The book of Judges tells us an important story. It is a dark, violent, terrible story, but it is important nonetheless. It is the story of how God’s people moved from being delivered to the Promised Land by Yahweh to asking for a human king to lead over them so they could look like the other nations.
It is, unfortunately, a story that might resonate a little too well with 21st century Western (especially American) Christianity. Last week, I talked about the “Judges Cycle.” Part of that cycle was when the people of God would turn away from Him and live in rebellion. Often, that rebellion was simply holding things of the world in higher esteem than they held Yahweh. For example, they would begin worshipping other idols or doing things other nations did.
And if you have paid attention to the current landscape of political discourse, it is apparent that we are doing the same thing now. Conservative Christianity has allowed itself to become coopted by one particular political party to the degree that many people state to be a Christian means you must vote straight party line every time. The party has become more important than Christ. And those who react against that are just as guilty. If you have ever used Jesus to prove your political party is better than someone else’s, you have found yourself in the same boat as the people of God in the book of Judges.
When the story of Deborah comes to an end, the people of God enjoy peace for 40 years. Then they sin and find themselves being oppressed once again. In fact, this time the oppression is so bad, Gideon has to hide to thresh his wheat. (Confession: I have no idea what “threshing” means.)
This is what I find incredibly interesting about Gideon. He and all the Israelites have been calling out, complaining about what’s going on, pleading for deliverance. So the messenger of God shows up and tells Gideon he has been called to deliver the people. And Gideon’s first response? To complain some more.
Gideon’s response is: I’m weak. My family is weak. My tribe is weak. I can’t do it. You have been absent. You have been silent. You have done nothing. But don’t dare call on me when You decide to change that.
And Gideon challenges God as much as he can. First, he wants to see a sign with his sacrifice. Then, when called to destroy his father’s idols, Gideon goes at night because he is afraid he will get caught. When the people realize it was Gideon who destroyed the idol, it is his father who has to stand up for him. Then, when he is called to go to battle, he tells God to make a fleece wet on dry ground. When God does that, Gideon says now give me a dry fleece on wet ground.
Gideon wants God to act, but does not want to believe when he sees God acting.
Which leads to the point of Gideon’s story: we must remember to give credit where credit is due.
Gideon starts with an army that numbers more than 30,000. By the time he goes to attack, he is down to 300. There is no way an army that small can defeat an army so much larger. There is no way an army that small can have multiple military victories.
Yet they do it. They win. They defeat their enemies. The Israelites are delivered.
And for a minute, Gideon gets it. The people want him to be their ruler; their king. Remember, this is the story of how a king came to rule over Israel. Since Gideon could lead 300 men and defeat their enemies, he must be king material. But Gideon understands that God is the one delivered. God is the one who gave the victory.
God acted. Gideon shivered. God called. Gideon demanded a sign. God delivered. Gideon gave Him glory…at first.
Gideon recognized that he should not rule over the people of God. But for some reason, he thought fashioning an idol would be okay.
To be fair, that may not have been Gideon’s original intent. The story says he had the people bring the gold they gathered from their enemies. He melted down that gold, made a breastplate, and then the people looked to it like an idol. So the fault does not lie entirely with Gideon. But I have to ask a question: how did a people who told stories often and passed their nation’s history on through oral transmission forget about the Golden Calf? Melting down gold and seeing what just happens to pop out did not have a good precedent for the people of Israel.
The people wanted something they could see. They wanted something similar to what the nations around them had. Yahweh was not good enough.
And I think this was an issue for Gideon, as well. From all the demands for signs to the golden breastplate to the numerous wives and concubines, Yahweh was not enough for Gideon. And the Bible says as soon as Gideon died, the people turned away from God.
So what does the story of Gideon hold for us today? Remember, the book of Judges is a dark chapter in the history of God’s people. It talks about people turning away from the One they believe in and toward the ones they live around.
If we want to start looking less like the world and more like the people of God, we should learn these lessons:
1. God is not absent. When the messenger of God first shows up to Gideon, Gideon makes an accusation: “Sir, if He is with us, then why has all this misfortune come on us? Where are all the miracles that our ancestors told us about? They said, ‘Didn’t the Eternal deliver us out of Egypt?’ But now He has left us. He has made us servants of the Midianites” (Judges 6:13, The Voice).
Have you ever lost an item? Like your car keys or your glasses or an earring? Did you look for a long time only to give up the search in frustration? Does that mean the object no longer exists or just that you stopped looking?
When I was in the depths of my addiction, I never turned to God. My relationship with Him was broken. But it was not because of Him. I had just made the conscious decision to quit looking for Him. He was never gone. Throughout the book of Judges, the people of God often ask God where He is. They rarely acknowledge the apparent lack of the divine has little to do with Him and a lot to do with them.
2. “That’s not so bad” is rarely good. After the military victories, the people tried to make Gideon their king. He said no—which was good. But then he decided to make something out of the plunder—bad. Why? We have all sorts of statues commemorating people and events. Even the Israelites had a history of setting up stones, markers, or altars to signify an event or location of significance. But this act of Gideon seems to be less about the significance of the event and more about saying, “Look what we have done.”
Is that bad? Maybe. But not necessarily. Marking a profound event is not a bad thing. But marking an event to pat oneself on one’s shoulder may not be such a good idea. And when we are doing things that are defined by level of badness instead of level of goodness, we are setting ourselves up for trouble.
Is it bad to be a Republican or a Democrat? No. Is it bad to work a lot and be successful financially? No. Is it bad to have fame? No.
But are we doing it based on the goodness of God or based on the cultural expectations of those we live among? The answer makes all the difference.
3. God will provide. God provided victory with only 300 soldiers. God provided deliverance with a leader who was afraid of seemingly everything he faced. God provided exactly what the people were looking for.
Only they didn’t recognize it.
So after Gideon dies, one of his 70 sons decides to take matters into his own hands. Abimelech wants to lead, so he kills all of his siblings and takes over and pretty much makes everyone’s life miserable. But there is one thing the Bible does not say about Abimelech: it never calls him a judge. You know why?
Because God raised up the deliverers of His people. God is the one who provided. Abimelech acted on his own accord.
When we put our trust in ourselves or in the structures of the world around us, we will ultimately be disappointed. Trusting in God may not always be easy or rosy, but it always points to the hope of ultimate victory.
From Deborah—an unlikely leader due to social standing—to Gideon—an unlikely leader due to fear—God chooses ordinary people to help accomplish extraordinary tasks. In this sense, the story of Judges is encouraging.
However, the overall trajectory of the story shows the path the people follow to end up placing their trust in an earthly system instead of in God. It is a dark chapter.
And it is one we must be familiar with to avoid making the same mistake.