Judge whose small force won a victory using jars, torches, and trumpets, from the tribe of Manasseh, is raised up to deliver Israel from the Midianites, but becomes a harbinger of the decline to come.
More space is allotted to Gideon than any other judge. Because “the spirit of the LORD took possession of [literally “clothed”] Gideon” (6:34), and he removes his father’s altar to Baal and its Asherah pole (6:25-32), as well as defeating the Midianites (7:15-23), Gideon has been heralded as a model of leadership among a throng of negative examples. A close reading of the text, however, suggests otherwise.
1. We have seen that alterations in the recurrent pattern that structures the material often provide interpretive insights:
- Here, the element of enemy oppression is significantly expanded, laying great stress on its severity (6:2-6). In addition, instead of immediately providing a deliverer in response to Israel’s cry, God rebukes them through an anonymous prophet (6:7-10). Does Israel require ever-expanding oppression before remembering to call upon the name of the Lord?
- The people’s idolatry regarding the ephod (8:27) means that for the first time in Judges the people fall into apostasy before the death of the judge.
- Finally, the concluding elements of the pattern are altered to frame the birth of Abimelech, Gideon’s son with a concubine (8:28, 32), instead of providing closure for Gideon.
2. Gideon’s call narrative (6:11b-17), while remarkably similar to that of Prophet who led Israel out of Egypt to the Promised Land and received the law at Sinai in Exodus, differs strikingly in certain particulars:
- Both experience divine encounters (Exodus 3:2-3; Judges 6:12-13), but in contrast to Moses’ reverential response, Gideon asks, in effect, “What has the Lord done for me lately?” (see 6:13).
- While God does provide signs–in the rod that becomes a snake and the leprous hand that is miraculously restored–before Moses accepts his vocation (Exodus 4:1-9), Gideon demands a sign and outright proof by means of a contrived double fleece test (Judges 6:36-40).
- Later, when Moses sees the golden calf that the people have constructed as a cultic object out of “earrings” obtained from Egypt, his “anger burned hot” (Exodus 32:19). In Judges, it is Gideon who makes a cultic object, namely, an ephod, in which “earrings” play a part, and which leads the people into idolatry (Judges 8:22-27).
3. Yet another indication that Gideon is not the ideal leader he appears to be is found in the alternation between his names Gideon and Jerubbaal. Gideon (“Hacker”) is appropriate for one who “hacked down” the Asherah of his father (6:25-32, though the verb is karat here, not gada as in Deuteronomy 7:5; 12:3). Jerubbaal (“Let Baal Contend”), appearing at times with Gideon but in chapter nine only by itself, points to Gideon’s contentious pursuits towards the end of his tenure and the idolatry to which he succumbs.
4. The text cleverly delays the source of Gideon/Jerubbaal’s obstinate behavior until chapter eight where we learn that his primary motivation has not been seeking the glory of the Lord or Israel’s deliverance. Rather, he has pursued the Midianites only because they killed his brothers (8:18-19). Realization of his obsession regarding this personal blood feud forces us to reconsider his past achievements.
5. The strange story of Gideon gathering an army in chapter seven is a case in point. Gideon’s success argues for the ideal leader paradigm. But God orders Gideon to reduce the forces from 32,000 to 10,000 (7:2-3) and then down to 300 by retaining only those soldiers who lapped water like dogs (7:1-8). Gideon placed his trust in human force. But Israel needed to know that God was the true source of their strength. In fact, God needed less than 1 percent of the original army to defeat the Midianites.