Exegetical Exercise (Judges 6:11-18)

etching of Gideon and the angel of YHWH under an oak tree
Gideon’s offering of meat and broth and matzoh is accepted by the angel of YHWH/YHWH

The Uniform Series text for Sunday, June 11, is Judges 6:11-18, in which Gideon receives his call or commission from God. Here are my notes on this text:

First impressions: This narrative in particular seems very incomplete without its background (Judges 6:1-10) and the subsequent stories, which continue through the end of chapter 8, with the death of Gideon. The call story itself really seems to require the inclusion of the episode of the presentation of the offering of meat and bread, which is burned up miraculously, and Gideon’s expression of fear at having seen the angel of the Holy One. The story in chapter 6 continues with the destruction of the altar of Baal in Gideon’s town, at God’s instruction, and the altercation over this act (vv. 25-32), that ends with Gideon being nick-named Jerubbaal.

The background about Midian in vv. 1-10 emphasizes God’s response that is, in effect, to say “you-all deserve it.” (v. 10) Midian on a map is in essence Arabia, so the Midianites are a long way from home if they are continually raiding the Israelites. The Midianites always seem to be associated with camels (see v. 5).

Why is Gideon designated as “mighty”? (v. 12, 14). His actions in the text don’t seem to substantiate this, and he doesn’t seem to recognize it himself, either. (And what does “mighty” mean, either in this context, or in general?)

Characters: There are three named characters who act in verses 11-18: the angel of YHWH, Gideon, and YHWH. Gideon’s father, Joash the Abiezrite, is mentioned.  A midrash explains that Gideon is beating out wheat in the winepress alone because his father had been with him, but Gideon, out of concern for his father’s safety and age, had sent him back to the house, afraid that he might not be able to flee from the Midianites if it came to that. So Gideon is kind and considerate, and cares about his father. We don’t know exactly where Ophrah is; one report is that it is a little south of Nablus. Gideon is a member of the tribe of Manasseh, but not the half-tribe living up north and east of the Jordan, but the one further south in the land proper. The stratagem of threshing wheat in the winepress might have something to do with the architecture of a winepress – it would be out in the vineyard, dug down into a rock, so it might be defensible, and also a little bit hidden – if you were in the bottom of the hollowed-out space, you might not be seen right away. The point seems to be both to save some of the harvest from the raiders, and to stay alive. Again, this all seems to me to speak to Gideon being cautious, rather than “mighty.”

The angel of YHWH appears, and says – an introductory speech, “YHWH is with you, you mighty warrior.”

Gideon is beating out wheat (to hide it from the Midianites); answers – with a long speech; responds – with another longish speech, an objection; says – a request for a sign, again in two long sentences.

YHWH turns, says (three times), and commissions.

So actually, these verses are mostly about a conversational exchange between Gideon and the angel of YHWH/YHWH (the angel of YHWH who turns into YHWH, maybe – a pretty typical Biblical event, cf. e.g. Hagar in Gen. 16, Abraham and Sarah in Gen. 18, Moses in Exodus 3 – just for three). The call narratives of Moses and Gideon are especially similar, and there’s an article in the Journal of Hebrew Scripture that discusses this, and the possible literary dependence of the Gideon narrative on the Moses narrative, and possible reasons for that here: http://www.jhsonline.org/Articles/article_158.pdf)

Here’s the conversational exchange:

Angel of YHWH: “YHWH is with you, you mighty warrior.”

Gideon: “But sir, if YHWH is with us, why then has all this happened to us? And where are all his wonderful deeds recounted to us, saying ‘Did not YHWH bring us up from Egypt?’ But now YHWH has cast us off, and given us into the hand of Midian.”

YHWH: “Go in this might of yours and deliver Israel from the hand of Midian. I hereby commission you.”

Gideon: “But sir, how can I deliver Israel? My clan is the weakest in Manasseh, and I am the least in my family.”

YHWH: “But I will be with you, and you shall strike down the Midianites, every one of them.”

Gideon: “If now I have found favor with you, then show me a sign that it is you who speak with me. Do not depart from here until I come to you, and bring out my present, and set it before you.”

YHWH: “I will stay until you return.”

It opens with Gideon being addressed as a mighty warrior, a gibor ha-chail. Which is ironic, perhaps, considering he’s hiding at the bottom of a winepress. Midrash has it that his “might” and this blessing of being sought by God for a mission is a response to his effort to find merit in this generation of Israel – it’s Passover (we know, because later he will bring out unleavened bread for an offering), and the story goes that he has been listening to God’s mighty acts of salvation for Israel, and he reasons like this: either our ancestors had merit, so God could save us for the sake of that merit; or else they didn’t, in which case, God could save us on the basis of no-merit, just like he did for them. In either case, Gideon is motivated towards the salvation of Israel, which is itself meritorious. That’s the story.

To me it reads like Gideon questions and challenges platitudes: what exactly does “with us” mean, then, if “with us” means being despoiled by the Midianites? What kind of “with” is that? That willingness to challenge the thoughtless things people say might be a form of “might,” too.

Another midrash is that in each generation people have to take on the attitude of leaving Egypt. Gideon appeals to this attitude in saying “where are all his wonderful deeds” – that is, we should be looking for those wonderful deeds here and now.

For whatever reason, the divine response does treat Gideon’s response as “mighty,” narratively. “Go, in this might of yours …” So something about the way Gideon expects God’s deliverance, calls for it, challenges statements that don’t make sense, etc. may be what registers as mighty. And, God commissions Gideon for the task of delivering Israel.

Typically for a call narrative, Gideon now objects. His clan is little and weak, and he is the least of his own family, is the objection. “I’m inadequate to the task” or “no, I’m the wrong guy” seems to be the gist. So God’s objection to the objection is, roughly: “well, that doesn’t matter, because [wait for it] I’ll be with you.” This is the third instance of “with you” language. Now it really matters: not a platitude or formal customary greeting, not a legendary narrative, now it will be a question of whether Gideon counts on it as an effective promise that will make a material difference. Later events will show that this is still a tough sell for Gideon (a questioning sort of person).

Request for a sign: be with me [implicitly], then, by staying here till I get back. [Maybe Gideon is thinking: I’ll just see whether this is real, or not. If this guy is still here when I get back …]

So the text is about a conversational exchange; and the conversational exchange is about what it means for God/YHWH to be “with” someone, and for someone to be “mighty.” Might has something to do with advocating the value and welfare of God’s people, and “with”ness has something to do with empowering the resistance and action that advocacy inspires. Subsequently we’ll see that this with-ness is frightening when its full implications become clear (see v 22), and that it will require making behavioral and institutional changes (tearing down the altar of Baal, e.g., and challenging the demand to restore it) – this may be the ultimate source of the fright: Gideon expresses surprise at being alive; but the aftermath will require him to do something difficult and dangerous, and to survive the wrath of human opponents. But, ultimately Gideon’s initiative against the Midianites will be successful.

With respect to Gideon’s objection that his clan is weak and he’s the least, his father has at least 10 servants and two bulls, which matter for the destruction of the altar of Baal starting in v. 25, and the people of the town pay attention to what his father says after the incident. So do we think Gideon is entirely … accurate in his estimate of his own position? This doesn’t necessarily mean Gideon is dishonest, it probably more means that he underestimates himself and the value of what he brings to the situation. A lot of people have this problem.

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