People react differently to crisis in their lives. In the case of the people of Israel, it was the invasion of the Midianites. They were afraid, oppressed, disheartened, and “greatly impoverished because of Midian” (Judges 6:6). In the case of Gideon, it was his call to go against all odds and fight against an army which “arrived on droves of camels too numerous to count” (Judges 6:5 NLT). The story of Gideon teaches us that one must stand tall in the face of problems, that there is hope for the timid of soul. God can make the weak strong, and God can help people obtain victory when confronted by impossible odds.
After the Lord reduced the army of Gideon to three hundred picked warriors, Gideon was ready to go to war against the Midianites and their allies. That night, the night when the Lord reduced the army of Gideon, the Lord told him, “Get up, go down against the camp, because I am going to give it into your hands” (Judges 7:9 NIV).
Now that the warriors had been selected to fight the battle against their oppressors, Yahweh commanded Gideon to attack the camp of the Midianites. God gave Gideon the assurance that he would be victorious: “I am going to give it into your hands.” But Gideon was afraid to go down to the camp where the Midianite army was. Their warriors and their camels were so many that they could not be counted (Judges 7:12). The Midianites had 135,000 men (Judges 8:10); Gideon had 300 warriors (Judges 7:4). Gideon was facing a 400 to 1 odds.
But the Lord did not rebuke Gideon for being afraid when confronted with this overwhelming odds. The Lord told him, “But if you fear to attack, go down to the camp with your servant Purah” (Judges 7:10). The statement, “if you fear to attack,” indicates that despite all the assurance Gideon had received from God, the fear to confront the Midianites was still there. As Webb (2012: 244) said, “Fearfulness, for most people, is not a weakness that can be conquered once and for all, but something that must be resisted and overcome again and again.”
It is possible that the reason for Gideon’s fear was the fact that God had reduced his army from 33,000 to 300. To Gideon, with this small army, it would be almost impossible for him to defeat the Midianites. Gideon was afraid because he had a small army and the battle against the Midianites was going to happen that same night. Although Yahweh had commanded Gideon to attack the camp of the Midianites and although God had assured him that he would be victorious, God knew that Gideon was afraid, so God did something special to assure Gideon that he would defeat the Midianites.
Because Gideon was afraid, God told him to take his servant Purah with him. The word na‘ar, translated “servant,” has many meanings in the Hebrew Bible. The word is generally translated as “youth, servant, attendant.” When the word is used in the context of an army, the word means armor-bearer or a shield-bearer. It is possible that Purah was one of the servants mentioned in Judges 6:27 and not a soldier, because Gideon probably did not want his soldiers to know that their commander-in-chief was afraid of his enemies.
Gideon had dismissed 23,000 men who were afraid to go to war, but Gideon was no different from what they were. Since Gideon was still afraid, God had to find a way to assure Gideon that he would defeat the enemy. God has a unique away of encouraging people. Gideon needed to confront his fear and the way God helped Gideon was by helping him face the reason for his fear. So, God sent Gideon and his servant Purah down to where the source of his fear was, to the camp of the Midianites.
God told Gideon what he must do once he arrived at the camp. As Gideon prepared to go to war against his enemies, it was important to hear what God had to say and obey him. Gideon obeyed because it was through obedience that he would be encouraged, and his hand would be strengthened. God told Gideon, “go down to the camp . . . and you shall hear what they say, and afterward your hands shall be strengthened to attack the camp” (Judges 7:10-11). The Hebrew expression, “your hands shall be strengthened” is translated in the NIV as “you will be encouraged.”
God told Gideon that what he would hear would assure him that he would defeat the Midianites. So, Gideon and his servant went down to the outposts of the warriors who were in the camp. “When Gideon arrived, there was a man telling a dream to his comrade; and he said, ‘I had a dream, and in it a cake of barley bread tumbled into the camp of Midian, and came to the tent, and struck it so that it fell; it turned upside down, and the tent collapsed’” (Judges 7:13).
Gideon arrived “just as a man was telling a friend his dream” (Judges 7:13). Since it was night, it is possible that the man’s dream woke him up. The man told his friend his dream; “I had a dream, and in it a cake of barley bread tumbled into the camp of Midian, and came to the tent, and struck it so that it fell; it turned upside down, and the tent collapsed.”
Scholars differ on the symbolism of the loaf of barley bread. Barley bread was considered the bread of poor people. Josephus said that the Midianites called the people of Israel “eaters of barley bread.” According to Josephus, barley was often fed to animals, so the Midianites considered the Israelites to be a repulsive and loathsome people. In the context of the dream, the loaf of barley bread symbolizes Israel; it may be a symbol of smallness. The tent represents the whole camp of the Midianites.
When the man heard his friend’s dream, he gave the interpretation of the dream: “This can be nothing other than the sword of Gideon, son of Joash, the Israelite. God has given the Midianites and the whole camp into his hands” (Judges 7:14 NIV). Explaining the sense of defeat expressed in the interpretation of the dream, Soggin (1981: 142) wrote, “It is the psychology of imminent defeat which produces this kind of dream: the enemy is beaten before the battle proper has been lost. Thus as far as the Midianites are concerned, we have a nightmare.”
Johannes Pedersen, in his book Israel: Its Life and Culture, wrote the following about the implication of the dream for Gideon and the Midianites: “With the dream the matter is settled. The Midianites lack the strength of victory; their soul is inferior, a soul of defeat, and therefore it must create dreams of defeat, whereas victory is created in the soul of Gideon. The outcome of the succeeding battle is simply the consequence of all this. The dream of defeat and the defeat itself are only two different manifestations of the same idea: that the Midianites were weak souls which could create nothing but defeat” (Petersen 1991: 138).
Since the man mentioned Gideon, it is possible that the Midianites had sent spies to Israel and discovered that their leader was Gideon, the son of Joash. They also knew that Israel had a small army, thus the reference to the loaf of barley bread as a symbol of insignificance.
Even though the man was given the interpretation of the dream by his friend, in reality the interpretation was intended for Gideon. Gideon had asked several signs from God that he would be victorious against the Midianites, but here God gives him a sign, even though Gideon had not asked for one. Since Gideon still was reluctant to confront the Midianites and since he was afraid to attack the camp, God spoke to Gideon through the dream of the Midianite to give Gideon assurance that he would be victorious against his enemies. When Gideon heard the interpretation of the dream, he was encouraged. Gideon was afraid of the Midianites and yet, the Midianites were afraid of Gideon.
“When Gideon heard the telling of the dream and its interpretation, he worshiped; and he returned to the camp of Israel, and said, ‘Get up; for the LORD has given the army of Midian into your hand’” (Judges 7:15).
The words Gideon heard were all he needed to hear to be assured of the victory. When he heard the interpretation of the dream “he worshiped.” The Hebrew expression “he bowed low” means that Gideon worshiped God in prayer. Now that Gideon was assured of the victory, he returned to the camp and prepared for the battle. When Gideon returned to his camp, his warriors were sleeping. He told them, “Get up; for the LORD has given the army of Midian into your hand” (Judges 7:15). Gideon addressed his warriors with boldness because he had been assured that Israel would be victorious in battle.
In explaining the source for Gideon’s boldness, Block (279) wrote, “if Gideon was to find new courage, it would not come through any external alteration in Israel’s desperate circumstances.” Gideon’s new courage came from God. God used six different ways to encourage Gideon.
Gideon was familiar with the grace of God and with God’s presence in his life. Gideon was scared but he had been scared before, but each time, God strengthened Gideon by his grace. Gideon knew that God had been faithful to him in the past and that God would be faithful to him in the future.
When Gideon was afraid to go to the camp of his adversaries, God told him, “Don’t go alone, take a friend with you.” God chose Purah to go with Gideon to be a witness to what Gideon would see and hear. Gideon needed someone to help him face his biggest problem, his enemies. Purah serves as a reminder that leaders need the support of assistants who can be there for them in times of need.
God’s sovereignty is seen in God’s timing. Gideon arrived at the camp just as the man was telling his friend about his dream. The dream was a message to Gideon. God was in control; this is the reason Gideon came to the right place, at the right time. God’s sovereignty brought Gideon peace, assurance, and encouragement.
The people of Israel suffered seven years under the cruel oppression of the Midianites. When the people cried to God, he heard their prayers. God had sympathy for the plight of the people. God also had compassion for Gideon. Although Gideon was afraid, God sympathized with his condition and provided the way to strengthen his faith.
Gideon was afraid of the Midianites, but when he heard the interpretation of the dream, he realized that the Midianites were afraid of him. Gideon did not have a correct perspective about the Midianites. God gave Gideon a new perspective about his problem and this new perspective changed his attitude and his life.
Gideon heard that God had given the Midianites into his hand and that they would be defeated. Gideon returned back to his warriors with the assurance of victory, with the assurance that God would fulfill his promises. God had promised to give Gideon the victory: “But I will be with you, and you shall strike down the Midianites, every one of them” (Judges 6:16).
After Gideon returned to his camp, he woke his men and said, “Get up; for the LORD has given the army of Midian into your hand” (Judges 7:15). Gideon divided his army into three groups, each with one hundred men: “he divided the three hundred men into three companies, and put trumpets into the hands of all of them, and empty jars, with torches inside the jars” (Judges 7:16).
The trumpets, torches, and empty jars are not weapons of war, but this war would be fought on different terms. Since Israel was fighting their enemy without a large army and without using conventional weapons of war, they had to rely on God and trust that God would provide the victory. Gideon told his men, “When I blow the trumpet, I and all who are with me, then you also blow the trumpets around the whole camp, and shout, ‘For the LORD and for Gideon!’ So, Gideon and the hundred who were with him came to the outskirts of the camp at the beginning of the middle watch, when they had just set the watch; and they blew the trumpets and smashed the jars that were in their hands. So the three companies blew the trumpets and broke the jars, holding in their left hands the torches, and in their right hands the trumpets to blow; and they cried, ‘A sword for the LORD and for Gideon’” (Judges 7:19-20).
The Midianites were already afraid of the army of Israel, so Gideon devised a plan to exploit the fear that the Midianites were already experiencing. Gideon attacked at midnight, “at the beginning of the middle watch.” By attacking at night, he attacked at a time when those soldiers who were finishing their shift were tired and sleepy and those beginning their shift were still not prepared to engage in battle. The light, the noise, the trumpets, and the war cry increased the fear and the panic among the army of the Midianites and “the LORD caused the men throughout the camp to turn on each other with their swords” (Judges 7:22 NIV).
The Midianites were so scared that they killed each other. Other tribes came to help Gideon and his army; together they defeated their enemy. The Israelites did not even have to fight, “each man stood at his position around the camp and watched as all the Midianites rushed around in a panic, shouting as they ran to escape” (Judges 7:21). The mighty Midianite army was defeated, but the victory belonged to Yahweh and not to Gideon. “The power of Midian was crushed by the people of Israel, and Midian never again became a threat. So the land had peace for 40 years during Gideon’s life” (Judges 8:28).
The liberation of Israel from their oppression began with a scared man but God, in his sovereignty, transformed the weak and made him strong by his Spirit to accomplish his work in the world. In times of trouble, God gives us assurance and reminds us of what we can do with his power and presence in our lives.
“And what more can I say? Time is too short for me to tell about Gideon who by faith . . . gained strength after being weak, became mighty in battle, and put foreign armies to flight” (Hebrews 11:32-34).
On June 30, 2019, my pastor Jeff Griffin, Senior Pastor of The Compass Church in Naperville, Illinois preached a sermon on Judges 7:8b-25 titled “Gideon: Against All Odd – Courage.” The post above is based on Jeff’s sermon.
Jeff begins his sermon by telling the story of a courageous 85-year-old man who singlehandedly confronted three robbers and made them run without being able to hurt anyone and without stealing anything.
Jeff concludes his sermon by emphasizing how God encourages people who are facing difficult times in their lives. He emphasizes that in the same way God encouraged Gideon in his dealing with his problem, God also can help people today obtain victory over their problems.
A Video Presentation
“Gideon: Against All Odds – Courage.” 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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Berry G. Webb, The Book of Judges. The New International Commentary on the Old Testament. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2012.
Pedersen, Johannes, Israel: Its Life and Culture. Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1991.
Soggin, J. Alberto, Judges. Old Testament Library. Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1981.