Apostasy is a recurring theme in Judges 3-16. The Israelites consistently violate their covenant with Yahweh, embracing idolatry and immorality. They overlook – even celebrate – lying, cheating, stealing, deception, adultery, and murder. When the LORD brings down the hammer of retribution, the people cry out for relief from their divinely appointed tormentors. No doubt, these perilous times are the fulfillment of the covenant curses outlined in Leviticus 26 and Deuteronomy 28.
In the opening verses of Judges 6, we learn the Israelites have suffered for seven years under Midianite cruelty. The Midianites are a seminomadic people of the Sinai Peninsula and western Arabia. According to Genesis 25:2-4, they are distant relatives of the Israelites, being descended from Abraham by his second wife, Keturah. The relationship between the Israelites and Midianites is tenuous, to say the least.
For starters, Midianites play a role in the sale of Joseph to Egypt (Gen. 37:28, 36), although Joseph comes to see it as divine providence (Gen. 45:4-8; 50:19-20). Later, the Midianites provide Moses with a safe haven after he flees Pharaoh. What’s more, Moses takes the daughter of a Midianite priest as his wife (Exod. 2:15-22). God sends Moses back to Egypt from Midian (Exod. 3:1 – 4:23), and after the Israelites escape from Pharaoh, Moses leads them to Midianite soil, where they enter into a covenant relationship with Yahweh and receive the Torah (Exod. 19 – Num. 7). Moses’ father-in-law, Jethro, even has a hand in Israel’s civic affairs (Exod. 18).
But once the Israelites leave Sinai, their relationship with Midian begins to sour. Moses delivers a severe blow to the Midianites at the LORD’s command. He recruits a thousand warriors from each Israelite tribe and wages war with Midian, killing every male as well as the Midianites’ five kings. The Israelites also kill Balaam, the prophet for hire who had led them to intermarry with the Midianites. Moses also commands the people to plunder the livestock and property, burn down the cities, and kill every woman, sparing only the virgins, for the older women are the ones who actively participated in leading the Israelites astray (Num. 31:1-18).
No doubt, the memory of that humiliating defeat inflames bitter resentment among the Midianite survivors toward the Israelites. Now, in the days of the judges, Midian is again strong. Its superiority rests in part on history’s first documented use of camels in warfare. A camel is able to carry four hundred pounds plus a rider, travel a week without drinking, and cover up to a hundred miles a day. So, these camel-riding warriors plunder their neighbors to compensate for their own lack of foodstuffs.
One commentary notes, “The vast horde of Midianites that overran Canaan made them the greatest scourge which had ever afflicted the Israelites.” Like a great swarm of locusts, the Midianites lay waste to the land, plundering crops and herds, and making paupers of the Israelites. In fact, the people are so fearful and destitute, they make hiding places for themselves in mountains, caves, and strongholds.
An unlikely warrior
Enter young Gideon, whom we find secretly threshing wheat in the vat of a winepress, in hopes of eking out enough grain for his family without attracting the gaze of the Midianites. Normally, wheat is threshed (the grain separated from the wheat stalks) in an open area on a threshing floor by oxen pulling sledges over the stalks. In Judges 6:11-16, we read:
The angel of the LORD came, and he sat under the oak that was in Ophrah, which belonged to Joash, the Abiezrite. His son Gideon was threshing wheat in the winepress in order to hide it from the Midianites. Then the angel of the LORD appeared to him and said: “The LORD is with you, valiant warrior.”
Gideon said to him, “Please, my lord, if the LORD is with us, why has all this happened? And where are all his wonders that our fathers told us about? They said, ‘Hasn’t the LORD brought us out of Egypt?’ But now the LORD has abandoned us and handed us over to Midian.”
The LORD turned to him and said, “Go in the strength you have and deliver Israel from the grasp of Midian. I am sending you!”Judges 6:11-16
Gideon’s visitor arrives in Ophrah, a city sixteen miles north of Jericho. He is identified as both “the angel of the LORD” and “the LORD,” yet Gideon initially is not distressed. He seems to have the impression he is in the presence of a human guest. Further, his sullen reference to Yahweh in verse 13 reveals that Gideon doesn’t know the man is Yahweh. We are not explicitly told the form of the angelic manifestation, only that he sits under an oak tree and appears to Gideon. He also speaks face to face with Gideon, carries a staff, and ultimately vanishes from Gideon’s sight. After that, the LORD continues to speak with Gideon, even though the angel is gone (vv. 22-24).
Michael Heiser notes: “The scene is reminiscent of the burning bush (Exod. 3) except that both Yahwehs have speaking roles. This serves to put the two characters on the same level to the reader. That tactic is by now familiar – putting both figures on par to blur the distinction. But in the case of Judges 6, the writer also makes them clearly separate.”
The presence of two Yahweh figures becomes even more clear a few verses later (6:17-24). Gideon asks his visitor to wait while he prepares a meal. It’s not clear whether this is intended to be traditional hospitality extended to a guest, or if this is designed to be an offering to a human dignitary or a divine figure. Gideon does request a sign, so he may be confused about the nature of his guest. In any case, the angel of the LORD waits for the food, consumes the sizable meal of meat and bread by fire, and then vanishes from sight.
But what happens next is most dramatic. Though the angel is gone, Yahweh is still there and speaks to Gideon. Not only does the writer blur the distinction between these two figures, but he places them both in the same scene.
There are other signs of two Yahweh figures in this episode. Note that the angel assures Gideon the LORD is with him (6:12). A few verses later, the LORD is the one speaking, and he tells the young man, “I will be with you” (v. 16). So, both the angel of the LORD and the LORD himself promise Yahweh’s divine presence.
Further, we see the angel of the LORD appear to and speak with Gideon in verse 12. After Gideon questions the presence of Yahweh in verse 13, it is the LORD who turns to Gideon and says, “Go … I am sending you!” (v. 14). Clearly, there are two distinct persons in this story – the LORD and the angel of the LORD – yet they speak a common message of encouragement, instruction, and purpose.
As with the call of Moses in Exodus 3-4, Gideon protests the angel of the LORD’s assignment based on his family’s humble status and his young age. “Please, Lord, how can I deliver Israel?” Gideon asks. “Look, my family is the weakest in Manasseh, and I am the youngest in my father’s family” (v. 15). Gideon calls his visitor “Lord,” or Adonai, not “LORD,” or Yahweh. At this point, he still does not realize he’s speaking with the preincarnate Christ.
The LORD (Yahweh) responds, “But I will be with you…. You will strike Midian down as if it were one man” (v. 16).
Gideon may be doubting the reality of his experience, for he tells the LORD, “If I have found favor with you, give me a sign that you are speaking with me. Please do not leave this place until I return to you. Let me bring my gift and set it before you.” The LORD replies, “I will stay until you return” (vv. 17-18).
Gideon prepares the minhah, or offering. This could refer to a freewill offering in Israel’s sacrificial system, or it could be a tribute offered to a superior. Gideon brings a prepared young goat and unleavened bread to the place beneath the tree where the angel first met him.
“Take the meat with the unleavened bread, put it on this stone, and pour the broth on it,” the angel of God (Elohim) tells Gideon (v. 20). When Gideon obeys, the angel of the LORD (Yahweh) extends the tip of his staff, touching the meat and the unleavened bread. Fire bursts from the rock and consumes the offering. Then the angel vanishes from Gideon’s sight (v. 21).
Only then does Gideon realize he has encountered someone of greater stature than a mere human messenger. “Oh no, Lord GOD (Adonai Yahweh)! I have seen the angel of the LORD face to face!” he declares (v. 22). But even though the angel of the LORD has departed the scene, the LORD still speaks: “Peace to you. Don’t be afraid, for you will not die” (v. 23).
So, Gideon builds an altar to the LORD on that spot and calls it Yahweh-shalom (“The LORD is Peace,” v. 24). The Hebrew word for peace means much more than a cessation of hostilities. It carries with it the ideas of well-being, health, and prosperity. Gideon now believes the LORD is able to use him, not because of who he is, but because of who Yahweh is.
The LORD continues to speak to Gideon after the angel’s departure. He tells Gideon to tear down his father’s altar of Baal and the Asherah pole beside it. If Gideon is to deliver his people, it must begin with religious reform. Gideon – whose name means “hacker” or “hewer” – takes ten male servants and obeys the LORD’s command, destroying the pagan altar and erecting an altar to the LORD in its place. The next day the men of the city cry out for Gideon’s death, but his father defends him: If Baal is a god, let him plead his own case. From that day forward, Gideon is called Jerubbaal because his father said, “Let Baal contend with him” (v. 32).
Now, the Midianites, Amalekites, and Qedemites (nomadic groups that migrated from the Arabian desert) join forces, cross the Jordan, and camp in the Jezreel Valley. The Spirit of the LORD “envelopes,” or “clothes,” Gideon. He blows the ram’s horn and sends messengers throughout Asher, Zebulun, and Naphtali, and these Israelite tribes join him for battle. Gideon again asks the LORD for a sign. This time it involves a woolen fleece and dew. The LORD responds favorably on two consecutive nights.
A hint of the Trinity
We may be so enamored with the popular story of Gideon’s fleece that we overlook a hint of the Trinity in this passage. We have seen the angel of the LORD, as well as the LORD, dealing with Gideon. But in Judges 6:34, the Spirit of the LORD clothes Gideon and empowers him to lead. While these verses may not constitute an explicit reference to the Trinity, they most certainly cast a long foreshadow of the three persons of the Godhead at Jesus’ baptism (Matt. 3:16-17) and referenced elsewhere some seventy-five times in the New Testament.
Judges 7-8 tells the story of God trimming Gideon’s army from thirty-two thousand to three hundred. Israelite spies sent to the camp of the Midianites, Amalekites, and Qedemites discover their enemies’ fear, confirming to Gideon the LORD already has granted them victory. Gideon positions his men around the camp, and with trumpets, pitchers, and torches they announce their presence. God causes the Midianites to fall into such confusion that they turn on each other and thus are routed. All this with three hundred men so they would glorify God and not say, “My own strength saved me” (7:2).
The men of Ephraim join in pursuit of the Midianites, who are finally defeated. And the land has peace for forty years (8:28). But it is not to last. When Gideon dies, the Israelites return to their worship of the Baals and make Baal-berith their god. They forget the LORD who rescued them from their enemies. Tragically, they neglect to show kindness to Gideon’s family. Judges 9 tells the story of Abimelech, who slaughters Gideon’s sons (except for one who escapes) and makes himself king.
The story of Gideon shows how the LORD calls out people of no particular fame, skill, or pedigree and uses them to accomplish great things. Gideon is flawed – fearful and tentative at first, asking for numerous signs of God’s presence, and later casting an idol of gold that becomes a stumbling block – but the LORD uses him to deliver the Israelites from the terror of the Midianites.
Into this story comes the angel of the LORD, the preincarnate Christ, and along with him, the LORD himself and the Spirit of the LORD. This is a rare Old Testament encounter with the three persons of the Trinity.
Next: The angel of the Lord appears to Manoah and his wife
This post is excerpted from Jesus Before Bethlehem: What Every Christian Should Know About the Angel of the Lord, available from Amazon and other retailers.