Monday, June 22, 2020

Cupcake Wars-Judges 7:9-18

“Cupcake Wars” is one of the many reality competitions on television today. In it, contestants participate in several special challenges that have them baking cupcakes with different themes, ingredients, and/or decorations to show their creative confectionery skills. Things become increasingly intense as the competition progresses and fewer and fewer are left in the competition. I’ve only watched a couple of episodes, but one of the things that I have to remind myself of in the midst of the dramatic music, lighting, stern looks, tears, and scrutinizing critiques from the “expert judges” is that these are cupcakes we are talking about. At the end of the day, these are cupcakes. Remembering this puts it all into proper perspective and reiterates that I do not need to take this shows or others like it but only so seriously.

Interestingly, a cupcake of an entirely different kind reminds us of something very much related to this realization in Judges 7:9-18. In this passage, three events rally Gideon and his special forces uses to meet their enemy head on. However, in the process of getting things moving, proper perspective is given to Gideon’s role in whole enterprise—perspective that we need to be reminded of as God’s people today.

1) EVENT #1: God Offers Reassurance-7:9-11

After “refining” the Israelite forces from 32000 to just 300 men, I imagine Gideon was having some second thoughts about the whole battle against Midian thing to which God had called him. Just when things were trending in the right direction (after many responded to the trumpet call and had made their way to the front lines), the Lord sends 99.1% of those gathered home. This is probably why God reminds him of the promised victory in verse 9—“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,…” (7:9). “Arising” and “going down” would have been a lot easier with more people. “Arising” and “going down” to meet this enemy would have made more sense with weapons. For Gideon, the promise of victory—“for I have given it into your hands”—was of little consolation given what he had to work with. While this is just like the Lord to do the incredible with the laughable, Gideon does not trust this. Trepidation sets in once again for our hesitant deliverer. Second thoughts take over where the remembrance of God’s promise once held sway and although God could certainly achieve the victory without Gideon and the 300, it is his desire to use these feeble means for his glorious purposes.
Keep in mind, this is the last of several times Gideon has been promised victory over Midian.

Judges 6:16-“But the Lord said to him, ‘Surely I will be with you, and you shall defeat Midian as on man”

The Fleece episodes

Judges 7:7-“The Lord said to Gideon, ‘I will deliver you with the 300 men…”

Despite all these promises of victory, Gideon is shaking in his boots once again and very much in need of confidence.

This is why God offers, yet AGAIN, an opportunity for reassurance—“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 afterwards your hands will be strengthened that you may go down against the camp,…” (7:11a). Rather than wait for Gideon to cower in a corner somewhere, God preempts his retreat with this offer of encouragement. His prescription for Gideon’s anxiety is having Gideon go the Midianite camp at night and listening to what is being said by some of the soldiers. God predicts that what Gideon will hear will give him the added encouragement he needs to launch the attack against Israel’s oppressors.
Gideon seizes the opportunity for more reassurance immediately after this was made available to him—“So he went with Purah his servant down to the outposts of the army that was in the camp,…” (7:11b). Notice how far Gideon has come from his winepress and how close he is to accomplishing his initial calling. From the winepress we saw him journey to his father’s house to remove an idol. From there we see him encamped outside enemy forces. Now we see him behind enemy lines to eavesdrop on a conversation taking place between two of his oppressors. What is there to explain this movement in Gideon’s life? God’s direction and patient hand-holding. It is amazing how far God can take those he calls—even/especially if he has to drag them kicking and screaming. As the reader grows increasingly impatient and eager to see this battle take place, God is patient and willing to hold off a bit longer so that those he has chosen are ready to follow through.

2) EVENT #2: Gideon Eavesdrops on the Enemy-7:12-14

As Gideon infiltrates the camp we are introduced to what he saw—“ Now the Midianites and the Amalekites and all the sons of the east were lying in the valley as numerous as locusts; and their camels were without number, as numerous as the sand on the seashore” (7:12). The enormity of these enemy forces is indicated by the generalities used to describe their numbers. In verses 1-8, precise figures were assigned to those forces that gathered for Israel. One reason for this was because the figures were low enough to count (especially as the number shrunk down to 300). Here, in describing the Midianite forces, figurative language in the form of similes replace numbers, highlighting that both the army itself and the camels they rode in on were too numerous to calculate. Such a spectacle probably did very little for Gideon’s confidence. However, God did not promise that Gideon’s confidence would come from what he saw—but from what he would hear.

This is very important. More often than not, God desires for those he has called to take him at his word and not rely on other added external signs. Gideon is a man that has required all kinds of visual representations of God’s presence and promise of victory. However, in this last push, God will speak through a dream of one of the enemy combatants. This preference for God’s word over miracles and spectacles is reiterated in the New Testament. Following his resurrection, a doubting Thomas demands to see Christ himself. After Jesus appears to him and calls Thomas to investigate his hands and side, he says in John 20:29, “…’Because you have seen Me, have you believed? Blessed are they who did not see, and yet believed.’” As an aside to the predominate theme and principle of this passage, God’s people need to depend more on the Word that God has already revealed than they do on new and supplementary works from God. As already mentioned, God had told Gideon the victory would be his on multiple occasions. However, perhaps Gideon needed to hear this from someone else.

The text continues with the following account of what Gideon heard behind enemy lines: “When Gideon came, behold, a man was relating a dream to his friend. And he said, ‘Behold, I had a dream; a loaf of barley bread was tumbling into the camp of Midian, and it came to the tent and struck it so that it fell, and turned it upside down so that the tent lay flat.’…” (7:13).

I’ve been known to have fairly unusual dreams from time to time—including one of being chased by Captain Hook (the cartoon version). Normally, I’ll dismiss these as meaningless and not give them a second thought. However, dreams were commonly believed to have significance in the ancient world (even weird dreams about a cupcake tumbling down a hill and overturning a tent). Evidence that this dream was taken seriously is seen in the eagerness of this soldier to share it with a fellow comrade. It is obvious that he believed his dream was a bad omen and, at least potentially, that it spelled some kind of disaster lurking ahead (Walton, Matthews, an Chavalas, IVPBBC, 255). While the Midianite who had the dream is perplexed by its meaning, his friend proves that he does not need Sigmund Freud to figure this one out.

 “…His friend replied, ‘This is nothing less than the sword of Gideon the son of Joash, a man of Israel; God has given Midian and all the camp into his hand’…” (7:14). God had not only implanted the dream in the mind of the first man, he had also empowered the second to interpret the vision. Why the cake represents Gideon and how the tent symbolizes the Midianite forces is left unclear. That said, one thing is for sure, the Midianites were shaking in their boots and Gideon was catching a glimpse of this nervousness firsthand. Just imagine how reassuring it would have been to learn that the enemy was already dreaming of their own defeat and worried that it would come true! Peculiar though all of this may be, Gideon’s eavesdropping finally sends this hesitant leader into hyperdrive and quick preparations for battle commence.
3) EVENT #3: Israelites Prepare for Battle-7:15-18

Gideon’s first response to what he has heard is as follows: “When Gideon heard the account of the dream and its interpretation, he bowed in worship” (7:15a). No doubt this private worship service was motivated by both praise for the patience and reassurance he had received from God and repentance, asking God to forgive him for requiring so much to be faithful. That said, this worshipful tone suggests that Gideon is finally the man that God desired he would be to lead his people into battle against their enemies (Chisholm, Judges and Ruth, 284). In fact, as long and curvy as the path has proven to be for Gideon to get to this point, now, in retrospect, one can almost see how every bend in the route has contributed to the man that Gideon became in this moment—appreciative for God’s calling and confident in the victory God would bring.  

With pep in his step, “he returned to the camp of Israel and said, ‘Arise, for the Lord has given the camp of Midian in your hands’…” (7:15b). This is the first time that Gideon has expressed his agreement with God’s promise for him and his people. It also demonstrates that at least here, it wasn’t until Gideon agreed with God that he was used of God to accomplish God’s will. By vocalizing the same call that God had given him earlier, it reveals that Gideon is finally on the same page as the Lord and things can move forward.

Gideon matches his confident exclamation with practical preparations. First “He divided the 300 men into three companies, and he put trumpets and empty pitchers into the hands of all of them, with torches inside the pitchers…” (7:16). Now, no longer was the low number of their forces considered a non-starter. If all they had was 300, they would divide them into three companies and spread out. No longer was their lack of weaponry a reason to fret. If trumpets and empty pitchers were what they had, that would have to do. After all, God was on their side, and now, finally, Gideon knew that was all they really needed.

The passage closes in verses 17-18 with ”Look at me and do likewise. And Behold,…”. Just a second! Up to this point, Gideon was not the kind of man that could possibly serve as a compelling example for anyone to follow, let alone soldiers facing battle. However, now that he has been so transformed by the patient hand of God, he can and does demand the kind of respect and gravitas a mighty warrior would typically garner before sending his men into war. Here, Gideon begins to fulfill what God said of him all the way back when the Angel of the Lord visited him in the winepress—“The Lord is with you, O valiant warrior” (6:12)—proving that while God’s people may not yet be what the Lord says of them, they most assuredly will be in the end.

The instructions are as follows—“and behold, when I come to the outskirts of the camp, do as I do. When I and all who are with me blow the trumpet, they you also blow the trumpets all around the camp and say, ‘For the Lord and for Gideon’” (7:18b-18). The declaration announced here recognized that the battle belonged to Yahweh—the Commander-in-Chief—and that Gideon was his deputy (Block, Judges, Ruth, 282). While I was initially averse to Gideon adding his name to the tagline of this battle cry (fearing that this would bring Gideon praise and adulation more appropriately reserved for God), the more I thought about it the more I’m ok with it. After all, who was Gideon anyway? Left unto himself, Gideon was a fearful farmer threshing wheat in a winepress—he is the cupcake in the dream. However, God had so moved in his life to make him the deliverer his people needed. By including his name here, Gideon draws attention not to himself, but to his testimony—a testimony of God transforming a hesitant coward into a great leader for this moment.

So What?

Remembering that Gideon is ultimately a cupcake in this story really helps us put things into proper perspective as we consider how God uses us today. Like Gideon, God does not call us or use us because of anything too terribly remarkable, powerful, or praiseworthy about us. The truth is we are all cupcakes in a war against evil in this world. But God…God is pleased to use cupcakes for mighty and important things—things like defeating formidable enemies (“I will build by church and the gates of hell will not overcome it”-Matt. 16:18) and executing important commissions (“go into all the world and preach the gospel to every creature”-Mk. 16:15). So what is a cupcake like you to do? Like Gideon, we are to remember the promises he has given to us (promises like “I am with you always”-Matt. 28:20; “All things work together for door to them that love God, to them who are called according to his purposes”- Rom. 8:28). Like Gideon, we are to take advantage of the opportunities of reassurance he has graciously provided us (remembering ways that he has come through for you, provided for your needs, or answered your prayers in the past). And like Gideon, we must agree with God (both out loud and in the quietness of our hearts) about what he is doing, who we are in him, and the victory that lies ahead (1 Cor. 15:27-“ But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our LORD Jesus Christ”; “But thanks be to God, who always leads us in triumph in Christ, and manifests through us the sweet aroma of the knowledge of Him in every place”-2 Cor. 2:14). When we do this, like Gideon, we can tumble tents/be used of God in amazing ways. But make no mistake, whenever/however we cupcakes may be used, we are ultimately cupcakes in this whole equation—God is the hero.  

Tuesday, June 16, 2020

Sometimes, Less Means More- Judges 7:1-8

One of the things that has been a special area of interest for me over the years has been the requirements necessary to be a member of one of our nation’s elite special forces. Those hoops candidates are made to jump through to even be considered for units like the Navy Seals are unusually grueling and yet, these tests help ensure that only the best are included in these small but elite groups. Such forces also demonstrate that sometimes, less can be more. Believe it or not a small special force is what God decides to use in Gideon’s story to overwhelm the Midianite oppression. However, unlike the Navy Seals, the small unit that will result from the tests administered in today’s passage (Judges 7:1-8) is not an elite group of professionals. That said, God will show himself to be more than able to make up for the lack and demonstrate that with him sometimes less is more. What an encouragement this will prove to be as our world and the church therein deals with new and unusual circumstances—where many are being made to work with less that they have expected or less than they would have liked! Let us check out the two tests God uses to choose who will comprise his special force unit and learn what we can about his ability and desire to work with humble means.

After having received the multiple reassurances he felt he needed to follow through with what he was originally tasked with doing all the way back in Judges 6:14, Gideon was more ready than he had ever been to be used of God to obtain victory over Israel’s oppressors. We renter the story and see Gideon accompanied by an assembly of warriors who had answered the call and/or responded to the trumpet in chapter 7 verse 1—“ Then Jerubbaal (that is, Gideon) and all the people who were with him, rose early and camped beside the spring of Harod; and the camp of Midian was on the north side of them by the hill of Moreh in the valley…”. Remember, Gideon received the name “Jerubbaal” after he tore down the statue of Baal. The name means “let Baal fight with him” (Chisholm, Judges and Ruth, 277). Why would the author use this pejorative name here? Perhaps Gideon’s hesitancy and trepidation in the previous passage still lingers in his mind. Gideon has proven inconsistent and the inconsistent names he is given in the text compliment this this character flaw (Block, Judges, Ruth, 275).

Inconsistent though he may be, he is God’s chosen deliverer and the Lord has brought him a long way since he was first visited in the winepress. I imagine Gideon would have never thought just a few weeks prior that he would be leading an army outside of a massive enemy camp. However, that is exactly where he is. It is amazing to see what God can do with someone once he gets a hold of him/her. At his point Gideon and his forces had collected themselves in a narrow pass at the east end of the Valley of Jezreel, ready to strike the Midianites.

However, before the battle commences, God uses this opportunity to administer a couple of tests of his own. It is interesting to see God administer these exams immediately after Gideon had requested two signs from the Lord in 6:33-40 (similar, perhaps, to Jesus asking Peter do you love me three times after the apostle denied him three times just a few days before). While the signs Gideon requested concerned whether or not God was really behind this whole enterprise, the tests that God administers concern the number of warriors that have been collected—“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.’…” (7:2). The problem raised in this comment is the opposite of what the reader would have expected. From a human perspective, one might expect to hear “the people who are with Midian are too many for me to give them into your hands.” However, the problem introduced is the opposite: “The people who are with you are too many” (Block, Judges, Ruth, 275).

The issue is not that God cannot win the victory for Israel with this or that many men. The issue is Israel’s potential response to that victory after the fact. Israel had proven spiritually wayward and independent and if the massive forces collected and led by Gideon could somehow be seen as ultimately responsible for the victory, this would puff Israel up with pride and push them further away from a healthy dependency on the Lord. God wants the credit/glory for the victory and knows how dangerous it would be for Israel or Gideon to believe that they had earned it in their own power. Therefore, as the absolute commander and chief, God administers two qualification exams that refine the army into a much smaller group of special forces.

1] Stress Test-7:3

The winnowing effort begins with what might be called a “stress test”—“”Now therefore come, proclaim in the hearing of the people, saying, ‘Whoever is afraid and trembling, let him return and depart from Mount Gilead’…” (7:3a). God instructs Gideon to announce to all the troops that any who are frightened at the prospect of battle with the Midianites may leave. Study of the original language reveals that the announcement given to all the assembled troops might read—“whoever is afraid and shaking, let him fly from the Mount of trembling” (Block, Judges, Ruth, 274).

There was a similar choice offered to the militia garrisoned at the Alamo mission during the Texas Revolution. Santa Anna’s vastly superior Mexican army had surrounded the fledgling mission with forces outnumbering the Texan troop 20/1. With the grim proposition of their certain deaths staring every man in the face, William Barrett Travis is famed for drawing a line it the sand with his saber and granting anyone unwilling to remain to fight the freedom to leave the mission. Only two men did not cross the line to join Travis and stay on the mission.

I wish I could say that the same display of courage and loyalty was present in Gideon’s day amid this test. However, 22,000 of the assembled forces chose to leave when given the option to go and avoid the battle with the Midianites—“So 22,000 people returned but 10,000 remained,…” (7:3b). For one as fearful as Gideon, the sight of over two-thirds of the troops abandoning their post must have been very disheartening. I’ve seen depictions of boot camps and special training sessions for elite forces where drill instructors will tempt candidates to leave when things get especially stressful. Candidates interested in giving up and leaving are given the opportunity to blow a whistle or ring a bell, letting all those around them know that they have had enough. Imagine 22000 racing for the same whistle or bell once given the opportunity to forfeit!

Following this first round of tryouts for the special forces unit, we are left with 10,000 able-bodied confident men. Not too shabby! However, God is not done pairing down this unit even further.

2] The Watering Hole Test-7:4-8

10,000 is still too many according to the Lord—“Then the Lord said to Gideon, ‘The people are still too many…” (7:4). Therefore, the Lord offers Gideon the next set of instructions: “bring them down to the water and I will test them for you there. Therefore, it shall be that he of whom I say to you, “This one shall go with you,” he shall go with you; but everyone of whom I say to you, “This one shall not go with you,” he shall not go’...”” (7:4). The word “test” in “bring them down to the water and I will test them” might better be translated “refine.” Notice too, Gideon is not selecting his unit, God is. Typically a commanding officer gets to decide who he will use to engage an enemy. Gideon is not trusted with this responsibility. This campaign against the Midianites will be done according to God’s will and done his way with the people he selects. It may not make sense to the world or to Gideon, but it complies with God’s will and will assure his glory.

“So he brought the people down to the water. And the Lord said to Gideon, ‘You shall separate everyone who laps the water with his tongue as a dog laps, as well as everyone who kneels to drink.’…” (7:5). This account has always fascinated. You have two types of drinkers: 1) lappers and 2) kneelers. Those who drink water in a kneeling position with their heads in the water were, in that posture, easier targets and were made unaware of potential enemy movements while they drank. Those who brought the water up to their face with their hands were able to keep alert while they were refreshed.

The results of the test were as follows—“Now the number of those who lapped, putting their hand to their mouth, was 300 men; but all the rest of the people kneeled to drink water,…” (7:6). Different explanations have been provided for the significance drawn between lappers and kneelers in the text. Was God looking to choose those who were a bit more skiddish and paying attention to their surroundings while they drank? Or, was God looking to select a more skilled subset of soldiers and rewarding those who were more alert? Regardless of what is read into the postures of those who drank that day, one thing is clear: God was looking to dramatically decrease the number of the forces and, for whatever reason, 300 out of 10,000 assumed a different posture while they drank. These were the ones chosen. The test is more about reaching a small number than it is about distinguishing between two types of people (after all, let’s face it, all of these men had to summoned to action and their leader had to be poked and prodded to show up to begin with) (Chisholm, Judges and Ruth, 282). 

“The Lord said to Gideon, ‘I will deliver you with the 300 men who lapped and will give the Midianites into your hands; so let all the other people go, each man to his home” (7:7). Notice how God has supervised every element of this process: he called Gideon; he confirmed that calling with the lighting of Gideon’s offering; he provided added reassurances when they were requested; he, through his spirit, blew the trumpet and sent word out to gather men; and now he has selected his special forces unit out of a much larger brigade. This will be God’s victory done God’s way leaving God with all the glory. “I will deliver you” (7:7). It didn’t matter if it was 300 men, 10000, or none, God is the hero of the story.

The text goes on to say, that “the 300 men took the people’s provisions and their trumpets into their hands. And Gideon sent all the other men of Israel, each to his tent, but retained the 300 men; and the camp of Midian was below him in the valley…” (7:8). What is missing here (that is, besides 9700 men where 10000 once stood, or 22000 men where 32000 once were)?…WEAPONS! Provision check, forces check (I guess if 300 counts), trumpets check (whatever good those are for). There is not one mention of weapons for this pitiful bunch. This significant omission highlights just how ill-prepared the Israelites were to meet this conflict and, at the same time, this omission anticipates just how great a miracle God would accomplish with so little.

So What?

The truth is, as this passage and the tests therein have demonstrated, with God sometimes less is more. Gideon may have questioned the quick exodus of 22000 men and wondered at God’s dismissal of 9700 others, but what results is exactly what God desires to perform his will in his way so that he may receive great glory. Similarly, today you may be led to question what the Lord is up to when this or that is taking away or when what you may think you need goes missing in your effort to do whatever work the Lord has asked of you (or whatever he has asked of this church). However, God can do more with less and often chooses this path so that when things happen we are protected from  pride and he can receive the kind of glory he may not otherwise receive if everything looked full or well-provisioned. After all, consider what has been taken from our church these last few months—the ability to meet in person, services running in a traditional way, regular face-to-face communication, our initial Yard sale date, etc. And yet, look at what God has been able to accomplish in spite of these limitations/losses—giving is up, small group attendance is on the rise, our online presence has grown, outreach opportunities have presented themselves, partnerships with other churches have formed, etc. You and I could bemoan what we perceive as insufficiencies or incumbrances to accomplishing God’s will for our lives or for our church, or we can trust that God is sovereign to do more in our lack than we could do ourselves, even if we had everything we thought we needed. When we trust the Lord, he can turn our humble efforts into a mighty special unit force that, in his strength, accomplishes incredible feats for his glory.

Thursday, June 11, 2020

HERE IS YOUR FLEECE! Judges 6:33-40

When we last left our hesitant deliverer—Gideon—he was cleaning house by removing an idol complete with an ashera pole from his daddy’s estate. We learned from that chapter of Gideon’s story that it is not enough to know who God is and what He’s called one to if other distractions are allowed to linger that would inhibit God’s work from being accomplished. Today we are going to learn that it is not enough to go some of the way in accomplishing God’s will and purposes; we must champion all that God stands for and calls us to. This we will learn by examining three mechanisms God uses to get Gideon moving in Judges 6:33-40. After examining this passage, we will carefully apply what principles we learn to the church’s response (or lack thereof) to what is currently taking place in our world concerning the discussion on lingering issues racism and injustice.

1) The Threat Assembles-6:33

One might be led to think that Gideon would have found new boldness and willingness given God’s protection in his life during the short errand of dismantling the idol from his community—boldness and willingness that would translate to the original/ultimate task of removing the Midianites and Amalekites from the land. However, we learn in 6:33-40 that Gideon requires added coaxing and reassurance to do all of the things God desires of him. In this passage God uses three mechanisms to get Gideon moving and the first of these is a assembling of the threat. This threat is identified in the first part of verse 33—“then all the Midianites and the Amalekites and the sons of the east assembled themselves” (6:33a). It is obvious by this time that the enemies of the people of God had heard reports of Gideon’s call and initial confirming act of faith. This is why the oppressors gather here—to maintain their grip on the Israelites and not let this new deliver lead his people to freedom. Remember, these different groups—the Midianites, Amalekites, and “the sons of the east” heavily outgunned and out manned Israel.

It is one thing to perceive a single threat far off; it is another thing entirely to see them nearby with a group of allies bent on snuffing you out! As we continue reading verse 33 the growing threat to God’s people zeroes in—“And they crossed over and camped in the valley of Jezreel” (6:33b). This 5-10 mile wide by 15 mile long valley is also referred to as the plain of Megiddo and later will come to be known as Armageddon. It was a natural theatre for battles in Israel’s history (see Judg 4; 1 Sam 31; 2 Kings 23:39) and even beyond (as in Thutmose III’s famous battle of Megiddo in the 15th century). This valley would serve as the showdown between Gideon and this Old Testament version of the axis of evil.

Nothing like a growing threat to move one to action. Remember, Gideon had already been told how he would be used (“Go in this your strength and deliver Israel from the hand of Midian” (6:14)), was promised God’s presence in the process (“Surely I will be with you” (6:16)), and was assured that victory would be his (“and you shall defeat Midian as one man” (6:16)). Not only that, but Gideon had been given a reassuring sign in the spontaneous combustion of the peculiar sacrifice he had offered in 6:19-24 and had seen the faithfulness of God in the errand of removing his town’s idol in 6:25-32. A growing threat like this to the well being of God’s people, no doubt, should have made Gideon eager to meet this threat head on and confidently go about the business to which God had called him. However, his going out, his doing the right thing, is not as immediate as one would expect or hope.

2) The Troops are Gathered-6:34-35

The second mechanism God uses to stir Gideon to action involves the gathering of the troops. To this end, “…the Spirit of the Lord came upon Gideon; and he blew the trumpet,…” (6:34a). It is important to recognize that bereft of the Spirit’s influence on Gideon’s life, there would be no guarantee that Gideon would have ever blown his trumpet. We might still be waiting for him to do so today had it not been for the Spirit’s leading! The involvement of God’s spirit does not just stir Gideon to blow his trumpet, it also offered great hope to the Israelites who heard it as not since the time of Othniel (the first judge) had God so empowered an Israelite warrior (see 3:10 and the lack of a reference to the Spirit’s involvement in Ehud and Barak’s case) (Chisholm, Judges and Ruth, 277).
When the Spirit of God moves mightily in Gideon’s life, he does something that was desperately needed but also something that he would not naturally do. The same is true in the lives of God’s people today. In fact, the New Testament puts it this way:

Galatians 5:16-17-“But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not carry out the desire of the flesh. For the flesh sets its desire against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh; for these are in opposition to one another, so that you may not do the things that you please.”

It may have pleased Gideon to just go some of the way in God’s plan and purpose, doing some of the things he knew he was supposed to do. After all, he had already taken down his dad’s statue and had offered a sacrifice to the angel of the Lord up to this point. Did he really need to go any further? From what we have seen of Gideon, his flesh was hesitant, fearful, timid, and lacking in urgency. However, once God’s Spirit gets involved, he overcomes the desires of Gideon’s flesh that would have him stand in silence and as a result, he is able to blow the trumpet.

Once the Spirit moves in Gideon’s life, incredible things begin to happen—“and the Abiezrites were called together to follow him. He sent messengers throughout Manasseh, and they also were called together to follow him; and he sent messengers to Asher, Zebulun, and Naphtali, and they came up to meet them…” (6:34b-35). If we are not careful, we will miss the miracle that takes place. The Abiezrites are the first group listed as joining Gideon and his cause. These were the very same people who were ready to hunt him down and kill him for tearing down the statue of his father in the previous passage. That is just like the spirit to turn presumed enemies into partners. In addition to this group who responded to the trumpet call, Gideon sent out messengers throughout Manasseh and Asher, Zebulun, and Naphtali who all responded to his plea for help. These responded by assembling.
Why were so many so eager to respond in this way. Was it because Gideon was a proven and fearless leader? NO. Once again, the Spirit of God makes up for what was lacking by way of charisma in Gideon and the people of God respond in kind—both to the trumpet and to the messages sent forth.
If the mounting threat wasn’t enough to motivate Gideon to do what he had been called to do, sure the assembly of a mighty band of tribes who had come in response to the Spirit-led call would send Gideon over-the-top. However, even this does not prove to be enough to get the ball rolling.

3) The Tests Provide Confirmation-6:36-40

The next mechanism God uses to nudge Gideon the rest of the way to faithfulness involves tests (yes, tests plural). These are used to provide added confirmation for this hesitant warrior. The test is requested of Gideon in verses 36-37a—“ Then Gideon said to God, ‘If you will deliver Israel through me, as You have spoken, behold, I will put fleece of wool on the threshing floor…” (6:36-37a). Such a test might prove peculiar to us, and yet, this is an example of what was called an oracle in the ancient world. In an oracle, a yes-no question is posed to deity and a test with only two possible results is administered so that a deity can provide an answer.

In this particular case, “If there is dew on the fleece only, and it is dry on all the ground, then I will know that You will deliver Israel through me, as you have spoken” (6:37b). However, if the ground along with the dew was wet (as would be expected any typical morning), Gideon would know he had plenty of reason to remain hesitant about doing what he knows is right. Though this is the first test requested from Gideon in this passage, it is not the first one requested by Gideon in his saga. Remember that already Gideon had asked the Angel of the Lord to remain while he went off to prepare the offering and if he was still there upon Gideon’s return, he would know that what this Messenger said was true (see 6:17-19).

Rather than scold Gideon for using this oracle or rebuking him for putting the Lord to the test, God condescends out of his grace and mercy to gently provide Gideon with the added reassurance he requested to get up and get moving. Verse 38 reads “and it was so. When he arose early the next morning and squeezed the fleece, he drained the dew from the fleece, a bowl full of water” and, we can assume, the ground around the fleece was left dry.

Great! Can we get moving now? Not so fast Gideon says.

After God entertained Gideon with this feat, proving gracious and over-indulgent, Gideon fails to keep his word (“if you do this then I will know…”) and asks for another test to be administered. ANOTHER TEST—“Then Gideon said to God, ‘Do not let Your anger burn against me that I may speak once more; please let me make a test once more with the fleece,…” (6:39a). Though Gideon’s request is offered apologetically, “this should not blind the reader to the manner in which Gideon is trying to manipulate God” (Block, Judges, Ruth, 273-74). He demonstrates he knows he is wrong to ask for such by saying “Do not let Your anger burn against me…”. If I am getting impatient as a reader, imagine what God must have been thinking in this moment, especially given everything he had already done for Gideon to reassure him. Just imagine if Gideon matched his boldness to request this of God with the task at hand of meeting the Midianites head-on in battle.

That said, Gideon proceeds with yet another oracle, only, this time he is hoping to see the opposite take place—“Let it now be dry only on the fleece, and let there be dew on all the ground” (6:39b).  So, in the first round Gideon wanted to see the fleece wet and the ground dry. In round two he wanted to see the fleece dry and the ground around it wet.

Once again, and quite miraculously, God condescends to give Gideon what he requests, knowing full well that Gideon should not have asked for it and certainly does not deserve it. Ultimately, Gideon’s spiritual condition to try to twist God’s arm into jumping through these unnecessary hoops reveals the condition of the heart of his people who had tested and retested God’s patience time and time again. That said, despite Israel’s spiritual disaffection, God is obviously more interested in preserving his people than they are in preserving themselves (Block, Judges, Ruth, 274). While God certainly would have enjoyed seeing immediate faithfulness from his people to do ALL that he desired of them, he chooses to wait and willingly provides added reassurances.

So What?

Given what is going on in our world I cannot help but draw some unfortunate parallels between God’s people here in Judges 6 and some elements of the church today. Like Gideon, we often need unnecessary reassurances and added coaxing to do/say those things that we know are right. While certainly many of us have become accustomed to fighting certain battles and speaking truth in love to certain issues, for some odd reason many in the church have not been as quick to do the right thing with regards to other important and equally compelling conflicts. For instance, why is it that historically the evangelical church has proven quick to speak up for the unborn or stand for biblical marriage and yet has proven hesitant to call out racism and other injustices that many, especially in the black community, continue to face all over our world today? There is a deafening silence and/or hesitancy that is harmful and frustrating for those who observe the church’s failure to do/say the right thing on any number of issues. Just as we grow impatient with Gideon in spite of all he had pushing him in the right direction to get him going, I imagine that many looking at the church from the outside in wonder how much is going to have to give for us to be moved to say/do what is necessary for the gospel and the Kingdom of God to be applied to these important areas of our society. Perhaps, if we are willing to recognize it, God is using mechanisms in our world to get us going in the right direction that are similar to what was used in Gideon’s life. As the Midianites and Amalekites proved to be an existential threat to Gideon’s people, the wickedness of prejudice and injustice continues to rise up against people made in the image of God in our world today. When we see what we have seen in our country over the last few weeks, it is unmistakable and cannot be ignored. Many have been able to undermine accounts of lingering systemic racism in the recent past by poking holes in testimonies and looking for reasons or presumed justifications for why certain measures were justified in particular cases; but now we have seen the video evidence that injustice still exists. These mounting threats to those whom God has fearfully and wonderfully made pose a threat to the Lord’s order and we ought to be moved both to brokenness and to action in response. Perhaps this is not enough for some (after all, the mounting threats were not enough for Gideon in 6:33). For Gideon, God added the blowing trumpet and assembly of allies to the growing threats to push him in the right direction. Today, is not God’s Spirit leading courageous men and women to blow the trumpet so as to draw necessary attention to this lingering problem in our society and rally the body to bring a solution? Are not church leaders in new and important ways peeling back the bandage on what many believed was healed wound in our society to reveal that the infection of hate still exists? I think of the words recently shared by Matt Chandler. Earlier this week he lamented that while in the 1960s the civil rights movement was born out of the church, now “the church by and large has refused to participate (in racial reconciliation efforts) which means that we have turned over, God help us, what is our inheritance to dark ideologies…you cannot point all the flaws in this current movement while you have abandoned the place that we were meant to play…we cannot ignore the sorrow and lament of 12-13 million images bearers  in our country…we mourn with those who mourn and yes there are demonic and evil ideologies at play but that is where the people of God are men are meant to run with Light and the good news of Jesus Christ, not sit back and snipe via social media.” Or Abdu Murray who said “Many said 2020 would be the ‘year of vision’ only to lament that #COVID19 and social unrest have beclouded our sight. But perhaps God is using it all to sharpen our vision of the way things are and the way they ought to be.” Or Dr. Crawford Loritts who says: “It is not good enough for Christians to say ‘I’m not a racist.’ We have to be antiracism, because racism is in the category of sin. . .Just as we are anti-adultery and anti-lying and anti-stealing, we’ve got to see it in this painful reality. . . If we tolerate it at all we will accept it and excuse it and camouflage it.” or Bartholomew Orr who has said “Against the backdrop of the darkness of hatred, injustice and sin that has gripped America, the time is just ripe for bold, bright believers who will shine like Jesus and share the glorious Gospel of love, life and freedom.” Or Pastor James Hobson of Lynchburg who says, “just because you may not be a racist doesn’t mean that racism is not still a problem in our country.” Maybe, like Gideon, we are not too impressed with this growing show of support for what is certainly a righteous battle. Maybe, like our hesitant deliverer in Judges 6 you need even more confirmation. Maybe you are waiting on the fleece—you just need a sign or two to set you over the top and get you off the bench to say and do what is right. HERE IT IS! HERE IS YOUR FLEECE! While God can and may provide you with whatever confirmation you may think you need, has he not already provided his word which says “He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” (Micah 6:8) or “Learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression; bring justice to the fatherless, plead the widow's cause” (Isaiah 1:17) or “Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another. Do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly. Never be wise in your own sight. Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all. If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.” (Rom. 12:15-18) or “anyone who claim to be in the light but hates a brother or sister is still in the darkness” (1 John 2:9). We cannot afford to just engage in the battles that are more our speed (just as Gideon could not afford to leave his role with the offering he offered or the idol he tore down). More is needed and God’s people are to the agents that God uses in the world to bring about the Lord’s answers to all kinds of problems—including problems of racism and injustice. It is always the right time to do the right thing. And while the Midianites and the Amalekites were the oppressors needing toppling in Gideon’s day, injustice and racism remain as tyrants that need toppling today. God’s people ought to be leading the charge, not found hesitant or slow on the draw.

Monday, May 25, 2020

Spiritual Spring Cleaning-Judges 6:25-32

One of the many activities that people have given themselves to over the last couple of months is cleaning up in and around their homes. The quarantine and self-distancing measures have caused people to stare down messes of all shapes and sizes and do something about it. Perhaps in the place of the mess, renovations have taken place and other changes have been made where people live that have resulted in something better. In many cases, this has involved the dismantling and trading the old, obsolete, or outdated, for the new, preferred, or better. This concept of clearing away what is in one’s way so that real progress can be made transcends domestic living. In fact, there are spiritual applications for this concept that God’s people should not ignore. This is what is witnessed in Judges 6:25-32. Before progress can be made and deliverance can be achieved for God’s people in this cycle of the judges, the Israelites had to clear some things out of their lives—junk that was keeping them from living the lives that God intended for them. Gideon is called to lead the clearing effort in this passage and two series of events provide the room necessary for a spiritual overhaul to commence.

1) SERIES #1:  The Errand -6:25-27

After the confirming miracle and the private worship service held on a newly constructed altar Gideon built, God decides to send his chosen deliverer on an errand—“Now on the same night the Lord said to him, ‘Take your father’s bull and a second bull seven years old, and pull down the altar of Baal which belongs to your father, and cut down the Asherah that is beside it,…” (6:25). God wastes no time in calling Gideon to act in view of his call (perhaps he is concerned that if given the opportunity to sit still too long he will require more coaxing to get going again). Typically in Judges, once the deliverer is called, the deliverance is executed. However, in this case, the natural progression of things is interrupted to deal with an abnormality.

God has a bone to pick in the form of an idol that has been erected on Gideon’s dad’s estate. This shrine needs to be torn down and it is time that Gideon live up to his name (“hacker” or “hewer”). Just what would Gideon be cutting down? An altar to Baal and an Asherah pole. Though these constructions were on his dad’s property, the response seen later from the townspeople suggests that they served as a community shrine to pagan Gods (yes, pagan shrines among God’s people). This particular shrine had an altar for Baal and an Asherah pole celebrating these Canaanite gods/goddesses. Such was an offense to God who is jealous for his glory and demands exclusive worship from his people. In this case, it was not enough for Gideon to build an altar to the Lord (see 6:24) if there was an altar of a competing god standing nearby (6:25). That simply would not do.
How would he go about taking down the altar to Baal and the Asherah? Using a seven-year-old bull from his father’s herd. Though the description given suggests that two bulls were involved, the task probably involved one bull that was vividly described in this unusual way. God does not just want any bull to be used in this effort, he has a particular animal in mind—the prize seven-year old stud. This, no doubt, was one of the best in daddy’s herd and, as we will soon see, a fitting sacrifice for the one true God.

In the place of this pagan shrine, Gideon is next instructed to “build an altar to the Lord your God on the top of this stronghold in an orderly manner” (6:26a). “By commanding Gideon to build the altar on this pagan site, Yahweh is order him to reclaim this paganized land for himself” (Block, Judges, Ruth, 267).  Notice, God does not want some altar to be thrown together haphazardly. He wants a proper altar placed in this conspicuous location “in an orderly manner” so that everyone in the community can see what should have been there to begin with.

Finally, God commands Gideon to really seal the deal by using his dad’s best bull, the very same one used to tear down the altar, as an offering to the Lord. He even wants Gideon to use the wood of the demolished Asherah pole as the fuel—“ and take a second bull and offer a burnt offering with the wood of the Asherah which you shall cut down.’…” (6:26b)! This would prove to be the “ultimate indignity against the pagan cult” (Block, Judges, Ruth, 267).

God wants to send a message, loud and clear, to Gideon’s town and all of Israel: “I am the only one worthy of worship and it is time to clean house! Those false God’s you have endorsed have no place in my land and, in fact, they will be made into fuel for the sacrifices you ought to offer to me alone.” What a powerful statement this would be at the beginning of this cycle of deliverance. For God’s people to move forward, they had to get their junk out of the way and redirect their worship to God alone!

In their initial encounter the Lord forced Gideon to recognize his presence and power (see 6:19-24). Here, he pushes Gideon one step further by tasking him with this important errand and Gideon complies—“Then Gideon took ten men of his servants and did as the lord had spoken to him” (6:27a). However, before we rush to congratulate Gideon on what looks like immediate faithfulness, as the description continues, we see ambiguities in his character.

The text reveals, “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,…” (6:27b). On the one hand, we might say that before the night was over—the very same night the Lord appeared to him with this task—Gideon rushes to the place where his servants slept, woke them up, and employed them to complete the mission. However, on the other hand, we learn that the motivation for Gideon was NOT that he could not stand seeing this pagan altar any more than God could. Instead, he is fearful of the potential consequences from the citizens of Ophrah once they see what he has done. He would rather do God’s will under cover of darkness than in the light of day. This betrays that while Gideon feared the Lord to a point, he also feared man. The fact that Gideon is fearful of the response of the townspeople is tragic. After all, there was no good reason that God’s people, should be outraged by the destruction of a pagan shrine and rush to its defense. This shows just how rotten things were in the state of Israel during the days of the judges.

2) SERIES #2: The Aftermath-6:28-32

Gideon’s fears are realized in the aftermath described in verse 28-32—“When the men of the city arose early in the morning, behold, the altar of Baal was torn down, and the Asherah which was beside it was cut down, and the second bull was offered on the altar which had been built…” (6:28). Everything God had asked Gideon to do was accomplished by him and his band of merry men on that busy night. The message was sent, the goblet was thrown down, and the response from the people was as sad as it was expected.

Rather than be jarred into righteous worship and recognize this corrective step for what it was, “they said to one another, ‘Who did this thing?’ and when they searched about and inquired, they said, ‘Gideon the son of Joash did this thing’…” (6:29). Gideon’s nighttime activities could not be hidden and immediately the people seek to get to the bottom of the renovations that took place in their community without their approval and without their consent.

Once they learn who is responsible, “the men of the city said to Joash, ‘bring out your son, that he may die, for he has torn down the altar of Baal, and indeed, he has cut down the Asherah which was beside it’…” (6:30). These words are woefully ironic and betray the very real problem the people had with apostasy. What Gideon did was compliant with the law of God (Exod. 34:13; Deut. 7:5; Judge 2:2)

Exodus 34:13-“But rather, you are to tear down their altars and smash their sacred pillars and cut down their Asherim.”

Deuteronomy 7:5-“…you shall tear down their altars, and smash their sacred pillars, and hew down their Asherim,…”

Judges 2:2-“…you shall tear down their altars,…”

However, it is plain to see that the Israelites had either forgotten their own law or acted in voluntary defiance of this law (or some combination of the two) as they were ready to kill Gideon over what he did.  

This is proof positive that being faithful to the Lord and doing what He requires does not always win popularity contests, even among those who claim to be the people of God. There is such a thing as suffering for doing what is right (1 Pet. 3:17) and Gideon was experiencing that after completing his errand.

The next to speak is Joash. As the community leader, if there was anyone who could stave off a riot, it was he—“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,…” (6:31). The questions that Joash raises suggest that Baal should not need men to fight his battles for him (that is, if he is real to begin with). Joash also intimates that anyone who tried to vindicate Baal by hunting down Gideon would be dead by morning. Is Joash threatening to kill anyone who goes after his son? Or, is this Joash’s way of suggesting that Baal doesn’t need help? Did this betray Joash’s feigning confidence in Baal given that his altar had been destroyed? Regardless of the motivations guiding Joash, he concludes that if Baal is a god, let him contend for himself. This is a bold statement that brought people face-to-face with idolatry. After all, how good was Baal at defending his own altar to begin with? Not very good. Might this mean that confidence in Baal is misplaced? Something for Israel to consider before God delivers them from the hand of Midian.

The passage concludes with “Therefore on that day he named him Jerubbaal, that is to say, ‘Let Baal contend against him,’ because he had torn down his altar” (6:32). If the people trusted in Baal, they could also trust that Baal would take care of Gideon for them. However, as we will soon learn, Baal’s subsequent failure to defend his honor would demonstrate his weakness and unworthiness to be worshiped by Israel (Chisholm, Judges and Ruth, 277).

So What?

For the Israelites in Ophrah, a pagan shrine distracted God’s people from their worship of the one true God and stood in the way of their deliverance. What distracts you? What stands in your way? Perhaps today is a day to clean house, dismantle the idols, and in their place build altars to the one true God. Many people crave deliverance from this or that or believe they are ready to receive God’s blessing and answers to their many prayers. However, many of those same people are unwilling to remove the trash from their lives and clear out those things that God is displeased with. Friends, God is not content to be one of the many things to which you give primacy. He wants all of your worship and all of the glory from our lives. Today is the day to tear down the altar to Baal and the Asherah pole and in that space construct whatever will help us better worship and glorify the Lord.

Keep in mind that this task of idol dismantling does not always win you points with those around you. People, even those who claim to be God’s people, may have grown accustomed to that thing in your life that has stolen focus from the Lord so much so that they might miss it when it is gone. However, do not let this deter you from the errand that God would have us all run. It is time to tear some things down. It is time to clear the trash. Its time to redirect our affections and worship to the Lord Alone so that we might be better suited for what God would have us do in the next chapter of his story.

Trust and Obey: It's That Simple! Judges 6:19-24

I don’t know about you but I’m the type of person who enjoys figuring things out. I analyze, and over analyze all the time and find it difficult to function when things simply don’t make sense (at least to me). Imagine how frustrating this proves in the season we find ourselves in with this pandemic! To wear a mask or not to wear a mask. To open or not to open for in-person gatherings. To travel or not to travel. To go to the store or order for delivery. The decisions and rationale behind them are endless. However, one thing I’ve learned and relearned over the years that has brought me much peace happens to be taught in the passage that we find ourselves in today in Judges 6:19-24 and that is this: one must not have everything figured out, one must simply obey the Lord and do as he says. Let’s watch as 5 actions are taken that will prepare Gideon for his task in Judges.

1. Preparations are Made-6:19

Last time we left Gideon he had gone home to prepare an offering to bring back to the angel of the Lord who had interrupted his chore of threshing wheat in the winepress. This he did to see whether the Lord had really chosen him to be a part of the deliverance of the people of Israel. Gideon’s idea was that if this messenger was still there when he got back, that was confirmation of God’s choosing. As we pick things up in verse 19, we learn that instead of what many might associate with a traditional offering/sacrifice, Gideon prepares a meal—“Then Gideon went in and prepared a young goat and unleavened bread from an ephah of flour,…” (6:19a). Perhaps this what Gideon believed was an appropriate offering in this troublesome period of Israel’s history. Remember, the people of God are far from the Lord and one cannot assume that many have a thorough understanding of what to present to the Lord in such a situation. That said, the fact that Gideon selects a “young goat” means that he is not just randomly choosing something to offer. Also, an ephah was a massive quantity of flour—probably capable of making ten flat cakes of eight or ten inches in diameter each. These clues suggest that Gideon is doing the best he can to bring something presentable and high quality to this heavenly messenger. 

The text goes on to say that Gideon “put the meat in a basket and the broth in a pot, and brought them out to him under the oak and presented them,…” (6:19b). Again, it is not absolutely certain what Gideon believed he was offering in this scenario. Is this supposed to be a tasty meal (Gen. 27:9), a valuable gift (Gen. 38:17), a sign of renewed devotion (Judg. 15:1), a worthy sacrifice (Judg. 13:19), or some combination of these options (Chisholm, Judges and Ruth, 274)? The confusion surrounding what Gideon brought betrays one of two things. Either this is all Gideon had to offer in place of what he knew would make good sacrifice (i.e. the best he could do with what he had) or it is a reflection of Gideon’s ignorance concerning sacrifices (demonstrating just how far from God the Israelites had fallen during this period). Regardless of what this is, Gideon brings something and makes good on his promise to return. A perfect/expected/normal offering it is not, but an offering it is.

2. Instructions are Given-6:20

As Gideon presents the food, the messenger of God makes the most of the humility and vulnerability that Gideon demonstrates and assumes a more authoritative role in the narrative. He commands Gideon “Take the meat and the unleavened bread and lay them on this rock, and pour out the brother” (6:20). These instructions make it clear that no matter what Gideon thought he was bringing to the angel of the Lord, it would now be a sacrifice as rocks were often used as altars (1 Sam. 14:32-34) (Walton, Matthews, Chavalas, IVPBBC, 254). Here, God demonstrates his ability to take what is being offered—no matter how peculiar—and turn it into something pleasing to him.  In this case, he takes a meal of peculiar proportions and decides to transform it into a sacrifice.

After receiving the instructions to place what was brought on the impromptu altar, Gideon dutifully complies (“and he did so”) (6:20). It is worth noting that this is one of the ONLY times in Gideon’s saga that he immediately and willingly obeys instructions without any hesitation, reassurance, or added coaxing. Perhaps he does not perceive this messenger as a threat or cannot possibly imagine what harm there is in putting some food on a rock. While it is a small act of obedience with very little risk, it is worth commending Gideon here for quietly following orders (because Lord knows it is a rarity in Israel in this book).

3. The Sacrifice is Received-6:21

What happens next is the “main event” of this passage—“Then the angel of the Lord put out the end of the staff that was in his hand and touched the meat and the unleavened bread…” (6:21a). Though this sign may be peculiar to us today, in the ancient world when a presumed deity consumes something a worshiper brought, this was a sign that the one offering the meal had found favor in sight of that deity.

As far the Old Testament is concerned, the presence of fire is often associated with the presence of Yahweh. God appeared to Moses in a burning bush (Exod. 3:2), Sinai was ablaze with God’s presence (Deut. 4:11; 5:23), God sent fire down on Elijah’s offering on Mt. Carmel (1 Kings 18:25), the wrath of God is compared to a fire (Psalm 21:9; 58:9), and the list goes on and on. These references, along with what takes place here in Judges 6, demonstrate that God often manifests himself as a consuming fire (Heb. 12:29)—at times to confirm his presence and power and at other times to project his wrath. By miraculously setting fire to Gideon’s meal, the Angel of the Lord confirms that Gideon has, in fact, received undeserved favor from the Lord. This would have gone a long way in answering any questions Gideon had (see 6:17) about God choosing him as Israel’s next deliverer.

Before we see what happens next, let us appreciate the implications of what has just occurred in this pivotal moment in Gideon’s life. He offered what he could, though peculiar and imperfect, in obedience to the Lord, and the Lord, by setting fire to it, confirmed that he was pleased with what was brought. This reveals that even here—deep in the Old Testament world—it was not ultimately about what was brought to the Lord, but that it was brought and faithfully offered. Consider this. What did Noah have? His Family? And yet he showed up when called and was used of God to build an ark to save humanity. What did Abraham have? Old age and a barren wife? And yet he showed up with his wife and was used of God to start a nation. What about Moses? He had a rap sheet, studder, and staff. Nonetheless, he showed up to Pharaoh’s palace and God used him to lead his people out of Egypt. How about David? He had seven older, stronger, brothers. And yet it was David who showed up to the battlefield and was used of God to kill Goliath. In each of these cases, God was not looking to these people to be a savior (God was going to take care of that). He was simply looking for them to show up! God had already promised to more than make up for Gideon’s weaknesses (see 6:11-18) as he would be used to deliver his people. God just wanted Gideon to follow his instructions. In this first test, Gideon had passed and a miraculous and confirming sign emerged. 

Following this confirming act “the angel of the Lord vanished from his sight” (6:21b). Just as miraculous as the fire coming forth from the staff, this angel of the Lord conducts a disappearing act, further confirming his divine origins and message for Gideon. 

4. Reassurance is Granted-6:22-23

Having received the sign he requested, Gideon now realized that he was speaking to the Lord himself and had seen him firsthand through this pre-incarnate manifestation of Christ. This does not engender confidence in his calling as much as strike paralyzing fear into Gideon’s core—“When Gideon saw that he was the angel of the Lord, he said, ‘Alas, O Lord God! For now I have seen the angel of the Lord face to face,…” (6:22). The first words from his mouth following this experience were “Oh no!” “followed by a variation of “I’m going to die because of what I’ve seen!” Certainly, while Gideon’s reverence for the Lord’s presence is understandable, the conclusion he reaches does not make sense—i.e. that he was now going to die because he had seen the Angel of the Lord face to face. After all, wasn’t he still alive after the disappearance of this figure? Hadn’t the Lord called him to a task that had not yet been completed? You were doing so well Gideon in bringing what you had and receiving confirmation from the Lord and now you are already too scared to move forward. Yikes!

Thankfully, before Gideon can retreat back into the winepress from whence he came, the Lord speaks from heaven saying “Peace to you, do not fear; you shall not die’…” (6:23). Here, “Gideon is encouraged to interpret the encounter with God in the most positive sense possible” (Block, Judges, Ruth, 264). Three clauses confirm that nothing will happen to Gideon until God says so. 1) “Peace to you” is a blessing conferred upon Gideon that he could take seriously knowing that God had found favor with him and was on his side. 2) “do not fear” is a command to walk in the confidence that is his because of God’s presence that goes with him. 3) “You shall not die” is a promise that Gideon would be invincible up to and until God was done using him for his glorious purposes. Talk about reassurance!

5. An Altar is Built-6:24

Gideon, at least for the time being, is brought down off the cliff by these reassuring comments. “Then Gideon built an altar there to the Lord and named it ‘the Lord is Peace.’…” (6:24a). Gideon responds to the Lord’s words with genuine worship. He erects a proper altar in the spot (where the rock that had been set ablaze originally sat) and names it “the Lord is peace” (echoing the words of God himself in the previous verse). Gideon can say such about the Lord because he had found favor in the Lord’s sight. For anyone who has found favor in the sight of the Lord, the Lord is a friend and this is a great encouragement.

Gideon’s act of building the altar places him among other ancient patriarchs and Moses who also built altars to the Lord as acts of worship (Gen. 8:20; 12:7-8; 13:18; 26:25; 33:20; 35:7; Exod. 17:15) (Chisholm, Judges and Ruth, 275).

The author ends the passage with a footnote asking readers to confirm his report by going and investigating the spot for the altar that still stood at the time this was written—“To this day it is still in Ophrah of the Abiezrites” (6:24b). What a testimony of God’s favor this must have been for the Israelites! Like Gideon, they too had received unmerited favor and were called to an important task on the world’s stage.

So what?

Ultimately this passage reveals that it is not necessarily about who is called or what they bring to the table, it is that they answer the call and obey the Lord. In this case, Gideon, a scared man in an oppressed village, brings a peculiar meal in his best efforts to please this messenger. Neither Gideon’s appointment nor his meal may make sense, but God’s confirming fire demonstrates that it was more than enough to work with. This ought to encourage God’s people today. After all, we may not understand why God would show us his great love by sending his Son to die in our place and make us right with him and why we have found undeserved favor in God’s sight. We also may not believe we or this church may have much to bring to the table. However, God is not looking for us to understand everything, he is simply looking for us to be obedient. What act of obedience do you need to take today? What is it that you need to offer to the Lord right now? You do not have to have it all figured out, you just need to dutifully obey what the Lord calls you to do this day, and everyday thereafter.

Romans 12:1-“Therefore, I urge you brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies a living and holy sacrifice, acceptable to God, which is your spiritual service of worship”

This was the first step of obedience for Gideon, and it is a step we all must take if we want to be used of God today as we join him in what he is doing.

Tuesday, May 19, 2020

Conversation Starter: Judges 6:11-18

The relative isolation that many of us have experienced of late is a phenomenon that would not be lost on many of the characters in the Bible. Joseph spent 7 years in prison in Egypt, Moses was in the wilderness of Midian 40 years, Elijah was hiding in a cave before he called Elisha (his successor), Jonah spent 3 days and nights in the belly of a fish, Jeremiah was imprisoned in a pit for several weeks, Daniel spent the night in a lion’s den, Paul was under house arrest in Rome for two years, John was isolated on the island of Patmos, and the list goes on. In each of these examples, isolation was interrupted by the movement of God to carry his story into the next chapter. The same is true for the character we are going to meet today—Gideon. Gideon, an Israelite suffering under the oppression of Midian in the days of the judges, had adjusted well to the new normals his people faced in the land. This included isolation. However, in Judges 6:11-18, this isolation is interrupted by a conversation that will call Gideon to be involved in what God is doing. It is a conversation that I hope will inspire us to join God in what he is doing today—no excuses.

1. The Characters are Introduced-6:11

The first participant in the conversation that takes place in verses 11-18 is identified as “the angel of the Lord”—“Then the angel of the Lord came and sat under the oak that was in Ophrah, which belonged to Joash the Abiezrite” (6:11).  Several different interpretations of this messenger are possible. First, it might be the same angelic messenger the reader has already been introduced to in 2:1-5 (who, it seems, also accompanied Israel when they left Egypt and when they entered the Promised Land—see Exod. 14:19; 23:20). Others speculate that this could be a pre-incarnate Christ who, both in Judges 2 and here in Judges 6 intervenes in the lives of God’s people in physical form to lead, encourage, inspire, and call.  In Judges 2 this figure claims “I brought you up out of Egypt” and “I will never break my covenant with you.” Later, in the context of Judges 6 he will say “Have I not sent you?” and promises “I will be with you.” These self-referential claims seem to argue in favor of the latter option—that this angel of the Lord was God made flesh—i.e. a pre-incarnate Christ. Whether it is an angel or a pre-incarnate Christ, this personality appears with all the authority of heaven (either as God’s representative or as God-made-flesh himself), and will be used to share God’s will and message with his chosen servant in response to the cry of the Israelites in verses 6-7 (Block, Judges, Ruth, 259).  

The second personality we are introduced to in this context is the son of Joash, the Abiezrite, named “Gideon” (or “hacker” or “hewer”—a name that he would soon live up to as he will be asked to cut down and destroy an altar to Baal on his father’s property in 6:25-27). Gideon is found busying himself with a common chore that has taken on a whole new significance in the days of Midianite oppression—threshing wheat.

Under normal circumstances, wheat would be threshed on a threshing floor—large areas of dirt or stone that were out in the open so that a light wind could be used to separate the chaff from the wheat. Farmers would throw the wheat up in the air and the lighter chaff would blow away. Threshing floors were often public spaces used by an entire community for the same purpose. In contrast, a winepress was a square or circular pit hollowed out of a rock and only big enough for a few people to walk around in. While threshing wheat in a winepress would have been less conspicuous as it could provide cover from surrounding enemies, the winepress probably made the threshing process far more difficult. Gideon, no doubt, believed he had to thresh wheat in this peculiar manner to keep his family’s crop from being stolen along with everyone else’s when the Midianites would lodge their attack on the Israelites (see 6:3ff).

I imagine this winepress was something of a “secret spot” for Gideon who probably was alone to do his task. This makes what happens next all the more startling for him.

2. A Complaint is Voiced-6:12-13

“The angel of the Lord appeared to him and said to him, ‘The Lord is with you, O valiant warrior” (6:12). This exclamation probably shocked Gideon for several reasons. First, who is this guy? Second, where did he come from? Third, valiant warrior? The claim on Gideon’s character is what is in focus here. “O valiant warrior” probably had Gideon looking around him to see if this messenger wasn’t talking about someone else—“you talking to me?” The title “valiant warrior” carries with it either a strong military connotation of a war hero or refers to a community leader (as it is used of Boaz in Ruth 2:1). Neither could have possibly been true of Gideon, at least not yet. In this shocking interjection, the angel is not commenting on what he sees before him in the winepress as much as he is making a prediction of what God can do in and through this man once he gets a hold of him. It is a foreshadowing comment intended to inspire confidence in this would-be hero, that is, if he would accept it.

I wonder how often our perception of ourselves is different from God’s. After all, when God looks upon his people, he sees not only what they see (weaknesses, warts, and all); he also sees what they can become when he get’s a hold of them and uses them for his glorious purposes. When God calls anyone, just as it was for Gideon, he recognizes who she will become, not merely what she is now. Gideon may not believe it yet, but when this messenger calls him a valiant warrior, he isn’t lying. Gideon will be what God says of him here. You may not always believe it and struggle at times to accept it, but you too are/are becoming what God says of you—forgiven, cherished, useful, uniquely gifted, etc. These things we are not because of anything we bring to the table, but, just as with Gideon, because of God’s power in us. Perhaps this passage might be used of God to remind you to listen to what God says about you, not what the world says about you or what you have convinced yourself you are.

It is clear from Gideon’s response that he has a long way to go to accept what has been said here. Like Moses, Gideon balks at the idea that God might want to or could use him as his instrument (Chisholm, Judges and Ruth, 272). In fact, in his response to this startling interruption to his day, he questions the reality of God’s presence altogether—“ Then Gideon said to him, ‘O my lord (i.e. pardon me sir), if the LORD is with us, why then has all this happened to us? And where are all His miracles which our fathers told us about, saying, “Did not the Lord bring us up from Egypt?” But now the Lord has abandoned us and given us into the hand of Midian’…”. Gideon looks at the oppression around him and all of the difficult “new normals” he is having to deal with and reaches the conclusion that God has abandoned him and his people. He recognizes the perceived reticence from heaven and even questions the truth of the stories he’s heard about how God came through for his people in the Exodus. In his mind, the suffering he was currently experiencing was evidence that God was no longer with them. However, Gideon failed to remember that God had dealt harshly with his people because his people had sinned against him. And, little does he know, God has sent his messenger to break heaven’s silence and begin the deliverance for which Gideon so desperately craved.

Like Gideon, as we face the issues currently plaguing our world and deal with personal problems in and around us, we can become convinced that God has abandoned us. We can even begin to question if he has ever really been there to begin with. However, our issues and the struggles we face do not prove the inexistence of God as much as the existence of sin and brokenness—the sin and brokenness God seeks to redeem us out of. Just as God broke his silence here with Gideon to bring deliverance for Israel, God broke his perceived silence in the world with Christ to bring deliverance for those who will believe in him and what he did.

3. A Commission is Given-6:14-16

The messenger is undeterred by Gideon’s comments—“The Lord looked at him and said, ‘Go in this your strength and deliver Israel from the hand of Midian. Have I not sent you?’…” (6:14). The reader ought not take from this statement that Gideon is in any way qualified or prepared to do what he is about to do in and of himself. Instead, one should read the statement with this in mind—“Go in this your strength (what little strength you have) and do this awesome thing I’m sending you to do in spite your limitations. After all, if I’m sending you, I will more than make up for your weaknesses.” These words were no small thing for Gideon to hear for they are some of the same words of assurance (or reassurance) offered to Moses in Exodus 3:12, Joshua in Joshua 1:5, and the patriarchs (in Genesis 26:3; 31:3).

Exodus 3:12-“And He said, ‘Certainly I will be with you,…””

Joshua 1:5-“No man will be able to stand before you all the days of your life. Just as I have been with Moses, I will be with you; I will not fail you or forsake you.”

The comment the messenger offers here demonstrates that while Gideon may not understand exactly HOW this is all going to work out, he could trust in WHO was going with him to see him through. Was this too tall an order for him to accomplish on his own? Yes! But could he trust that he would be successful knowing that God was going with him? Yes!

However, instead of being inspired out of his despair and hesitancy, Gideon adds excuses to more questions to avoid participating in the very miracle for which he so desperately longed—“He said to him, ‘O Lord, how shall I deliver Israel? Behold, my family is the least in Manasseh, and I am the youngest in my father’s house” (6:15). Like Moses in Exodus, Gideon does not want to be a part of the solution as much as he wants to complain and go about his business as usual.  He cites his “lowly family” and birth order as reasons for his disqualification from being used by God (it’s pathetic). In fact, despite his protest that his family was the least significant in the entire tribe of Manasseh, history suggests that Joash (Gideon’s dad) was a man of considerable wealth and standing in the community (Block, Judges, Ruth, 259). Add to this Israel’s own history of God using others besides the firstborn (Jacob, Judah, etc.) and the fact that Gideon is the youngest does not really hold much weight either. The truth is, there is NO good excuse not to participate in what God is doing, especially when what he is doing is the very thing you’ve prayed/longed for. This is true in Gideon’s case and it is true whenever God calls us today.

In response to these protestations, “the Lord said to him, ‘Surely I will be with you, and you shall defeat Midian as one man.’…” (6:16). To push Gideon over the edge, God promises and incredible victory and again reminds him of his presence that would go with him. God’s people today need to remember what Gideon cannot seem to get through his mind here. After all, we too have been called to an impossible task of going into all the world and making disciples of all nations (Matt. 28:19). While we may not always understand exactly HOW this is supposed to be done given different circumstances and obstacles, we can trust in WHO is going with us –“and lo I am with you always, even to the end of the age” (Matt 28:20). Is our mission too tall an order for us to accomplish on our own? Yes! But can we trust that God will see us through, knowing that he is with us every step of the way? Yes! Does victory appear bleak and/or far-removed in certain seasons? Yes! However, can we cling to the hope of victory in the end? Yes!

Matthew 16:18-“…I will build my church and the gates of Hades will not overpower it.”

Revelation 12:18-“And they overcame him by the blood of the Lamb, and by the word of their testimony;”

Isn’t it about time we take these promises seriously?

4. A Concession is Requested-6:17-18

Unfortunately, Gideon requires even more convincing than he has already received—“So Gideon said to Him, ‘If now I have found favor in Your sight (i.e., If I’m really the one you want to use), then show me a sign that it is You who speak with me. Please do not depart from here, until I come back to You, and bring out my offering and lay it before You.’…” (6:17-18a).

Ah the old, wait here until I get back ploy. Don’t you know that Gideon probably took his precious time hoping that this messenger would finally give up waiting and find someone else.  😊

However, the messenger responds, “I will remain until you return” (6:18b). We will have to wait until next week to see what happens. However, the reader has no reason at this point to take anything this heavenly messenger has said less than seriously (and neither does Gideon).

So What?

The conversation underway between Gideon and the angel of the Lord in this passage is compelling for several reasons. Like Gideon, we find ourselves in unusually difficult times and like Gideon we are craving for God to move in mighty ways. Perhaps like Gideon, you have grown discouraged by what you perceive to be silence from heaven in spite of your many prayers and petitions and, as a result, perhaps you have grown doubtful, bitter, and comfortable with your new normal. However, what if God’s mission is not being thwarted at all? What if God has not taken his hands off the wheel in the least? And, what if God wants to enlist you in the exciting next chapter of what he is doing? You, yes YOU! You might say, “not me. Not little ‘ol me. I’m not qualified, I’m not good enough, I’m not ready, etc.” Perhaps, like Gideon, you, I, and the church need to begin believing what God says of us and become less convinced of what we tell ourselves or what the world claims. Perhaps, like Gideon, we need to reacquaint ourselves with the presence of God that goes with us every step of the way, wherever he leads. Perhaps, like Gideon, we need to believe that the same God who calls us promises ultimate victory. Is the order a tall one? Yes! Are we woefully incapable in and of ourselves? For sure! But can God move in mighty ways regardless and more than make up for our weaknesses? Absolutely! I love the words of Augustine: “God bids us do what we cannot, so that we may know what we ought to seek from him” (Augustine). Let us stop seeking excuses for why not to do what we’ve been called to and start seeking the Lord so as to join him wherever he leads.