Beyond the Lectionary Text: Judges 6:(1-10), 11-32, (33-40)
by Marc Nelesen
Angles, insights, and illustrations as entry points into the text and sermon
Theological themes that should not be missed:
The God of Israel is faithful and responsive to Israel’s cries even when Israel is not faithful.
The God of the Exodus who delivered his people out of Egypt will raise another leader who will rescue his people.
God’s chosen leader is a man of reluctance and doubt; rescue will depend on divine, not human, strength.
Framing the Text with Illustration Idea
Whenever we enter into conversation with another person, we frame our sentences. The frame we use often functions like a map by the way in which it sets both tone and direction of where dialogue will go. When a marriage partner begins a sentence with, “You always…”, most of us can predict both the tone of those words as well as the defensive response – even if we don’t know the object of the opening line. So when we “read between the lines”, we can become more aware that how we choose our words and frame our sentences can set tone and direction. Just as our sentences leaves trails of breadcrumbs that others can follow, so too our dialogue leaves footprints that will guide future conversations. Attentiveness to tone, direction, and framing can give us clues about what lies underneath; cruel or cunning conversation can hold words with knives hidden in them even if the words seem “just right”.
The author of chapter six frames the stories of Judges and the story of Gideon in a familiar and predictable pattern of, “Now, the Israelites did evil in the eyes of the LORD” (2:11; 3:7, 12; 4:1; 10:6; 13:1). In most cases in the book of Judges, this statement is predictably followed by a clarifying statement revealing that Israel is enamored with Asherah and Baal. Even though our text omits this clarification, by chapter six we have heard and now know about Israel’s indiscretion and know why Yahweh likely “delivered them into the hand of Midian” (vs. 1).
This move on the part of Yahweh left Israel particularly vulnerable in regard to their land, crops and tents. Eventually worn down by the relentless ravaging and trespassing, Israel did what Israel does when they ran out of hope or of options: they cried out to the Lord. In the book of Judges – not unlike our lives – this works. Israel’s “evil” or disobedience or infidelity is not the last word. They may be rotten kids but they are Yahweh’s kids, and in the bible that matters much. All Israel needs to do is cry out to Yahweh and something happens deep within God. When Israel’s cries for help find God’s ears or heart or gut, God is moved and moves in new ways. This is part of the predictable, framing, relational-dynamic between Yahweh and the Israelites. It says much about Israel and much more about God.
Comments and Observations:
Evil in Yahweh’s eyes seems to never be the last word. One could say that the pattern of:
Israel does evil,
Israel cries out,
and Yahweh responds
is merely a literary technique in the book of Judges. I prefer to see that pattern as the relational dynamic between God and the children of Israel. Not unlike the parent-teenager relationship, Israel’s relationship with Yahweh is fraught with tension, affection, judgment, pleas for rescue. Further, Yahweh turns out to be a parent yearning for relationship – even if it is a contested one. It seems as though the God of Israel will take nearly any relationship with them if they are willing; even and especially when it is grounded in their need and his desire to rescue.
God does what God does best in the book of Judges; he sends the fifth judge in response to the cries of his people. These cries are similar to those in the book of Exodus (2:23-25) in that they rise from the people, and God is moved. Now, however, it is not Israel swarming the land (Ex 1:7), but the Midianites and Amalekites. In the text, God recalls what Israel has forgotten. Looking in the rearview mirror, Egypt and the Exodus should be larger than they appear for Israel – and so should the memory of the ways in which Yahweh intervened in the land. They don’t however. But they do not. The God of Israel remembers and listens and while Israel forgets and ignores.
Calling and Name-Calling – another Illustration Idea
When someone loves or cares for you they tend to see you either as you really are, or as the person you are becoming. For most of us, that kind of vision is inaccessible; we need another to guide us into that way of seeing ourselves. The Living God has a way of helping us reframe how we see ourselves. The angel of the LORD’s visit with Gideon at the winepress was much like this. At this point in his career, Gideon was anything but a Mighty Warrior, Destroyer, or “hewer” (he was more a fella than a feller). He is not capable of seeing himself with Yahweh’s eyes without an encounter. Like all others called both before and after him, Gideon is reluctant to see differently and is not ambitious for vocational change.
So Gideon must buy himself some time and will need some convincing. He knew well that Israel was coloring outside the lines in its relationship to Yahweh; he also knew that he was no Moses. Thoughtful preachers might do much with Gideon’s request of God to “wait here while I prepare a meal.” Rarely in the scriptures – if ever! – do we find God placed in a holding pattern. Was he buying himself some time; or perhaps buying God some time in which God might have some “buyer’s remorse” and send someone else? One wonders what might have been going through Gideon’s mind as well as God’s. The grand irony of this passage is that ordinarily God seems to have us wait for answers to our requests. In this text, it is God who must wait for Gideon! Presumably, this was no small request and no small wait. Afterward, Gideon received all the confirmation that he needed. Like Abraham and Jacob after their personal encounters with God, Gideon became an altar builder.
Cultural Context Point
Gideon’s assignment from God is not without significant risk, and God’s newly deputized agent is not without fear. While the instructions on “what to do next” are quite clear, Gideon is fully aware of what the sacred sites for Baal and Asherah represent both for his father and for his community. Like Nicodemus, he is convinced but also fearful. The night hides the revelation of the day. In the morning, after recycling, repurposing, and christening his father’s altar, Gideon’s act of midnight vandalism is exposed before an angry mob. Defended by his father, Gideon is henceforth known as Jerub-Baal.
Filled with the Spirit of God and with new fervor, Gideon rallies the troops for battle. Yet once again, Gideon needs confirmation that his mission is one sponsored and sanctioned by God. Returning to the place where God first came to him, God corroborates by engaging Gideon’s fleece.
Possible biblical texts
There are at least eight texts that speak of putting God to the test (Dt. 6:16; Ps. 78:18, 41; Ps. 78:56; Ps. 106:14; Mal. 3:15; Mt. 4:7; Lk. 4:12; Acts 15:10). In several other texts recipients of the message either doubt or need signs to confirm the spoken word. Sometimes these recipients are criticized for that need (Lk 1:18, Jn 20:25-27); at other times, their need for confirmation is not invalidated (Gen 17:17, 18:12-15, Lk 1:34).
Questions to ponder/issues to address
Preachers will need to wrestle with Gideon’s need for reassurance. It is quite easy for many preachers, commentators, and hearers to look negatively on Gideon’s need for confirmation of the message by means of a sign. Yet none of us know disciples who are without doubt and who do not at least desire confirmation of God’s presence by means of a sign. Preachers would be wise to legitimize Gideon’s hesitation and doubts. Like Moses, he needed convincing. One of the miracles of this text is that the God of Israel works with the reluctance and faith-nurturing needs of his prophets and messengers. Preachers who look too critically at Gideon’s needs for confirmation risk disenfranchising the rest of us doubters in the congregation. The reality of this text is that Gideon has multiple many reasons for doubt and hesitation:
The opening verses of the chapter identify the Israelite’s as being under God’s judgment. Why would anyone think that God was now about to deliver?
Gideon is the youngest in his family and a most unlikely warrior.
Gideon’s own father sanctions Baal-Asherah worship.
This text holds yet another example of God’s use of unlikely persons to bring about his purposes (1 Cor. 1:27). Likely, this is the reason why the author of Hebrews (11:32) celebrates Gideon in the Hall of Faith among the others who became heroes after beginning as “zeroes”. The God of the bible works through emptiness and weakness to bring about creation and rescue. Such a strategy should reframe our understanding of strength, faith, and power. The God of the scriptures uses weakness, doubt, and the powerless to bring about his purposes. Whether it is in Moses, Gideon, Jesus, or Paul, God’s way of calling or redemption typically happens in ways we would not expect. We should not be surprised if God still works this way among us! Why are we always so taken aback when God still works this way among us?”
One final point to ponder: the destruction of the Baal-Asherah altar left no one to defend either of them. Is this a result of a shallow level of commitment to these deities, or is this the first indicator of a conversion on the part of the people? Either way, Yahweh is exerting a claim over these competing deities to make good on their promises. Thoughtful preachers might want to think about some of the idols of our time and what unmasking them today might look like. Walter Brueggemann has identified four North American idols that seem to go unquestioned and unchallenged. For him they nearly blend together in one lengthy, hyphenated word: military- technological-therapeutic- consumerism. While I think he is right, preachers would be wise to recognize that we are not Gideon and we should be discerning about taking a large swing at these sacred deities in one sermon. Perhaps the call of our time is for these texts and our sermons to expose the idols to erode their power in our peoples’ lives – as well as in our own.
Marc Nelesen is the Pastor of Congregational Life at Georgetown Christian Reformed Church, Hudsonville, MI.