Sunday, March 16, 2008

Judges 6 - 8: Gideon's Bible

One Year Ago in Michael Reads the Bible: Abraham and Isaac.

Slavery and Redemption. Again.

Well, here we go again. The Israelites piss God off yet again, and are sent into slavery for, by my count, the 6th time. Some people never learn. This time the bad guys are the Midianites.

The "angel of the Lord" -- as with all such occurrences, I am left uncertain whether this phrase denotes a supernatural messenger-being, or an earthly incarnation of God -- makes an appearance to Gideon, the son of Joash the Abiezrite. Gideon is that archetype of comic books and young adult literature, the little underdog (and I believe the first underdog figure we've seen in the Bible, excepting the younger sons Jacob and Joseph). He's the youngest member of the weakest clan in his tribe, but God tells him he is going to be the one to strike down the Midianites.

A pious lad, Gideon asks the angel to wait until he can perform a proper sacrifice. But he also demands a miracle as a token that this really is God he is talking too; the angel comes through with a show of pyrotechnics. He is then given his first mission, which is to tear down the altar to Baal and the monument to Asherah (another oft-mentioned local deity) that his family has set up, performing a proper sacrifice to God over the ruins. Gideon complies that night, and when the community wakes up the general inclination is to string him up. His dad, however, comes to his defense, pointing out that if Baal was such a hot shot he should have been able to defend his own altar. This convinces the crowd, and Gideon starts to get some respect for putting his money where his mouth is, religion-wise.

But before he takes on the larger problem of the Midianites, he demands a little more proof from God, requesting -- and receiving -- highly specific little miracles. Now, just as an aside here, I see this as pretty troubling content in a book about the glories of God. Because, if I'm impressed by how God actually provided the miracles that Gideon requested, what is to stop me from saying, I don't know, "God, show me that you really exist by making sure I get a Canadian dime in my change when I buy my soft drink tomorrow?" I don't know about you, but I have found God either decidedly unresponsive, or nonexistent -- you make the call -- when confronted with that kind of request.


Another Study in Unconventional Tactics.

Generally, "get there the firstest with the mostest" is sound strategy in the military thinking of any era, but Gideon is told not to do this. After the alter-breaking incident, Gideon puts out the word that he is going to lead a holy revolt against the Midianites, and a whopping 32,000 (!) men show up to fight. But God is not happy with this; he wants it to be perfectly clear that it is his own intervention, and not the Israelite strength in arms, that is going to win this contest. (7:2) So, he has Gideon send home anybody who is nervous about fighting. This leaves 10,000 men, but that's still way too many; a highly random screening process ensues, in which a mere 300 men are selected for the fight. Rather than the usual weapons of swords, bows, and so on, these men are issued trumpets, torches, and empty jars. You wonder if, at this point, these guys are wishing they had said that yes, they were nervous, and left with the first 22,000.

What has happened is that God had Gideon sneak down to the Midianite camp, where he learned that their soldiers were on edge, afraid that this Israelite God was going to do them some serious damage. So, he has the men tiptoe up to the Midianite camp at night, and then, at a signal, simultaneously blow their trumpets, smash their jars, and wave their torches around. The Midianites, apparently thinking that they are being overrun, go bonkers, and in the confusion they start attacking each other. As they begin retreating towards the east, Gideon sends messages ahead so that they are continually harassed and chased. Gideon's force pursues them as well, catching and killing the Midianite leaders, and smacking down a few towns along the way for their disrespectful attitudes, as well.

If nominated I will not run; if elected I will not serve.

Most societies seem to assume that there war heroes would logically make great civil administrators, and the Israelites are no exception. They start bugging Gideon to be their king. No way, he says: I will not rule over you, nor will my son rule over you. The Lord will rule over you. (8:23) All he wants for his effort is a modest chunk of the gold looted in the campaign he led.

So, that's pretty good! Gideon did what God asked, resisted any temptation to seize power, and instead encouraged his countrymen to keep their religiously-centered form of government. Except, what does he do with that gold he asked for?

Gideon made the gold into an ephod, which he placed in Ophrah, his
town. All Israel prostituted themselves by worshiping it there, and it
became a snare to Gideon and his family.

Isn't that strange? That's all that's said about it, too, in this long story about a guy who personally talks with God, starts his career by tearing down forbidden religious idols, and leads a holy war of redemption. Then he takes his reward and... makes a forbidden religious idol? Dude must have been having a whopper of a mid-life crisis, or something.

Well, despite this, he lives to a ripe old age in peaceful times, and has seventy sons with his many wives (again: mid-life crisis?). It's not until he dies that the Israelites, with their inexplicable regularity, "set up Baal-Berith as their God." (8:33) I'm guessing this will mean yet more trouble.

Next Week: Yet more trouble.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

The Gideon-era Israelites are not the only group to adopt military heroes or gold-crusted Op(h)rahs as stand-ins for God. Isn't the latest Oprah book something about becoming your own god or creating god?