FLEECE, FEAR, AND FAITH
36Then Gideon said to God, “In order to see whether you will deliver Israel by my hand, as you have said, 37I am going to lay a fleece of wool on the threshing floor; if there is dew on the fleece alone, and it is dry on all the ground, then I shall know that you will deliver Israel by my hand, as you have said.” 38And it was so. When he rose early next morning and squeezed the fleece, he wrung enough dew from the fleece to fill a bowl with water. 39Then Gideon said to God, “Do not let your anger burn against me, let me speak one more time; let me, please, make trial with the fleece just once more; let it be dry only on the fleece, and on all the ground let there be dew.” 40And God did so that night. It was dry on the fleece only, and on all the ground there was dew.
(Judges 6:36-40, NRSV)
Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;
Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,
And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
Unlike Robert Frost who deliberates for a time and then takes the road less traveled, Gideon, in today’s text, is downright wishy-washy, agonizing over his decisions ad nauseam. To say that Gideon is a reluctant leader is an understatement. Nevertheless, God chooses Gideon to serve Israel as a judge.
The era of the judges in ancient Israel preceded the era of the monarchs. We know little about most of the judges. Ehud, Shamgar, and Ibzan are not exactly household names. There are some standouts including Deborah, the first and only female judge and Samson, who believe it or not was a judge. Samson’s judgment was so bad it sort of makes you question God’s judgment in choosing Samson as a judge…it was clearly a judgment call.
Judges in those days did more than preside over legal hearings. They were also military leaders. During Deborah’s time, after she led her nation to victory on the battlefield, Israel enjoyed 40 years of peace. But just like the movie “Groundhog Day,” they repeated the same pattern over and over again. After Deborah’s death, the Israelites once again fall into idol worship. God punishes them allowing the invasion of the Midianites and Amalekites. (The God I believe in would never condone such violence, but this is how ancient Israel interpreted its history.) As the invaders wreak havoc, Gideon plays it safe. At the beginning of our story, Gideon was threshing his wheat, not out in the open where the wind could carry away the chaff. Instead, Gideon goes below ground level into his winepress where he could hide and thresh at the same time. In reading on Gideon’s life, I found that many clergy criticize Gideon for “hiding out” in his winepress, as if trusting God means intentionally putting oneself in harm’s way. I think Gideon was a little lily-livered, but if he’d stayed above ground and been killed, he wouldn’t have been any use to God.
When God chooses Gideon to be a judge, he responds much like Moses at the burning bush. “Who me? Wait a second God, you’ve got the wrong guy. You see there are better fighters than me, better speakers than me, better leaders than me.” As if God didn’t know all that. In fact, Gideon may have been chosen for those exact reasons. Had God chosen the strongest, smartest, and bravest, everybody would shrug and say, “Well of course, Mr. Stronger-Smarter-Braver was a shoe in for the job.” As usual, God’s choice is counterintuitive from a human perspective. God has a track record of choosing the least likely to carry out God’s work. There’s that shepherd boy chosen to fight the giant. That peasant girl and carpenter chosen to raise God’s Son. That group of fishermen chosen to carry on Christ’s work after he exited the planet.
God may have been confident in choosing Gideon, but Gideon is far from confident that he’d be up for the task. Finally he asks for a sign. God is game so Gideon puts a meat and bread offering on a nearby rock and whoosh, God burns it up faster than you can say George Foreman Grill. With his whiskers singed from the flames, Gideon is convinced and that very night destroys a shrine built to the Canaanite god, Baal. With the break of day the Israelites want to ring his neck. Gideon literally hides behind his dad for protection.
Next, God tells Gideon to lead the Israelites to victory over the Midianites. Once again, Gideon doesn’t exactly jump at the chance to serve God. Gideon needs tangible proof that God will lead him to victory. So Gideon says to God, “I’m placing this fleece on the threshing floor. If in the morning the dew is on the fleece but not on the floor, I will know you want me to lead your people to victory.” The next morning, the fleece is wet and the floor is dry.
But Gideon is still not convinced. “Okay. Okay. Okay,” Gideon says. “If you really, really want me to lead the troops to victory, let’s change things up. In the morning let me find the floor wet and the fleece dry.” I can imagine God sighing deeply, eyebrows furrowed, thinking, “I wonder if Mr. Stronger-Smarter-Faster is still available?” Even so, when Gideon wakes up the next morning, the fleece is dry and the floor wet. Wouldn’t you think at that point, Gideon would look up at Heaven and say, “Got it.” With God retorting, “Well it’s about time.”
Believe it or not, Gideon is still not thoroughly convinced until that evening when he is spying on the enemy camp and hears one soldier tell another, “I had a dream last night that the Israelites defeat us in battle.” With these words from an enemy, Gideon finally believes.
When it came time for battle, we start to understand, perhaps, why God chose Gideon in the first place. Gideon has great success recruiting, and many volunteers show up for the first day of boot camp. Instead of being impressed, God tells Gideon that he has too many men. Too many? Wouldn’t a bigger army increase Israel’s chances of winning the battle? Not in God’s way of thinking. “Whittle down the troops,” God says. Apparently God falls more into “the few, the proud, the Marines” camp over against the bigger is better camp.
A modern translation picks up the story, God said to Gideon, “You have too large an army with you. I can’t turn Midian over to them like this—they’ll take all the credit, saying, ‘I did it all myself,’ and forget about me. Make a public announcement: ‘Anyone afraid, anyone who has any qualms at all, may leave Mount Gilead now and go home.’” Twenty-two companies headed for home. Ten companies were left. God said to Gideon: “There are still too many. Take them down to the stream and I’ll make a final cut. When I say, ‘This one goes with you,’ he’ll go. When I say, ‘This one doesn’t go,’ he won’t go.” So Gideon took the troops down to the stream. God said to Gideon: “Everyone who…[scoops up water to drink] set on one side. And everyone who kneels to drink, drinking with his face to the water, set to the other side.” Three hundred lapped with their tongues from their cupped hands. All the rest knelt to drink. God said to Gideon: “I’ll use the three hundred men who lapped at the stream to save you and give Midian into your hands. All the rest may go home” (Judges 7:2-7, MSG).
Why did God choose the ones who cup the water and drink as opposed to the ones who kneel and put their faces to the water? Because the ones who kneel on all fours, putting their faces to the water are more vulnerable to attack. The ones who scooped the water in their hands can maintain their surveillance for the enemy. In the end, Gideon is left with a 300 man fighting force, only it isn’t a conventional fight God has in mind.
God tells Gideon to get 300 trumpets and 300 clay pots with torches inside. No longer questioning God, Gideon arms his men accordingly. In the middle of the night, Gideon’s army surrounds the encampment as the enemy slumbers. When Gideon gives the signal, his men blow their 300 trumpets shocking their enemies awake from a dead sleep. Then they smash their clay pots with a deafening sound. Seemingly out of nowhere, the glaring light of 300 torches further confuses the Midianites. God’s shock and awe tactics create pandemonium as the enemy soldiers slash blindly with their swords killing one another. Only a handful escape. They are easily, caught and defeated. After that Gideon is a hero, at least until the Israelites decide to start worshipping those darn idols yet again.
So what do we learn from today’s story? It’s okay to fleece God every now and then? The few the proud beats bigger is better? On the contrary, Gideon’s story teaches us that God can work through the unlikeliest people. If God can do amazing things through an average Joe like Gideon, then I suppose God can use most anybody, including us. When we face our moment of truth, our crossroads, may we choose the path of courage and service, for it is always the road less travelled, which in the end, will make all the difference. AMEN.
Written by Rev. Jimmy Only
July 16, 2017
The Congregational Church of Manhasset, New York (UCC)
Loving God, from time to time in life we all find ourselves at the crossroads, betwixt and between, unsure of our next step. When we stare down two divergent roads, grant us the wisdom and insight we need to choose the best path. Regardless of the road we choose, remind us that you are ever near, step by step, day by day by day until we find our one true Home at the last.
Through Jesus our Friend and Companion we pray. AMEN.