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.

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