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.

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