Jesse Tree 13. “Gideon: Unlikely Hero”

Scripture: Judg 6–7

The age of the judges is generally characterized as a downward spiral. God blessed Israel by delivering Canaan into their hands at the conquest. But then a vicious cycle began: 

blessing/comfort > disobedience/affliction > repentance/deliverance > blessing/comfort

And this cycle continued in a downward spiral throughout the age of the judges, from the conquest until the rise of Israel’s monarchy with Saul and David as its first kings.

We hear the chronic lament, “In those days, Israel had no king; all the people did whatever seemed right in their own eyes” (Judg 17:6; 18:1; 19:1; 21:25). God had already warned against this (Deut 12:8). This is the routine of a fool (Prov 12:15) who doesn’t acknowledge that God will judge his ways (Prov 21:2).

Midian Oppresses Israel and Gideon Delivers Them (Judg 6:1–8:21)

Midian was Abraham’s son by Keturah, whom he took as wife after Sarah’s death (Gen 25:1–2). Abraham sent him “off to a land in the east, away from Isaac” (Gen 25:6). On the one hand, when Moses fled Egypt he took both refuge and a wife in Midian (Exod 2), and he employed a Midianite as desert guide during their wilderness years (Num 10). On the other hand, we find Midianite slave dealers buying and selling Joseph (Gen 37) and Midianites joining the king of Moab in attempting to lay a curse on Israel (Num 22) and then seducing them into Baalism (Num 25:15, 17–18; 31:2–3).

By the time of this story, Midian had been oppressing Israel for seven years (Judg 6:1–10). So God raised up Gideon from a humble background (Josh 6:11–27). Gideon began first with the necessary religious reform, destroying the Baal altar and an Asherah (Josh 6:28–35). This could have got him killed, except his father stood up for him and told the people that Baal ought to stand up for himself if he was really a god (Josh 6:31). “Then the Spirit of the LORD took possession of Gideon” and called Israel to arms (Josh 6:34–35).

Gideon's Fleece
Gideon wrings the dewy fleece. Autotype after F. J. Shields, 1877.

But then it sounds like Gideon lost his nerve, even though he already had God’s promise to use him. He wanted confirmation of God’s call to liberate Israel: Give me a sign “if you are truly going to use me to rescue Israel as you promised.” So God graciously supplied a succession of two confirming signs (Josh 6:36–40).

Then God whittled down Gideon’s army to a mere three hundred men (Josh 7:1–18), so Israel would know that it was the Lord not Gideon who would would be gaining victory over the Midianites.

Finally, God led them to a crushing victory, inflicting the Midianites with 120,000 casualties, including their kings Zebah and Zalmunna and their princes Oreb and Zeeb (Josh 7:19–8:21). This proved to be a victory that echoed in Israel’s history as “the day of Midian” (Ps 83:9; Isa 9:4; 10:26; Hab 3:7). So far so good on messianic typology.

Gideon’s Ephod and Abimelech’s Folly (Judg 8:22–9:57)

Gideon Fighting the Midianites
Nicolas Poussin (1594–1665), Gideon’s Victory against the Midianites

God had whittled down the army so the people would be forced to reckon God as their champion rather than Gideon. But the people asked Gideon to initiate a Gideonite dynasty (Josh 8:22). Gideon wisely refused, but he did two things that would prove problematic:

  1. He collected gold and “made a sacred ephod” to set up in his home town (8:23–27). This seems to have been some kind of cultic object to be used for oracular purposes (1 Sam 23:9; 30:7), even though ephods were only for the priestly garb (Exod 28:4–6). “Soon all the Israelites prostituted themselves by worshiping it, and it became a trap for Gideon and his family” (Josh 8:27).
  2. He named a son by one of his concubines Abimelech (“my father is king”). The very act of taking concubines may have been problematic, since it seemed like a royal prerogative (2 Sam 21:10–14; 1 Kgs 11:3). Certainly naming a son this way ran the risk of raising false dynastic hopes for his family, even though he had nominally rejected that offer. Nonetheless, God granted Israel forty years of “rest” during Gideon’s days (Josh 8:28).

God had given rest after Gideon’s religious reform, which eliminated the Baal altar, and after Gideon’s subsequent defeat of the Midianites. But “as soon as Gideon died, the Israelites prostituted themselves by worshiping the images of Baal, making Baal-berith their god” (Josh 8:33). This was the local manifestation of the Canaanite storm god, with a name meaning “Baal of the covenant”—Israel had switched their covenantal affiliation from the LORD back to Baal.

And Gideon’s son Abimelech starting taking his own name a bit too seriously. He made a fratricidal bid for kingship (Josh 9:1–6). His one surviving half-brother Jotham cursed the attempt (Josh 9:20, 57) and ridiculed it in a fable about a pretentious thorn bush claiming to be king over “the cedars of Lebanon” (Josh 9:7–15). Nonetheless, Abimelech managed to rule Israel for three years, employing brutal practices (Josh 9:22–49).

Eventually, “a woman on the roof dropped a millstone that landed on Abimelech’s head and crushed his skull. He quickly said to his young armor bearer, ‘Draw your sword and kill me! Don’t let it be said that a woman killed Abimelech!’—the biblical record doesn’t honor his wishes—but the young man ran him through with his sword, and he died” (Josh 9:53–54).

This wrote “In Conclusion” to a story that had so much good to offer Israel but ended up in idolatry and royal usurpation. It’s amazing to note that even by such means as Gideon, God kept on delivering his people from their self-caused predicaments. After all, they were doing what seem right in their own eyes. But the narrator tells us that Israel awaited a king: 
“Israel had no king; all the people did whatever seemed right in their own eyes” (Judg 17:6; 18:1; 19:1; 21:25).

One day, the “Branch” from Jesse’s tree would bring about a greater and more lasting “rest” and a king after God’s own heart. That would initially be David (1 Sam 13:14; Acts 13:22); ultimately, the king with the perfectly godly heart would be Jesus Christ the Son of David. A well-running Davidic dynasty was a visible type of eschatological messianic rule.

Questions, Reflections, and Commitments

  • See the theme of “rest” in Scripture. If you have a Bible with cross-references in the margins, a concordance, a Bible dictionary, or some Bible software like the free program e-Sword, you can run the Bible references. If you use a computer search program, search for the phrase “rest from” in all the Bible and for the word “rest” in the book of Hebrews. If you use the the internet, search at or read Bible dictionary article on “Rest” of “Sabbath.”
  • How do you think God views the idea of “putting out a fleece” before God?
  • Reflect on the spiritual danger that tags along behind those who have been involved in some great work of God, which brings them down if they begin to think they have done the work and seeking memorials to their work for the Lord—whether an ephod or a dynasty.

Ornament for the day

  • Click here to download cross-stitch patterns for all the daily ornaments.
  • Click here to download a simple coloring book for all the daily ornaments.

Author: Dale A. Brueggemann

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