The angel of the Lord appeared to Gideon to commission him to fight against the Midianites and their allies who had oppressed the people of Israel for seven years. The reason for Israel’s oppression was their departure from Yahweh to worship the gods of the Canaanites. In preparing to fight against the enemies of Israel, Gideon had been commissioned by Yahweh to deliver Israel, he had been proclaimed a mighty warrior in order to lead the nation’s army, he had restored the religion of Yahweh by destroying the altar of Baal, he had been endowed with the Spirit of God to encourage him in battle, and he had united the tribes and called the people to arms to liberate Israel from the people who oppressed them.
Gideon had a large army drawn from four tribes of Israel, but Gideon was still reluctant to fulfill his mission to deliver Israel. Gideon’s problem was the issue of success, “will I have success against the Midianites?” With God on his side, Gideon would surely win a victory against the Midianites, but the biblical text raises an important issue which Gideon must consider as he prepared for war. The issue was focused on the matter of recognition, that is, who would receive the honor for the successful victory against the enemy.
When the story of Gideon began, he was threshing wheat, not on the threshing floor, as was customary, but in a winepress so he could hide the crop from the Midianites (Judges 6:11). Now that he had brought the people together to fight against the enemy, Gideon was at the threshing floor, in an open public place, not afraid to hide from their oppressors.
Confronted with an impossible task before him, Gideon once again shows his insecurity as a leader by requesting another sign from Yahweh. Gideon asked for another sign because he needed assurance that God would fulfill his promise. Gideon wanted an assurance that God would be with him in the battle against the Midianites. Gideon wanted assurance of success so that he could receive the credit for the victory.
Gideon said to God, “In order to see whether you will deliver Israel by my hand, as you have said, I am going to lay 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 deliver Israel by my hand, as you have said” (Judges 6:36-37).
Gideon was not sure that God would fulfill his word. As Block (1999: 272-273) said, “The request for signs is not a sign of faith but of unbelief.” Twice before Gideon had received assurance that the Lord was with him. The Angel of the Lord said to him, “The LORD is with you” (Judges 6:12). The Lord himself gave him the same assurance, “The LORD said to him, I will be with you” (Judges 6:16). But those promises were not enough for Gideon. Gideon’s fear demonstrates Gideon’s dependence on God, but Gideon’s faith was weak because he wanted proof that God would fulfill his promise.
A fleece is a coat of wool obtained from domestic sheep or long-haired goats. Gideon asked God to give him a sign: “if there is dew on the fleece alone, and it is dry on all the ground, then I shall know that you will deliver Israel by my hand, as you have said.”
According to Beck (2008: 28-38), Gideon’s request for a sign should be read in light of the struggle between Yahweh and Baal. Gideon was on the threshing floor and with him there was a large number of people who used to serve Baal. Gideon needed to show the people that it was Yahweh who sent him to liberate Israel and not Baal. In Israel, dew was considered to be a gift from God. Isaac told Jacob his son, “May God give you of the dew of heaven” (Genesis 27:28). Beck (2008: 36) said that Gideon’s request for dew reflects the struggle with the religion of Baal since Baal was a storm God who provided “the dew of heaven.” Gideon needed to show the people that it was Yahweh and not Baal who was sending him. Beck wrote (2008: 37), “Gideon selected the manipulation of dew as the way in which the Lord might assert and proclaim His sole right to the affections of Israel.”
Although Gideon’s request may reflect a polemic against Baal, Gideon’s request shows his doubt about God’s promise that he, Gideon, would be victorious against an army that was so large that “It was impossible to count the men and their camels” (Judges 6:5 NIV). Gideon’s request was for a sign intended to let him know the outcome of the battle. Gideon would know that God would fulfill his promise if God performed the sign that Gideon had asked.
God answered Gideon’s request for a sign: “And it was so. When [Gideon] rose early next morning and squeezed the fleece, he wrung enough dew from the fleece to fill a bowl with water” (Judges 6:38). Even though Gideon had a personal experience with God and even though Gideon had been endowed with the power of the Spirit of God, Gideon was still a human being with all the weakness that humans possess. This shows that God can use people in his work that are not perfect and people who struggle with issues of trust. What we see in God granting Gideon’s request is God’s grace in dealing with people. God used Gideon even though Gideon was not perfect.
The first sign was not enough for Gideon. Gideon may have had a reason to doubt the results. Since the dew came in the evening, it was possible that the fleece could retain moisture longer than the dry earth in the morning. So, Gideon asked God for a second sign: “Then Gideon said to God, ‘Do not be angry with me if I speak just once more. Let me make just one more test with the fleece: let the fleece alone be dry, while there is dew all over the ground’” (Judges 6:39 TNK).
Gideon asked God, “Do not be angry with me.” Gideon knew that God had a reason to be angry with him because there was no need to ask God for another sign since God had said several times that he would defeat the enemies. But not once is there a sign that God was angry with Gideon or that he rebuked him his for his lack of faith. In this demonstration of Gideon’s weakness, the grace of God was once again manifested. God in his grace and patience acquiesced to Gideon’s request and gave him what he asked for: “And God did so that night. It was dry on the fleece only, and on all the ground there was dew” (Judges 6:40).
Now that Gideon was assured that God would be with him in battle and now that the army of Israel was in position to fight against the Midianites, Gideon began to make preparations for the battle. But the Lord comes to Gideon and made a surprising announcement, “The troops with you are too many” (Judges 7:2). Gideon had an army of 32,000 men. The Midianites had an army of 135,000 men. But to God, the army of Israel was too large and needed to be reduced in number. The reduction of Israel’s army was intended to show that Israel’s victory against the invading forces was not because of the might of Israel’s army but because of the power of Yahweh, the true protector of Israel. The reduced number of soldiers fighting against the Midianites would be a great demonstration of God’s power. The victory would belong to God and not to the army of Israel, not even to Gideon.
According to Deuteronomy 20:5-8, Moses gave instructions to Israel allowing some people to be excused from fighting wars. These were the people excused from going to war: anyone who had built a new house but not dedicated it, anyone who had planted a vineyard but not yet enjoyed its fruit, anyone who became engaged to a woman but not yet married her, and anyone afraid or disheartened.
Gideon told his men, “Whoever is fearful and trembling, return home” (Judges 7:3). As a result, 22,000 men decided not to go to war. Two-thirds of Gideon’s army did not want to go to war and left. Only 10,000 men remained with Gideon, but God told him, “The troops are still too many” (Judges 7:4). The Lord then provided a test to reduce the army. God told Gideon to take the ten thousand men down to the water and told him, “All those who lap the water with their tongues, as a dog laps, you shall put to one side; all those who kneel down to drink, putting their hands to their mouths, you shall put to the other side” (Judges 7:5). The number of those who lapped was three hundred. The other men were sent home.
Scholars are divided on the meaning of this test and the way the 300 men were chosen. Some believe that the lappers were the less military capable because they were inactive and the least vigilant. Others see them as the most courageous and ready for battle. Susan Niditch (2008: 197) suggests “that those who lap like dogs will fight like wild creatures.” According to Soggin (1981: 137), “the Jewish historian Josephus said that this test shows ‘a sign of fear,’ and commented how God chooses inadequate men so that all may redound to his glory.” Soggin concludes, “It is probably more reasonable not to think in terms of any particular meaning; we are dealing here with a test, a kind of ordeal by which God selects his own men.”
God told Gideon, “With the three hundred that lapped I will deliver you, and give the Midianites into your hand” (Judges 7:7). Gideon had 300 men; the Midianites had 135,000 men, that is, a 400 to 1 differential. Gideon was going against all odds. What the people of Israel will see when the enemy is defeated is that the victory of Israel over the Midianites was a manifestation of the power and the glory of God.
“The LORD said to Gideon, You have too many men for me to deliver Midian into their hands. In order that Israel may not boast against me that her own strength has saved her, announce now to the people, ‘Anyone who trembles with fear may turn back and leave’” (Judges 7:2-3 NIV). God was not satisfied with the large army that Gideon has mustered to fight against the enemies. God gave three reasons for his dissatisfaction.
1. Israel may boast. This is the reason God selected only 300 men to fight against the Midianites. No one would be able to boast that their army was more numerous than the army of the enemy.
2. Boast against me. Neither Gideon nor the army of Israel would take away from Yahweh the glory that belonged to Yahweh. Twice Gideon said that Israel would be delivered “by my hand”: “you will deliver Israel by my hand (Judges 6:36); “you will deliver Israel by my hand” (Judges 6:37). But, from beginning to end, Gideon was dependent on God’s help and God’s power to defeat the Midianites. As Butler (211) wrote, “Gideon fights for honor that rightly belongs to Yahweh.”
3. People might say, “own strength has saved her.” Israel had a small army. They would never be able to say that their small army brought them the victory because they had a good army. Israel had to learn that Yahweh was the true savior of Israel.
In his article, “Laying Out the Fleece: Reading Gideon’s Requests with Reception History,” Kelly J. Murphy (2017: 241) wrote, “Within certain Christian traditions, the phrase ‘lay out a fleece’ denotes a practice of petitioning God to provide a sign to an individual so that the person can make a decision according to God’s will.” Murphy (2017: 242) says that Gideon’s “appeal for divine assurance is likely an unquestionably recognizable character trait for many. Who among us hasn’t, if we are being honest, wished for (more) guidance and assurance in the face of uncertainty?”
Laying out a fleece before God is not the proper way of showing faith in God’s promise to keep his word. The story of Gideon reveals two contrasting characters. Gideon’s character is revealed in his refusal to believe, his refusal to trust, and in his refusal to accept his commission. The character of God is revealed in the way he deals with Gideon: a God who is slow to anger, a God who is gracious and merciful, and a God who chooses to answer the prayers of his people. Gideon was no superhero, even heroes must depend on God.
Gideon was weak but God was strong. In his fear and weakness, Gideon found strength in God. Alone Gideon was insecure, afraid of his enemies. With God he was a mighty warrior, a warrior who went against all odds and was victorious.
My pastor, Jeff Griffin, Senior Pastor of The Compass Church in Naperville, Illinois preached a sermon on June 23 on Judges 6:36-7:8a titled “Gideon: Against All Odds – Dependence.” The post above is based on Jeff’s sermon.
In his sermon, Jeff spoke about the problem of human pride. Pride is an inclination in the life of every human being. When people boast about their success, they take away that which belongs to God. God is behind our success in life. God is the one who gives us the ability to be successful. All that we are and all that we have are gifts from God.
Jeff concludes his sermon by reading a section of a biography of C. S. Lewis. This section of the book deals with Lewis’ view on pride and how pride leads people to see themselves above others.
Gideon: Against All Odds – Dependence – A Sermon by Jeff Griffin
NOTE: For a complete list on all the studies on Gideon, visit my post, “Studies on Gideon.”
Claude F. Mariottini
Emeritus Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary
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Beck, John A., “Gideon, Dew, and the Narrative-Geographical Shaping of Judges 6:33-40,” Bibliotheca Sacra 165 (2008): 28-38.
Block, Daniel I. Judges, Ruth. The New American Commentary. Nashville: Broadman and Holman publishers, 1999.
Butler, Trent, Judges. Word Biblical Commentary. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2009.
Murphy, Kelly J., “Laying Out the Fleece: Reading Gideon’s Requests with Reception History,” Word & World 37 (2017): 241-251.
Niditch, Susan. Judges. Old Testament Library. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008.
Soggin, J. Alberto, Judges. Old Testament Library. Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1981.