously addressed Gideon’s faith-eroding fear by giving another confirmation that Gideon walked on the correct path. Gideon and his servant crept close to the enemy camp and overheard a conversation between two soldiers. The message identified Gideon by name (Gideon, son of Joash) and predicted that all of Midian had been given into Gideon’s hand.
Gideon had reached the point where the only way forward was to step out in obedient faith. He bowed in worship then arose to lead his army.
When Gideon heard the account of the dream and its interpretation, he bowed in worship. He returned to the camp of Israel and said, “Arise, for the LORD has given the camp of Midian into your hands.” Judges 7:15 NASB
Gideon’s battle strategy capitalized on the fact that confrontations in that age took place in the daylight. He divided his 300 men into three companies, outfitted each man with a trumpet and a clay pitcher hiding a burning torch and positioned them around the Midianite camp. As the enemy changed the watch around 10 p.m. Gideon’s men smashed their pitchers, sounded their trumpets and gave the battle cry, “A sword for the Lord and for Gideon!”
The tumult awakened the Midianites. The sound and the lights of the torches convinced them they were surrounded by a superior force. With soldiers of the watch coming and going confusion increased. Is that person an enemy or not? Panic infested the camp.
When they blew 300 trumpets, the LORD set the sword of one against another even throughout the whole army; and the army fled as far as Beth-shittah toward Zererah, as far as the edge of Abel-meholah, by Tabbath. Judges 7:22 NASB
Pay special attention to the One who fanned the flames of uncertainty in the Midianite camp. The Lord certainly was with Gideon in the battle just as He had promised. Some Midianites died at the hands of their comrades, and the rest of the army fled as Gideon and his men watched.
The battle became hot pursuit as Gideon summoned help to cut off the retreating enemy. The men of Ephraim answered the call, and the Midianites were blocked from a safe return to their own land. Their leaders, Oreb and Zeeb, were captured and killed.
How emphatic was Gideon’s defeat of Midian?
So Midian was subdued before the sons of Israel, and they did not lift up their heads anymore. And the land was undisturbed for forty years in the days of Gideon. Judges 8:28 NASB
The phrase, Day of Midian, became synonymous with divine deliverance. Isaiah and other writers illustrate the completeness of Israel’s victory over Midian.
You shall break the yoke of their burden and the staff on their shoulders, The rod of their oppressor, as at the battle of Midian. Isaiah 9:4 NASB
The LORD of hosts will arouse a scourge against him like the slaughter of Midian at the rock of Oreb; and His staff will be over the sea and He will lift it up the way He did in Egypt. Isaiah 10:26
Make their nobles like Oreb and Zeeb And all their princes like Zebah and Zalmunna, Who said, “Let us possess for ourselves The pastures of God.” O my God, make them like the whirling dust, Like chaff before the wind. Ps 83:11-13 NASB
From the wine press to victory on the battlefield, Gideon’s life took him places he never dreamed he might travel. Scripture offers more on Gideon’s leadership and later life but we must leave that study for another time.