Guys, Gideon was a Coward
Several years ago, I was charged with the task of heading up and ensuring the smooth operation of a week of Vacation Bible School. For whatever reason, the person normally responsible for such nonsense (the smooth operating part) was not going to be able to do it that year, so it was left to some brave soul who would step up and serve. And only a couple years out of high school and armed with absolutely no experience working with children, I had been given the job.
It was a small church where we expected to end up with about 40 kids. I was responsible for getting the curriculum, advertising, finding volunteers, assigning responsibilities, and ensuring the week went by without a hitch. And to my (and everyone else’s) surprise, the week went well! That is, considering my lack of administrative experience and my terrible habit of procrastination.
I can admit nearly a decade later that there was little time and energy spent on figuring out how to make the Bible stories teachable to children ages 4 to 11, but as a person who was familiar with these Bible stories, I thought I could handle it with no problem. I mean, everyone who grew up hearing Bible stories knew the stories of Moses, Gideon, Samson, and David. Right? Easy peasy!
Well, that’s where you’re wrong kiddo. As it turns out, I didn’t know the Gideon story as well as I’d thought I had. I mean, I knew the high points – Gideon testing God, Gideon sending home his armies until nothing but a remnant remained, Gideon’s victory over the Midianites – and that’s how I taught the story to those kids. That’s how I understood the story for years. I taught them about Gideon’s obedience in sending his troops home until there were only 300 left.
What faith Gideon must have had to lead a band of 300 men against an entire Midianite army!
So what’s wrong with teaching it this way? After all, the author of Hebrews writes,
“And what more shall I say? For time will fail me if I tell of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, of David and Samuel and the prophets, who by faith conquered kingdoms, performed acts of righteousness, obtained promises, shut the mouths of lions, quenched the power of fire, escaped the edge of the sword, from weakness were made strong, became mighty in war, put foreign enemies to flight.” (Heb. 11:32)
I mean, Gideon is lumped in with other Old Testament heroes, so it would appear that Gideon was a model of unwavering faith, right?
But this is simply not so. Guys, Gideon was a coward.
The book of Judges paints a radically different picture of this man. And when I say coward, I mean that at every turn Gideon is found cowering from God’s directives.
He’s fearful. He’s irreverent. He’s cynical. He’s sarcastic. He is unwilling to do what God commands.
Gideon was no brave soldier poised to lead Israel into battle. Gideon did not think he could lead 300 men into battle against the Midianite army. The author of Hebrews had caused me to see Gideon through jaded lenses. And this is all made clear to us in the following five sections of the Gideon narrative in Judges 6-8.
1. The Lord’s Appearance to Gideon
First, the angel of the Lord comes to Gideon and finds him beating out wheat while hiding out in a winepress (6:11).
“Now the angel of the Lord came and sat under the terebinth at Ophrah, which belonged to Joash the Abiezrite, while his son Gideon was beating out wheat in the winepress to hide it from the Midianites. And the angel of the Lord appeared to him and said to him, ‘The Lord is with you, O mighty man of valor.’”
Now, picture this scene as it would have unfolded for Gideon. Gideon is down in this winepress threshing wheat. In antiquity, the winepress was a large hole in the ground into which grapes would be poured and pressed and the juice would flow from a hole at the bottom of the press and drain into another vat nearby.
The reason Gideon is in this hole is because he doesn’t want to be seen by the Midianites who might come beat him up and take his family’s grain. So he’s hiding. And this dude comes up, plops himself down under a nearby tree, maybe pops a grape in his mouth and says, “Hey there, O mighty man of valor. The Lord is obviously with you.” And so the Lord introduces the hero of the narrative with a tinge of sarcasm as he is hiding out in a hole from the Midianites.
This man is clearly no “mighty man of valor.” Picking up on the sarcasm and not knowing who he’s addressing, Gideon replies, “If the Lord is with us, why then has all this happened to us? And where are all his wonderful deeds that our fathers recounted to us, saying, ‘Did not the Lord bring us up out of Egypt?’ But now the Lord has forsaken us and given us into the hand of Midian.” One can almost hear the condescending mockery as Gideon quotes his ancestors saying, “Did not the Lord bring us up out of Egypt?”
But from a human perspective, Gideon’s frustrations and fears are legitimate. The preceding verses paint a bleak picture of the state of Israel when the Midianites took over. The land had been laid waste and times were difficult. Being a man of short stature, he would be bound to lose any grain he might possess if he were to be found. Gideon claims to be the smallest man in the smallest family in the smallest tribe of Israel. His fear is legitimate. But to call this man a “mighty man of valor” is clearly a stretch – Gideon is literally hiding out in a hole.
2. The Destruction of the Altar
After calling Gideon to lead Israel against Midian, the Lord commands Gideon to destroy the altar of Baal in his father’s yard, but Gideon is too afraid to do it at a time when he’ll be seen.
“That night, the Lord said to him, ‘Take your father’s bull, and the second bull seven years old, and pull down the altar of Baal that your father has, and cut down the Asherah that is beside it and build an altar to the Lord your God… But because he was too afraid of his family and the men of the town to do it by day, he did it by night. (6:25, 27)”
Though he was in the company of fellow Israelites, and despite having been given a divine calling, Gideon was too afraid of his own family to destroy their altars and false gods. Gideon’s fears may have been justified – the next morning the men of the town were ready to kill him for what he’d done. But it is not honorable to shirk righteousness out of fear of man. Gideon is clearly operating out of fear for himself.
3. Gideon Tests God
Everyone knows the story about Gideon’s fleece, when he tests the Lord. But Gideon’s fleece was clearly not a good thing.
“Then Gideon said to God, ‘If you will save Israel by my hand, as you have said, behold, I am laying a fleece of wool on the threshing floor If there is dew on the fleece alone, and it is dry on all the ground, then I shall know that you will save Israel by my hand, as you have said. (vv. 36-37)”
Gideon had already been told that he would be the one who would deliver Israel from the Midianites (6:14). He acknowledges this twice in verses 36 and 37. But despite this, he still questions God’s calling in fear for his own well-being. Gideon is not seeking a biblical method for knowing God’s will. This is not biblical discernment. God had spoken directly to Gideon. Gideon’s fleece demonstrates the actions of a faithless man questioning God’s direct commands. Not only does Gideon put the Lord to the test here, he does it a second time by switching the requirements.
And we Christians sometimes childishly look for signs of what God wants us to do in certain situations by creating a fleece of sorts. And, to be clear, asking God for a sign is not a good biblical way to determine his will.
But I don’t think that is what’s actually going on in the Gideon narrative. I think the exact opposite is happening. I think Gideon clearly knows what God’s desire is and what God has commanded him to do already. Gideon has acknowledged twice in the same breath that he is to save Israel, as the Lord has already spoken. Gideon is hoping for a way out of what God wants him to do, so Gideon puts the Lord to the test. Both times, the Lord makes it evident that Gideon has been chosen for the task.
4. Gideon’s Continual Doubts
Even at the cusp of battle, Gideon still distrusts the Lord. As Gideon and the Israelite remnant-army have surrounded the camp of the Midianites, the Lord says to Gideon,
“Arise, go down against the camp, for I have given it into your hand. But if you are afraid to go down, go down to the camp with Purah your servant. And you shall hear what they say, and your hands shall be strengthened to go down against the camp. (7:9-11).
So what does Gideon do? He goes down into the camp and overhears two soldiers speaking of a dream one of them has had. The other soldier interprets the dream to mean that Gideon would be victorious over Midian.
So Gideon, on the verge of leading men into battle, still doesn’t trust in the words of the Lord. The text makes this painfully obvious stating that if he is still afraid, he is free to go down before the battle to be encouraged. He then discovers that the Lord has struck fear into the Midianite soldiers, and this is entirely because of nothing that Gideon has done. This is only the work of the Lord. Even when the “battle” actually takes place, Gideon doesn’t even do anything. The Midianite army goes crazy killing itself.
Gideon’s Final Years
Finally, after the Midianites have fallen, the Israelites want Gideon to serve as their ruler. Gideon rejects the offer, but then seems to become the leader of some sort of religious cult and Gideon leads the Israelites away from the worship of Yahweh. This assuredly stems from the pressure from godless men in Israel when Gideon creates an ephod to set up as an idol in his hometown of Ophrah where “Israel whored after it there.”
Despite having been this leading figure in Israel’s history who was forced against his own will to trust in God, Gideon succumbs to a megalomaniacal desire at the expense of the people of Israel. Shortly after his death, the people begin the cycle of the judges and turn back to other gods.
Making Sense of Gideon’s Cowardice
So how does this square with the words of Hebrews 11? The whole point of Hebrews 11 is demonstrating the great feats faith has worked in the lives of the faithful.
Enoch was taken up into heaven due to his faith. Noah became an heir of the righteousness that comes from faith. Abraham went and lived in a foreign land on a promise that the land would become his even though he would never see that promise come to fruition. Abraham could offer up his son, knowing that God could raise his son from the dead. Moses withstood Pharaoh and his armies and crossed the Red Sea.
What does it mean for Gideon to be included in a list such as this?
It is important to note that Gideon’s faith was a supernatural faith, granted him by God himself. God accomplished the destruction of a nation through Gideon in spite of Gideon’s cowardice.
Gideon’s human faith failed him. He ran, hid, tested, and searched for ways out. Gideon had no confidence in himself. So faith was all Gideon had. And we know that he did, in fact, have faith; he understood what the Lord had called him to do. His resistance was also a resistance to what he knew to be true of Yahweh.
It is only through Gideon’s faith and reliance upon his God that he was able to conquer Midian. One biblical commentator notes, “Gideon was slower to take up arms than what he ought to have been; nor did he venture without some hesitation to commit himself to God.” But Gideon had nothing else. And even though that’s all he had, he wasn’t very good at having it. His faith was a faltering one.
Often times, Christians have faltering faiths. And guys, we are Gideon. That same commentator continues, “Thus in all the saints, something reprehensible is ever to be found; yet faith, though halting and imperfect, is still approved by God. There is, therefore, no reason why the faults we labour under should break us down or dishearten us, provided by faith we go on in the race of our calling.”
In fact, this, I believe is the point of Hebrews 11:32. As the author of Hebrews mentions Gideon, Samson, Barak, Jephthah, and David, these are all men who were men of wavering and faltering faiths. These are all men in whom “something reprehensible could be found.” Samson was a womanizer. Barak relied upon a woman whom God did not call. Jephthah sacrificed his daughter based on an irrational vow. David was an adulterer and murderer. These are the types of men through whom God impacted the world.
And this is true of the New Testament as well. We see the same things with the Christ-denying Peter, doubting Thomas, the unbelieving James, and Saul, the great persecutor of the church. But in this is found a magnificent work in which we can rejoice, for “our God is in the heavens; he does all that he pleases” (Psalm 115:3). As God does as he pleases, he uses whomever he desires despite their shortcomings. I mean, Balaam’s donkey couldn’t speak, but God made him do it anyways.
Christian, the lesson to be learned here is that our God will accomplish his purposes in spite of our limits. God, through Gideon, brought down a nation despite the type of man Gideon was. God will be victorious despite our lack of confidence and despite our cowardice. Our inabilities will not thwart God’s plans.
Though we often struggle to remain faithful, as Gideon did, God is faithful and he will accomplish what he wills and he will use whomever he wishes in order to get it done. Soli Deo Gloria. To God alone be the glory.
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