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Gideon: From Whiner to Winner

Updated on July 25, 2016

As I have written elsewhere, one of the few virtues left that everyone agrees on is courage. The nobility of putting life, limb or reputation in jeopardy for the sake of people, principle or patriotism still rouses an instinctive admiration among the masses. Courage, though, is a concept subject to misuse—or abuse. We hear it in politics all the time: “I call on my distinguished colleagues to have the courage to vote yea on the XYZ bill now before this legislature,” as if to say the legislators will earn their merit badges if they just do what they are told. The fact is that courage maintains so much cache even today because it is hard to grasp.

And yet, people act courageously every day to no applause. Without some kind of affirmation, they barely recognize their own gallantry, perhaps even beating themselves up for weakness. They do well to remember the words of the Wizard of Oz to the cowardly lion:

You, my friend, are a victim of disorganized thinking. You are under the unfortunate impression that just because you run away you have no courage; you're confusing courage with wisdom.

This reminds me of the old Monkees song from the ‘60s called Shades of Gray. It seemed wisdom came with less difficulty in a bygone era:

It was easy then to tell right from wrong; easy then to tell weak from strong; when a man should stand and fight, or just go along.

I think we are all born with courage. Wisdom is harder to come by. Absorbed over time, as in a slow-cooker, wisdom is stealthy, not making a big deal of itself upon arrival. Celebration rarely attends it, as the Greek playwright Aeschylus said long ago:

He who learns must suffer. And even in our sleep pain that cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, and in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom to us by the awful grace of God.

(from Agamemnon)

Must wisdom—what we call courage—always be born of pain? Is suffering the only path to enlightenment? Before we despair too grievously, take a look at the life of Gideon.

Gideon Destroys the Altar of Baal
Gideon Destroys the Altar of Baal

Oppressed, Addressed and Blessed

One of my favorite books of the Bible is the book of Judges. Ehud and Shamgar, Sampson and Delilah, Deborah and Jael. And, of course, Gideon. This book is full of characters who are both flawed and faithful, selfish and submissive. More deliverers than rulers, judges were anointed by God to defend the peace and purity of Israel, then fracturing into its constituent tribes. Some judges were more successful than others. Among them all, Gideon is instructive for our purposes.

Readers are introduced to Gideon as Israel is under heavy oppression from a people called Midianites. Long before school bullies extorted lunch money, there was Midian:

For whenever the Israelites planted crops, the Midianites and the Amalekites and the people of the East would come up against them. They would encamp against them and devour the produce of the land, as far as Gaza, and leave no sustenance in Israel and no sheep or ox or donkey. For they would come up with their livestock and their tents; they would come like locusts in number—both they and their camels could not be counted—so that they laid waste the land as they came in. And Israel was brought very low because of Midian. And the people of Israel cried out for help to the Lord. (Judges 6:3-6)

Israel did what she had to do. She called for help…and hid. She would soon learn that her help was among the hiding. Gideon is threshing wheat, i.e. beating the crop to give up its grain, by the winepress instead at the threshing floor—where it would properly be done—so as to conceal his bounty from the ravenous Midianites. Although scripture never says so, Gideon comes off as a non-confrontational type, perhaps even a milquetoast. He does not want trouble. If the cost of his peace is an awkward and inefficient threshing process, so be it. The problem was that the cry to God for help was still hanging out there. Help had Gideon’s name on it.

An angel appears to Gideon, saluting him as a “mighty man of valor.” We can envision Gideon looking behind to see who else is there. Nobody. Gideon, the angel tells him, will lead a military defeat of the Midianites. This unlikely scenario is too much for him. He is a nobody from a family of nobodies—and he likes it that way. Surely the angel visited the wrong guy. Like many of wavering faith in God, Gideon wants a sign, and gets one. The sacrifice he prepares is miraculously consumed. While moved, Gideon is not quite ready to assume command of the Counter-Midian army. He is a slow cooker.

  • God directs Gideon to pull down an altar to the pagan fertility god and make a sacrifice to the one true God.
  • Gideon asks for a second sign, using a fleece. God delivers.
  • Gideon requests a third sign, again by means of the fleece. Again, God demonstrates his power.
  • Satisfied—though probably quaking—Gideon takes 32,000 men to dispatch the Midianites.

At the head of a multi-tribe military division, he has come a long way from that buttercup at the winepress. But his transformation is not yet complete. The odds are too even. So God via Gideon whittles down the force to 300 – against 135,000 Midianites (a commentator’s estimate). The battle is joined. Through obedience to God and his supernatural power, Gideon’s army routs the Midianites. Gideon returns as a victorious general and Judge of Israel.

What happened?

What brought Gideon from coward to conqueror?

Life had beaten Gideon and his neighbors down. The stories of the Passover and the Exodus were very old. Gideon and company adopted a “what have you done for me lately?” mentality. After all, history and tradition would not rescue them from domination and starvation. To read Judges, however, is to know that God had not abandoned Israel. Israel had abandoned God. The presence of the shrines to Baal was proof enough of that. I believe the pivot point in Gideon’s metamorphosis was the act of religious devotion:

That night the Lord said to him, “Take your father's bull, and the second bull seven years old, and pull down the altar of Baal that your father has, and cut down the Asherah that is beside it and build an altar to the Lord your God on the top of the stronghold here, with stones laid in due order. Then take the second bull and offer it as a burnt offering with the wood of the Asherah that you shall cut down.” So Gideon took ten men of his servants and did as the Lord had told him. (vv. 25-27)

Although his neighbors wanted him dead for this, they slunk away when confronted by Gideon’s father, who challenged “If he (Baal) is a god, let him contend for himself, because his altar has been broken down.” It would not be the last time Baal was humiliated. More to the point, Gideon’s faithfulness to—and protection by—God in this seemingly preliminary act was a lesson to him: the God of those old stories was alive and well. This was the wisdom he needed to wield the courage he already had. True, he needed a couple of booster shots along the way. But he knew where to go to get them.

As an author, I am struck by turning points. In the Gideon narrative, I can feel the tide turn after the destruction of Baal worship. Looking back on my own life, I recognize that most battles were won because something was revealed to me, or I discovered something important, in advance. It was wisdom, not courage, that made the difference. We apply courage when we have counted the cost of action, and then evaluated the stakes in doing nothing. When Gideon realized that God was with him, he balanced his fear of men with the fear of God.

Fearing God, he found his courage.


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