A Modest Judge Who Wanted to Be Sure
IT HAPPENED during the thirteenth century B.C.E., about 200 years after the death of Moses’ successor, Joshua. The location was the valley of Jezreel in the northern portion of the land that God had promised to the Israelites.
What occurred back there that is of interest to us today? One of Israel’s judges with an army of only 300 men routed an enemy force that amounted to about 135,000.
How could such a thing take place? An important factor was the determination of this judge to be sure that God was backing him up.
The Biblical record of this amazing event is found in the book of Judges, chapters 6 through 8, which begins: “Then the sons of Israel began to do what was bad in the eyes of Jehovah. So Jehovah gave them into the hand of Midian for seven years. And the hand of Midian came to prevail over Israel.” (Judg. 6:1, 2) If Israel would sow seed, the Midianites and other marauders “would camp against them and would ruin the yield of the earth all the way to Gaza, and they would not let any sustenance or sheep or bull or ass remain in Israel.”—Judg. 6:4.
GOD CHOOSES “THE SMALLEST”
In desperation, Israel “called to Jehovah for aid on account of Midian.” (Judg. 6:7) Therefore, God raised up as judge and deliverer a man of the family of Abiezer (a subdivision of the tribe of Manasseh), namely, Gideon the son of Joash. While Gideon was secretly threshing out grain in a winepress, so as not to be seen by the enemy, an angel appeared to him, saying: “Jehovah is with you, you valiant, mighty one.” Surprised, he asked how it could be that God was with Israel, seeing that they were in such dire straits. “Upon that Jehovah [by his angel] faced him and said: ‘Go in this power of yours, and you will certainly save Israel out of Midian’s palm. Do I not send you?’”—Judg. 6:11-14.
Gideon’s response to this commission from God reveals a modest disposition. He replied: “Excuse me, Jehovah. With what shall I save Israel? Look! My thousand is the least in Manasseh, and I am the smallest in my father’s house.” However, God assured him: “Because I shall prove to be with you, and you will certainly strike down Midian as if one man.”—Judg. 6:15, 16.
Gideon, nevertheless, was aware of the difficulties involved in doing battle with Midian and any nations that might join them. He therefore requested a “sign” so as to be sure that this commission was really from God. He brought a gift of meat, unfermented cakes and broth, placed the items on a big rock and poured out the broth. The angelic messenger touched the meat and the unfermented cakes with his staff. Fire began to ascend out of the rock and to consume the offering, whereupon the messenger vanished. “Consequently Gideon realized that it was Jehovah’s angel.”—Judg. 6:17-22.
That night Jehovah put his chosen judge to the test. God commanded him to tear down his father’s altar to the god Baal, to cut down the sacred pole alongside it, to build in its place an altar to Jehovah and to offer upon it his father Joash’s young bull of seven years (evidently a bull considered sacred to Baal). The sacred pole was to serve as firewood. Courageously, Gideon accepted this assignment. But, showing caution, he carried it out by night.—Judg. 6:25-27.
When the men of the city got up the next day and saw what had happened, they demanded Gideon’s life. However, his father, Joash, intervened, arguing that if Baal were truly a god, he should make his own defense.—Judg. 6:28-32.
UNUSUAL BATTLE PREPARATIONS
The Bible account next relates that “all Midian and Amalek and the Easterners gathered together as one and proceeded to cross over and camp in the low plain of Jezreel.” Then Jehovah’s spirit enveloped Gideon. He assembled the Abiezrites for battle, and also sent messengers throughout Manasseh and to Asher, Zebulun and Naphtali, urging men to join him. (Judg. 6:33-35) Those who rallied to his side numbered 32,000. Those in the enemy camp, however, amounted to about 135,000, outnumbering Israel 4 to 1.
At this point Gideon requested that God perform two miracles, once again for him to be sure that God would back up the move against Midian. He asked that a fleece left overnight on a threshing floor be soaked with dew while the floor surrounding it was dry, and on the following night that the fleece be dry, though the floor was wet. God granted both of these requests.—Judg. 6:36-40.
When Gideon and his forces set up camp in preparation for meeting the enemy, Jehovah gave an unexpected command: “The people who are with you are too many for me to give Midian into their hand. Perhaps Israel would brag about itself against me, saying, ‘My hand it was that saved me.’ And now call out, please, in the hearing of the people, saying, ‘Who is there afraid and trembling? Let him retire.’” Obediently, Gideon put them to the test. And the result? “With that, twenty-two thousand of the people retired, and there were ten thousand that remained.” (Judg. 7:2, 3) The odds against Israel suddenly rose to 13 to 1.
Next, Jehovah instructed Gideon to lead the remaining ten thousand men down to the water for further testing. The majority let down their guard, and greedily got down on their knees to drink. However, 300 of the men remained alert, bending down only enough to scoop water to their mouths by hand. God then said: “By the three hundred . . . I shall save you people, and I will give Midian into your hand.” (Judg. 7:4-7) This made the odds against Israel 450 to 1.
God told Gideon that, if afraid, he along with an attendant should scout out the enemy camp by night. He did this, and he overheard a man relating a dream to his companion. The man had dreamed of a round cake of barley bread tumbling into the camp of Midian and flattening one of their tents. The companion exclaimed: “This is nothing else but the sword of Gideon the son of Joash, a man of Israel. The true God has given Midian and all the camp into his hand.”—Judg. 7:9-14.
Strengthened, Gideon returned to the camp of Israel and organized his move against the enemy. But how could a group of 300 succeed against about 135,000?
“JEHOVAH’S SWORD AND GIDEON’S!”
The cautious judge arranged his forces into three bands of a hundred each. This made it possible to approach the enemy from three sides. He gave each individual a horn, a large earthenware jar and a torch inside the jar, explaining: “When I have blown the horn, I and all who are with me, you also must blow the horns, you too, round about all the camp, and you must say, ‘Jehovah’s and Gideon’s!’” (Judg. 7:16-18) How did this strategy work out? The Scriptural account goes on to relate:
“In time Gideon came with the hundred men who were with him to the edge of the camp at the start of the middle night watch. They had just got through posting the sentries. And they proceeded to blow the horns, and there was a dashing to pieces of the large water jars that were in their hands. At that the three bands blew the horns and shattered the large jars and took fresh hold on the torches with their left hand and with their right hand on the horns to blow them, and they began calling out: ‘Jehovah’s sword and Gideon’s!’ All the while they kept standing each one in his place all around the camp, and the whole camp got on the run and broke out into shouting and went fleeing. And the three hundred continued to blow the horns, and Jehovah proceeded to set the sword of each one against the other in all the camp; and the camp kept up their flight as far as Beth-shittah, on to Zererah, as far as the outskirts of Abel-meholah by Tabbath.”—Judg. 7:19-22.
Devastating indeed was the effect of this strategy! The horn blowing, jar smashing, hoisting of torches and shouting evidently made the Midianites believe that they were surrounded by a huge military force. Likely they viewed each torch as representing, not a single individual, but a whole band of soldiers. Panic stricken, they took to flight, even turning “the sword of each one against the other” among their own people.
Determined to achieve a total rout of the enemy, Gideon now called for help from the tribes of Manasseh, Asher, Naphtali and Ephraim. These swooped down upon the fleeing Midianites, cutting off their escape routes. Men of Ephraim captured and executed Oreb and Zeeb, Midian’s two princes.—Judg. 7:23-25.
Then something happened that once again displays Gideon’s fine disposition. We read: “The men of Ephraim said to him: ‘What sort of thing is this that you have done to us in not calling us when you went to fight against Midian?’ And they vehemently tried to pick a quarrel with him.” The valiant judge, however, responded with commendable modesty: “What now have I done in comparison with you? . . . It was into your hand that God gave Midian’s princes Oreb and Zeeb, and what have I been able to do in comparison with you?” This mild response averted further quarreling.—Judg. 8:1-3; Prov. 15:1.
Though tired, this courageous judge, along with his three hundred men, crossed the Jordan in pursuit of Zebah and Zalmunna, the kings of Midian. En route Gideon requested food from the men of Succoth, but the princes of Succoth refused, saying: “Are the palms of Zebah and Zalmunna already in your hand so that bread has to be given to your army?” The same thing happened at the city of Penuel.—Judg. 8:4-9.
In spite of their hardships, Gideon and his men kept up the chase. They finally located Zebah and Zalmunna, along with the remaining 15,000 of their men. Once again this divinely appointed judge demonstrated caution, for he “began to strike the camp while the camp happened to be off guard.” (Judg. 8:10, 11) Zebah and Zalmunna fled, but were captured and put to death by Gideon.—Judg. 8:12, 18-21.
So appreciative were the men of Israel for Gideon’s complete victory that they asked him to establish a ruling dynasty over them. But he desired none of the pomp and creature worship that go with man-made royalty. “I myself shall not rule over you, nor will my son rule over you. Jehovah is the one who will rule over you.”—Judg. 8:22, 23.
Gideon then asked for contributions of gold jewelry that had been taken as spoils. From this he made a costly ephod, or priestly garment, perhaps adorned with precious stones. Likely he had a good motive in doing this, perhaps viewing the ephod as a memorial of the conquest of Midian. However, it proved to be a stumbling block, for “all Israel began to have immoral intercourse with it [the ephod] there, so that it served as a snare to Gideon and to his household.” (Judg. 8:27) Apparently the Israelites used the costly garment in some type of false worship.
VALUABLE LESSONS FOR TODAY
The Bible account concerning Gideon contains valuable lessons for persons living today. Consider, for example, his caution. Did you note how this judge repeatedly sought miraculous evidence that God was backing him up? This was no indication of lack of faith. It took great faith to show willingness to do battle at odds of 4 to 1, not to mention their increasing to 13 to 1 and, finally, 450 to 1. But though full of faith, Gideon wanted to be sure of divine backing for a humanly impossible task. Even after receiving this assurance, Gideon proceeded cautiously, moving against the enemy when they were off guard.
Similarly today, Christians find themselves greatly outnumbered by a world hostile to true worshipers of Jehovah. (John 15:18, 19) Those who would please God in this period of time must continually examine the Bible to be sure that their sacred service conforms thereto and has God’s backing. (2 Cor. 13:5) As Gideon cautiously pulled down the Baal altar by night, Christians must be “cautious as serpents” and be tactful in performing their witnessing and disciple-making work, which overturns religious falsehoods. (Matt. 10:16; 24:14; 28:19, 20) They seek out opportune times and methods that will allow the Christian message to have its beneficial effect on right-hearted ones.
Another fine lesson is provided in Gideon’s humility. The Scriptures counsel Christians to develop a like attitude, “doing nothing out of contentiousness or out of egotism, but with lowliness of mind.”—Phil. 2:3.
Additionally, this Bible account is prophetic. Judge Gideon foreshadows Christ Jesus, to whom God “has committed all the judging.” (John 5:22) The Scriptures foretell that soon Jesus, along with angelic armies, will do battle with “the kings of the earth and their armies.” (Rev. 19:11, 14, 19) The outcome will be according to the prayer of the psalmist with reference to the deliverance wrought by Gideon: “Do to them as to Midian. . . . As for their nobles, make these like Oreb and like Zeeb, and like Zebah and like Zalmunna . . . that people may know that you, whose name is Jehovah, you alone are the Most High over all the earth.”—Ps. 83:9-18.