April 10, 2010

Which God?: Judges 8:22-35

In our study of the book of Judges so far, we encountered Gideon in chapters 7 and 8. We found Gideon, the man whom God called “mighty man of valor,” hiding in his winepress to thresh the wheat harvest. The people of Israel were dominated by the Midianites, who would swoop into the land during times of planting and harvest and destroy the crops. Remember, the Israelites possessed very few weapons and had only farm implements with which to defend themselves against the swords, spears, and chariots of the Midianites. Hiding in the winepress doesn't exactly tell us Gideon was a "mighty man of valor," but God knew Gideon's potential, just as He knows ours.

Who were the Midianites? They also are called Ishmaelites, a more general reference that includes many nomadic peoples, including the people of Midian. They are the ancestors of the Arab peoples today. The Midianites were nomadic shepherds and would travel from pasture to pasture and oasis to oasis during most of the year for their sheep and goats to graze. They would gather together in large groups during spring when lambs were born, when they would trade, find brides, and conduct other community affairs.

The Midianites lived in tents made of cloth of woven goat hair. Both the men and the women wore loose tunics, and the women wore veils. The Midianites ranged widely throughout the Middle East. Midianite pottery has been found in Iraq, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Southern Israel (the Negev Desert), and the Sinai Peninsula.

We have encountered the Midianites before as we have studied the Old Testament. Joseph’s brothers sold him to Midianites (Genesis 37:28); Moses spent 40 years in Midian after murdering the Egyptian (Exodus 2:11-15); and Moses married Zipporah the daughter of Jethro, the priest of Midian (Exodus 2:21). The Midianites in Gideon’s day worshiped many gods, including Ba’al and Ashtoreth, both commonly worshiped by many peoples of the Middle East.

As our passage opens today, the battle which Gideon led against the Midianites is over, the Israelites were victorious, and now the people ask Gideon to be their king:

22 Then the men of Israel said to Gideon, “Rule over us, both you and your son, and your grandson also; for you have delivered us from the hand of Midian.” 23 But Gideon said to them, “I will not rule over you, nor shall my son rule over you; the Lord shall rule over you.”

24 Then Gideon said to them, “I would like to make a request of you, that each of you would give me the earrings from his plunder.” For they had golden earrings, because they were Ishmaelites. 25 So they answered, “We will gladly give them.” And they spread out a garment, and each man threw into it the earrings from his plunder. 26 Now the weight of the gold earrings that he requested was one thousand seven hundred shekels of gold, besides the crescent ornaments, pendants, and purple robes which were on the kings of Midian, and besides the chains that were around their camels’ necks.

27 Then Gideon made it into an ephod and set it up in his city, Ophrah. And all Israel played the harlot with it there. It became a snare to Gideon and to his house. 28 Thus Midian was subdued before the children of Israel, so that they lifted their heads no more. And the country was quiet for forty years in the days of Gideon.

29 Then Jerubbaal the son of Joash went and dwelt in his own house. 30 Gideon had seventy sons who were his own offspring, for he had many wives. 31 And his concubine who was in Shechem also bore him a son, whose name he called Abimelech. 32 Now Gideon the son of Joash died at a good old age, and was buried in the tomb of Joash his father, in Ophrah of the Abiezrites.

33 So it was, as soon as Gideon was dead, that the children of Israel again played the harlot with the Baals, and made Baal-Berith their god. 34 Thus the children of Israel did not remember the LORD their God, who had delivered them from the hands of all their enemies on every side; 35 nor did they show kindness to the house of Jerubbaal (Gideon) in accordance with the good he had done for Israel.
Judges 8:22-35
(Gideon is referred to in verse 35 as "Jerubbaal," which means "contended with Ba'al." Gideon had destroyed the altar to Ba'al in Ophrah, his hometown.)

The call for a king (22-23)

“Then the men of Israel said to Gideon, ‘Rule over us, both you and your son, and your grandson also; for you have delivered us from the hand of Midian’” (verse 22).

The Israelites wanted one of their own to rule over them and offered the kingship to Gideon. The people recognized his spiritual qualifications and leadership abilities. He had led them in a miraculous victory to deliver them from the enemy The Lord obviously was with him and even spoke to him, as He spoke to the prophets. Under the Lord’s guidance, Gideon reduced the army from thousands to 300, an impossibly small army for any victory other than with God’s miraculous help. And now they wanted to have a king, like all the other peoples around them, and they felt Gideon would be the perfect, godly choice to rule over them.

But Gideon refused, saying, “I will not rule over you, nor shall my son rule over you; the Lord shall rule over you.” Gideon corrected their error, reminding the people that the Lord was their king.

The same request would be made again two or three centuries later, with different results. We read about it in 1 Samuel 10:17-25, where the desire for a king is called the rejection of the Lord:

17 Then Samuel called the people together to the LORD at Mizpah, 18 and said to the children of Israel, “Thus says the Lord God of Israel: ‘I brought up Israel out of Egypt, and delivered you from the hand of the Egyptians and from the hand of all kingdoms and from those who oppressed you.’ 19 But you have today rejected your God, who Himself saved you from all your adversities and your tribulations; and you have said to Him, ‘No, set a king over us!’ Now therefore, present yourselves before the Lord by your tribes and by your clans.”

20 And when Samuel had caused all the tribes of Israel to come near, the tribe of Benjamin was chosen. 21 When he had caused the tribe of Benjamin to come near by their families, the family of Matri was chosen. And Saul the son of Kish was chosen. But when they sought him, he could not be found. 22 Therefore they inquired of the Lord further, “Has the man come here yet?” And the LORD answered, “There he is, hidden among the equipment.” 23 So they ran and brought him from there; and when he stood among the people, he was taller than any of the people from his shoulders upward. 24 And Samuel said to all the people, “Do you see him whom the Lord has chosen, that there is no one like him among all the people?” So all the people shouted and said, “Long live the king!”

25 Then Samuel explained to the people the behavior of royalty, and wrote it in a book and laid it up before the LORD. And Samuel sent all the people away, every man to his house.
1 Samuel 10:17-25

The Lord allowed Saul to be king only because His people had rejected Him. God always intended that the nation of Israel to be a theocracy, ruled by God Himself, their king and redeemer. But the people rejected God's will for their nation, wanting to be more like the cultures around them.

Gideon asks for gold (24-26)

The desert nomads wore gold jewelry. The men wore gold earrings, and the spoils of victory consisted of the Ishmaelites’ gold jewelry, including the earrings worn by the men.

Gideon asked for the earrings plundered from the defeated enemy. The men gladly gave the earrings to Gideon—it was the least they could do for the one who had led them to so decisive a victory. A garment was spread out on the ground, and each man tossed in the earring or earrings he had taken from the defeated enemy, with the total weight being 1,700 shekels (42 pounds), about $800,000 in today’s value. Gideon’s plunder also included gold ornaments, pendants, gold chains that were on the Midianites’ camels, and the purple royal robes of the Midianite kings.

Many condemn Gideon for asking for the gold from the men, but this may have been the cultural practice for the leader of the victorious army.

But what Gideon did with the gold led the Israelites into idolatry once more.

Gideon’s ephod (27)

Gideon used the gold to make an ephod, which he placed in Ophrah, his hometown. The chief priest wore an ephod during some ceremonies. The ephod signified spiritual wisdom and knowledge. The chief priest also wore a breastplate over the ephod, and the breastplate held the urim and thumim, probably in a pocket. The urim and thummim are not described in any detail in the Old Testament, other than they were two objects used to by the high priest when making an inquiry of the Lord to discern His will, probably through a series of yes/no questions.

In the books of Exodus and Leviticus an ephod is described as being created for the Kohen Gadol (Jewish high priest) to wear as part of his religious vestments (see Exodus 28:4, 29:5, 29:2; Leviticus 8:7). In the Books of Samuel, David is described as wearing an ephod when dancing in the presence of the Ark of the Covenant (2 Samuel 6:14), and an ephod is described as standing in the sanctuary at Nob, with a sword behind it (1 Samuel 21:9).

A precise description of the ephod is not available. It is thought typically to be made of linen, trimmed with gold threads, but Gideon may have cast or hammered a solid gold ephod or made one using smaller gold pieces that were interlinked to form a type of apron or garment that hung on straps from the shoulders. While ephods were intended only for the high priest, we know from this chapter of Judges, as well as Judges 17:5, that ephods were also converted to use in worship of the false gods of the Canaanites.

The ephod continues to influence Christian worship to this day. In the early Christian church, vestments for the pastor and bishops evolved from the Jewish practice of using the ephod by the chief priest. Vestments are still used today in the catholic church and many protestant churches.

Gideon placed the golden ephod in his hometown, where, a short time before, he had destroyed the altar to Ba'al and replaced it with an altar to the Lord. His ephod may have started out as a memorial to the Lord’s role in the defeat of the Midianites. It also is possible that Gideon may have wanted people to remember that he led the Israelites in the battle. However, sometime during the next 40 years of peace in the land, the ephod itself became an idol, an object of worship.

The cycle of sin continues (27-35)

The text tells us that there was peace in the land for 40 years. But during that 40-year period, the ephod, which was likely displayed close to the altar Gideon had built at Ophrah, became an object of worship, and the ephod (v. 27) “became a snare to Gideon and his house.”

This was an unintended consequence. Instead of worshiping the Lord, the people gradually began worshiping the ephod itself, which was symbolic of the victory the Lord had given them. And after Gideon’s death, the people of Israel took the next step: they turned away from the Lord completely to the worship of Ba’al, a Canaanite false god. It was not that they forgot their Lord, who had delivered them from their enemies (verse 24), but they purposely rejected Him in favor of a false god of the culture around them.

And when they turned away from their Lord, “nor did they show kindness to the house of Gideon.” In rejecting their Lord, the Israelites also turned away from honoring Gideon, through whom the Lord had rescued them from their enemy. It could be that the people forgot what Gideon had done, or that they simply did not feel that Gideon deserved recognition for his part in leading them to defeat the Midianites, or that the worship of the false god Ba'al-Berith trumped any association with their Lord.

So the Israelites turned to the false god Ba’al-Berith. Ba’al-Berith means “Ba’al of the Covenant” or “Covenant Ba’al.” Ba’al-Berith was represented by an idol carved to look like a fly. Jewish tradition tells us that the Israelites were so addicted to this idol that they always would carry a small carved image of the fly with them and would take it out from time to time to kiss it. The name “Ba'al-Berith” may signify that the Israelites had made a covenant of devotion with this false god (Hebrew berit means “covenant”) and Ba'al's covenant to them as their god and caregiver. Whatever the precise meaning, the Israelites were unwilling to part with the idol for a single moment.

Personal applications

The Lord had seen Gideon as a “mighty warrior” when Gideon was hiding from the Midianites in his winepress. Over time, chapters 7 and 8 show us that Gideon’s faith increased, from a wavering faith that demanded confirmations to a mature faith that motivated him to act without question as he obeyed the Lord.

He is the same Lord today. He sees us for what we can become as His child, as our faith grows and we trust Him more and more. And we face challenges just as Gideon did. Maybe we are not tempted by the idols and false gods that are still worshipped throughout the world, but we do face temptations of other kinds that vie to become our false gods: wealth, all the material “stuff” that we want, lust, self-centeredness—anything that replaces our Lord as the objects of our attention, our love, and our desires.

But as maturing Christians, we can easily see the snare, the entrapment. The temptations that appear in front of us fade as we, like Gideon, grow in our faith and focus on our Lord, learn to know Him more intimately, and trust Him more and more each day.

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