Wibble Wednesday: Not to suck up Drink; that is the Law (Judges 6–7)

At home, and at leisure, and hopefully on schedule. Gideon’s story actually logically breaks down into multiple parts, so I’m sticking for now to the bit that’s well-remembered

Short snarky summary: Israel sins again. God hassles them with Midianite raiders. God makes explicit the point that this is all their own damn fault for being so unworshipful, and then decides to deliver Israel through the agency of the vacillating, unconfident hands of Gideon.

The framing device here is at this point tediously familiar: Israel commits some dubious act of offensiveness to God (presumably, from the Deuteronomical tradition, some sort of assimilation, since that’s both a big no-no and a pretty likely cultural phenomenon). And as usual, God hands them over to one of the local aggressive tribes for exploitation and abuse, only paying attention to them when they’re well-and-truly suffering. But we do get some variations on the frame in this story. For one, the intimation in this story isn’t that the tribes have been conquered and subjugated, but simply that they’ve been subjected to frequent raids by Midian, Amalek, and Kedem. Reading between the lines, you might see a Midianite conquest there, but it’s not actually explicitly presented as such. So unlike before, there’s not a ruling power to break but simply raiders to repel.

Incidentally, Amalek and Kedem play no notable part in the rest of the story (despite the Amalekites being regarded by the Biblical tradition as particularly evil and particularly deserving of revenge).

Another notable variation from the usual frame for these stories is that we get a slightly more explicit look at and warning about just what’s got God so annoyed. Verses 6:7–10, which preface Gideon’s appearance on the scene, tell of a prophet (with no name in text) who attempts to turn the Israelites from their evil ways, and specifies what they’re being punished for: namely, ingratitude. The text of the rebuke is standard Deuteronomical stuff about God’s rescue from Egypt, and gift of the Promised Land, and how all he asks is that you not worship other Gods and you keep fucking it up. This text isn’t in the least unusual, but what is unusual is that it took 6 chapters to emerge when really, any and all of the frame-stories could have prefatory prophets warning Israel of its sins.

But, anyways, that’s prologue, and our story proper begins immediately after, with Gideon the Manassahite hiding his wheat from the raiders in a winepress, when an angel just drops by, like you do, hangs out in the shade, and calls Gideon a valiant warrior blessed by God. Gideon, who is not actually cast in much of a heroic mold, asks the eminently sensible question of why, if he’s so blessed by God, he’s reduced to hiding subsistence grain in his winepress. The angel might be working off a script, because he doesn’t answer or even really acknowledge Gideon’s question,, and plunges forwards with his task of bringing Gideon around to the idea that he will lead Israel into deliverance.

This is easier said than done. What follows is several verses of Gideon being surprisingly recalcitrant in carrying out the explicit will of God as told to him by an angel. Gideon points out that he’s a junior member of a tiny tribe, and the angel again ignores his remonstrances and pushes on. Gideon at this point offers a sacrifice—we aren’t told a reason why, but I’d take it for a stalling technique—and it bursts into flame then and there on the rock, so Gideon’s convinced that he’s actually dealing with God and his angels, and not just some random crazy wanderer.

Now, what is it that God wants from him? A lot, actually, but he reveals the plan piecemeal. As the preamble suggested, this story is engaging with the Israelites’ ostensible sins to a greater degree than the previous vignettes in the boox of Judges, so unlike in previous cases, where all that was really needed was liberation of the land from outsiders, in this story there are two parts to Gideon’s mission: first, to realign the Israelites’ cultural practices, and only then to kick out the invaders. So Gideon’s first mission is not actually to strike against the invaders, but to vandalize the town’s altar of Baal. But, in an indication of the chickenheartedness he has already shown and will continue to show, he doesn’t vandalize it openly, counting on divine protection, but sneaks out to destroy it at night. His precautions are all for naught and he’s apparently fingered as the perpetrator immediately and sentenced to death, but a cute little drama unfolds with Gideon’s father suggesting that Baal can protect his own honor (somehow, the same logic never works when it comes to the God of Israel though).

With a reputation as a literal iconoclast, Gideon (who is renamed “Jerubaal” in honor of this episode) rallies men at arms from throughout no only Manasseh (which is already an enormous territory), but also from the northwestern tribes of Asher, Zebulon, and Naphtali. Sticking to the ridiculous population figures we’ve seen previously, this fighting force could make easy work of some raiders, but Gideon is continuing to be plagued by doubt, and expresses his doubt by challenging God, which seems like a phenomenally stupid thing to do. He specifically challenges God to distribute morning dew only on a fleece and not on the grass. And then, when that works, he challenges God to do the same only in reverse. At this point it’s seriously seeming less like he’s a coward and more like he’s just screwing with God, and given God’s previously revealed lack of patience with such shenanigans, I’m honestly surprised he hasn’t given up and found another, less demanding hero to lead the people.

Anyways, Team Gideon goes on the march, and he frets about, of all things, the possibility that he has too many men for the victory to seem miraculous. I’m serious! I can’t figure this dude out. He jumps from a supreme lack of confidence in their victory to a worry that their victory is too assured. So first he sends back those who weren’t super-gung-ho about war, and he loses about two-thirds of his army, but it’s still too large, whereupon one of the iconic events in the story transpires: acting on God’s instructions, he tells the troops to drink at the river, and he sends home those who lie down or kneel to lap the water, and brings along those who cup water with their hands. This is a pretty arbitrary choice (although some exegetical texts insist that those who knelt to drink did so because they were in the habit of kneeling to idols. Sure, why not?), and taking it at face value its only purpose is to make the army ridiculously small, namely, a tiny force of 300 people.

With a force so small, of course Gideon is feeling his constant doubt again, so it’s time for another ridiculous miracle to bolster his courage, so Gideon goes down to the huge Midianite encampment to spy on the soldiers, and overhears one’s dream of a loaf of bread rolling through the camp destroying everything, interpreted by another soldier specifically as their defeat at the hands of Gideon. Now, I get that this whole scene, like the last 3 overt morale-boosters, was engineered by God for Gideon’s benefit, but it seems kind of weird that the enemy knows about him, and is certain they’ll lose to him, and don’t act on that information.

Anyways, Gideon’s crew is all set to take on an army several times their size, because (a) they have divine favor, and (b) they’re going to ambush the camp by night. Now, again, an ambush maybe works better if they didn’t have a prophetic dream about your attack, but let’s just try to roll with this. Anyways, Gideon surprises the Midianites with a sudden blaze of light and a cacophony of trumpet-blowing (making Gideon the second-most-famous horn-blower in the Bible, behind Gabriel, in no small part due to a well-known book and movie about the landmark Gideon v. Wainwright case), and in the chaos their armies turn on themselves and flee in terror. With a rout under his belt, Gideon gets a larger muster, and they chase the Midianites down to the Jordan and kill their generals. So, in short order, the Midianite raiding/occupation party is dissolved.

Now, this isn’t quite the whole story of Gideon yet. Next week, there’s a lot of mopping up to be done.


About Jake
I'm a mathematics professor at the University of Louisville, and a geek.

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