Gideon’s Call, 1860 woodcut by Julius Schnorr von Karolsfeld
Judges 6: 1-10
The Israelites did what was evil in the sight of the LORD, and the LORD gave them into the hand of Midian seven years. 2 The hand of Midian prevailed over Israel; and because of Midian the Israelites provided for themselves hiding places in the mountains, caves and strongholds. 3 For whenever the Israelites put in seed, the Midianites and the Amalekites and the people of the east would come up against them. 4 They would encamp against them and destroy the produce of the land, as far as the neighborhood of Gaza, and leave no sustenance in Israel, and no sheep or ox or donkey. 5 For they and their livestock would come up, and they would even bring their tents, as thick as locusts; neither they nor their camels could be counted; so they wasted the land as they came in. 6 Thus Israel was greatly impoverished because of Midian; and the Israelites cried out to the LORD for help.
7 When the Israelites cried to the LORD on account of the Midianites, 8 the LORD sent a prophet to the Israelites; and he said to them, “Thus says the LORD, the God of Israel: I led you up from Egypt, and brought you out of the house of slavery; 9 and I delivered you from the hand of the Egyptians, and from the hand of all who oppressed you, and drove them out before you, and gave you their land; 10 and I said to you, ‘I am the LORD your God; you shall not pay reverence to the gods of the Amorites, in whose land you live.’ But you have not given heed to my voice.”
Once again the faithfulness of Israel is short lived in the absence of a leader to help them remain obedient to their covenant with the God of Israel. The pernicious cycle of disobedience continues with the return of the refrain, “The Israelites did what was evil in the sight of the LORD,” and once again another group oppresses the people. The Midianites and the Amalekites and the people of the east are a group of raiders that are coming out of the desert and making normal life impossible for the Israelites of this northern region. These groups are not interested in occupying or farming the land, they come and take the produce of the land and prevent the people from being able to reap the benefits of their agricultural work. These Midianites and Amalekites carry off the harvest, destroy the crops in the field and carry off the livestock of the people making normal life impossible. They are (poetically) as numerous and as destructive as a locust swarm to the farming life of the people and the only way the people can survive is by hiding their produce and even themselves in mountains, caves, and strongholds. After seven years the people finally call out to the LORD for assistance.
The Israelites have no unified military force to resist these marauding invaders whose camels and tents plant themselves in the middle of their livelihood. The stories captured in Judges are stories of individual tribes and families who are rescued by God’s intervention through a judge, but the narrative reinforces both Israel’s unfaithfulness and their defenselessness outside of the intervention by their God (or when their God delivers them into another group’s power). The prophet sent to the Israelites once again reminds them of their disobedience and gives no indication that the LORD will intervene on their behalf. The God of Israel is certainly capable of dealing with the Midianite threat: he brought them out of slavery in Egypt, the superpower of that time. Yet, the people have continued to adopt the worship of the gods of the people of Canaan in lieu of (or in addition to) the God of Israel who brought them from Egypt to this land. This scene is similar to the messenger from God/angel of God from Gilead’s declaration to the Israelites at Bochim (Judges 2: 1-5). The prophet’s presences sets the stage for God’s action through Gideon, but it also prepares us for the reality we will encounter in the town of Ophrah where Baal worship has displaced the worship of the LORD the God of Israel.
Judges 6: 11-24
11 Now the angel of the LORD came and sat under the oak at Ophrah, which belonged to Joash the Abiezrite, as his son Gideon was beating out wheat in the wine press, to hide it from the Midianites. 12 The angel of the LORD appeared to him and said to him, “The LORD is with you, you mighty warrior.” 13 Gideon answered him, “But sir, if the LORD is with us, why then has all this happened to us? And where are all his wonderful deeds that our ancestors recounted to us, saying, ‘Did not the LORD bring us up from Egypt?’ But now the LORD has cast us off, and given us into the hand of Midian.” 14 Then the LORD turned to him and said, “Go in this might of yours and deliver Israel from the hand of Midian; I hereby commission you.” 15 He responded, “But sir, how can I deliver Israel? My clan is the weakest in Manasseh, and I am the least in my family.” 16 The LORD said to him, “But I will be with you, and you shall strike down the Midianites, every one of them.” 17 Then he said to him, “If now I have found favor with you, then show me a sign that it is you who speak with me. 18 Do not depart from here until I come to you, and bring out my present, and set it before you.” And he said, “I will stay until you return.”
19 So Gideon went into his house and prepared a kid, and unleavened cakes from an ephah of flour; the meat he put in a basket, and the broth he put in a pot, and brought them to him under the oak and presented them. 20 The angel of God said to him, “Take the meat and the unleavened cakes, and put them on this rock, and pour out the broth.” And he did so. 21 Then the angel of the LORD reached out the tip of the staff that was in his hand, and touched the meat and the unleavened cakes; and fire sprang up from the rock and consumed the meat and the unleavened cakes; and the angel of the LORD vanished from his sight. 22 Then Gideon perceived that it was the angel of the LORD; and Gideon said, “Help me, Lord GOD! For I have seen the angel of the LORD face to face.” 23 But the LORD said to him, “Peace be to you; do not fear, you shall not die.” 24 Then Gideon built an altar there to the LORD, and called it, The LORD is peace. To this day it still stands at Ophrah, which belongs to the Abiezrites.
Within the context of the disobedience of Israel and the oppression of the Midianites we now enter the specific experience of Gideon in the town of Ophrah. The angel of the LORD is now sent to Gideon the son of Joash the Abiezrite. Gideon is beating out wheat in the wine press to hide the harvest from the threat of the Midianites. Threshing is a task normally done outdoors where the stalks are spread on flat, open ground and an ox or other animal would drag a large sledge with sharp stones on the bottom to detach the ears from the stalk and break open the kernels. (Hattin 2020, 69) After crushing the grain would be separated by throwing it into the sky and allowing the wind to blow away the lighter stalks while the grain returned to the earth. A winepress was typically built in a depression in a sheltered area which provided greater cover, but also prevented the wind from being used in the normal threshing process. The Midianite raiders have disrupted life in Israel so that normal tasks required to sustain life have been interrupted.
This is the first time that the angel of the LORD speaks to one who is to be a judge, previously the angel/messenger spoke to all of Israel and stated they would no longer go out to fight for Israel. Now it is Gideon, the youngest son of Joash who is chosen to be the mighty warrior. Gideon’s protest that ‘the LORD has cast us off’ speaks to the experience of God failing to protect them from the Midianites, but it also neglects the reality that his father has an altar to Baal and an Asherah pole that the surrounding community uses. Even if there is a memory of the name of the LORD and some of the actions attributed to this God there seems to be a cultural amnesia about the LORD’s requirement of not being one among the many gods that the people worship. Yet, the LORD is unwilling to remain unresponsive when the people of Israel cry out in their oppression and so the LORD provides a way through this youngest child of a family in the weakest clan of Manasseh.
Gideon, like the Israelites, perceive their weakness on their own. They are not well armed or trained to fend off these raiders that come from the desert and steal their harvest, destroy their crops, and rustle their livestock. The people of Israel on their own are not great fighters and are unable to see how they can resist their oppressors. They remain dependent on the LORD to be the mighty warrior who goes out to fight alongside them. Gideon needs a sign, some sort of indication that the calling he is receiving is true. This scene bears several similarities to the meeting between Abraham and the three divine messengers by the oaks of Mamre, and in both scenes the offer of hospitality is the invitation to be present for an extended period while a large amount of flour is turned into cakes and an animal is slaughtered, dressed, and cooked for consumption. An ephah of flour is almost six gallons of flour (roughly a bushel) and in a world before refrigeration the preparation of an animal was done in proximity to the animal’s consumption.
In addition to the echoes of Abraham’s story there are also similarities in the stories of Moses, Elijah, and Jacob. Like Moses, Gideon questions his selection as one through whom God will work and needs a sign to demonstrate this calling. The concerns about seeing God face to face also are resonant of the God’s passage before Moses in Exodus 33: 12-22 where God states that, “no one shall see me and live.” The close association between the LORD and the angel of the LORD is highlighted here when Gideon fears for his life after being in the presence of the angel of the LORD. The pouring of the broth over the rock with the cakes and meat is similar to Elijah’s actions when he confronts the prophets of Baal on Mt. Carmel. (1 Kings 18: 20-40) This similarity is heightened in the next section when Gideon ‘contends against Baal.’ Finally, like Jacob when he encounters God in a dream at Bethel, he sets up an altar at the spot of the epiphany. God encounters Gideon in ways that would be familiar to those who know the story and even though Elijah’s narrative comes later in the story of Israel they both contend against the continued threat of Baal worship.
Judges 6: 25-32
25 That night the LORD said to him, “Take your father’s bull, the second bull seven years old, and pull down the altar of Baal that belongs to your father, and cut down the sacred pole that is beside it; 26 and build an altar to the LORD your God on the top of the stronghold here, in proper order; then take the second bull, and offer it as a burnt offering with the wood of the sacred pole that you shall cut down.” 27 So Gideon took ten of his servants, and did as the LORD had told him; but because he was too afraid of his family and the townspeople to do it by day, he did it by night.
28 When the townspeople rose early in the morning, the altar of Baal was broken down, and the sacred pole beside it was cut down, and the second bull was offered on the altar that had been built. 29 So they said to one another, “Who has done this?” After searching and inquiring, they were told, “Gideon son of Joash did it.” 30 Then the townspeople said to Joash, “Bring out your son, so that he may die, for he has pulled down the altar of Baal and cut down the sacred pole beside it.” 31 But Joash said to all who were arrayed against him, “Will you contend for Baal? Or will you defend his cause? Whoever contends for him shall be put to death by morning. If he is a god, let him contend for himself, because his altar has been pulled down.” 32 Therefore on that day Gideon was called Jerubbaal, that is to say, “Let Baal contend against him,” because he pulled down his altar.
The reorientation of the people of Israel begins with Gideon’s own family and his hometown of Ophrah. Gideon is to take two bulls and tear down the altar to Baal and the Asherah pole that belong to his father, and Gideon fear the reaction of both his family and the people of the town. For his family it is not only the loss of the bull which Gideon sacrifices but also priestly function that his father presumably holds based on the altar being associated with him. Gideon’s assertation earlier that of his own lack of strength is contrasted to his father’s position of being the owner of the altar of Baal and the Asherah pole as well as Gideon’s ability to have ten servants work with him. Even with the ten servants he conducts the altar demolition and the sacrifice of the bull at night.
Gideon’s fears are well founded and as Michael Hattin can highlight,
The showdown at Ofra (Ophrah) is the first time in the Hebrew Bible that people of Israel pronounce their willingness to kill opponents of idolatry and the new development does not bode well. (Hattin 2020, 75)
The biblical mandate that idolaters are to be put to death (Deuteronomy 17: 2-7) is now reversed. The situation in this portion of Israel has degraded to the point where the people of Ophrah become champions of Baal and the LORD the God of Israel is either forgotten or included alongside Baal and Asherah. Joash chooses his son over Baal and Asherah and threatens violence against any who take the defense of Baal and Asherah into their own hands. Joash apparently is in a powerful enough position for his threat of violence to be taken seriously by the crowd and he frames the conflict as between Baal and Gideon.
The action of Gideon, on behalf of the LORD of Israel, begins the process of turning the people away from idolatry. Gideon becomes ‘one who contends with Baal’ and his new title reflects this. Ironically Gideon will later create an ephod which Israel will later bow down to, but for now he has begun the journey of returning the people to the LORD the God of Israel. Now that the altar of Baal has been removed now the focus can turn to the Midianite and Amalekite raiders which have interrupted the normal actions of life in Israel.
Judges 6: 33-40
33 Then all the Midianites and the Amalekites and the people of the east came together, and crossing the Jordan they encamped in the Valley of Jezreel. 34 But the spirit of the LORD took possession of Gideon; and he sounded the trumpet, and the Abiezrites were called out to follow him. 35 He sent messengers throughout all Manasseh, and they too were called out to follow him. He also sent messengers to Asher, Zebulun, and Naphtali, and they went up to meet them.
36 Then Gideon said to God, “In order to see whether you will deliver Israel by my hand, as you have said, 37 I am going to lay a fleece of wool on the threshing floor; if there is dew on the fleece alone, and it is dry on all the ground, then I shall know that you will deliver Israel by my hand, as you have said.” 38 And it was so. When he rose early next morning and squeezed the fleece, he wrung enough dew from the fleece to fill a bowl with water. 39 Then Gideon said to God, “Do not let your anger burn against me, let me speak one more time; let me, please, make trial with the fleece just once more; let it be dry only on the fleece, and on all the ground let there be dew.” 40 And God did so that night. It was dry on the fleece only, and on all the ground there was dew.
Now that the conflict between God’s chosen warrior and Baal’s defenders has been resolved the threat of the Midianites and the Amalekites can be addressed. These raiders come from the east and settle in the Jezreel valley to continue their plundering of the clans and tribes of Israel, but now a chosen warrior has been called by the God of Israel. Gideon is clothed with the spirit of the LORD and rallies this own clan as well as sending messengers to the rest of his tribes and the other northern tribes nearest that valley. Yet, being clothed with the Spirit of the LORD does not change Gideon’s cautious personality he demonstrated earlier in the narrative.
Gideon seeks reassurance again before he engages the foreign invaders. Initially he asks for God to allow a piece of fleece to be wet while the ground is dry at the site of his first encounter with the angel of the LORD. Laying out fleece exposed overnight to gather water is practiced in dry areas as a way of obtaining the water necessary to live while the surrounding dew evaporated more quickly. This first request is for a lesser sign, but then in language similar to Abraham (Genesis 18:30) Gideon appeals to God for a second more difficult sign. Yet the LORD grants the delay of two days to provide these two signs to convince Gideon that God is with the people.
 Hebrew gibbor hehayil which can refer to physical strength or the economic strength to equip oneself and a group for combat. Ruth 4:11 uses this term for economic ability in reference to Boaz.
 Literally the Spirit clothed (labesa) Gideon