The book of Judges records Israel’s settlement in the Promised Land. And it’s not quite the conquest that was predicted. Joshua has died leaving Israel in a crisis. Without consistent leadership, the people are quick to turn away from God and God’s commandments.
The cyclical rhythm of the stories within Judges drives the narrative. The people inevitably turn away from God, so God gives them over to oppressive nations, which leads to Israel’s repentance. In response to their repentance, God raises up a judge to restore their faithfulness and security in the Promised Land.
Judges follows this cycle, recording Israel’s tendency to do “what was evil in the sight of the Lord,” a repeated phrase throughout the book. However, most of the narrative focuses on the leadership of the judges God calls in response to their waywardness, not the waywardness itself.
The call of Gideon is the most prominent calling of a judge in the whole book. Gideon is called to judge Israel after they did what was evil in the sight of the Lord, resulting in God delivering them into the hands of the Midianites. The Midianites ruthlessly oppressed Israel for seven years (Judges 6:1). But when the angel of the Lord finds Gideon, he announces that this is about to change. Even though Israel feels abandoned and even though Gideon feels inadequate, God assures him that God will be with him as he is sent to deliver Israel.
Israel became small
In Judges 6:6a, the NRSV says, “Thus Israel was greatly impoverished because of Midian,” but the Hebrew should literally be translated as “Israel became small because of Midian.” This hints at not only the economic poverty of Israel but also the poverty of spirit that has plagued them since God gave Israel into the hand of the Midianites.
The Israelites were so severely oppressed that they hid out in caves and strongholds in their own land. They could not sow seed or keep livestock because the Midianites would attack and destroy all their produce and animals (vv. 2-6). They laid waste to the land of Israel so that Israel cried out to the Lord for deliverance.
When the angel of the Lord finds Gideon, he is beating out wheat in a wine press so that the wheat chaff would not blow away and be seen by the Midianites. If the Midianites saw any evidence that Israel was thriving, they would swarm the wheat like locusts and destroy it. With such ruthlessness, it is no wonder that Israel feels small. Likewise, Gideon questions his ability to rectify Israel’s situation. He cannot see anything other than their oppression.
The angel assures Gideon that the Lord is with him, but Gideon questions God: If you are with me, why have you thrown Israel into the hands of the Midianites? How is our being made small compatible with the covenant you made with us, saying we would be a great nation?
God indirectly answers this question by commissioning Gideon to deliver Israel. Even though Israel was unfaithful, turning away from God, God has heard their cry and intends to deliver them through a new leader. Israel felt insignificant, just like Gideon who was in despair, bent over in a pit to conceal his meager produce. Yet God calls Gideon “a mighty warrior” (v. 12) to show how both Gideon and the people of Israel would soon be rescued by God’s hand. The people made to feel small will soon stand tall and mighty again!
Gideon’s reluctance, God’s confidence
The call of Gideon may be familiar to anyone who has ever felt a sense of calling. And it doesn’t have to be a calling to set-apart ministry to be relatable. Has God called you to a new job, to a new place to live, or to volunteer leadership in your local congregation? Often these calls are met with skepticism. We respond like Gideon: God, why don’t you go ahead and take care of that yourself? How can I do what you ask me to do? I am not qualified. There are better choices!
Gideon is reluctant to accept God’s call to deliver Israel from the Midianites. In spite of this, God responds to each hesitation with overwhelming confidence in Gideon, reassuring him that he will not deliver Israel alone. The Lord will surely be with him.
Gideon’s conversation with God may remind you of another conversation. God called Moses to deliver Israel from Egypt and Moses responded with similar reluctance. Moses wasn’t sure how a single person could lead the people out of Egypt, let alone one who was slow of speech. Moses even pleads for God to call someone else, but God responds with unwavering commitment to Moses. The similarities between these two call stories likewise anticipate similar outcomes. God will deliver Israel through the leaders God calls.
God knows you best
God sees something in Gideon that Gideon does not yet see in himself, so God sends a messenger to call it out of him. Feeling unworthy, Gideon hesitates to receive his calling initially. He is from the weakest tribe in Israel. He has likely never had much opportunity to lead people, let alone an army. Yet, it does not seem to be those skills that qualify him for leadership in God’s eyes. Gideon’s current situation need not limit his ability to do as God wishes in the future. God will equip him for this role because God knows his strengths and his weaknesses.
Have you ever had someone call out a gift in you that you were not quite sure you had? I remember a college class where we had to debate a controversial topic as a class. After the debate, my professor asked me if I had ever considered becoming a lawyer. He was serious, but it’s not a career I entertained then or anytime since. However, there have been other times when someone mentioned a gift they saw in me that I may have reluctantly received at first, but then later felt like it could possibly be true. Those moments carried a sacredness, like God was speaking through those individuals to me, that I often did not notice until later.
How is it that someone else can know you better than you know yourself? Shouldn’t we be our own experts? Not always! Sometimes periods of struggle and chaos turn us inward, causing us to lose perspective. Our pain becomes our bedfellow, and we can see nothing else of the world around us. Confiding in a trusted friend or a counselor can help us turn outward again, enabling us to see more and grounding us in a narrative that is larger than a single moment.
Remembering that God can also be a similar grounding presence is also beneficial. God has known you since you were knit together in your mother’s womb (Psalm 139:13), and God has plans for you that are in your best interest (Jeremiah 29:11). Remembering these scriptures and remembering your own experiences of God’s care help to shape your identity. You are God’s beloved. If God wills something for you, feel strengthened and confident in that calling.
Audrey Hollenberg-Duffey is co-pastor with her husband, Tim, of Oakton Church of the Brethren in Vienna, Virginia.