Studying Judges 6 1-2, 7-16

This week, we’re taking a closer look – again, in fact – at the call of Gideon. The whole story is told in Judges 6, 7, and 8. We are focusing on a key portion of Judges 6, verses 1-27, and particularly verses 7-16. That is, part of the background to the situation Gideon is called to deal with, and then the exchange between Gideon and the angel of YHWH – who turns out to be YHWH in v16. Some questions on the text are here. Here are some notes on this text:

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BACKGROUND AND CONTEXT: We’re in the book of Judges, the second of the “former prophets,” or of the “history” books, or of the Deuteronomistic history – depending on how we want to think about it. Judges tells the story – or, the stories – of the Israelites’ life in the land following “the conquest” described in the book of Joshua. It’s a tale of recurrent disloyalty to God and “doing evil in the eyes of the HOLY ONE,” and then oppression by outside forces, and then crying to God and deliverance, through the agency of a “judge” – usually, a military leader who assembles Israelite forces to expel the oppressors.

My thinking about Judges these days is largely shaped by Mark Zvi Brettler’s work on The Book of Judges, and by Johanna Bos’s work on A People and A Land. Brettler and Bos have somewhat differing views on the “historicity” of the tales compiled in the book. Bos in particular has questions about how, and why, these tales of outrageous heroism manage to form the core of a work that must have been incorporated into the larger text at a time when Israelite history was mainly one of defeat, and of being a tiny part of bigger empires. Both authors lead us to think about the role of the book of Judges in the depiction of “national identity” or “national imagination.”

At this point in the larger story of the book, there has been an introduction to the organizing pattern of falling away, crying to God, and being restored (chapter 2), the stories of Othniel and of Ehud (chapter 3), and the long story, and song, of Deborah, Barak, and Jael (chapters 4 and 5).

When chapter 6 opens, the Israelites are being hard pressed by the Midianites. There’s a decent map of the general area associated with the Midianites, along with a list of Biblical references to them, at BibleHub. The Midianites have a checkered history, being the traders who sell Joseph into Egypt, the kin of Jethro/Reuel with whom Moses takes refuge when he flees Egypt, and now these rapacious raiders whose predations leave the Israelites with nothing.

Gideon will rid the Israelites of the Midianites, but will – maybe, it’s ambiguous – succumb to temptations to unfaith himself, and will in any event not have a lasting impact on the people. [But why would we expect this, when Joshua and Moses, far greater figures than Gideon, haven’t had that kind of legacy, either?]

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CLOSER READING: We studied Judges 6:11-18 several years ago when we looked at “call stories.” Those notes are here – in particular, an analysis of the dialogue in vv11-16.

Here are a couple of additional notes:

As with most Bible names, the name Gideon – “hewer, one who cuts down” – is probably significant. He comes from the clan of Abiezer, moreover – Abiezer meaning “my father (is) help” or “my father helps.”

There’s some emphasis on hiding or defense as the story opens. In v2, the Israelites make “hiding places” – literally, some obscure kind of natural feature of the mountains – and caves and strongholds in the mountains to hide out from the Midianites. Then, Gideon’s occupation of “beating out wheat in a winepress” echoes this hiding. There’s a picture of an ancient winepress here that gives an idea of why this could have worked.

From vv3-6, it’s a little hard to tell whether the Midianites actually attack the Israelites, or are just so numerous and have so many flocks – as well as camels, as usual for Midianites – that they just eat up everything in sight. Either way, the Israelites are left with nothing, which is a cause of suffering.

Vv7-10 convey a prophetic message to the Israelites, that invokes the story of liberation from Egypt and the conquest of the land, and ends with an indictment of Israelite faithlessness. [“See what you made me do.” A portrayal of the HOLY ONE that, I confess, always makes me uncomfortable. But there it is.]

That brings us back to the exchange between Gideon and the angel of/the HOLY ONE. There’s some additional insight at The Lehrhaus on the parallels between the stories of Abraham, David, and Gideon – which mainly work to the detriment of Gideon’s reputation, but which prove instructive for David – and maybe for us, too.

Once again, let’s notice that Gideon, although he’s hiding from the Midianites, is not afraid to ask God some hard questions. That seems important.

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etching of Gideon and the angel of YHWH under an oak tree
Gideon and the angel of YHWH in Judges 6:21

Images: Shofar window of Synagogue Enschede, by Kleuske, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons; “Gideon and the Angel,” Ferdinand Bol [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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