When Gideon saw fire spitting up out of the rock on which he had placed food for his strange guest, the young Israelite was quite startled. He stared in awe as the food was swiftly burned to cinders after his guest had merely touched the rock with his staff.
When he looked up he was even more startled to find that the stranger had miraculously faded from view! (Judges 6:20-21).
Gideon realized then that God, and not some man, had commanded him to lead Israel to freedom from the Midianites (Judges 6:11-16). He fell face down by the flaming rock, fearful that he might be struck dead because he had come so close to God.
“Do not be afraid,” he heard the voice of God say. “You shall not die because of this close contact with your Creator. Go about your business, and tonight I shall speak to you again.”
Gideon was so thankful and impressed that he built an altar there and dedicated it to God (vs. 22-24). That night Gideon slept by that spot to protect his wheat from the Midianites and to await God. Before dawn God spoke to him.
“Gideon, you know now that it is indeed your Creator who has chosen you to lead Israel,” God said. “Do as I instruct you. The people must cease their worshipping of idols before I free them. Go out tomorrow night and tear down the altar near your father’s home dedicated to the sun-god called Baal. Close by it, as you know, is a grove of trees in which is a wooden image of the sun-goddess known as Easter. Cut down the grove, break the image and hack them to pieces for firewood. Then build an altar to your Creator on the flat top of this rock. Take your father’s good young bull – the second one-- which is seven years old and use it for a burnt offering on the altar. For fuel, use the firewood you will make from the grove of trees and the image of the goddess Easter.”
Before the Midianites had forced the Israelites into the mountains, Gideon had been a fairly wealthy young man who had hired several men to work for him. When he had fled from the valley, most of these men had come with him to remain loyal and live close to his makeshift home in the mountains. Next day Gideon called ten of the most valiant and trustworthy of these men together, men who were not idolaters and told them of his recent experience.
“God has commanded me to do this thing,” he told them, “but I can’t do it alone as quickly as it should be done. I’m asking you to believe me and help me.”
All ten men were quite willing to help. Late that night they quietly went with Gideon to the altar of Baal and noiselessly as possible tore it apart. Just as noiselessly they hastily erected a new altar. They chopped down the grove of trees in which was the wooden image of Easter, split up the wood and placed the pieces on the altar. Gideon had already taken from his father’s corral the second young bull, as God commanded. Slain and dressed, it was put on the wood that was arranged on the new altar to God. It was seared in flames from the wood of the grove and the broken image of the goddess Easter (Judges 6:25-27).
By this time it was nearly dawn. Gideon and his ten men stole away to their various makeshift homes. But the light from the fire attracted the attention of some early risers. They hurried to the altar to find out the reason for the big blaze so early in the morning.
When they found that the altar to Baal had been torn down and a new one erected, on which the remains of the bull and the pagan image was burning, there was great excitement and anger in the growing crowd of Israelites who had become idol worshippers.
In spite of all precaution by Gideon, someone had seen him coming from the direction of the altar before dawn. When the angry crowd heard of this, it moved to surround the home of his father, Joash.
“Bring out your son or tell us where he is!” the people shouted. “He is guilty of tearing down our altar and destroying the image of Easter! We must kill Gideon to avenge the sun goddess!”
Joash scowled at the crowd. He was irked at what Gideon presumably had done, but he didn’t want to see his son fall into the hands of these wrathful people.
“Why must you demand anything for avenging Baal and Easter?” Joash asked the crowd. “If Baal is a strong god, surely he will avenge himself before another day has passed. If my son is the guilty one, Baal will not let him live!” That is why Gideon was renamed Zerubbaal” – which means “let Baal do his own pleading” (Judges 6:28-32).
This advice quieted the mob. None of the worshippers of Baal wanted to say that their pagan god lacked the ability to deal with his enemies by himself. Gradually the crowd dispersed.
Gideon went into hiding. Meanwhile word had leaked out to the enemy that a champion was about to lead Israel to battle against Midian. The Midianites perceived that some strong underground movement was being organized, and they asked the Amalekites and other Arab tribes to come and stand with them against Israel.
Soon thousands upon thousands of soldiers mounted on camels moved into the valley of Jezreel, the place where king Jabin’s forces had met miserable defeat several years previously.
Gideon blew a trumpet to assemble the people of Abiezer and sent messengers to the tribes of Manasseh, Asher, Zebulun and Naphtali to ask for men to come and fight against the Midianites. By night thousands of men from these tribes quietly moved into the mountain strongholds close to where Gideon was hiding (Judges 6:33-35).
When Gideon realized how many men were subject to his command, he began to wonder if he could successfully fulfill the tremendous task he had been given. Troubled and uncertain, he went to a private place to pray to God.
“I need assurance from you,” Gideon prayed. “Please show me again that I am the one you have chosen to lead against Midian. Tonight I shall spread a fleece of wool on the ground at the threshing floor. Tomorrow morning, if the wool is wet with dew and the ground and grass all around me are dry, then I shall know for certain that you have picked me to help save Israel.”
Early next morning Gideon hurried out to examine the fleece. It was heavy with dew. In fact, Gideon took it up and squeezed out enough water to fill a good-size bowl. At the same time he could find no sign of moisture on the ground or grass nearby.
He was encouraged by this sign, but the more he thought about it, the more he reasoned that it was possible that the wool had naturally attracted more moisture than the grass would, and he decided to ask God for one more sign. Probably he didn’t realize how much he was testing God’s patience by this continuing doubt. That he was aware that he was carrying matters a bit too far, however, was evidenced in the manner in which he made his next request.
“I trust you won’t be angry if I ask for one more sign,” Gideon said to God. “Tonight I shall place the fleece on the ground again. If in the morning only the fleece is dry and the ground and grass around it are wet with dew, then I shall know without a doubt that you have chosen me to lead the Israelite soldiers against our enemies.”
Next morning Gideon found that there was an exceptionally heavy dew on the grass and shrubs all around. Even the ground was soft with moisture. But when he picked the fleece up off the wet ground he discovered that it was completely dry (Judges 6:36-40)!
Gideon no longer had any room for doubt. His confidence was lifted. Next morning he ordered all the Israelite soldiers to proceed into the valley of Jezreel. They were poorly armed, and many of them feared to enter the valley in the daytime, what with all the Midianites and their allies camped at the north side of the valley! They went nevertheless, and camped that night on the south side of the valley at the slopes of Mt. Gilboa. When they were numbered and organized into military unites, it was found that there were 32,000 of them. It was now God’s turn to teach Gideon a lesson of faith.
That many men would seem to have constituted a fair fighting force for those days. But when a report came by spies that the Midianite soldiers and their allies numbered over a hundred thousand, a great part of the Israelites heard it would be suicide to pit themselves against such overwhelming numbers.
God had a quite different opinion. He pointed out to Gideon that there were too many Israelites soldiers! He could better show His deliverance with fewer men in His way!
“If Israel should conquer the enemy with all the men who are gathered here now,” God explained to Gideon, “then the people will brag of winning by greater strength, though with lesser numbers. If a much smaller number of Israelites is involved in a victory, then the people will have to admit, as will their enemies, that Israel’s God alone made victory possible. Therefore reduce the number of your men by proclaiming to them that any who fear to battle the Midianites are free to leave this place. Thus you will also get rid of men who are fearful of failure.”
Gideon sent officers to all his men to tell them that they could leave if they wished. To his great surprise and disappointment 22,000 thousand of them withdrew from the army. This left Gideon with only 10,000 men. That meant one under-trained Israelite soldier for at least 13 battle-trained enemy soldiers (Judges 7:1-3).
At the time Gideon was feeling dismayed because his army had been so reduced, God told him that it was still too large!
“You must trim your men down to the very best soldiers,” God said to him. “Take them all to the nearest stream to drink. The manner in which they drink will determine how many men you shall take to overcome the Midianites and their confederates. I will tell you later which to choose.”
Gideon led his 10, 000 men to the spring and pool at the foot of Mt. Gilboa. When they reached the stream flowing from the pool, he gave orders for them to stop and drink. Although the men believed that they were going to meet the enemy, most of them dropped their weapons, got down on their hands and knees and put their lips to the water.
Those who tried to be alert in the event of a surprise attack by the enemy from a nearby ridge retained their weapons, quickly stooped down to scoop up the water with their free hand and to lap it up from their cupped palms. Then God told Gideon to place those who kneeled down on one side and those who drank from their hands on the other. The result was surprising!
Most of his 10,000 men had fallen down on their hands and knees to drink. Only 300 scooped up water with their hands (Judges 7:4-6)!
After all had returned to camp, God informed Gideon that by those 300 men He would deliver the enemy to Israel! All the other soldiers – nearly 10,000 should be dismissed! God knew that it was difficult for Gideon to understand how a mere 300 men could overcome such a great multitude. It was a matter of one Israelite solder against at least 450 enemy soldiers. But God wanted Israel to re-learn the valuable lesson that mere numbers do not bring victory (Judges 7:7-8; Zech. 4:6).
“I want you to know that the Midianites, in spite of their numbers, are afraid of Me,” God told Gideon. “Go over to their camp after dark and hear for yourself what the average Midianite soldier thinks. I will protect you, but if you are too big a coward to go alone, take your right-hand man, Phurah. When you learn of the state of mind of the enemy you will be encouraged.” So that night Gideon went with Phurah, his servant, across the plain of Jezreel to the camp of the Midianites (Judges 7:9-11).
It was so late that most of the guards were within their tents on the borders of the camp, and in the moonless darkness it wasn’t difficult for the two Israelites to silently creep past the outer tents. Once within the camp, they appeared in the faint light of the low fires like any other pair of Arabs. No one challenged them.
In passing one of the tents, their attention was attracted to a conversation within by two Midianite soldiers.
“I had a strange dream last night,” they overheard one of the men remark. “I dreamed that a huge loaf of barley bread came tumbling down off that mountain across the valley. It rolled all the way over the plain and crashed into one of our tents with such force that it tore the tent to shreds and scattered it in all directions! Could such a dream have any meaning for us?”
“Your dream was an evil omen!” the other soldier exclaimed fearfully. “It meant that Gideon, the Israelites who is rumored to be a magically strong leader through the power of the God of Israel, will attack us with his men and wipe us out. If you ask me, we would be wise to get out of here right away, and I know most of our men feel the same way about it” (Judges 7:12-14).
Gideon didn’t stay to hear more. Now he was thoroughly convinced that God would keep His promise to destroy the invaders. He returned with his servant to Mt. Gilboa, very ashamed of having doubted and thanked God for the assurance he had received. Now that Gideon had repented of his weak faith, God could use him. God told him what he should do next.
They rested the next day. Well after dark the tiny band set out with Gideon to cross the valley to where the Midianites were camped. They arrived in the early hours of the morning, long before dawn. According to God’s instructions, Gideon divided the men into three groups. They silently spread out around the camp, but instead of carrying weapons in their hands, each man carried a trumpet and a large pitcher (vs. 15-16)!
Be watching for Lesson 64 of The story of the Bible! Will the Israelites win?