Tuesday of Week 20 of Ordinary Time – First Reading

Commentary on Judges 6:11-24

We read today of the call of Gideon, one of the ‘major’ judges or leaders of the people. The story of Gideon is instructive of Israel’s condition at this time. The Hebrews had taken to agriculture and, like the other settled peoples, were threatened by nomads invading their territory to get food. To some extent they had adopted the worship of the Baalim, the local gods who guaranteed the annual yield of wheat and oil. Only a select few remained faithful to Yahweh.

The passage combines an account of the calling of Gideon and an account of the founding of a sanctuary, in the manner of those in Genesis, with a theophany (a divine appearance), a message of salvation and the inauguration of the cult.

At the beginning of this section, we are told that, because the Israelites had done evil in Yahweh’s eyes, they had been subjected to the power of the Midianites for seven years. The Midianites were a nomadic people living in north-western Sinai (remember that Moses’ wife came from this people). All efforts of the Israelites to support themselves by pasturing and farming were regularly pillaged by the Midianites. In their desperation, the Israelites cried out to God for help. And once again, God intervened on their behalf.

As our reading opens, we are told that the Angel of Yahweh (further on referred to simply as ‘Yahweh’) came and sat under the terebinth tree at Ophrah, which belonged to a man called Joash of Abiezer. The Abiezrites were from the tribe of Manasseh, one of the tribes descended from Joseph. The terebinth was a sacred tree and the location of the Ophrah mentioned here is not certain. The Angel of Yahweh evidently appeared in human shape, which led to Gideon’s exclamation at the end of the passage.

Joash’s son, Gideon, was threshing wheat inside a wine-press, in order to remain hidden from the Midianites who might otherwise attack and take away the crop. Normally, threshing would take place in the open so that the wind could blow away the chaff but Gideon felt more secure threshing in this better protected but very confined space.

The Angel then greets Gideon with the words:

The Lord is with you, you mighty warrior.

By addressing him this way it would seem that Gideon belonged to the upper class, perhaps a kind of aristocracy, in spite of his disclaimer a little later on. He was more than a simple farmer.

Gideon’s response to the Angel’s greeting is immediate and to the point:

But sir, if the Lord is with us, why then has all this happened to us? And where are all his wonderful deeds that our ancestors recounted to us, saying, ‘Did not the Lord bring us up from Egypt?’ But now the Lord has cast us off and given us into the hand of Midian.

At this, Yahweh turns to him and, without challenging Gideon’s complaint, instead suggests Gideon himself do something about it. He gives Gideon a mission:

Go in this might of yours and deliver Israel from the hand of Midian; I hereby commission you.

Now, it is Yahweh who speaks and not just the ‘Angel of Yahweh’. We are dealing not just with a divine messenger but with an appearance of the Lord himself, a theophany. This is a commission to deliver Israel just as Moses had been sent.

Gideon does not feel up to the challenge

But sir, how can I deliver Israel? My clan is the weakest in Manasseh, and I am the least in my family.

But as is the case so often, the Lord usually calls the lowly rather than the mighty to act for him (e.g. Jacob the younger chosen before Esau in Gen 25:23; Saul, the least in the tribe of Benjamin; David, the shepherd in the field; and, of course, Mary, the ‘nobody’ from Nazareth).

But Yahweh promises to be with Gideon:

But I will be with you, and you shall strike down the Midianites, every one of them.

Gideon then requests that, if he has found favour in Yahweh’s sight, he be given a sign to confirm that the words come from Yahweh himself. He asks Yahweh to stay where he is while Gideon goes off to bring back an offering. Gideon now realises that he is addressing someone very special. His request is similar to Moses asking for signs as assurance that Yahweh would be with him in his undertakings.

Yahweh then makes a promise:

I will stay until you return.

Gideon then goes off. He prepares a young goat and an ephah of flour to make unleavened cakes. He puts the meat in a basket and the soup in a pot and brings them to the terebinth tree. Yahweh then tells him to put the meat and the cakes on a rock and to pour the soup over them.

The offerings are carefully chosen – a kid, the most suitable sacrificial animal; a measure of flour; loaves unleavened, because otherwise ‘unclean’. All are placed on a rock, a primitive rite characteristic of peasants fresh from nomadic life.

Then (the Angel of) Yahweh touched the meat and the cakes with the staff he was carrying. Fire sprang from the rock and consumed the meat and cakes. The meal prepared by Gideon for the Angel of Yahweh – whether it has a sacrificial character or not – is turned into a burnt offering (holocaust) by the divine fire. There is a similar event, though more dramatically told, later on in Judges (13:15-20). The rock on which the offerings were placed becomes consecrated and Gideon builds an altar on it. The place becomes a sacred shrine.

Gideon then realises he has been speaking with the Angel of Yahweh and he exclaims:

Help me, Lord God! For I have seen the angel of the Lord face to face.

But Yahweh assures him:

Peace be to you; do not fear; you shall not die.

The traditional belief was that no one could look on the face of God and live. The great exception was Moses.

Gideon then builds an altar to Yahweh in that place and calls it Yahweh-Peace. The author says that the altar still stands at Ophrah of Abiezer. But later, no one knew where it was.

As we read this story we may remind ourselves that God, too, is constantly calling us. Our lack of talent or education or ability will never be an excuse. We can trust, too, that he is always on our side and we do not need extraordinary signs of his presence, although things may happen which will surprise us. He is, after all, the “God of surprises”.

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