A mini-sermon from our midweek service…
Judges 8:4-28 (NLT)
4 Gideon and his three hundred men, exhausted yet keeping up the pursuit, came to the Jordan and crossed it. 5 He said to the men of Sukkoth, “Give my troops some bread; they are worn out, and I am still pursuing Zebah and Zalmunna, the kings of Midian.”
6 But the officials of Sukkoth said, “Do you already have the hands of Zebah and Zalmunna in your possession? Why should we give bread to your troops?”
7 Then Gideon replied, “Just for that, when the Lord has given Zebah and Zalmunna into my hand, I will tear your flesh with desert thorns and briers.”
8 From there he went up to Peniel[a] and made the same request of them, but they answered as the men of Sukkoth had. 9 So he said to the men of Peniel, “When I return in triumph, I will tear down this tower.”
10 Now Zebah and Zalmunna were in Karkor with a force of about fifteen thousand men, all that were left of the armies of the eastern peoples; a hundred and twenty thousand swordsmen had fallen. 11 Gideon went up by the route of the nomads east of Nobah and Jogbehah and attacked the unsuspecting army. 12 Zebah and Zalmunna, the two kings of Midian, fled, but he pursued them and captured them, routing their entire army.
13 Gideon son of Joash then returned from the battle by the Pass of Heres. 14 He caught a young man of Sukkoth and questioned him, and the young man wrote down for him the names of the seventy-seven officials of Sukkoth, the elders of the town. 15 Then Gideon came and said to the men of Sukkoth, “Here are Zebah and Zalmunna, about whom you taunted me by saying, ‘Do you already have the hands of Zebah and Zalmunna in your possession? Why should we give bread to your exhausted men?’” 16 He took the elders of the town and taught the men of Sukkoth a lesson by punishing them with desert thorns and briers. 17 He also pulled down the tower of Peniel and killed the men of the town.
18 Then he asked Zebah and Zalmunna, “What kind of men did you kill at Tabor?”
“Men like you,” they answered, “each one with the bearing of a prince.”
19 Gideon replied, “Those were my brothers, the sons of my own mother. As surely as the Lord lives, if you had spared their lives, I would not kill you.” 20 Turning to Jether, his oldest son, he said, “Kill them!” But Jether did not draw his sword, because he was only a boy and was afraid.
21 Zebah and Zalmunna said, “Come, do it yourself. ‘As is the man, so is his strength.’” So Gideon stepped forward and killed them, and took the ornaments off their camels’ necks.
22 The Israelites said to Gideon, “Rule over us—you, your son and your grandson—because you have saved us from the hand of Midian.”
23 But Gideon told them, “I will not rule over you, nor will my son rule over you. The Lord will rule over you.” 24 And he said, “I do have one request, that each of you give me an earring from your share of the plunder.” (It was the custom of the Ishmaelites to wear gold earrings.)
25 They answered, “We’ll be glad to give them.” So they spread out a garment, and each of them threw a ring from his plunder onto it. 26 The weight of the gold rings he asked for came to seventeen hundred shekels,[b] not counting the ornaments, the pendants and the purple garments worn by the kings of Midian or the chains that were on their camels’ necks. 27 Gideon made the gold into an ephod, which he placed in Ophrah, his town. All Israel prostituted themselves by worshiping it there, and it became a snare to Gideon and his family.
28 Thus Midian was subdued before the Israelites and did not raise its head again. During Gideon’s lifetime, the land had peace forty years.
Gideon’s story is well known from Sunday School. He was the one whom an angel surprised while he was threshing grain in a winepress to hide from the Midianites. He was the one who asked God to prove his call was true by “laying a fleece”: he asked God to let the ground be dry and the fleece be wet, and when God did that, to be absolutely sure, Gideon asked God to do it the other way round! And finally Gideon was the warrior who God decided had too many men, so Gideon sent some home and then – when that left him with still too many men – God told him to take the men to the water and select only those who drank in a certain way, leaving him only 300. They then surprised the Midianites with their torches in jars and trumpets and defeated them.
What is less well known is what happened next. Gideon pursues the Kings of the Midianites, Zebah and Zalmunna. In their pursuit, he and his 300 men go to two towns looking for food, but are refused. These are Israelite towns ravaged by famine and who have suffered decades of Midianite oppression. Perhaps they should have helped him, but you can understand why they didn’t. They haven’t the food to spare and if they did share and Gideon and his men lose – as all the armies had before – they would have nothing good from it.
Gideon does capture the kings and defeat their armies and then returns to exact vengance from the two towns which had refused to help him. He captures and compels a young man from one of them to give him a list of his town’s leaders, and they are humiliatingly and painfully punished. The second town, Gideon simply executes all the men.
Then he talks to Zebah and Zalmunna and realises that they killed his brothers, and overcome with grief tells his young son to in turn kill the kings. It was undoubtedly intended as an insult to them. But the young boy is scared, and so his father completes the task.
Afterwards, the Israelites ask Gideon to be their ruler and his sons after him, but Gideon declines. However, he immediately does a very ruler-like thing and asks for gold from the people. The gold is used to make an ephod which brings status to Gideon’s home town, but ensnares the people as it becomes an idol.
The story of Gideon is a hinge point in the book of Judges. It starts very much like the previous stories: the people forget God and worship other gods, their neighbours are allowed to oppress them and finally they cry out to God for deliverance and he raises up Gideon to achieve a miraculous victory. So far, so usual.
But then the story begins to change. In the mopping up after the victory, Gideon seeks help from two Israelite cities and is incensed when he doesn’t receive it. He returns from battle and exacts horrific revenge on these fellow Israelites. It is the first time in the book that Israelites kill one another. Gideon forgets his vocation to be the deliverer of Israel instead focusing on the insult to himself. We see a similar response to the Kings of Midian. He does not execute them because it was what he thought God wanted him to do, but because they had killed family members. He is not acting in the best interests of his countrymen or in accordance with what he believes is the will of God, but guided by his own emotions.
As Gideon’s leadership begins to unravel, we see consequences begin to emerge. The young are exploited – first the young man from Succoth, and then Gideon’s own son. In the laws that God has given Israel, there is a special care for those who are vulnerable: children, widows, foreigners. However, as Gideon’s leadership becomes more about himself and less about his calling, these priorities are no longer at the centre of his care.
Gideon disclaims his right to be ruler, but then does very ruler-like things. He is the first Judge in the book to receive monetary reward for his work. Before the reward was the deliverance of Israel and the peace that followed – it was a communal good, not a prize for the leader. And this change of focus from the people to the leader is unhealthy, with unhealthy consequences. Gideon who once destroyed his father’s altar to Baal leads his people back into idolatry.
It is an old story, but can serve as a cautionary tale for our times. We live in a time when communities are divided against one another, when the vulnerable are no longer at the centre of our communal care. People who say the right things, but then do exactly the opposite – well, I will just leave that one there – and a tendency to be distracted by the glitz and sparkle of the world and fail to commit to the everyday faithfulness of living God’s way. Perhaps we can see something of our own times in Gideon’s example.
However, there is grace. Grace because even in this mixed character, God is able to do good. God is faithful even when the people are not. Despite the downward spiral, God is not absent. God is there and God still cares…