Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Judges 6-9: The Original 300

Okay, before I start, I just wanted to say about the Spartan 300 that when the Persian army was approaching, somebody said they were so numerous that when they shot their arrows, they blotted out the sun.  One of the Spartan warriors replied to this, "Good, then we will have our battle in the shade."  I love Sparta.

*clears throat* But that's not the 300 I'm talking about in this passage.  No, these chapters are about a little guy named Gideon.

Unlike the Spartan warrior, Gideon does not strike me as a very brave, valiant, "it's a good day to die" type of guy.  When we meet him, he is threshing wheat in a winepress.  What?  Well, it's because the Midianites are oppressing Israel right now, and since the winepress was kind of a pit (maybe like an empty swimming pool?), he was threshing wheat in there to hide from the Midianites.  Normally, threshing wheat was a community event, maybe like a party - we'll see that when we get to Ruth - poor sad little Gideon is all by himself, hiding from the school bullies so he doesn't get his milk money taken.  Okay, so maybe I'm not being fair to him.  I'm just saying all this to make a point: Gideon is not the kill-a-few-hundred-people-with-an-oxgoad warrior, or even the shove-a-tent-peg-through-a-guy's-temple-while-he's-asleep sneaky assassin that we saw in the last passage.  He's just a regular guy trying to thresh his wheat.

So the angel of the LORD appears to Gideon, and it seems he hasn't been informed that Gideon isn't like Othniel and Shagmar and all them, because he says right off the bat, "The LORD is with you, mighty warrior!"  Can you picture Gideon turning around to see who's behind him that the shiny man is talking to?  Well anyway, Gideon's response to the angel is really interesting.  He says "Oh yeah?  If God is with us why am I threshing my wheat in a pit?  What happened to all the miracles that we heard about that used to happen?" (my paraphrase)

Note: I don't know if Gideon just hasn't read the Torah or something, but I believe that if an angel appears to you, a miracle of some kind is very soon going to happen.

In all seriousness, though, I think it's really interesting that Gideon is saying that miracles don't happen anymore, O woe is me, etc., right when God is calling him to do something miraculous.  Gideon seems to have excluded himself from that possibility.  When the angel tells him that God is going to deliver Israel from Midian through him, what does he say?  "Who me?  God is going to make me a mighty warrior like Shagmar the Oxgoad-Wielder and miraculously defeat the Midianites through me? Awesome, I can't wait!"  No, he says "I'm sorry, the warriors are in the third winepress on your right.  I happen to be the resident wimp from a family of wimps.  God must have been mistaken."

I think sometimes we have such grand, idealized ideas about the heroes of the Bible that we put them in a separate camp from ourselves.  It's like we think there's a special "hero pool" that God pulls people from, and we're not in it.  Reading through the Bible so far, though, I've become convinced of one thing: there's only one pool, and that's the pool you and I were in.  Now, there's two ways to look at that: one way is to think that means we're all in the hero pool, and that the same amazing stuff that was in Moses and Gideon is in us, and so we are capable of doing just as amazing things as they were.  The other way of looking at it is to think that all the heroes are in the "regular person" pool with the rest of us, and that they are just as unremarkable as the rest of us, but that God did amazing things through them because He is remarkable, and God can do amazing things through us too if we just get up when He calls us.  You can even look at it both ways; I'll let you decide though.

Anyway, so I'll stop ragging on Gideon because I think the "sign" thing is kind of a cool idea.  I don't know if it's because he was doubtful or because he just wanted to be sure - I mean, just because a guy is shiny doesn't mean they're the angel of the LORD - but he asked God for a total of three signs during the course of this story.  The first one is right now, when he prepares an offering for the angel, which the angel burns up.  The second and third signs are after Gideon has already gathered an army together.

Now, I heard a sermon about Gideon recently, so this next bit comes fromn that pastor, not me.  He said that when you're asking God for a sign, you'd better be already committed to doing whatever it is God's asking you to do.  When Gideon asked for the signs with the fleece and the dew, there were 32,000 people in his backyard playing football or something, ready to go to battle as soon as somebody said the word.  Gideon wasn't about to contest the results of the sign if it proved true.

So then God does one of his plot twists and trims down the army just a little - from 32,000 to 300 men.  I think it's interesting, though, that he didn't just tell Gideon to count off or have them pull straws or something, but that it appears He really was looking for a certain group of people, rather than a certain number.  First, God has all the people who are afraid go home.  Then he has the people who drink water in a more "refined" fashion go home.  I think God is trying to zero in on the people who are really committed no matter what, and ready and raring to go, like they're sitting there chomping at the bit and stuff.  Maybe God was looking for these people so that when He cut the army so absurdly small they wouldn't all get afraid and back out.  I mean, what if God hadn't eliminated the scared people? There might be some fraidy-cats in the final 300, and they would freak out and say "no way are we going to win," and run off.  Or maybe if He hadn't done the drinking thing, there would be some people in the final 300 who were kind of slow and wanted to take their time and enjoy the scenery en route to the enemy's camp.  I dunno.

So we all know what happens - the 300 people surround the Midianite camp, Gideon sneaks down and overhears some guy saying that Israel is totally going to win, and then they get pots and torches and basically just make a lot of noise, and Midian is so jumpy that they think they're being attacked so, in the confusion of night, they all start killing each other.  So Israel wins, but that's not actually the end of the story.

First of all, the Ephraimites get miffed that Gideon didn't invite them to the battle.  Gideon says Ephraim has already done a bunch of cool stuff and his little victory is no comparison, so the Ephraimites feel better about themselves and don't push it.  After that, Israel pursues Midian all over the place.  They are really tired and they stop at a place called Succoth and ask for food.  The elders of Succoth say "yeah right, whatever," so Gideon says that when he comes back he's going to beat the tar out of them.  Then he goes to a place called Penuel and the same thing happens, so he tells them he'll tear down their tower.  So he does - he captures the kings of Midian, whose names both start with Z, and returns to Succoth and beats up the elders, and then goes to Penuel, tears down the tower, and kills all the men in the city.  Now, I don't know that this was really necessary, but it appears that suddenly Gideon has become a mighty warrior - so mighty that he kills the kings of Midian himself, after asking a kid to do it and the kid was too scared - and also so mighty that Israel asks him to be their king.  But Gideon hasn't let all the gore and glory go to his head - he says no way, God should rule over you, not me.

At this point it seems that things are going rather well.  But then weird stuff happens - yeah, it's still not over.  Gideon asks for the people to give him earrings, so they do, and he makes an ephod out of the gold and takes it home with him.  Okay, no biggie, but apparently the people of Israel - including Gideon! - start using it in some kind of idolatry.  Sheesh!  Are there no decent guys in Israel?

But then we have a short story about Gideon's kids, who are really precious.  Gideon has 70 sons (from many different mothers, thank goodness), and one of them, Abimelech, wants to be king, so he goes and kills all 69 of his brothers - well actually 68, because on escapes - and the people of Shechem make him king over them for 3 years.  But then some other guy named Gaal challenges his authority, and apparently Shechem decides they like him better than Abimelech.  So they go to battle and - get this - Abimelech wins!  And he burns down the tower of Shechem with about 1000 people, men and women, inside!  At this point I'm really just waiting for this guy to die.  But then, the most awesome thing ever happens.He's marching against some tower in a place called Thebez, and as he's standing under the tower, some woman who doesn't even get her name put in throws a milstone at Abimelech's head, which crushes his skull (ouch).  Only he has another guy run him through with a sword so that people won't say that a woman killed him.  But too late! It's already in the Bible!  Man, that Abimelech guy really bugged me.  I'm glad he got killed by a girl throwing a rock on his head.

Then everybody goes home, end of story.

After all the awesomeness of Gideon's story, it looks like no amount of miraculous deliverance is going to cause permanent change in Israel.  It also looks like no matter how great a person like Gideon is, he can't for the life of him raise kids who follow the Lord.  I'm getting really frustrated with these people and their lack of good parenting.  Is it too much to ask for two successive generations of obedience?  But Gideon himself sort of turned against God with that ephod thing, so in spite of judging Israel and having 40 years of peace, it doesn't look like Israel is really following God that closely at any point in this story, after Midian was defeated.

Last night I said to a friend that I think the reason people live so long is because we learn so slowly.  The history of Israel is really a picture of each of us, or at least those of us who are normal.  Maybe some people follow God whole-heartedly and never turn away their whole lives, and are dramatically and permanently changed after witnessing a miracle, but I tend to repeat the same stupid stuff I've always done regardless of what God is doing.  And maybe stories like this one are in the Bible to remind me that I can't slack off after a major victory; I have to stay committed to following God or all kinds of stuff will get in the way, and I don't want that to happen.

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