Call to Ministry Series: #10 The Call of Gideon
August 24, 2012
Our attention turns to Gideon’s call (Judg 6:11-24). Gideon emerges as one of the heroes or champions in the judges’ period. He leads the Israelites against the oppression of the Midianites.
His exploits break into two kinds: those where Yhwh plays a major role and those where God is not mentioned at all. Pointedly, success rises from events where God plays a part. These events include Gideon’s call, destruction of the altar of Baal, and the rout of the Midianites and Amalekites with only 300 warriors who smash jars and blow trumpets to rout them (Judg 6:11-7:23), not your normal battle description. The second part of Gideon’s story does not go as well (7:24-8:27). In the second part, God resides in the background (Y. Amit 2001, 86).
The call account might be called the “Ophrah Show” instead of the Oprah Show for it takes place under the oak of Ophrah, a village of Manasseh not far from Shechem (See L. Niesiolowshi-Spano, “Where Should One Look for Gideon’s Ophra?” Biblica 86 (2005) 478-493 where all proposals for location are scrutinized and the author supposes it might be Ephratha or perhaps Ramat Rachel). Manasseh was one of the sons of Joseph. When the conquest of the land took place the tribe was assigned territory in the hill country to the north (Josh 17). They did not drive out the Canaanites from their key cities (Judg 1:27-28), we are told, opening them to the oppression by the Midianites.
The scene reveals two characters taking center stage: Gideon, the son of Joash the Abiezrite (Judg 6:11), and the messenger of Yhwh (6:11, 12, 14, 21 [2X]). Gideon speaks to the messenger as “lord” (6:13, 15), probably like our polite “sir.” Joash, Gideon’s father, was a Yhwh-worshipper, reflected in his name. Gideon possessed two names; the other one was “Jerubbaal.” The two names may reflect conflict between Baal and Yhwh in the attention of the Israelites. Some interpreters propose that the two names point to two different persons. I think the two names may demonstrate the two parts of his story.
When our scene opens, the oppression of the Midianites provides a hardship and strain for Israel. Every time the Israelites planted crops the Midianites along with the Amalekites and others from the east would devastate them. Their livestock would feed on the produce of the Israelites. The Israelites suffered terribly, putting them on the brink of extermination (6:1-6). They cried to Yhwh, but they also continued worshipping the gods of the Amorites (6:10). As was so often the case in the judges’ period the people did not reserve their worship for the god who delivered them from Egypt.
11. The messenger of Yhwh came and sat under the oak of Ophrah that belonged to Joash the Abiezrite. Gideon, his son, was beating out wheat in the wine press to hide it from the Midianites.
12. The messenger of Yhwh appeared to him and said to him, “Yhwh is with you, mighty warrior.”
Picture the scene: it is dark, the kind of blackness where you can’t see your hand in front of your face, a minimum of light to work by because Gideon didn’t want to draw the enemies’ attention. Dust from the threshing hangs heavy in the still air of the night. Beads of sweat glisten on Gideon’s forehead as he crushes the kernels with heavy basalt stone, effective but not easy with an implement made for crushing grapes and not wheat. Then the messenger of Yhwh appeared to Gideon.
The messenger sat there watching Gideon work. Then he announced, “Yhwh is with you, mighty warrior” (v. 12). The greeting marks Gideon as the person for God’s purposes (see also other similar contexts, Jud 11:1; 1 Sam 9:1; 1 Kings 11:28 for others).
Since the biblical text says the messenger “appeared” to Gideon after he had observed Gideon working, perhaps he could not see him at first or perhaps he was concentrating so much on the task that he did not realize the messenger had arrived and sat down. But with his enigmatic words he disrupts Gideon’s world. He stops his work, wiping his forearm across his eyebrows, and begins asking questions.
The “messenger of Yhwh” requires some explanation. Many translations use the term “angel” for the more ambiguous Hebrew term that I have rendered “messenger.” A messenger may be a heavenly being that we call an “angel,” especially when sent from God, but in some contexts the messenger may be another human or even Yhwh personally. We exclude other translation possibilities by using the term “angel.” That’s unfortunate.
The phrase “messenger of Yhwh” often provides a transition to Yhwh actually speaking. For example, in Genesis 16 a messenger speaks to Hagar about the birth of her son, Ishmael (v. 11). She responds by referring to Yhwh as ‘El ro’i, “El who sees.” Hagar asks, “Have I really seen God and remained alive after seeing him” (v. 13; the Hebrew is difficult). The messenger and Yhwh often appear interchangeable or the same or at least one in purpose.
Disruptive experiences may be one of God’s best attention-getting actions. In the middle of some activity, the Lord interrupts. Abraham napped during the heat of the day and God spoke to him (Gen 18:1). Gideon, acting in clandestine fashion without the bravado of a warrior, receives the words of the Lord through a night visitor. Hearing and sight play physical parts in this interruption by God. As readers we perceive more about this interruption than even Gideon. He will not understand until the end of the scene (v. 22). His life change has begun without him knowing. How often is that the case with us?
With his attention arrested Gideon and the messenger interact.
Words of Instruction
13. Gideon answered him, “But sir, if Yhwh is with us, why has all this found us? Where are all his wonderful deeds that our ancestors recounted to us, saying, ‘Did not Yhwh bring us up from Egypt?’ Now Yhwh has abandoned us, and given us into the control of Midian.”
14. Then Yhwh turned to him and said, “Go in this strength of yours and deliver Israel from the control of Midian. Have I not sent you?”
God’s instructions to Gideon are implicit in the salutation of the messenger who meets him at the wine press. “Yhwh is with you, mighty warrior,” the messenger greets Gideon (6:12). Gideon misunderstands initially the “with you” part, which is a singular “you,” or he deflects the statement on purpose because he responds with “us,” meaning the Israelites. But the messenger calls him “mighty warrior” from the very first words of address.
A little irony spills out of the “mighty warrior” salute since Gideon is threshing wheat at a wine press in the middle of the night to hide his actions from their oppressors, the Midianites. It is an unusual place, a wine press for wheat, and an odd time, at night, for his activity. Although it shows bravery in action, it also demonstrates caution before the enemy.
Gideon questions whether Yhwh is indeed with Israel since the Midianites control them (6:13). When people are pushed by circumstances, questions of a theological nature arise. God had already spoken through an unnamed prophet to Israel to explain the reason he has given the Israelites over to the Midianites (6:8-10): they have not been loyal to the God who brought them out of Egypt. The unknown prophet does not explain everything about God’s punishment, but the question by Gideon shows he does not understand that the chasing after false gods has been the impetus for the oppression by the Midianites. Gideon’s lack of awareness may reflect the attitude of the rest.
At this point Yhwh speaks and the messenger fades out of the scene. His words of instruction are clear: “Go in this your strength and deliver Israel from the control of Midian! Have I not sent you” (6:14)? A different word for “strength” is used in this word of commission than the “might” used in verse 12. But the message comes across clearly; Gideon has been chosen to deliver Israel. When Gideon questions the choice of his clan the Lord indicates where the real strength will emerge by saying that he will be with Gideon (6:16).
God’s instructions to Gideon remain general except that Gideon is told he will kill all the Midianites (6:16). Many biblical instructions begin with the injunction to “go,” probably a Hebrew idiom that indicates that change is required. The idea comes out something like this: you were doing this and now you are supposed to go and do this. Following the change indicator, “go,” comes the general words of instruction – go and deliver, go and find the place I will show you, go and prophesy. In time the person called receives further instructions. He or she acts and speaks in such a way that it is clear further instructions have been given.
God says, “Have I not sent you?” Did another conversation precede this one where Yhwh instructed Gideon in what to do? We have no record. God’s words may be a way of emphasizing that this is God’s doing.