The book of Judges includes accounts of ~ 13 Judges. They were by no means homogeneous. The nature of the role seems to have morphed, or at least it was amorphous. I think they might be grouped along these lines:
- Othneil, Ehud, Shamgar, Deborah (mostly admirable folks, as Israel’s stories go)
- Gideon, Abimelech, Tola, Jair (mixed)
- Jephthah, Ibzan, Elon, Abdon, Samson (more deeply mixed, with some horrific incidents)
With this post we move into the second group, beginning with Gideon, of “fleece” fame. Gideon is presented largely as a good guy, although not entirely built of faith. We want to be careful not to be to presumptuous in conceiving of the overall reality when we don’t have a complete picture; what we do have is this piece of literature that presents him in X way. Perhaps Gideon was actually more or less faith-filled than we read of, on average. He initially focuses on his own weakness/stature¹, and he appears to struggle with fear and doubt (6:15, 6:27). On the other hand, he must have had some courage, or he would not be flouting (albeit surreptitiously) the exploits of the Midianites and Amalekites by threshing the grain that they had a penchant for stealing. The angel of the Lord approaches Gideon, calling him “brave,” and Gideon’s father later renames his son to commemorate a bold, in-your-face move against Baal. God continues using Gideon, acknowledging and engaging with his fears (7:10).
After the fleece event, in another famous Gideon story, God shows who’s in charge by reducing an army to 1% of its original size . . . and then he uses an inimitably unconventional battle plan (trumpets and pitchers with torches, not arrows and shields). I find curious what happens with the battle cry: “for the LORD and for Gideon” had been prescribed, but the chant gained a foreword: “a sword for the LORD and for Gideon” . . . yet it appears the sword didn’t have to be used at all in the victory. Maybe the reader is to notice that, whereas the men wanted to use their own might and swords, God didn’t need those. Who is king, after all?
Speaking of the locus of power and strength . . . have you assumed that the 300 men were chosen because lapping water like a dog somehow made them more alert for battle, as compared with the men who fully knelt down? How important would human battle-readiness be, after all, if God was doing this? Notwithstanding repeated teaching to the contrary through the years, I now figure the posture was more an arbitrary means of selection than a symbol of readiness in God’s mind.
Gideon’s military heroism, which seems at least partly God-ordained at this juncture, sounds forte within the overall narrative of Judges, but the man’s character remains mixed, in my estimation. On the upside, we read that the men of Israel wish to start a dynasty with Gideon. He refuses. Then, with great devotion and character, Gideon responds,
I will not rule over you, nor will my son;
The LORD will rule over you.
This cry should ring like chimes in the ears of all Israelites who were to come! Gideon shows the right focus! But just as impressively, the next part of the story shows his failure: he makes a gold ephod (apparently a tribute to himself) that becomes an idol and results in the next downfall of the people. “All the Israelites went astray by worshipping it, and it also became a snare for Gideon and his household.” (8:27b) Despite Gideon’s folly with the gold, Midian was defeated, and Israel lived in peace for 40 years.
Gideon’s concubine gave him a son in Shechem, and that son was to carry on his father’s negative side. Abimelech boldly went to the people of Shechem and more or less proclaimed himself king. The tribal people weakly allowed this to happen, and Abimelech promptly, brutally murdered 70 half-brothers in a show of self-aggrandizing force. Jotham, the only brother to survive, seems to manifest at least some faith in the LORD: he expresses the hope that God will listen to them (9:7), even as he prophesies doom in what amounts to a second piece of literariness in the book. “Jotham’s diatribe” in chapter 9 is not quite the song of Deborah and Barak from chapter 4 but is nonetheless notable within the narrative—and more listenable, in my estimation. Jotham’s prediction comes true in the end: those who once gave Abimelech allegiance became his enemies and ultimately did him in.
Postlude to an episode
It bears mention that the name Abimelech is common and may be more of a title (or blanket designation of kings/would-be-kings?) than a name per se. The word means “father-king” or “my father is King” or “father of a king.” One of several biblical Abimelechs also appears in Genesis 20. Might this name in Judges invite the reader to hark back to Abraham’s fear and folly when he conveniently “forgets” Sarah is his wife as well as his half-sister?² Abraham wasn’t exactly acting faithfully at the time, whereas that Abimelech seems to fear God. The ruffian Abimelech in Judges clearly is not a man after God. At any rate, Israel remembers Saul, not Abimelech, as its first king, and rightly so:
- Abimelech is but a provincial, regional leader.
- Abimelech is not a man of God, nor is he in any sense chosen by God’s will.
¹ It should not surprise us that God might choose a “little guy” to accomplish a big thing.
² Here, I assume Judges was written later than Genesis. Even if that is not the case, oral history about Abraham would likely have been a factor. In other words, stories were told, and the name Abimelech was surely known.