Friday, July 3, 2020

The Triumphs and Possible Tragedies of Battle -Judges 7:19-25

This Fourth of July weekend had be reflecting on battles fought and won by our country over its colorful history and some of the more vivid depictions of historic wars that have been waged between us and our foes. Movies like The Patriot, Apocalypse Now, Saving Private Ryan, or Zero Dark Thirty remind us that while there is much glory at stake in the heat of battle, conflicts between geo-political parties are rarely, if ever, pretty or free of controversy.  The same is true of the battle that is fought in Judges 7:19-25. As Gideon and Israel finally confront the Midianites and Amalekites who are encamped beneath them we see both triumph and tragedy take place. The six observations we will make about the battle in this passage remind us all to remember our dependency on Who is ultimately responsible for the victories in our lives, even/especially when we enjoy seasons of success.

1) Gideon’s leads the Effort-7:19

In verse 19 the long-awaited battle between Israel and her oppressor (Midian) finally commences and Gideon is shown in a peculiar spot—LEADING—“So Gideon and the hundred men who were with him came to the outskirts of the camp at the beginning of the middle watch, when they just posted the watch” (7:19a). The plan of attack is simple, but sophisticated. Gideon leads his third of the troops in the darkest hour of night (“the middle watch”/between 12-4am) to the edge of the camp of the Midianites down below. Adding to the cover of darkness this late hour would have offered, the sentries/guards posted in the enemy camp where changing shifts, making this an opportune time to attack (Block, Judges, Ruth, 282). In this moment the Midianites were most susceptible to being caught off guard.  

At this carefully appointed time, “they blew the trumpets and smashed the pitchers that were in their hands” (7:19b). Though Gideon and his men lacked weapons, God had seen fit to equip them with plenty of trumpets and pitchers. If that is what they were given, that had to be what God desired to use. To this end, Gideon’s men blew the trumpets and smashed the pitchers, creating a cacophony of confusion in the middle the night outside the enemy stronghold.

2) The Companies’ Follow Suit-7:20

After Gideon’s noisy signal, the other companies join in—“When the three companies blew the trumpets and broke the pitchers, they held the torches in their left hands and the trumpets in their right hands for blowing” (7:20). Some background in battle tactics and ancient military practices might go some of the way in explaining why what is done here elicits the response that takes place later. The torches that each of Gideon’s soldiers carried would have been concealed behind the pitchers. At the proper time, the pictures were dropped, thereby producing a startling crashing sound and a sudden appearance of unexpected light. Usually, only a few soldiers would carry such torches and only a few others (possibly only one per company) would carry a trumpet (ram’s horn). If Gideon was following normal protocol, he would have only had three trumpets (1 per 100 men unit) and a dozen or so torches in each battalion. In typical ancient warfare, if you saw a torch or two and heard a trumpet, you could expect many other unseen weapon-wielding soldiers charging in to fight. Just imagine what the Midianites must have thought upon seeing three hundred torches surrounding the camp and hearing the ear-splitting call of 300 trumpets! Israel’s enemies would have fully expected that a massive army was about to wash over them like a flash flood (Walton, Matthew, & Chavalas, IVPBBC, 256).  

Joining the symphony of crashing pitchers and heralding trumpets is a chorus proclaiming “a sword for the Lord and for Gideon!” (a variation on the commanded call given by Gideon in verse 18). In this proclamation the Israelites confess that the source and inspiration for their victory is Yahweh and before Him none—not even a large and intimidating alliance of powerful forces—can stand. Also, in this proclamation is the acknowledgement of God’s chosen deliverer—Gideon. Gideon is as unexpected a leader as the trumpets and pitchers are effective tools of warfare. However, both surprises reveal that God is the ultimate hero who accomplishes awesome feats with humble/peculiar means. To the original Jewish audience and to us today, this passage’s battle cry reveals that those who enjoy claiming the many promises of victory found in Scripture need to remember that God often accomplishes these victories in unexpected ways and uses means that result in HIS glory.

3) The Responses-7:21

The next observation made in this passage is of the responses made by the two conflicting parties. First, verse 21 portrays the response of the Israelites—“Each stood in his place around the camp;…” (7:21a). The reader has witnessed fairly amazing transformations occur in Gideon’s saga thus far. For instance, we have watched Gideon turn from a coward to a courageous leader. We have also seen trembling soldiers become a fearless band of 300 men. Evidence of this second transformation is seen in the posture the men take during this episode of war—“each stood.” Though a small detail, the standing posture is one of strength and projects confidence, especially in the heat of battle. This is poignant given the contrasting stance of the enemy described in verse 21.

“and all the army ran, crying out as they fled…” (7:21b). While the Israelites are resolute in their stand against their oppressors, the enemy troops frantically try to escape what they perceive to be an enormous surprise attack on their camp.

4) The Lord Creates Havoc-7:22

The bedlam in the Midianite ranks is described by means of three verbs: 1) “and all the army ran” 2) “crying out” and 3) “the army fled”—“when they blew 300 trumpets, the Lord set the sword of one against another even throughout the whole army; and the army fled as far as Beth-shittah toward Zererah, as far as the edge of Abel-meholah, by Tabbath,…” (7:22). To remind the readers, once again, to whom the victory ultimately belongs, the author states “the Lord set the sword of one against another, even throughout the whole army.” In other words, God not only engineered the forces used to confront the Midianites (Gideon and the 300) and saw to it that they were equipped with the right tools (pitchers and trumpets), he also made sure that the Midianites responded appropriately—fleeing. How far do they flee? Historians suggest as many as 6-11miles east and south to various neighboring regions and cities in the Jordan valley (Walton, Matthew, & Chavalas, IVPBBC, 256). Consider just how unexpected and miraculous this whole spectacle is. You have 300 unarmed men of Israel going against an incalculable number of heavily armed forces. The many thousands are fleeing the much smaller three hundred! Among other things, this once again reiterates that so long as God is with his people, they can stand against any foe, no matter how intimidating it may prove to be on the world’s stage.

5) The Israelites Pursue Those Retreating-7:23-24

The retreat of the Midianites is not enough. These enemy forces must be pursued and totally driven out of the land (something that should have been taken care of much earlier). However, rather than rely on the God-appointed 300 for this chore, Gideon appears to forget the point of God’s reduction of the troops and calls for reinforcements--“the men of Israel were summoned from Naphtali and Asher and all Manasseh, and they pursued Midian,…” (7:23). Instead of operating by faith and seeking guidance from God, he relied on conventional human strength and attempts to mobilize troops from Naphatli, Asher, and Manasseh. What is worse is that most of the people Gideon reaches out to and retrieves consist of the twenty-two thousand who had been eliminated from the ranks in verse 3 (those who were too scared to enter the battle in the first place) and those who had been asked to leave in verse 8 at the watering hole.

Judges 7:3-“Now therefore come, proclaim in the hearing of the people, saying, ‘Whoever is afraid and trembling, let him return and depart from Mount Gilead.’ So 22,000 people returned, but 10,000 remained.”

Judges 7:7-8-“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.’ So 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.”

To put it bluntly, Gideon goes after the rejects to finish the job rather than complete what God started with the chosen few. After all, remember what God had told Gideon in verse 2—“’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’.”

What is to blame for this switch in strategy? L. R. Klein answers this question this way: “The coward has become confident; he directs far-flung mopping up operations which are effectively carried out. But the voice of the Lord is stilled, not to be heard for the balance of Gideon’s narrative. And the spirit of the Lord, which brought the courage to fight a far greater military force, seems to slip from Gideon’s shoulders in the process” (Klein, Triumph of Irony, 57-58). In other words, the recent victory the Lord brought confused Gideon into believing that he was somehow responsible and could trust his judgment over God’s will. Instead of remaining in the Lord’s will and depending on God’s Words, Gideon trusts his own judgement and depends on what feels is best.  

To this end “Gideon sent messengers throughout all the hill country of Ephraim, saying, ‘Come down against Midian and take the water before them, as far as Beth-barah and the Jordan. So all the men of Ephraim were summoned and they took the waters as far as Beth-barah and the Jordan’” (7:24). Gideon send messengers out to this tribe so that they might cut off the fords of the Jordan River, preventing the enemy from escaping.  

6) The Midianites are Defeated-7:25

 Not only do they respond to the call and cut off the fords, but they capture two retreating Midianite chieftans, Oreb and Zeeb—“ They captured the two leaders of Midian, Oreb and Zeeb,…”—whose very names (“raven” and “wolf” respectively) remind the reader how the Midianites had preyed on Israel for many years. After capturing these two chieftans, “they killed Oreb at the rock of Oreb, and they killed Zeeb at the wine press of Zeeb, while they pursued Midian; and they brought the heads of Oreb and Zeeb to Gideon from across the Jordan…” (7:25). The execution of these two and subsequent decapitation and delivery of their heads provided tangible evidence of the total defeat of the Midianites and the Ephraimites’ commitment to the cause (Chisholm, Judges and Ruth, 286).

So What?

Two important and related principles emerge from the description of this battle here in Judges 7:19-25. First, God often accomplishes victories for his people in unexpected ways and uses means that result in HIS glory. Applied today, believers ought not loose heart or count themselves out of what God has promised them in his word just because things look precarious here on the earth. It may be perplexing for the Lord to do much through you, through me, through our church, in this season, in a post-Christian America, in whatever. However, I have got to trust,that like for Gideon, God is please to show up in these troubled days and use imperfect people to do extraordinary things for his glory. This inevitably leads to the second and corresponding principle we must keep in mind—when God accomplishes a victory for his people, he does so not to puff them up with pride, but to draw the attention of those he has used and the attention of the world to himself. We cannot allow those successes that God brings our way or our churches way to play into unfounded confidence in our ability to handle things in our own power. This is the tragedy of Gideon’s battle immediately following the triumph God brought his people. Do not let whatever victory God may bring your way cause you to forget your dependency on him in every season. When we do, we rob him of his glory and throw ourselves open to great embarrassment before God and others, embarrassment that keeps us from accomplishing the mission that God has laid out for us.

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