Gideon’s story begins like so many in the Old Testament: “The Israelites did evil in the eyes of the Lord.” Does anyone else wonder what their problem was? Why couldn’t they ever just keep it together? (It’s because they were human.) The overarching lesson is no matter how many times we mess up, God will always bring us out of the mud eventually, but come on Israelites. Their biblical history is an exhausting series of ups and downs (just like our lives today) and Gideon’s story begins in a down.
So the Israelites had screwed up again and as such, a people called the Midianites were in control of their land. Far from being benevolent caretakers, the Meanies from Midian roared into the country, camped on the Israelites’ land, ruined their crops, and took all of their livestock. As a result, the Israelites were forced to live in shelters within mountain clefts and caves. The Bible compares the Midianites to swarms of locusts, and if you’ve watched Planet Earth, you know their swarms number in the millions, they eat everything that’s green, and when the food’s gone, they move on leaving nothing in their wake. That analogy fits but I like to think of it in terms of A Bug’s Life: the Midianites were the grasshoppers and the Israelites were the ants who needed a Flik to step up to save them.
When we first meet Gideon, he’s threshing wheat in a winepress so he could hide it from the grasshoppers, I mean the Midianites. The Bible says the Angel of the Lord appeared in said winepress and told Gideon, “The Lord is with you, mighty warrior.” [Judges 6:11] If this interaction was televised, it would be a rather obvious sight gag. Tiny little Gideon is hunkered down and hiding in a wine press because he’s no match for his oppressors and an angel shows up and calls him a mighty warrior? Comedy.
Gideon, probably wondering if the angel was being sarcastic, replied, “Pardon my ignorance, but if the Lord is with us, why has this happened? Seems to me God’s abandoned us and left us to the grasshoppers.”
Well, God (the names “the Angel of the Lord” and “God” are interchangeable throughout this story which is super confusing so from here on out, I’m just going to say “God”) answered, “So go save your people.”
“How can I? Have you met me? I’m the runt of my family.”
“I’ll be there,” God told him, “and you will kill every last one of the Midianites.”
“Alright. That’s a pretty big claim so if what you’re saying is true, I need you to prove it. I’m going to go get my offering and you stay here in the wine press.”
“I like a good pinot so that works for me.” God didn’t really say that but I imagine it’s true.
Gideon returned with his offering—a young goat and some yeast-less bread—and when God touched the offering, fire flared on the rock and consumed it. With that, God disappeared. Gideon was like, “Only God could do that kind of magic! I’m convinced! Get the bug spray. Time to wipe out some grasshoppers!”
Let’s not skip over what just happened. Yes, there was a magical moment but also, Gideon the Human just told God the Almighty he wasn’t going to take what was said at face value; God needed to prove it before Gideon would make a move. In another context, that might read as defiance but here, it’s an example of Gideon wanting some assurance. He knew the “right thing” God was telling him to do was going to sound an awful lot like the “wrong thing” to many of the people around him.
It’s because of that understanding, because “he was afraid of his family and the townspeople” [Judges 6:27], that our newly-convinced Gideon tore down his father’s altar to Baal under the cover of darkness. In its place, he built a new altar to God and went so far as to christen it by sacrificing a bull. When the townspeople awoke and emerged from their houses like the Whos on Christmas morning, they didn’t break into “Fahoo fores dahoo dores,” they launched a search party to find out who destroyed their precious altar. Once they figured out Gideon was the culprit, they wanted him dead. Good morning!
The crowd demanded Gideon’s father hand him over so they could kill him but rather than buckling under the pressure, he refused. What’s more, he told them, “If Baal really is a god, he can defend himself when someone breaks down his altar.” Baal, of course, was a no show. In his own way, Gideon’s father was also asking for proof, albeit in a roundabout way. “If Baal really is a god, he can come defend himself.” Baal never materialized, thus providing him the proof he needed to side with his son. I like that.
Nevertheless, the crowd named Gideon a troublemaker—this is parallel to A Bug’s Life when the other ants labeled Flik a troublemaker for knocking their offering for the grasshoppers into the stream—but that didn’t stop Gideon from taking charge of the situation. The Midianites and their allies had set up camp in a valley so Gideon summoned the scattered peoples of his land to prepare for battle.
None of this was included in the Sunday School version of the story—we went straight from Gideon the Dainty hiding in a wine press to Gideon the Victor—but I think the asides in his story are what make it interesting and applicable today. Gideon was labeled a troublemaker and I’ve always been a fan of that sort of person. Something about upsetting the status quo always spoke to me as a teenager. Not that that makes me unique since most teens go through their version of embracing anarchy in search of an appropriate form of self-expression, but it felt exhilarating to be edgy; especially at church. But let’s call a spade a spade, my teenage defiance was low key at best.
I had too much of a need to be liked to ever cause any real hell but I broke out in ways I knew I could get away with. For example, I wore weird shoes. I know it’s lame but my favorite was a pair of silver and black Doc Martens with soles twice as thick as regular boots. I loved them, people noticed they were strange and commented as such, and it felt comfortably subversive. I also listened to songs sung by scantily-clad pop singers in my convertible with the top down; the sounds of Britney and Destiny’s Child echoing out as I drove through the church parking lot. Again, I know it was super lame, but it elicited just enough menial attention to satiate my need to rebel. I never smoked or drank, I didn’t curse like a sailor or wear a Nine Inch Nails t-shirt, but I tried to spread my wings in small ways.
I did run into some problems at church though. I’ve always been strong-willed and stubborn but as a teenager, I began to grow weary and skeptical of the ways people used God to get their way. If an adult said, “God told me [fill in the blank],” I was expected to follow them blindly because they used the big “G” word. I didn’t and don’t understand that. As such, there were times when I was labeled as defiant, informed I had an attitude problem, and in the cases where adults chose to weaponize the Bible, told I was full of pride.
Pride was the buzzword to end all buzzwords; the scarlet letter of sin. It wasn’t an outward sin like lying or adultery, it was an internal evil we self-cultivated and colonized alongside the demons we’d allowed to move into our hearts. It meant we were rotten from the inside, doomed on basis of our own ego, and we had to be taken down a peg by whatever means necessary. The attribution of being prideful was employed like a pirate handing the black spot to a traitor and it served as both a shame-tactic and a warning about the bad seed growing within you. If you weren’t careful, your pride would grow into a monster like the Audrey II, ready to cannibalize all of your good qualities and separate you from God.
Of course pride is a real thing and if left unchecked, it absolutely can overpower and poison you. But, the only times I really heard about my alleged “prideful” behavior was in relation to my not wanting to blindly obey a pastor. Humble yourself to the church authority that God has ordained to lead you. If you don’t humble yourself, God will do it for you. Many times, I was informed God would humble me and the image that fostered was of a God whose thumb was at the ready to push me into the dirt like a thumbtack into a bulletin board. Pride comes before the fall was a phrase used as a suppression tactic; it inferred my question marks about blindly following orders made me spiritually deficient. As a teenager, I wanted to know who God was but sometimes, what I saw through God’s people didn’t add up to the God of grace; the God of the level playing field. I needed proof what they were saying was actually from God.
Which brings me back to Gideon. Battle was on the horizon and he, just like any person who’s more at home in a cave than a warzone, was nervous. Tearing down a statue of Baal in the middle of the night was one thing, but now both his life and the lives of his people were on the line. So, Gideon went back to what worked for him in the winepress. He told God to prove it.
Gideon told God, “I’m going to bed but I’ll leave a wool fleece on the ground tonight. If there’s dew on the fleece but not on the ground when I wake up, then I’ll know I’m doing the right thing and you’ll give us the W.” When Gideon woke up, he found the fleece was super wet with dew and the ground was bone dry. I feel like for anyone else, this would be sufficient enough proof to move forward, but not Gideon.
God, it’s me. Back again. Hi. Okay, so don’t be mad but if you could just do the same thing tonight but in reverse, then I’ll really know. I’m aware I’m being such a stickler for proof but that’s on you. You made me this way. Okay thanks. God humored Gideon and did, yet again, what he asked. When Gideon woke up, the ground was wet with dew and the fleece was dry.
Alright, that’s an acceptable body of proof. Let’s go do some murdering!
Gideon and his men set up camp near a spring to the south of the Midian camp. While preparing for the battle, God told him, “You’ve got too many men. You’ll be too loud. Tell them anyone who’s scared is allowed to go home.”
Twenty-two thousand men left. I’m sorry, but that’s a crazy large number of fraidy-cats. Why were they there in the first place? I know they were probably forced or expected to be there, but get it together army. The Bible omits the shocked expression on Gideon’s face. Twenty-two thousand gone? Really? Okay, well at least we still have ten thousand left. We can do this.
God then said, “Not so fast. Round two. Take that ten thousand down to the spring and tell them to hydrate. The guys who lap up the water with their tongues from cupped hands are the keepers. Thank everyone else for their service and send them home.”
This is the second time I imagine Gideon’s shocked expression was omitted from the Bible. Only 300 were lappers. Three hundred. Everyone else went home.
Now exponentially outnumbered and probably a little panicky, Gideon and his servant snuck down to the Midianite camp to do a little reconnaissance. God told him, “Look, if you’re scared, go down there and eavesdrop. You’ll see.” God knew Gideon needed even more proof (which I find incredibly thoughtful) but I still imagine as he approached the camp, a vast feeling of dread crept up inside of him like a hot thermometer. There were so many Midianites, “their camels could no more be counted than the sand on the seashore.” [Judges 7:12] Poetic and frightening. That’s a lot of spit.
As Gideon spied and eavesdropped, he overheard a man telling a friend about a dream he’d had. “A round loaf of barley bread came tumbling into the Midianite camp. It struck the tent with such force that the tent overturned and collapsed.” [Judges 7:13] The man’s friend responded, “Well that has to be Gideon, the Israelite. You know God has given this whole camp into his hands.”
Alright, I’ll say it. That’s an odd, extremely on-the-nose moment of interpretation and it raises some interesting questions about why that friend would remain in the camp if he knew God and Gideon were conspiring to destroy it. Not surprisingly though, it was all the proof Gideon needed. He went back to his camp and told his men, “I’ve got a plan.”
The plan was simple. Gideon’s 300 men would be divided into three companies and each man would carry a trumpet in one hand and an empty jar concealing a torch in the other. When Gideon blew his trumpet, it would signal the rest of the 300 men to do the same and to shout, “For the Lord and for Gideon.” Seems fairly straightforward right? 300 men with trumpets against an army of thousands. Makes total sense.
I couldn’t help but draw a comparison between Gideon’s 300 men and the story of the 300 Spartans who are said to have attempted to defend the “middle gate” passage of Thermopylae. The movie telling of the Spartan story was a fantastical, gory, muscly feast of cinema, but the spirit of the story—300 men standing up to an army of thousands—rings true to our Gideon and his army of 300 tongue-lappers.
(It’s also an interesting aside that the Persian king who served as the foil in the story of the Spartan 300 is none other than Esther’s Xerxes. That’s not at all applicable to Gideon’s story so consider it bonus content like a bubble during Pop Up Video on VH1.)
The storytelling trope of a group small in numbers but big in might who face seemingly insurmountable odds appears time and time again in literature. Besides the 300 Spartans, Frodo and his Fellowship were up against the vast army of Sauron just as Harry Potter and his clan of friends faced off against the evil army of Voldemort. Even David felled Goliath in the most uneven one-on-one in the Bible. We root for the little guy. We cheer for the pure of heart. That’s Gideon.
Gideon and the hundred men in his third of the posse got to the Midianite camp just after the changing of the guard. Together, they blew their trumpets and broke the jars in their hands, revealing their torches. From the opposite sides of the camp, the other two hundred men did the same as they shouted, “A sword for the Lord and for Gideon!”
Gideon and Co. held their positions around the camp and the startled Midianites began to run away, crying as they fled. It’s an interesting detail that the chaos of light and sound around the camp was so startling to the army that their fear manifested as tears. The Bible goes one step further to say the sound of the trumpets startled the men in the camp so profoundly they turned on each other with their swords. This is such a mess. The Midianites who weren’t stabbing each other just kept on running and crying.
Thus Gideon went on a killing spree a la Joshua. First, the leaders of the Midianite army wound up with their heads on spikes. Then the men of Sukkoth wouldn’t give bread to his troops, (which really suckethed) nor would the men of Peniel, and both were made to pay for their lack of benevolence by lots of killing. We skipped over that last part in Sunday School. The story usually ended with pictures on the felt board of a curly-headed white Gideon holding a trumpet and a torch up in victory.
The moral of the story was to trust that no matter how big the adversary, God is bigger. God can do a lot with a little. But as an adult, the prevailing theme I kept coming back to was Gideon’s persistence in asking God to prove it. Prove what you’re telling me is true. It’s an atypical exchange with God—a tit-for-tat we don’t often talk about—where Gideon not only requested tangible proof, but God acquiesced his request.
That doesn’t sound so strange but when you think about it, the Bible is full of folks who didn’t bat an eye when God told them to do super crazy things. How about when God told Noah to build a cruise ship in the desert? Noah just said, Okay, I’ll do that. Or what about the time Jesus called out to Peter and Andrew as they fished and told them to leave everything in their lives behind and come follow him instead? “At once they left their nets and followed him.” [Matthew 4:18] No hesitation at all.
I was talking to a friend and they made a comment about Gideon’s success against the Midianites despite his “doubts.” I asked her what she meant by that and she said, “Well, he doubted what God was telling him to do, but God still showed up for him.” I thought about that for a long time and argued with myself over whether I agreed with her. I didn’t feel like a “need for proof” and “doubt” were the same thing but perhaps that’s because the word “doubt” carried such a negative connotation in the church circle of my youth. Doubt implied a lack of faith. A lack of faith implied hell and damnation. Therefore, doubt implied damnation.
Thomas had doubts though. After Jesus was crucified and had risen, He began appearing to people around town. After appearing to his disciples, they told Thomas, “We’ve seen the Lord!” [John 20:25] But Thomas needed proof. Wouldn’t you? Just days earlier, he watched as Jesus was killed and buried—which is about as in-stone (tomb pun!) as it gets—yet his refusal to blindly accept their claims his once-dead teacher and friend was now bopping around Judea has been painted as a defect. Thousands of years later, people still say, “Don’t be a doubting Thomas.” That phrase, “Doubting Thomas,” is actually in the Merriam-Webster Dictionary and is defined as “an incredulous or habitually doubtful person.” But that’s not even who Thomas was. Thomas needed proof when the stakes were that high and just like Gideon, when God gave him tangible proof, he believed.
I was taught to lean into blind faith—don’t ask questions and just to do as you’re told—and “stepping out in faith” was a glistening and sparkly concept; an act performed by those dripping in holiness. I wrestled with that concept a lot as a teenager, mostly because I felt like all of my questions excluded me from that drippy level of holiness.
In the late 90s, the internet was becoming something we used daily, our new Nokia cell phones with the interchangeable plastic covers connected us in a way no generation had been before, and more world-changing technology in the form of iPods and Napster were peeking from around the corner. Beyond our world rapidly changing, youth culture within the church was also experiencing the beginning quakes of what would become tectonic shifts. The acceptance of the decades-old church mentality of “do as I say because it’s always been done this way” was starting to wear off and the term “non-denominational” crept into church-going consciousness.
During the summers of 1997 and 1998, I spent every day with my gang of church friends. We’d signed up to be a part of a discipleship program led by Jo, a woman we loved and respected not only as a leader, but also as our chosen mom-friend. Each weekday morning began at the church where we spent time dissecting scripture and attempting to funnel our adolescent confusion through the WWJD cipher. I know this doesn’t sound like a typical teenager’s idea of a great summer—choosing to spend it at church studying the Bible—but we were church kids who couldn’t get enough of both church stuff and each other. We became friends who confided in each other the things we’d hesitate to disclose to others and in my head, we did so while the chorus of “Friends Forever” sung by Zack, Kelly and the gang from Saved by the Bell played on repeat.
Our afternoons were full of lunches at Wendy’s, pit stops for snow cones that tasted like wedding cake and cream soda, and laying in the sun at the Rosemeade neighborhood pool. We waded through creek waters to retrieve Frisbee golf discs and listened to music with the windows down because in so many of our first cars, the air conditioning was merely a suggestion of what cool air should feel like. We were carefree and unencumbered by any real responsibility; just concerts and cookouts and the crunch of the park grass between our toes.
But as August crept around the corner, the reality of school supplies, class schedules and required reading began to set in. The expiration date was approaching on our summer mornings together which had provided a taut tethering to each other and to our faith, so Jo began to drive home the point that just as our faith connected us in that moment, it would also keep us grounded in the not-so-distant next chapters of our lives. She saw what we couldn’t see, that our faith needed roots to survive a world of rapid change.
She focused our studies that summer on Hebrews 11, the chapter which sums up and recaps the faith of the above-the-title names in the Bible. Noah, Abraham, Moses, David—all of DeMille’s movie stars of the B.C. era are there. The first verse is the catch-all statement from which the rest of the chapter expands and illustrates: Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.
We’d heard about faith every week in church and that meant something very specific to us. It’s the belief this world isn’t a cosmic hoax and that the “something bigger” out there is, in fact, the God “Amazing Grace” was written about. It’s the faith that says the God of the universe—the epicenter of love and life—made both mountains and molehills and cares about each equally. It’s the faith that says the very God who went bang and made all things will show up for us in the form of an inner peace, a breeze, a sunset, or a friend with a latte. We don’t have to stress-fracture our brains over our place in eternity because our clunky, rusted-jalopy sort of faith will count for something in the end.
But as encouraging as that was, I couldn’t help but point out that all of these mentioned men were the heavyweights of the Bible. Of course they were listed in a chapter about faithfulness because they coined the term. How could I, a hormonal teenage boy with a mind cluttered with question marks, be expected to measure up to Moses and David?
But wouldn’t you know it, among the faithful listed in Hebrews 11, there’s Gideon’s name. Gideon, “who through faith conquered kingdoms, administered justice, and gained what was promised.” [Hebrews 11:33] Gideon, who told God to prove it time and time again. Gideon, the proof-seeker, is listed among the most faithful in the Bible. In Gideon’s name, I could see my own.
My faith in what I felt God was telling me and my propensity for asking questions in a quest for proof went hand-in-hand. One didn’t negate the other. Each time I questioned something a pastor said, each time I went and did my own biblical research, each time I got a second opinion from an adult who’d lived more life than I had—it only strengthened my faith. Like lifting weights in the gym, I was tearing at the muscles and by doing so, I was making them stronger. It wasn’t an issue of pride, it was an issue of proof.
In the end, Gideon had seventy sons from his many wives so I guess that means he had a good post-Midianite life, but as soon as he died, the Israelites went right back to worshiping Baal. The story ends exactly as it started: “The Israelites did evil in the eyes of the Lord.” Mamma mia, here we go again.
The biblical story of Gideon can be found in the book of Judges starting in Chapter 6.
So what’s this all about? Read my introduction to the Sunday School for Sinners and Saints project here.
Illustrations by freepik.com