The past week, starting Judges, we saw a review and recap of the ‘orthodox’ Joshua story, already subverted by admissions that tribes did not always act together as 12, nor did they win as much of the land as was credited to Joshua. The formula was introduced of Israel breaking covenant, assimilating and accommodating neighbours, resulting in God no longer driving those neighbours out.
This week we get a couple of longer-form applications of the formula of failure and relief. Gideon, Abimelech, and Jephthah are far more complex that the bits you will remember. These stories explore legitimate leadership, and what motivates rulers and subjects to accept such roles, in relation to money, sex, and power. Badly done, weak or corrupt leadership results in ‘gangs and guns’ and escalates to civil war, and certainly vulnerability to stronger, better led neighbouring nations in turn. There are few role models, and lots of invitation to criticize ‘what went wrong’ in times of relative anarchy, with occasional judges rising up.
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Monday, May 7, 2018
My insistence on reading this chapter as entirely humourous is not widely shared. God tells Gideon there are too many troops. Israel will be tempted to think they won, rather than God. That does remind me of our culture’s complacency about our affluence, and our denomination’s smugness about our entitlement to prominence.
The first cut is ‘if you’re scared, go home’. I’ve read Gideon as still the improbable young leader from the small tribe, with a high wavering voice, not inspiring confidence. He’s giving permission to those already ambivalent about his leadership to walk away – and the majority do. I’ve taken that approach often with congregations – rather than desperately clinging to ‘let’s not lose anybody’.
The next cut is how the soldiers drink at the riverside. Do they lie prone and put their face to the water and lap like dogs, or do they kneel, and drink from cupped hands? This is not a test of warriors – if anything, the first group is less dignified than the second. If not dignity and alert preparedness, which favour the latter group – is it an image of prayer submission? I just think he keeps the foolish.
So now we’re down from 32,000 to 300 – the 1%, but not, as I was taught as a child, the 1% elite, but a random selection with no merit. They are over-equipped, with too many jars and torches and trumpets. They are under-equipped, with not enough soldiers, weapons or shields. We kept the water-boy and the mascot from the teams, and sent the athletes home.
God gives Gideon the choice to attack with his 300, or take his servant and spy out the hordes below to build his own confidence. Gideon is afraid, like the 2/3 majority who already left, so he spies. What he hears is a Midianite soldier’s dream, and its interpretation. The dream is comical: a big barley loaf rolls down a hill and overturns a tent. The interpretation is unlikely: that Gideon the hayseed will vanquish the imperial troops, in the opinion of imperial conscripts.
We are reminded once more of the hordes of Midianites, countless like locusts or sand of the seashore. The 300 are scattered across an indefensible stretch of ground, with a sound and light show that is hardly ‘shock and awe’ but might suggest to Midianites the light and sound of many more attackers. The 300 carry a trumpet in one hand and a torch in the other, with no hand left over for weapon or shield.
The Midianites are routed and panicked. They kill each other in the confusion. Gideon’s band does not pursue or kill, but stays by the Jordan and invites the northern tribes to rise and fight the fleeing Midianites. They bring the general’s heads to Gideon.
Then Jerubbaal (that is, Gideon)
and all the troops that were with him
and encamped beside the spring of Harod;
and the camp of Midian was north of them,
below the hill of Moreh, in the valley.
2 The Lord said to Gideon,
‘The troops with you are too many
for me to give the Midianites into their hand.
Israel would only take the credit away from me,
saying, “My own hand has delivered me.”
3Now therefore proclaim this
in the hearing of the troops,
“Whoever is fearful and trembling,
let him return home.” ’
Thus Gideon sifted them out;
twenty-two thousand returned,
and ten thousand remained.
4 Then the Lord said to Gideon,
‘The troops are still too many;
take them down to the water
and I will sift them out for you there.
When I say,
“This one shall go with you”,
he shall go with you;
and when I say,
“This one shall not go with you”,
he shall not go.’
5So he brought the troops down to the water;
and the Lord said to Gideon,
‘All those who lap the water with their tongues,
as a dog laps,
you shall put to one side;
all those who kneel down to drink,
putting their hands to their mouths,
you shall put to the other side.’
6The number of those that lapped
was three hundred;
but all the rest of the troops
knelt down to drink water.
7Then the Lord said to Gideon,
‘With the three hundred that lapped
I will deliver you,
and give the Midianites into your hand.
Let all the others go to their homes.’
8So he took the jars of the troops from their hands,
and their trumpets;
and he sent all the rest of Israel
back to their own tents,
but retained the three hundred.
The camp of Midian was below him
in the valley.
9 That same night the Lord said to him,
‘Get up, attack the camp;
for I have given it into your hand.
10But if you fear to attack,
go down to the camp
with your servant Purah;
11and you shall hear what they say,
and afterwards your hands shall be strengthened
to attack the camp.’
Then he went down with his servant Purah
to the outposts of the armed men
that were in the camp.
12The Midianites and the Amalekites
and all the people of the east
lay along the valley as thick as locusts;
and their camels were without number,
countless as the sand on the seashore.
13When Gideon arrived,
there was a man telling a dream to his comrade;
and he said, ‘I had a dream,
and in it a cake of barley bread tumbled into the camp of Midian,
and came to the tent,
and struck it
so that it fell;
it turned upside down,
and the tent collapsed.’
14And his comrade answered,
‘This is no other than the sword of Gideon son of Joash,
a man of Israel;
into his hand God has given Midian
and all the army.’
15 When Gideon heard the telling of the dream
and its interpretation,
and he returned to the camp of Israel,
and said, ‘Get up;
for the Lord has given the army of Midian
into your hand.’
16After he divided the three hundred men
into three companies,
and put trumpets into the hands of all of them,
and empty jars, with torches inside the jars,
17he said to them, ‘Look at me,
and do the same;
when I come to the outskirts of the camp,
do as I do.
18When I blow the trumpet,
I and all who are with me,
then you also blow the trumpets
around the whole camp,
“For the Lord and for Gideon!” ’
19 So Gideon
and the hundred who were with him
came to the outskirts of the camp
at the beginning of the middle watch,
when they had just set the watch;
and they blew the trumpets
and smashed the jars
that were in their hands.
20So the three companies
blew the trumpets
and broke the jars,
holding in their left hands the torches,
and in their right hands the trumpets to blow;
and they cried,
‘A sword for the Lord and for Gideon!’
21Every man stood in his place
all around the camp,
and all the men in camp ran;
they cried out and fled.
22When they blew the three hundred trumpets,
the Lord set every man’s sword against his fellow
and against all the army;
and the army fled
as far as Beth-shittah towards Zererah,
as far as the border of Abel-meholah, by Tabbath.
23And the men of Israel were called out
and from Asher
and from all Manasseh,
and they pursued after the Midianites.
24 Then Gideon sent messengers
throughout all the hill country of Ephraim,
‘Come down against the Midianites
and seize the waters against them,
as far as Beth-barah,
and also the Jordan.’
So all the men of Ephraim were called out,
and they seized the waters as far as Beth-barah,
and also the Jordan.
25They captured the two captains of Midian,
Oreb and Zeeb;
they killed Oreb at the rock of Oreb,
and Zeeb they killed at the wine press of Zeeb,
as they pursued the Midianites.
They brought the heads of Oreb and Zeeb to Gideon
beyond the Jordan.