First, notice the inroads of Baal and Asherah worship in Israel. Up until now the book of Judges has told us in a general way: “They forgot the LORD their God and served the Baals and the Asheroth” (Judges 3:7). But Gideon’s story captures a snapshot of its growth. Although commanded clearly by Yahweh to knock down the altar of Baal and destroy the image of Asherah, Gideon does it at night out of fear, and when he is discovered, he nearly is executed by the men of the town (Judges 6:25-30). The zeal for Yahweh’s holiness demonstrated by Phineas in Numbers 25 and so recently displayed in the conflict of the memorial altar in Joshua 22 now has been converted into zeal for the holiness of Baal and Asherah. Who would have imagined an attitude like that in Israel after the incident at Baal-peor?
Second, notice Gideon’s complaint at the angel of the LORD’s first visit: “Please, sir, if the LORD is with us, why then has all this happened to us? And where are all his wonderful deeds that our fathers recounted to us, saying, ‘Did not the LORD bring us up from Egypt?’ But now the LORD has forsaken us and given us into the hand of Midian” (Judges 6:13). What’s worrisome is that Yahweh’s unnamed prophet has just answered these questions in Judges 6:7-10. Gideon already has the answers to his questions; it’s just that the prophetic word has not removed the Midianite yoke from Israel, and therefore he’s beating out the wheat in the winepress, the worst place to try and accomplish this task (but at least it is hidden from the Midianites)… That is to say, Gideon is complaining. The last time that we read about complaints like this, Yahweh sent fiery serpents into the Israelite camp (Numbers 21:4-6).
Third, notice Gideon’s doubt. He doubts his ability to save Israel (Judges 6:15); he wants to be certain of the identity of the angel of Yahweh through a sign (Judges 6:17-18); he’s afraid to obey Yahweh’s word in the daytime (Judges 6:27), and he looks for two more signs to be certain of Yahweh’s word (Judges 6:36-40).
It sounds similar to Yahweh’s first conversation with Moses when He called him from the burning bush in Exodus 3 – 4. Has Israel degenerated so far that it needs to relearn the basics about a relationship with Yahweh?
But perhaps even more surprising is how Yahweh responds to all of this with grace.
To Gideon’s fear of confronting Baal and his followers, Yahweh responds through his father’s mouth,“If he is a god, let him contend for himself, because his altar has been broken down” (Judges 6:31).
To Gideon’s complaints about Yahweh’s inaction during the Midianite oppression, He responds, “Go in this might of yours and save Israel from the hand of Midian; do not I send you?” (Judges 6:14)
To Gideon’s doubts about his mission of liberation, Yahweh responds, “But I will be with you” (Judges 6:16). And as if that and all the previous signs were not enough, He invites him to listen to one more from the enemy camp! (Judges 7:9-11)
That is to say, despite the spiritual degeneration that Israel is showing in these chapters, they still have not touched bottom on Yahweh’s grace. They have not passed the limit of His mercy. Even though Israel’s rebellion is shocking, even more shocking is the depth and the width of Yahweh’s grace.
And that makes Gideon’s actions after the battle even more disappointing. He doesn’t respond to Yahweh’s grace out of the recognition of His just dominion
and in fear of His holiness. His diplomatic conversation with the tribe of Ephraim is based on their pride (Judges 8:1-3). He is the first to use violence to punish his Israelite brothers (Judges 8:13-17). He kills Zebah and Zalmunna, the Midianite kings, out of personal vengeance instead of obedience to Yahweh’s word (Judges 8:18-21; these last two observations come from Bruce Waltke, An Old Testament Theology, Zondervan, 2007, pg. 603). Instead of a government based on Mosaic Law, Gideon exercises a dominion motivated by personal interests.
And Israel loves it: “Rule over us, you and your son and your grandson also, for you have saved us from the hand of Midian” (Judges 8:22). Gideon answers
appropriately, “I will not rule over you, and my son will not rule over you; the
LORD will rule over you” (Judges 8:23). But it’s an empty answer. Although he doesn’t take the title of king, he makes a costly ephod to augment his spiritual prestige, takes up priestly responsibilities, gathers his own harem and reproduces himself abundantly like a king who wants to preserve his royal house for generations. And we are probably looking at least in part at the superficiality and
self-centeredness of his rule when we read, “As soon as Gideon died, the people
of Israel turned again and whored after the Baals and made Baal-berith their god. And the people of Israel did not remember the LORD their God, who had delivered them from the hand of all their enemies on every side” (Judges 8:33-34).
Once again, Yahweh’s response by grace is impressive: “The land rested forty years in the days of Gideon” (Judges 8:28). Another generation spent forty years in the desert for these kinds of sins; here, a generation enjoys peace. But the lesson is the same: “Do you suppose, O man – you who judge those who practice such things and yet do them yourself – that you will escape the judgment of God? Or do you presume of the riches of his kindness and forbearance and patience, not knowing that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance?” (Romans 2:3-4)
May the recognition of Yahweh’s grace lead His people to repentance and to holiness, not to a superficial spirituality directed by personal interests.