Overhearing the Midianites has done what direct assurances from God could not: given the fearful Gideon the assurance of victory over the Midianites.
He and his servant return to their camp on Mt. Giboa, overlooking the valley of Jezreel where the Midianites have deployed. A plan forms in his mind as the two men make their way uphill: a way to turn his three hundred men into the “barley loaf” that will bowl over the Midianites.
He quietly rouses the three hundred, telling them, “Up with you! God has placed the Midianite hordes in your hands.”
He divides them into three companies and issues each man a shofar, a ram’s horn trumpet, and a clay jar. Each man prepares a torch or firebrand to place in his jar so he can carry the smoldering firebrand. Then Gideon announces his battle plan: “Watch me and do as I do. When we have surrounded the enemy, I will sound my trumpet. Then you sound your trumpets and shout, ‘For God and Gideon!”
The Israelites follow Gideon in three columns, and separate on the slopes above the Midianites to form a line above them. The Midianites have posted their midnight watch after rumors of ill omens have spread throughout their and their commanders have done what they can to quell the rumors and order their men to go back to sleep.
The Midianite sentries have gone to sleep at their posts when Gideon and his three hundred have taken their positions. He blows the shofar in h is right hand while whirling his left hand to cast the jar off his smoldering firebrand and make it burst into flame. His three hundred do the same and shout, “For God and Gideon!”
The noise of blaring shofars, breaking jars, and shouting men throws the startled Midianites into panic and the onrushing glare of firebrands dazzles them. Unable to tell Midianite from Amelekite and mistaking Arab allies for Israelites, they turn against each other.
The remnants of the invaders flee east toward Beth Shan and then south in the Jordan Valley. As they flee, Gideon sends word to his allies in the hill country to harry then and cut them off from fresh water supplies. Gideon leads the pursuit of the last 15,000 invaders across the Jordan to complete his victory.
Gideon, however, abandons his leadership role. Despite having moved from fear to faith, he turns to idolatry.
Israel’s first victory at Armageddon ushered in forty years of peace (Judges 5:31). Israel’s second victory at Armageddon, in contrast, begins a downhill slide that leads to anarchy under succeeding judges.
Gideon thinks he and his force, nominally 32,000 men, will sally forth and claim a guaranteed victory over the Midianites and their allies’ 135,000 men.
The Midianites’ 4 to 1 advantage in numbers means nothing when God fights for Israel, however. God know how Israel and Gideon could brag about themselves and say they have conquered their enemies by their own might. God therefore instructs Gideon to dismiss any fearful men who have joined him at “Mount Fearful” (Mt. Gilboa).
More than two thirds of the Israelites take advantage of the excuse to go home, leaving Gideon with 10,000 men and the Midianites with a better than 13 to 1 edge. Ten thousand are still too many. God instructs Gideon how to sift their numbers even more.
If Gideon expects God’s sifting test to be a measure of combat readiness, he is in for a surprise. The sifting leaves him with 300 men–the least alert men who lie down to lap water like dogs–they don’t have sense enough to watch out for enemies while they are in a combat zone.
He retreats to the summit of Mt. Gilboa for the night, wondering what to do, while the Midianites occupy the valley below, as thick as locusts.
God has promised Gideon a total victory, and twice confirmed his promise, but Gideon’s confidence has evaporated in the face of 45 to 1 odds, not counting the enemies’ camels. God visits Gideon again during the night and his crisis of confidence and instructs him to go and assess enemy morale for himself.
Gideon takes a servant and the two creep into the enemy camp under cover of darkness and overhears a Midianite conversation. One Midianite dreamt that a round barley loaf tumbled into their camp and bowled over “the Tent”–a portable shrine for the Midianite idols. The second Midianite interprets the dream as a victory for Gideon over the Midianite gods and their army.
Gideon returns to his camp on Gilboa, not only convinced by overhearing the Midianites where he had doubted God, but with in idea for a battle plan–one based on the first Midianite’s dream.
The Israelites appealed to the Lord to deliver them from the Midianites, and he has given them Gideon ben Joash as their leader. Gideon the Hacker, the most unready man imaginable, has managed to earn a reputation as “Jerubaal.” He has his father to thank for saving him from stoning to death.
Even so, when the Midianites, Amalekites, and their allies from the Arabian Desert passed over the Jordan to occupy the Valley of Jezreel, the eastern sector of what will be called Armageddon, God’s spirit comes upon Gideon. He sounds the trumpet to summon Israel to battle. His father’s clan, the Abiezrites men of Manasseh, Asher, Zebulun, and Naphtali muster about 32,000 men.
Hardly believing their hearty response, Gideon pauses before leading his army to battle. He demands two confirmations from God that he will really and truly rescue Israel through Gideon’s leadership (Judges 6:36-40). Confirmation given and flushed with excitement, Gideon and his mighty hosts march toward Jezreel. They make camp at Harod’s Spring, on the south side of the valley.
The spring lies in a ravine on the southwest end of Mount Gilboa (“Fearful”). Gilboa consists of a fault block of Upper Eocene limestone that rises 200 feet above the alluvial plain of Jezreel, and the artesian spring flows into a charming grotto on the side of the ravine. Its steady flow feeds a stream that flows north into the Vale of Jezreel and before turning east and into the Jordan.
From the heights of Gilboa, Gideon can see the Midianites and their allies in bivouac on north side of Jezreel. They have made camp in a plain between the Hill of Moreh (“Teacher’s Hill”) and the volcanic slopes of Mount Tabor. Moreh is a low, rounded hill that George Adam Smith likened to a donkey lying on its side with legs pointing south. Believing his enemies are unaware of his army’s presence, Gideon believes all his army needs is a good night’s rest before they cross the valley and cut of the Midianites’ eastward escape route.
Not so fast! The Lord intervenes before Gideon can begin giving orders. He has his own strategy.
This photograph illustrates the limestone ashlars that Roman soldiers of the 7th Legion dislodged from the West wall of Jerusalem’s Second Temple after the First Jewish War. The stones lie where they they fell.
When his disciples admired the Herodian stonework of the Second Temple, Jesus Christ warned them that every one would be cast down.
Many similar ashlars have been incorporated into younger structures, but these blocks escaped recycling because they were so thoroughly buried under other rubble.
John the Baptist may well have referred to these stones when he admonished the Pharisees and Sadducees, the Temple authorities, who came to find fault with his preaching and ministry:
“You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not think you can say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father. I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham” (Mark 3:7-9, NIV).
John may equally well have pointed to stones in the Jordan, But the possibility remains that his caustic remarks could have implied the Temple’s stones because he played on the similarities between the Aramaic words for children and stones. Like previous prophets, he knew every trick of adding barbs to puns at the expense of his opposition.
Gideon has failed every test of presence of mind and military aptitude, but the Lord’s messenger confirms his appointment to lead Israel against the Midianites.
God’s messenger points his staff at the offering Gideon has laid on the rock where the messenger had been seated, and fire from the rock consumes it. The messenger leaves without another word before Gideon realizes whom he has seen. The Lord reassures Gideon that he will not die, and Gideon builds an altar on the spot before retiring to sleep on the events of the day.
The Lord speaks to Gideon again in the night, and instructs him to tear down the pagan altar his father has built on the very hilltop where the people of Ophrah formerly went to thresh their grain–before the coming of the Midianites. Gideon rousts ten helpers and goes to work under cover of darkness.
The citizens of Ophrah wake up next morning to find the pagan sanctuary demolished. In its place, Gideon has sacrificed his father’s number two bull on a new altar. They want to lynch Gideon, but his father, Joash, stands up for him, saying Baal, if he is a real god, can punish Gideon.
Joash’s resistance save the day for Gideon and wins him the nickname “Jerubbaal”–”Let Baal prosecute him.”
This little episode gives Gideon the notoriety he needs to rally Israel when a coalition of Midianites, Amalekites, and other eastern tribesmen occupies the plain of Jezreel. Israel’s next battle of Armageddon is at hand.
The Bible takes care to point out that Israel’s first battle on the plain of Jezreel ended in an overwhelming Israelite victory because the Lord fought for Israel. Yet the course of events reflects competent leadership on the Israelite versus cowardice on the Canaanite side.
Israel’s next battle on the field that the New Testament calls Armageddon results in another victory for Israel despite incompetent leadership–at least from a military point of view.
Judges 6:11-24 introduces Gideon, the Hacker, while he is threshing wheat in a winepress.
Surely everyone knows a winepress is no place to thresh wheat? You take it to a flat, rocky place that catches the wind and blows away the chaff when you toss a winnowing forkful of threshed wheat into the air. A winepress, on the other hand, is hewn out of the rocky side of a valley floor, and a wooden frame encloses it to support the workers as the trample the vintage. Gideon had no elbow room in the winepress to wield his flail, and he had no breeze to blow away the chaff.
Well, Gideon was afraid of Midianite raiders who harried Israel at will at the time. Israel lived in fear that the Midianites would carry off their crops.
The Lord’s messenger must have quietly at the spectacle of Gideon in the winepress when he came to enlist Gideon. He sat down in the shade of the oak tree at Ophrah and watched Gideon for a while. The messenger had to leave his seat in the shade to speak to Gideon and get his attention. “The Lord is with you, mighty warrior!”
Just as he failed to notice the Lord’s messenger, so Gideon fails to notice the messenger’s irony. He argues and demands a sign before he will accept his commission from God’s messenger. He doesn’t know it yet, but he will lead Israel against the Midianites at Jezreel.