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David Cowles

Jul 13, 2023

“Gideon’s most important legacy is not what he did, but what he did not do.”

It all began three millennia ago with a young man named Gideon threshing wheat in a winepress to hide the grain from occupying Midianites. Like King David 200 years later, Gideon was the ‘runt’ (last born) of his father’s litter.

Unlike today’s politicians, Gideon did not seek public office. Political power was just about the furthest thing from his mind; later, he was stupefied that anyone (God or human) could want him to rule. Refreshing humility!

Of course, an angel of the Lord happened to be sitting under a nearby tree and decided to make himself known to Gideon: “You are a brave man, and the Lord is with you.”

Nope! Gideon was born at night but not last night. No way he was going to be taken in by this nonsense! “If the Lord is really with us, why has all this (oppression) happened to us?” Gideon confronts the angel with the classical problem of evil, but, without waiting for an answer, he cuts to the chase: “Give me a sign!”

And the angel gives Gideon the sign he requested, so Gideon proceeds to do God’s bidding. Under the cover of darkness, Gideon overturns the altar of Baal, tears down its sacred pole, builds an altar dedicated to YHWH, and, using the wood from the pole, sacrifices a whole bull. 

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According to the Midianite rulers and their collaborators, Gideon was a heretic, a blasphemer, a traitor, and a revolutionary; he must die. But Gideon is saved by his dad’s brilliant lawyering. Johnnie Cochran had nothing on Joash!

Sidebar: God don’t raise up no fools! Without prompting, Gideon names the altar he just built, “Jehovah Shalom,” meaning “God is wholeness,”  an important theological concept even today. 

Gideon carried out the will of God and survived. Now it’s back to business as usual for him, right? (If you believe that, we’d better have a long talk before you start middle school.) Bullies are never content with one-offs, and God is no exception. He’s found his ‘patsy’ and he will surely return to this ‘well’ again…starting now. Gideon has just escaped death by the whiskers of his old man’s chin, and now God wants more from him? Come on!

Well, actually, God just wants Gideon to liberate Israel from the Midianites! That’s all. He was able to coax Gideon, a good boy by all accounts, into an act of adolescent vandalism. Now he asks him to step up and lead a revolution. 

Clearly, Gideon has risen quickly in God’s ranks, but Gideon is skeptical, to say the least, of his newfound favor. He just barely escaped death, and in the process, we can imagine, he probably promised his father that he’d ‘be good from now on’. 

Yet now God is asking him to take up arms and to encourage others to take up arms to overthrow Midianite rule. Gideon might have been the baby of the family, but he was certainly not naïve: he understood that God was asking him to be a martyr…and to martyr others in God’s name. A heavy burden. 

So, Gideon asks for another sign. Is he stalling, buying time while he decides what to do? In any event, God grants him the sign he requested,  at which point Gideon calls “Best two out of three!” And sure enough, God obliges him again. Two out of three, 99 out of 100; this God never loses!

Time to fish or cut bait, and, thankfully, Gideon decides to fish. He raises a rebel army of 32,000 to take on 135,000 occupying soldiers. But Gideon does not seem phased. He begins by sending 31,700 of his ‘crack’ troops home. He decides to strike Midian with a force of just 300 hand-picked soldiers.

What’s Gideon up to? Has he grown too big for his britches? Is he just showing off now? Or is he testing God yet again? Daring God to work one of his patented miracles? Or is he just concerned to limit the loss of life that will inevitably result from this Quixotic campaign? 

Another option: Could it be that Gideon was an instinctively brilliant military strategist on par with Leonidas (Thermopylae), Washington (Yorktown), and Giap (Vietnam)? Did he understand that a huge army of ‘conscripts’ was dead weight, that he could do more with 300 trained and motivated fighters than with 32,000 ‘bodies’? If so, God chose wisely!

In any event, Gideon and YHWH together proved too much for Midian. Score one for Israel! Liberation. The details of Gideon’s triumph are a bit obscure, but we know that he relied heavily on psychological warfare. He deployed his meager 300 in ways that struck panic throughout the Midianite ranks and sent them fleeing across the Jordan.

If this were the end of the story of Gideon, it would be enough to secure him an important spot in the history of the Middle East…but it’s only the beginning. Turns out, Gideon’s most important legacy is not what he did, but what he did not do.

Will success spoil Rock Hunter? It did not spoil Gideon. After he defeated Midian, the Israelites understandably moved to make him their hereditary monarch. In a manner reminiscent of General Sherman, but unlike most all modern politicians, Gideon demurred:

“I will not rule over you, nor shall my son; the Lord will rule over you.” And so it was that “for 40 years the land was at peace, all the lifetime of Gideon.” 

Gideon was the first to state unequivocal opposition to the institution of monarchy. He preferred the system of Judges: YHWH rules through a succession of charismatic leaders, chosen by the people ad hoc in response to specific historical challenges, and by a semi-permanent council of elders representing the people. What’s wrong with that?


Image: “Gideon and His Three Hundred” as in Judges 7:9-23; illustration from a Bible card published by the Providence Lithograph Company, 1907.


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