Tuesday, March 27, 2012

A story from Israel

Along the path to the spring
Last May, I was privileged to travel with my mother and stepfather to Israel for ten days.
It changed my life profoundly.  One of the things that I learned about myself was how little I know about the Jewish culture and the Old Testament.
I've read the Old Testament of course, but have spent much more time in the New, since that's the covenant we live under now.  But there are a lot of lessons to be learned in the Old.  One of my favorite stories that I was reacquainted with was the story of Gideon.  You can read the whole story in Judges 6-8:38, but here I'll tell the story partly by paraphrasing, directly quoting and inserting some of the insights shared by our guide and my own.  As our group gathered around the pool of water, he began by saying, "Have you ever noticed that God uses the nobodies in the sight of the world?  He uses the humble, the lowly in station, and Gideon was a great example of that..."
Now during this time, Israel had gone astray again, worshiping idols.  For seven years, God had allowed the Midianites to take over the land.  The Israelites were hiding in caves and mountain clefts.  Every time they tried to plant their crops, they were invaded, not only by the Midianites but others as well.  They wrecked everything all the way to Gaza, camping in their tent and ravaging the crops. They didn't leave anything for Israel to survive on, and finally they cried out to the Lord.  He sent a prophet who told them that God had warned the Israelites not to worship other Gods; after all, God had saved them from slavery in Egypt and given them the land.
Enter Gideon.  He was threshing wheat in a winepress to keep it away from the Midianites when an angel of the Lord appeared to him.  The angel addressed him as a mighty warrior and told him that the Lord was with him.
"But sir," Gideon replied, "if the Lord is with us, why has all this happened to us? Where are all his wonders that our fathers told us about when they said, 'Did not the Lord bring us up out of Egypt?' But now the Lord has abandoned us and put us in the hand of Midian."  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?"
"But Lord," Gideon asked, "how can I save Israel? My clan is the weakest in Manasseh, and I am the least in my family." This line struck a chord with me.  I often think, what can I do for the Lord? I have a reoccurring illness and not a lot of money.  But God makes the point to Gideon; it's not he that will cause the work to be done, it will be the Lord.  How much clearer it is that it is the Lord's work when he uses a person who clearly couldn't do it on their own?
The Lord answered him, "I will be with you, and you will strike down all the Midianites together."
Gideon replied, "If now I have found favor in your eyes, give me a sign that it is really you talking to me.  Please do not go away until I come back and bring my offering and set it before you."  And the Lord said, "I will wait until you return."
So Gideon went and prepared a young goat and made some bread without yeast. Putting the meat in a basket and its broth in a pot, he brought them out and offered them to him under the oak.  The angel of God said to him, "Take the meat and the unleavened bread, place them on this rock, and pour out the broth."
And Gideon did so.  With the tip of the staff that was in his hand, the angel of the Lord touched the meat and the unleavened bread. Fire flared from the rock, consuming the meat and the bread. And the angel of the Lord disappeared.  When Gideon realized that it was the angel of the Lord, he exclaimed, "Ah, Sovereign Lord! I have seen the angel of the Lord face to face!"  But the Lord said to him, "Peace! Do not be afraid. You are not going to die."
So Gideon built an altar to the Lord there and called it The Lord is Peace.  That night, God tested Gideon.
He told him to take a bull of his father's herd, tear down the alter to the false god Baal, and then build a proper one.  Then he was to cut down the Asherah pole, which represented the false goddess Asherah and use the wood of the pole to sacrifice the bull on.
Can you imagine? To ask Gideon to do this was asking him to tear down the local church, because these were the gods they were worshiping.  And who was he? The least in his family.  How would he explain himself?  He could tell them God told him to, but would they believe him? In any case, there would surely be an uproar.  Because he was afraid of his father and the men of the town he took some of his servants and did it in the night.
In the morning when the men of town got up, there was Baal's altar, demolished, with the Asherah pole beside it cut down and the bull sacrificed on the newly built altar.  And there was indeed an uproar.  It came out that Gideon had done it and the men of the town wanted to kill Gideon.  But his father intervened, wisely pointing out that if Baal was really a god, he was capable of defending himself when someone breaks down his alter.  Ever after, they called Gideon, "Jerub-Baal," meaning, "Let Baal contend with him."
At this time the eastern peoples joined forces and crossed over the Jordan and camped in the Valley of Jezreel.  The the Spirit of the Lord came upon Gideon, and he blew a trumpet, summoning the Abiezrites to follow him and he sent messengers throughout the tribe of Manaseh, and also into Asher, Zebulun and Naphtali to take up arms with him and fight the invaders to get their land back.
But Gideon need a little more proof.  He asked God to confirm his promise to be with him by placing a wool fleece on the threshing floor.  He asked that if it were truly God, to allow the dew to only wet the fleece and leave the ground dry.  In the morning Gideon found that it was so.  Still, he asked God to do it again, only this time wetting the ground and leaving the fleece dry. It happened.
Sound familiar? I know I've asked God a few times to show me it is really him speaking.  But now Gideon felt confident, so early in the morning, Gideon gathered the men together and they camped at the spring.  The camp of Midian was to the north in a valley.  But there was a problem.
The Lord said to Gideon, "You have too many men for me to deliver Midian into their hands.  In order that Israel may not boast against me that her own strength  has saved her, announce now to the people, 'Anyone who trembles with fear may turn back and leave Mount Gilead.' " When Gideon said that to the men, 22,000 of them left, leaving 10,000.
But the Lord said to Gideon, "There are still too many men. Take them down to the water, and I will sift them for you there." So Gideon took the remaining men down to the water to drink, and there God told Gideon, "Separate those who lap the water with their tongues like a dog from those who kneel down to drink."   There were 300 men who knelt down and drank from cupped hands, and God told Gideon that those were his men, the rest could go back to their camps.  Now the enemy had settled in the valley and the Bible describes them as being thick as locusts, with so many camels they were like sand on the seashore

But God told Gideon that if he was still worried, to take his servant and sneak down there at night and listen to what was being said, and it would encourage him.
Gideon and his servant got there as one man was telling another about a dream he had, that a round loaf of barley bread came tumbling into  camp and struck the tent with such force that the tent overturned and collapsed.  His friend responded,  "This can be nothing other than the sword of Gideon son of Joash, the Israelite. God has given the Midianites and the whole camp into his hands." When Gideon heard this, he began to worship the Lord, and they made their plan to attack, right then in the night.  They split into 3 groups of 100 and surrounded the camp, carrying their trumpets, torches and each a clay jar.  Grasping the torches in their left hands and holding in their right hands the trumpets, they yelled, "A sword for the Lord and for Gideon!"
The 3 companies blew the trumpets and smashed the jars, holding their positions around the camp.  When the 300 trumpets sounded, the Lord caused the men in the camp to turn on each other with their swords, and they fled. Gideon and his men pursued them, and sent messengers for the other men to help them.
They conquered them and tried to make Gideon their king, but he refused, saying that the Lord would rule them.  Gideon asked one thing of the men who'd fought.  He had each man give him one gold earring from each man's plunder, since it was the custom of their foes to wear these earrings. Altogether the weight of the gold was about 43 pounds, and Gideon made it into an ephod, which he placed in his town.  I would think that after all God had done for Gideon, the last thing he'd ever do would return to any form of idolatry.
But he did.
And all Israel prostituted themselves by worshiping it there, and it became a snare to Gideon and his family, though there was peace in the land until Gideon's death about forty years later.
He had seventy sons (he had a lot of wives now) and one by a concubine, who wound up causing quite a bit of trouble in the next few chapters.
It's easy to judge Gideon from the distance of history, but is this so unlike ourselves? In that day it was Baal and Asherah, but what do we spend the most of our time on?  What sin peeps its ugly head up time and time again when we think we've dealt with it once and for all?  An idol is anything that we place as a higher priority than God. 
When I look at the Old Testament as a whole, I see a God who loves Israel.  She slips, she sins, he becomes angry, but he forgives when she repents and calls out to him.  And so it is with us today.  No matter how many times we fall, the nature of God is the same yesterday, today, and forever.  All we have to do is repent and reach out to him and he dusts us off, washes us clean, by the sacrifice of Christ that provides us grace.
By the way, my mother and I drank from Gideon's Spring and the water is still pure and sweet.  We cupped our hands. :)
Gideon's Cave

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