Gideon’s 300

GideonThe story of Gideon has to be one of my favourite in the OT because it illustrations a key biblical principle: God demonstrates His strength in our weakness. We want to be as strong as possible in facing a challenge and have as many resources as we can at our disposal. We want the odds to be on our side. But in Judges chapter 7, we see that God has a quite a different perspective.

Here’s the situation: the Midianites had formed an alliance with the Ammonites and the Moabites along with a bunch of other no-good bandits from the East and were crossing over into Israel during harvest and plundering everything they saw.  Well the Israelites were getting really fed up with this and began to cry out to God. The Lord hears them and sends His angel to Gideon who at this point is hiding away in a winepress threshing out a few grains of wheat for his next meal.

The angel says, “The Lord is with you, O mighty man of valour” (Judges 6:12). Gideon, as we all know, is nothing of the sort.  He tries to weasel out of it, coming up with every reason in the book why he was not the man.  To me, this is what makes Gideon all the more real. We see he’s just an ordinary man. I can relate to him.

The great reality is Gideon would become mighty, by God’s power. God was going to change the way Gideon viewed himself and the world around him. “Don’t worry Gideon,” the Lord says, “I will be with you.”  The Spirit of the Lord then comes upon Gideon, he sounds the trumpet and send out a message to all the Israelite tribes to come and follow him. That brings us now to chapter 7. Gideon has mustered up himself an army of 32,000. The problem is he is facing off with an army of 135,000. He’s outnumbered 4 to 1. But the Lord says he has too many.

This is where things get interesting.  Here’s my attempt at an imaginary conversation:

THE LORD: “Gideon, you have too many men”
GIDEON:  “Pardon me Lord but I think you got things confused.  They are the ones with too many.  I’m outnumbered 4 to 1″
THE LORD:  “I can count.  But I want to make sure, when you win, that everyone knows that I’m the one who saved you.”
GIDEON: “OK Lord, what do you want me to do?
THE LORD: “Tell whoever is fearful to go home.  They are not needed.”
GIDEON:  “You’ve got to be kidding.  We’re all fearful!”
THE LORD: “Just do what I tell you”

So Gideon makes the announcement and 22,000 go home.  That leaves him with 10,000 against 135,000.

THE LORD: “The people with you are still too many”

Gideon bites his tongue, though there are some things he would like to say but none of them are very God-honouring.

THE LORD: “Take the men down to the River and I’ll tell you who gets to stay and who goes.”
GIDEON:  “OK – you’re the boss.”
THE LORD: “Now everyone who laps the water with his tongue, like a dog laps stays.  And everyone who kneels down and sticks his head in for a drink goes.”
GIDEON (very quietly): “This is getting ridiculous.”

So Gideon again sifts out the men God sets aside and sends them home.  Now he’s left with only 300 men.  300 against an army of 135,000.  An impossible task.

The question on all our minds however, is what is the deal with the lapping thing?  A popular interpretation is the men who scooped the water up with their hands and lapped it, well they are the real soldiers, the crack commandos.  They didn’t bend down and expose themselves to attack like the others.  They stayed alert and vigilant.  These were Gideon’s elite forces.

But is that what the Lord is doing here? Is he selecting out the crack troops for Gideon – the equivalent of SEAL team 6 or the British SAS?  Were they chosen because they were so special? I do not think so.  As J.A. Motyer explains in his commentary,

“The object was to reduce Gideon’s army to a force not of a particular kind, but of a particular number. A small corps of crack troops is precisely what God does not want. The three hundred are meant to be not an elite, but a group so inadequate that when the battle is won (God declares) it cannot be a case of Israel’s saying “My own hand has delivered me…” Until the numbers are reduced to the level at which it is clearly the Lord and not Israel who wins the battle, they are too many.”[1]

God wants to show us that it is not great strength or ability that will win the day for Gideon.  He wants us to see that the battle belongs to the Lord.  He is deliberately weakening Gideon’s army, reducing it to a laughable token force so that we might lean that God delights in using the weak to do mighty things. He loves using the small to get big things done.  Look at David and Goliath.  Look at Daniel and his 3 teenage friends in Babylon.  Look at Jesus on the cross.

So Gideon and his not-so-great 300 are ready for battle – right?  Not quite.  Gideon is still hesitant. He is still fearful (wouldn’t you be?).  And God knows his heart. And God, in his kindness and grace accommodates to Gideon’s frailty and provides him with assurance.  The conversation continues:

THE LORD: “Gideon, I know you’re scared. So here’s what I want you to do: take your servant Purah and go down into the Midianite camp and listen and you’ll hear something that will bolster your faith”
GIDEON: “You want me to just stroll into the middle of their camp?  You’re joking!”
THE LORD: “Just trust me.”
GIDEON: “OK, you’re the boss”

So Gideon goes down with his servant Purah in the safety of darkness. He saw the Midianites and the Amalekites and all the people of the East spread out “like locusts in Abundance” (v.12). Picture Gideon and Purah, darting from bush to bush in order to avoid detection. He’s probably thinking, “This is not exactly reassuring.” Suddenly he hears voices. He signals Purah to stay still. It’s one of the sentry’s. He’s telling a comrade about a dream he had. A loaf of barley bread comes rolling into the camp and flattens a Midianite tent. His friend answers,

“This is no other than the sword of Gideon the son of Joash, a man of Israel; God has given into his hand Midian and all the camp.” (Judges 7:14)

Now when you think about it, this is almost as ridiculous as sifting lappers from slurpers to reduce your army. It makes no sense. How could anyone possibly interpret the sentry’s dream to mean that?  Answer: they can when the Lord God is running the show.  Gideon instantly sees the hand of the Lord in this.  He knows it’s for him.  His faith is strengthened.  And he returns to his men and calls them into battle.

The rest of the story is nothing but remarkable.  Gideon takes his 300 men and he divides them up into 3 companies, each in different locations that surround the Midianites’ camp.  He hands them their equipment: trumpets, jars and empty torches – strange weapons indeed for a midnight ambush!  Gideon gives the signal and the men blow their trumpets and break their jars, light streams out in every direction and the Midianite army goes into a mad panic. They think they are being overrun and turn on each other with their swords. The surviving Midianites flee in terror leaving all their supplies and many of their weapons behind. The Israelites then take their weapons and attack from behind, picking off the stragglers as they go. Eventually, soldiers from the tribes of Naphtali, Asher and Manasseh join in the battle and block the Midianites escape by crossing the Jordan.

Another victory for Israel. And as we have seen before, no one gets to boast because the battle is the Lord’s.

When the Apostle Paul cried out to God to remove his point of weakness the Lord replied,

“My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness. Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me…For when I am weak, then I am strong.” (2 Corinthians 12:9–10)

Weak believers, dependent upon Jesus are God’s ordained instruments for building his kingdom.  God’s power is perfected in weakness.  When we are weak, then we are strong.  The power of Christ is all we need.

This is the lesson of Gideon’s 300.


[1] J.A. Motyer, The Message of Judges (BST), p. 71


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