16 August 2011

"But sir, if the Lord is with us, why then has all this happened to us? And where are all his wonderful deeds that our ancestors recounted to us ... ?" (v. 13)


The book of Judges describes the period before there was a monarchy in Israel and Judah. It has a rather different feel to it from the books of Samuel and Kings that recount the story of the rise of kingship. Judges includes stories that sound much more like legends, or accounts that explain how something came about (eg why a stone altar can be found standing in a particular place, as in verse 24). The 'judges' themselves were not judges in the modern sense, though they may have made rulings in disputes brought to them. They were more like tribal leaders and usually their main strength was the capacity to lead people in the constant border skirmishes that made life difficult. The context here is that the Midianites are strongly competing for crops and grazing space.

The stories are surrounded by editorial comments where there is a firm theological line laid down, namely that things went badly for the Israelites when they "did what was evil in the sight of the Lord" (v.1). But in the story itself there is a touching human poignancy about experiencing hard times, and the sense that God is absent. Gideon is beating out grain not on the threshing floor but in the wine press, so as to try and conceal his activity from those who might rob him of his crop, when an angel commissions him to be a warrior and attack the enemy directly. Angelic messages in the Bible often leave the recipient feeling troubled and inadequate. Gideon actually asks for a sign that the whole experience is genuine - and the angel performs a miracle by making the traditional meal of hospitality go up in flames (like a burnt offering). Interestingly, this dramatic proof makes Gideon even more frightened. Not that he now has to face the Midianites head on rather than lurking in the wine press, but that he realises he has indeed "seen the angel of the Lord face to face" (v. 22). He now needs reassurance that the experience itself won't kill him.

Whatever we make of the 'magical' aspects to this story, there are recognisably human reactions here. Where is God when people suffer? How can God expect feeble little me to do anything about it? Is that really God speaking anyway? And then we are given a sense of God's powerful presence and that is when the implications for us really kick in.

To Ponder

What are the events in your own life or in the wider world that make you ask Gideon's question, "If the Lord is with us, why then has all this happened to us?" How do you answer the question?

Bible notes author: Janet Morley

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