If people know one story about Gideon it will not be the one about him destroying the altar to Baal and the Asherah Pole and him sacrificing his father’s prize bull to the one true God, the God of Israel. It will not be the story we will come to next week of how Gideon defeated the Midianite hoards who had been ravaging Israel for seven years. The story people will know about Gideon is the one where he lays out a fleece as a way for God to guide him. Many devout Christians, particularly those of the charismatic persuasion like I am, will talk about times when they themselves have followed Gideon’s example and themselves have “laid out a fleece” for God to guide them. And many will talk about the blessings they have received by being guided by God in that way.
The problem with that is that the story of Gideon and the fleece is not actually about guidance at all. And when we read it in context and understand it properly, this story does not give us a good example to follow at all. On the contrary, what Gideon did with the fleece not once but twice is actually a bad example to avoid!
Judges 36 Gideon said to God, ‘If you will save Israel by my hand as you have promised—37 look, I will place a wool fleece on the threshing-floor. If there is dew only on the fleece and all the ground is dry, then I will know that you will save Israel by my hand, as you said.’ 38 And that is what happened. Gideon rose early the next day; he squeezed the fleece and wrung out the dew—a bowlful of water.
This is not a story about guidance. Gideon already knows what God is going to do. This is a story about doubting God. ‘If you will save Israel by my hand.
IF? IF? Gideon might have questions, but those are put into perspective by his next words, as you have promised.
The episode with the fleece was not about discovering what God wanted Gideon to do. It was about Gideon asking whether God was actually going to keep his promise. ‘If you will save Israel by my hand as you have promised. Prove to me, God, that you are going to keep your promise.
That wouldn’t be so bad if Gideon had just heard God speaking once and telling him to drive away the Midianites. But remember what we read a few weeks ago from the beginning of Judges 6.
11 The angel of the LORD came and sat down under the oak in Ophrah that belonged to Joash the Abiezrite, where his son Gideon was threshing wheat in a winepress to keep it from the Midianites. 12 When the angel of the LORD appeared to Gideon, he said, ‘The LORD is with you, mighty warrior.’
God didn’t just speak to Gideon in a dream. He didn’t just speak to Gideon in an audible voice. God actually sent an angel to speak to him. Even Moses only got a burning bush! Gideon was rare in the history of God’s dealings with humanity – Gideon had an angel appear to him! But then remember what the angel said.
14 The LORD turned to him and said, ‘Go in the strength you have and save Israel out of Midian’s hand. Am I not sending you?’
At that point in the story it appears that it is no ordinary angel, but it might actually have been God HIMSELF who has appeared to Gideon. Either way, the message is clearly from God. Go in the strength you have. I know you aren’t strong but my strength will be sufficient! Am I not sending you. Gideon knew that God was indeed sending him to drive out the Midianites. Even though he was only a poor boy, from a poor family.
15 ‘Pardon me, my lord,’ Gideon replied, ‘but how can I save Israel? My clan is the weakest in Manasseh, and I am the least in my family.’
To reassure Gideon, God then gives him two more wonderful promises.
16 The LORD answered, ‘I will be with you, and you will strike down all the Midianites, leaving none alive.’
I will be with you! The presence of God is all anybody needs. If God be for us who can be against us?
And then God says, “You will strike down all the Midianites.” You will accomplish what I am sending you to do, because I will be with you! Yet we saw, after all those promises, Gideon still wasn’t certain, so he asked God for a sign.
17 Gideon replied, ‘If now I have found favour in your eyes, give me a sign that it is really you talking to me. 18 Please do not go away until I come back and bring my offering and set it before you.’
God came and consumed by fire the offering which Gideon put on the rock before him. So finally Gideon was sufficiently convinced that he built an altar to the Lord, the God of Israel and called it “The LORD is Peace.”
That night God came and spoke to Gideon a second time. As we saw last week Gideon put his house in order. He took the step of faith of destroying his father’s altar to Baal and the Asherah pole, and sacrificing his father’s prize bull to the Lord the God of Israel. This earned him the nickname, Jerub-Baal, “Let Baal contend with him.” And Gideon’s fame obviously spread, because this is what happened next.
33 Now all the Midianites, Amalekites and other eastern peoples joined forces and crossed over the Jordan and camped in the Valley of Jezreel. 34 Then the Spirit of the LORD came on Gideon, and he blew a trumpet, summoning the Abiezrites to follow him. 35 He sent messengers throughout Manasseh, calling them to arms, and also into Asher, Zebulun and Naphtali, so that they too went up to meet them.
So far Gideon has had an angel appear to him. God has given him at least four wonderful promises. God has already given him one miraculous sign. Then God spoke to Gideon again on a separate occasion. And he has yet another spiritual encounter when “the Spirit of the Lord came on Gideon, and he blew a trumpet” and the response to his trumpet and his messengers drew together a mighty army to fight against the Midianites and the Amalekites. Things were looking good!
So it is a bit of a surprise, to say the least, when Gideon comes back to God and asks him for another sign. He knows exactly what God’s plans are and what God wants him to do. But Gideon isn’t sure God will keep his promise. Gideon starts the conversation and demands another sign.
36 Gideon said to God, ‘If you will save Israel by my hand as you have promised—37 look, I will place a wool fleece on the threshing-floor. If there is dew only on the fleece and all the ground is dry, then I will know that you will save Israel by my hand, as you said.’
“IF… you are going to do what you have already promised to do.” But God is amazingly patient, and fulfils the weird sign which Gideon has demanded.
38 And that is what happened. Gideon rose early the next day; he squeezed the fleece and wrung out the dew—a bowlful of water.
God does what Gideon has asked. The fleece was soaking wet when the ground all around was dry. Only God could have done that. By this God guaranteed that He would do what he had promised and Gideon would indeed save Israel. That should surely have been the end to the matter.
But it wasn’t!
39 Then Gideon said to God, ‘Do not be angry with me. Let me make just one more request. Allow me one more test with the fleece, but this time make the fleece dry and let the ground be covered with dew.’ 40 That night God did so. Only the fleece was dry; all the ground was covered with dew.
I am amazed that God gave Gideon the sign of the wet fleece on dry ground. But I am lost for words that after that Gideon then had the cheek to ask for a second sign. And that God then gave him the dry fleece on wet ground. All to reassure Gideon that God would indeed keep His promise. As if telling him all those previous times had not been enough!
On the positive side, this story does reassure us all of the amazing grace and patience of our God. God does not expect his children to become perfect overnight. God persevered with Gideon even though super-chicken still lived on in him. God did not reject Gideon but met his doubts with signs of assurance. Just as God answered all Moses’s objections when he called him to go to speak to Pharaoh to set the Israelites free from slavery in Egypt. Just as Jesus made a special resurrection appearance just to answer the questions and doubts of the apostle Thomas. God gave Gideon the signs that he demanded, to reassure him that His promises would be fulfilled.
God is patient with us. Somebody once wrote, “All that God expects from us is failure.” God does not expect faith and obedience every time. Into his plans for our lives and for this world, God makes allowance for the times when we will fail. When we will not have enough faith. When we will disobey.
Somebody has written, “Fear of defeat had paralysed Gideon’s faith. And that can happen in our lives as well. God did not want Gideon to be fearful or discouraged or doubting. Instead of challenging or rebuking Gideon’s fears, God gave Gideon the signs He asked for. And God will answer our doubts as well. Sometimes he will even give us signs when we ask for signs. But we should never mistake God’s patience with Gideon as approval for the practice of “laying out a fleece,” which Gideon did not once but twice. Gideon’s fleece was not a spiritual way of seeking guidance. In reality it was a stalling tactic – a way of putting off or dodging doing what God had already very clearly commanded Gideon to do.
Here is an important point to make. Sometimes narratives in the Bible show us what will always happen, or what should happen. At other times they illustrate what might happen in our lives, but may not. And sometimes stories are there to give us a warning about what not to do. Stories record what happened – not “what should have happened” or “what ought to happen every time.” What happens in a narrative could be “an example to follow” OR “a sin to avoid” – and the Bible doesn’t usually tell us which! Narratives are recorded to achieve the author’s purpose, not to answer our questions. NO Old Testament narratives were written specifically about YOU or for YOU! Gideon laid out a fleece. But just because it’s what Gideon did, and God answered Gideon that way, doesn’t mean it’s the right way for US to seek guidance! It definitely is not!
So let’s be reminded of the kinds of ways God does want to guide his children. In the Alpha Course Nicky Gumble gives us six aspects of God’s guidance, all beginning with the letters C.S. We have been given the Bible, Commanding Scripture setting an Objective Standard for us to know God’s General will for the world and His Particular will for our lives. We also have the Controlling Spirit giving us a Subjective Witness to His will in our lives, sometimes even through Prophecy, Dreams, Visions and pictures. We also have Common Sense. John Stott said, “God’s promises of guidance were not given to save us the problem of thinking.” We can be guided by the Counsel of the Saints. “Make plans by seeking advice,” says Proverbs 20: 18. We can look for Circumstantial Signs of Divine Providence. Sometimes God closes doors and sometimes God opens doors. God guides in all these ways and “laying out a fleece” is not any of them.
We may feel nervous or afraid of stepping out for God. The story of Gideon is an inspiration for us all because we see how God takes Gideon the super-chicken and shapes him into the mighty man of valour who would save Israel from the Midianites. And we have seen so far that that transformation was not instantaneous. It would take a number of little steps of obedience and little acts of faith before God could use Gideon as He purposed. But God doesn’t give up on Gideon. God accepts Gideon just as he is, and changes him bit by bit. Gideon didn’t just trust and obey in everything straight away. And God was OK with that! So this story is an encouragement to us all.