In the days of Gideon, the people of Israel were oppressed by the Midianites because they began worshiping the gods of the Canaanites. Deborah and Barak had defeated Sisera and the army of the Canaanites (Judges 4:1-24) and given the land forty years of rest. However, after they died, the people did what was evil and “the LORD gave them into the hand of Midian seven years” (Judges 6:1).
The oppression of the Midianites caused havoc with the economy of Israel. The Midianites devastated the land by plundering the harvest, leaving nothing for Israel to eat. They also took the people’s sheep, goats, cattle, and donkeys. As a result, the people of Israel were greatly impoverished and reduced “to utter misery by the Midianites” (Judges 6:6 TNK). In their misery, the people “cried out to the LORD for help.”
In answer to their prayers, the Lord sent a prophet to explain the reason for their suffering. The people believed that their problem was a military problem, but the prophet said that the reason for their suffering was not the Midianites, but it was their rebellion against Yahweh. The nameless prophet explained the reason Yahweh had allowed the people to be oppressed by the Midianites. Their oppression came because of their disloyalty, their violation of the covenant by worshiping Baal, the god of the Canaanites. The prophet reminded the people of their redemption from Egypt and how the people failed to remember what the Lord had done for them.
The prophet reminded the people that God had commanded them not to be involved with the false gods of Canaan. The Lord had told the people, “You must not worship the gods of the Amorites” (Judges 6:10). But the people did not obey the Lord’s command. Instead, they rebelled and worshiped the gods of the people of the land. The message of the prophet to the people does not offer any sign of hope. But God in his mercy, answered the people’s cry for help by sending a deliverer, Gideon, the son of Joash, an Abiezrite.
The book of Judges does not provide information on how the people reacted to the prophet’s message, but a seed was planted for a religious renewal in Israel. Soon after the prophet confronted the people, the Angel of the Lord appeared to a farmer named Gideon, the son of Joash, the Abiezrite. When the Lord appeared to Gideon, the Lord declared him to be “a mighty warrior.” The Lord told Gideon, “I hereby commission you: Go in this might of yours and deliver Israel from the hand of Midian” (Judges 6:14).
Gideon was a humble man who believed that he was not the one to deliver Israel. God, however, saw the potential that was in Gideon. With God’s presence in his life and with God’s help, Gideon would become a mighty warrior and he would become the agent to bring the people back to their true God. Yahweh told Gideon, “go, I will be with you” (Judges 6:16). But Gideon was not convinced that he was the one to deliver Israel and that it was Yahweh who was speaking to him. So, Gideon said, “If now I have found favor with you, then show me a sign that it is you who speak with me” (Judges 6:17). Gideon still required assurance that he had been chosen to do the work and that Yahweh would be with him. He needed a sign to reassure him that it was Yahweh who was speaking to him.
Gideon’s request was an indication that he was beginning to believe that God could accomplish the impossible through him. If he accepted the call to go against the Midianites, he would go against all odds, but he would go knowing that God would go with him. But he needed reassurance, he needed a sign that only God could provide. The sign would help chase away the doubts, the fear, the hesitation to fight against a powerful enemy. Gideon made another request. He told the Lord, “Do not depart from here until I come to you, and bring out my present, and set it before you.” The Lord said to Gideon, “I will stay until you return” (Judges 6:18). Gideon left to prepare a meal for his guest. To Gideon and the people of Israel, hospitality to strangers and travelers was a vital part of their culture and society. Gideon was trying to be a good host by preparing a meal for his guest.
Gideon went into his house and prepared a meal for his visitor. The meal that Gideon prepared consisted of a young goat, unleavened bread, and some broth (Judges 6:19). Once the meal was prepared, he brought the food to his visitor who was sitting under the oak. The Hebrew word for the “present” that Gideon gave to the Angel of the Lord is minḥâ, a word that has a secular and a religious meaning, When the word is used with a religious meaning, the word means “offering” as the NIV has it, “Please do not go away until I come back and bring my offering” (Judges 6:18 NIV).
When Gideon approached his guest with the food, the Angel of the LORD said to him, “Take the meat and the unleavened cakes, and put them on this rock, and pour out the broth.” Gideon did what the Angel of the LORD commanded. “Then the angel of the LORD reached out the tip of the staff that was in his hand, and touched the meat and the unleavened cakes; and fire sprang up from the rock and consumed the meat and the unleavened cakes” (Judges 6:21). The Angel of the Lord did not want to eat the food Gideon brought; he wanted worship from Gideon. The Angel of the Lord used the fire to transform the meal into an offering. The meat, the unleavened bread, and the broth represent the ingredients used in the sacrifice offered to God in the tabernacle.
God accepted the sacrifice Gideon made at that place. God’s acceptance of the sacrifice is symbolized by the consumption of the sacrifice by fire. With this act, Yahweh was calling Gideon to abandon the pagan ways of his father. Gideon’s father worshiped Baal; now Gideon is learning the proper way of worshiping God. As Butler (2009: 204) wrote, “God is calling Gideon away from the ambiguous worship of his Yahwistic-named, Baal-worshiping family to a total dedication to the God who is with him.” It is Gideon’s “dedication to the God who is with him” that allowed him to have an impact in the lives of people around him. The sacrifice to God was offered at the oak tree, which belonged to Joash, Gideon’s father. The oak tree was a sacred place dedicated to the worship of Baal. Now the place becomes a sacred place for the worship of Yahweh. By building the altar to Yahweh, Gideon was declaring that the place belonged to Israel and his people.
It was after Gideon worshiped God with his sacrifice that he recognized that he was talking with Yahweh, “Then Gideon perceived that it was the angel of the LORD; and Gideon said, ‘Help me, Lord GOD! For I have seen the angel of the LORD face to face” (Judges 6:22). The fire that consumed the sacrifice opened Gideon’s eyes to the realization that he had been in the presence of Yahweh. Gideon was afraid, but God calmed his fear with a word of reassurance. God assured him that he would live, that his well-being would be preserved. So, Gideon called the name of that place Yahweh Shalom, “The Lord is peace.” The word shalom means peace, well-being, wholeness. Gideon was afraid that he was going to die because he had seen the Angel of the Lord face to face, but he lived even though he had seen the Lord. The writer of the book of Judges says that the altar was still there when he wrote his book. The altar was a reminder to Israel that on that day and on that place, Gideon had his personal encounter with God. The altar was also a public memorial to Gideon’s commitment to Yahweh.
The Demolition of Baal’s Altar
Gideon was asked to begin his work that same night. Gideon was doing his work at night because he recognized that there would be much danger in what he was doing. He was challenging the gods of the people and saying that their gods were not gods. That night the Lord said to Gideon, “Take the young bull belonging to your father and another bull seven years old; pull down the altar of Baal which belongs to your father, and cut down the Asherah pole which is beside it” (Judges 6:25 TNK).
Scholars are divided regarding whether the text mentions one or two bulls. The TNK mentions two bulls but the NIV mentions only one: “That same night the LORD said to him, ‘Take the second bull from your father’s herd, the one seven years old. Tear down your father’s altar to Baal and cut down the Asherah pole beside it.’” Since verses 26 and 28 mention the second bull, most scholars believe that the text refers to two bulls. Gideon must take the best bull that belonged to his father. That bull was special because the bull probably was being prepared by Joash to be offered as a special sacrifice to Baal. The bull was a symbol of Baal. The second bull was a mature bull, a bull seven years old. The age of the bull may refer to the duration of the Midianite oppression, “and the LORD gave them into the hand of Midian seven years” (Judges 6:1).
The act that Gideon was about to commit was an act of subversion. Gideon must destroy the altar of Baal, the Canaanite god worshiped by many of the people in Israel. The altar to Baal belonged to Gideon’s father. As Butler (2009: 205) wrote, “Gideon must prove his commitment to Yahweh within his family before proving it in battle.” Gideon also was commanded to destroy the asherah, the symbol of Asherah, the goddess of fertility. Then Gideon was commanded to build an altar for Yahweh. He must offer the second bull as a burnt offering and burn the bull with the wood of the sacred pole that he had cut down. The altar of Yahweh was built on top of the fortress, probably that place where Baal’s temple was located. By building the altar of Yahweh where the altar to Baal was, Gideon was dedicating that place to Yahweh. The use of the Asherah pole as wood for the fire meant the desecration of both the place and the goddess.
In the morning, when the people realized that the temple of Baal was demolished and the symbols of their gods had been destroyed, they enquired to find out who had desecrated the temple of their god. The word “enquire” in Hebrew is dārash, a word that is generally used in the context of divination. The people were told that the son of Joash had done the damage, they were told either by a priest or a diviner, or they were told by people who knew that Gideon had done it. The people approached Joash and told him, “Bring out your son, so that he may die, for he has pulled down the altar of Baal and cut down the sacred pole beside it” (Judges 6:30). The reason they tried to kill Gideon was because Baal could not show his power by killing the person who desecrated his temple.
Gideon’s encounter with Yahweh transformed his life. However, he knew that in order to restore the true worship of Yahweh in Israel and in order to liberate his people from the oppression of the Midianites, he needed help. Gideon needed to motivate others to follow him. One way to influence others to abandon the worship of false gods to follow Yahweh was to share his experience with God with friends and family.
Gideon began his work of restoring the worship of Yahweh with his coworkers. Gideon was a farmer and he selected “ten of his servants” to help him do what the LORD told him to do. Gideon needed help “because he was too afraid of his family and the townspeople” (Judges 6:27). These ten men were as determined to destroy the altar of Baal as Gideon was.
After Gideon destroyed the altar of Baal, his father came to his defense. Until that time Joash had been promoting the worship of Baal. But when the people came to him with the request to kill his son, Joash probably recognized that Baal did not have the power to kill his son, because if Baal was god, he himself would take the initiative to punish the person who had desecrated his temple. Joash told the people, “Are you trying to save him?” (Judges 6:31 NIV). The irony here is evident; instead of Baal saving the people, it is the people who are trying to save Baal. Joash challenged the people to let Baal defend himself. The challenge Joash placed before the people was reflected in the new name Joash gave his son, Jerubbaal, “Let Baal contend with him.” Soggin said that the new name reflects Gideon’s new relationship with God. He wrote (1981: 125): “Gideon is as it were reborn, and his father gives him the name.”
When the Midianites and the Amalekites heard that there was a leader in Israel, they prepared to fight against Gideon. At that time the spirit of the LORD took possession of Gideon. Endowed with the Spirit of God, Gideon, the farmer, was transformed into a mighty warrior. Gideon sounded the trumpet and the Abiezrites were called out to follow him. Gideon begins the deliverance of Israel with the members of his own clan. The struggle against the enemies begins at home; Gideon needs a local victory to motivate the other tribes to join him in the struggle. For this, Gideon counted on his relatives, the members of his clan. Gideon’s experience with Yahweh transformed his life. Because of Gideon’s commitment to Yahweh, the same people who tried to kill him now joined him to fight against the Midianites.
Once Gideon was able to unite his clan, he sent messengers throughout all Manasseh, the tribe to which he belonged. Gideon’s neighbors, the other clans of Manasseh, were called out to follow him and they joined Gideon in the struggle to liberate Israel. Once they were united locally, Gideon extended the call to the other tribes of Israel.
Once the members of his clan and of his tribe were united and dedicated to fight against their oppressors, Gideon was ready to extend his call of unity to the tribes most affected by the oppression of the Midianites. Gideon sent messengers to Asher, Zebulun, and Naphtali, and they came up to meet with Gideon. Thus, four tribes out of twelve came together to fight against the Midianites. The other tribes did not join the fight because the threat of the Midianites and the Amalekites did not pose a direct threat to them.
Gideon’s encounter with God transformed his life. The lowly man and the humble and simple farmer became a spiritual warrior seeking to restore the true worship of God in Israel. The transformation of the religious life of Israel began with one person. But Gideon could not accomplish his mission alone; he needed help. First, he sought the help of his servants, those who worked with him. Together they destroyed the altar of Baal. Gideon’s father was impacted by his son’s commitment to Yahweh. When the people tried to kill his son, he renounced his false god to defend his son and his commitment to the true God. Gideon’s commitment to Yahweh motivated his clan, his tribe, and other tribes in Israel to join forces in defeating the enemy and in promoting the cause of Yahweh.
One person in the service of God can make a difference in the lives of many people.
My pastor, Jeff Griffin, Senior Pastor of The Compass Church in Naperville, Illinois preached a sermon on June 16 titled “Gideon: Against All Odds – Impact.” The post above is based on his sermon.
Jeff concluded his sermon by narrating the powerful story of a 17 years old teenager who worked at McDonald. Because this teenager was committed to Christ, she was able to bring one coworker to Christ and through him thirty-two people, encompassing four generations, became believers in Christ. Like Gideon, that teenager was able to make an impact in the life of many people.
“Gideon: Against All Odds – Impact.” A Sermon by Jeff Griffin
NOTE: For a complete list on all the studies on Gideon, visit my post, “Studies on Gideon.”
Emeritus Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary
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Butler, Trent, Judges. Word Biblical Commentary. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2009.
Soggin, J. Alberto, Judges. Old Testament Library. Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1981.