Gideon’s name means “hacker.” And that’s what Gideon did–he hacked at idolatry in Israel. Maybe he got that name after he tore down the altar of Baal (Judges 6:25-27). Or perhaps his name is a literary device, in that the author names him according to what he does in the story.
I’d like to think that Gideon’s father had a sense of his son’s destiny. It’s kind of like this one scene in Dale Buss’ Family Man: The Biography of Dr. James Dobson, in which James Dobson, Sr. predicted on his death bed in 1977 that his son would reach millions. And sure enough, his son did, for Focus on the Family has touched multitudes throughout the world, from all sorts of cultures.
There is one obvious difference between James Dobson, Sr. and Gideon’s father, Joash: Jim, Sr. was a devout Nazarene preacher, whereas Joash was not exactly the most committed Yahwist. Joash may have believed in the God of Israel on some level, for, in a time of rampant Baalism, Gideon was familiar with God’s activity at the Exodus (Judges 6:13). Gideon possibly heard the Exodus story from his father. But Joash owned a big altar that was specifically for Baal worship. Did he truly believe in Baalism, or was he just trying to fit in? He didn’t display a zealous desire to kill Gideon after his son had torn down his altar, for he simply said that Baal would work it out. The townspeople cared more about Joash’s altar than Joash did! Was Joash trying to save his son? Or did he actually feel that piety towards Baal meant letting Baal fight his own battles? I don’t know. Maybe he wasn’t sure what he believed.
Even if Joash had a sense that his son would do something big, Gideon didn’t feel that way. When God promised to defeat the Midianites, Gideon responded in disbelief: “But sir, how can I deliver Israel? My clan is the weakest in Manasseh, and I am the least in my family” (Judges 6:15, NRSV). But Gideon’s clan was not the weakest. His father had bulls and servants (Judges 6:25, 27), so his family was obviously quite well-off! In Judges 8, the Midianite kings say that Gideon and his brothers look like sons of a king (v 18). But, for some reason, Gideon viewed himself as insignificant.
Gideon was very timid and fearful, for he needed God’s constant reassurance. He gave God test after test to make absolutely sure that God wanted him to fight the Midianites, and God was patient with him through his lack of faith. When Gideon was especially fearful about attacking the enemy, God allowed him to hear a Midianite’s dream about his (Gideon’s) impending victory (Judges 7:10-11). That gave Gideon confidence! God was compassionate to Gideon in the midst of his weaknesses.
The problems occurred after his victory, as Gideon struggled with certain temptations. Gideon displays a few contradictions in Judges 8. On the one hand, Gideon demonstrates humility and love. In vv 1-3, we see that Gideon could use the art of diplomacy when he needed to do so. When the Ephraimites were whining that Gideon hadn’t invited them to the battle, Gideon put on an “aw shucks” demeanor and appealed to the tribe’s vanity (Judges 8:1-3). Maybe he sincerely valued the Ephraimites‘ contribution to the war effort, for they had captured Oreb and Zeeb, the Midianite captains. Or perhaps he’d say anything to get the Ephraimites off his case and prevent a civil war. Either way, he valued Israelite unity, and he humbled himself to achieve it.
When he captured the Midianite kings, Zebah and Zalmunnah, he boldly confronted them about an atrocity at Tabor, in which they had slaughtered Gideon’s brothers. Gideon tells them, “They were my brothers, the sons of my mother; as the LORD lives, if you had saved them alive, I would not kill you” (Judges 7:19). If not for their atrocity, Gideon would have shown mercy to the Midianite kings.
On the other hand, Gideon could be quite brutal and merciless. In Judges 8, when the people of Succoth and Penuel refuse to feed Gideon’s exhausted army because he has not yet captured the Midianite kings, Gideon promises to trample their flesh on thorns and briers, which is a horribly painful way to die. And, after he catches the kings, that’s exactly what he does. According to my trusty E-Sword commentaries, the people of Succoth and Penuel were afraid to support Gideon because they feared Midianite retaliation. They weren’t sure Gideon would win! What would happen to them if they supported Gideon and he lost?
Sure, their character was flawed. It’s better to stand with God than to base one’s position on which way the winds happen to be blowing. Plus, maybe they should’ve known that God was on their side, especially after Gideon had beaten numerous Midianites with only 300 men. But they were timid! And Gideon was timid before he won those battles. He could’ve shown mercy to the people of Succoth and Penuel, for David didn’t kill Nabal when he rudely refused to provide for his men (I Samuel 25). In the course of the story, Gideon grew from a timid man who lacked faith, into a bold and resolute leader. But he started to forget where he came from, and he didn’t cut people slack when they had similar faults to what he once had.
At the end of the story, the Israelites offer to make Gideon king, but he politely refuses. At the same time, he requests that they give him gold from their plunder, which he uses to make an ephod. An ephod was an article of clothing that was used to seek God’s will (I Samuel 23:9-12; 30:7-8), but it could also be a sign of civil power (I Chronicles 15:27). Either Gideon is setting up an alternative to God’s appointed sanctuary (in Shechem), or he is claiming that he possesses authority as a leader. And, strangely enough, he names one of his sons “Abimelech,” which means “My father, the king.” But I thought you didn’t want to be king, Gideon! As one preacher I heard commented, Gideon was starting to believe his own PR.
Gideon reminds me somewhat of Darth Vader. Anakin Skywalker had a special destiny, which he knew about from his childhood. But as he became more and more aware of his talents, he started to display a certain arrogance. Sure, he (like Gideon) had a sense of morality and justice. He was angry when Count Dooku had killed all those jedis, and his descent into the dark side came from an attempt to prevent his wife’s death. But his vanity led him to become evil, and he soon destroyed anyone who got in his way.
Obviously, there are differences between Gideon and Darth Vader. Anakin Skywalker was always rather confident, even as a child. Gideon, however, was timid and had low self-esteem. And that may have led to Gideon’s moral descent. He went through most of his life feeling like a nothing, and so when he finally became a something, he wanted to keep on feeling special. He liked the money and the power and the women that could come with success. (Some have argued that Bill Clinton fits this profile). He relished being God’s right hand man, carrying out God’s vengeance against anyone who would not support him. He still held on to some sense of morality, but it got to the point where his “morality” became all talk, as when he said that he didn’t want to be king, but proceeded to set himself up on a pedestal anyway. And mercy was rapidly becoming a distant memory for him.
There are lessons here for many of us. I was thinking to myself today (on the way to church, no less), “Man, if I get into a position of power, and such-and-such a person comes to me for help, I’ll tell him to go jump in a lake!” That’s somewhat like Gideon: he was hurt by the people of Succoth and Penuel, and he chose to retaliate against them once he became a success. We should always remember where we came from, yet that should inspire us to show mercy to people, not hurt them back. God cut Gideon some slack when he was afraid, and Gideon should have done the same for Succoth and Penuel.