Sunday, March 18, 2018

300

Perhaps you have seen the film of some years ago that was simply entitled, “300.” The movie is a fictionalized version of the Battle of Thermopylae in the Greco-Persian Wars of the 5th century BC. In the plot of that film, three hundred Spartan soldiers bravely and repeatedly hold off a series of attacks by tens of thousands of Persian forces.

Alas, after fighting valiantly and holding their position for a long time, in the end the Spartans finally succumb to defeat.

The battle is an actual one that took place in history, although of course it is romanticized and embellished for the film audience. Nevertheless, this battlethe Battle of Thermopylae, both in the movie and in actual history, is held up as an example of the power of a patriotic army defending its native soil. The heroes are the 300 Spartans, men who even in their death are revered. 

Today I am going to tell you of another 300. It is another actual battle that took place in history against tens of thousands of opponents.
It is also a story of a patriotic army defending its native soil. In this case however, the 300 were not well-trained soldiers, skilled in fighting techniques, as were the 300 Spartans. Even so (also unlike the Spartans incidentally), these 300 were actually victorious over their enemies.

Nevertheless, even though these men were the victors, it is not they who are given the accolades for the victory. They are not men who can laud themselves, who by their own great strength, defeated a powerful enemy.

Their story begins in Israel of the 12th century BC. The opponents of the Israelites in those days were the Midianites, along with some other eastern kingdoms. Like the Persians in the Greek wars, the size of this Midianite army was also in the tens of thousands and perhaps even into the hundreds of thousands, although the exact number of men is not known. The Bible only says that they were like locusts in abundance, and even their camels were as numerous as the sand on the seashore.

The preparations for the battle began with the calling by God of one insignificant young man from a family that was the weakest clan in the entire tribe of Manasseh, and the young man himself even being the least of this insignificant family. I wrote in the post last week of that calling of this man to the task. It was the angel of the Lord telling young Gideon to “go in the strength that he had and save Israel out of Midian’s hand.”

The “strength” that the angel was talking about is not the kind of strength that would be played by a ripped Hollywood actor (if that the term that is being used in these days). The kind of strength that the angel was talking about is even beyond anything that the latest in computer generated special effects could depict, and beyond what we can even imagine. The angel was talking about the strength of the Sovereign God unleashed.  

A New Name
As we pick up the story from the post of last week, the reaction of the villagers to the toppling of the altar to Baal and the burning of the Asherah showed that Gideon was not wrong about how he thought that they would respond to what he had done in the night.

When the townspeople awoke in the morning and saw that the altar of Baal had been broken down and that the Asherah had likewise been cut down, they became angry and began asking one another if anyone knew who had done such a thing. Imagine their surprise when it was revealed that it was Gideon, the son of Joash, the very man on whose property these two images had stood! The people became so angry that they wanted to put Gideon to death.

Gideon had not been wrong about the townspeople, but he had been wrong about his father. When the people learned that Gideon was the one who had done what was for them this despicable act, they called to Joash, “Bring out your son, that he may die, for he has broken down the altar of Baal and cut down the Asherah beside it.”

Since these altars had apparently been under the care of Joash, one might expect him to be torn in his response to the people. The father must have had a respect for the false gods, since they were his own property, and he must not have been initially pleased with what Gideon had done. Yet these men now wanted to kill his son because Gideon had destroyed the idols.

I would be very interested to know what conversation must have taken place between Gideon and his father when the father found out what happened. But in the end, Joash showed great wisdom.

It was he and not Gideon who stood before the men of the town. One might have expected Joash at least to be apologetic for his son’s actions. We may not even be surprised if he had offered to reconstruct new altars to Baal and Asherah if the people would spare the life of his son.

But Joash did neither of these. He was unapologetic as he stood up to the entire village. He told them, “Will you contend for Baal; or are you going to plead his cause? Do you think that it is your responsibility to save him? Whoever contends for Baal shall be put to death by morning! If Baal is a god, let him contend for himself, because his altar has been broken down!”

The father Joash must have been a man of strong personality and it is perhaps no wonder that Gideon had torn down the altars at night when his father was sleeping. If Joash would have known, he certainly would have made great efforts to stop his son.

Whether or not Joash actually had a change of heart concerning these idols, we do not know. He does not again come up in the narrative. Perhaps he did have a change of heart and I would like to think he did, but we frankly do not know for certain.

It is my personal opinion that Joash was indeed a man of strong conviction. The reason that he had these altars on his land in the first place is because sometime earlier in his life, he had been convinced that Baal was the true god and the Asherah his consort. That morning, when Joash stood before the townspeople and stated to them that if Baal was a god, he could contend for himself, Joash was willing to put this conviction to the test. Indeed, what he said is true.

Of course, Baal did not contend for himself and he did not put Gideon to death. He could not, for he was not a god.

The people began calling Gideon by a new name—Jerub-Baal, which means “the one who contends with Baal.” Even though Gideon seems to have been rather timid in his natural personality, he had chosen to obey what the Sovereign God had told him, and to go against the widely accepted worship of this false god. This was the first step in God’s plan to deliver his people from the oppression of the Midianites. 

A New Leader
Undoubtedly somewhat emboldened by all of this that had happened, Gideon blew his trumpet to signal people to follow him. News had just arrived of an impending invasion. The forces of several eastern kingdoms had once again crossed the Jordan River and were at that moment camped in the Valley of Jezreel, well inside the nation of Israel.

Gideon, the man who had dared to contend with Baal, now seemed to be an accepted leader among his people. He also sent messengers to the neighboring tribes to follow him in dealing with this threat. He called the sons of Manasseh and Asher to arms, and Zebulun and Naphtali.

But doubts still lingered in this new and young leader’s heart. Pulling down an alter to a false god was one thing, even if it did put him at odds with his own father and the entire village. However, leading a nation in war was quite another. Gideon felt that he needed another sign as a reassurance from God. 

A New Test
He said to God, “I am going to place a fleece of wool on the threshing floor, and if it is true that you intend for me to lead the people and to save Israel under my leadership, demonstrate that to me by allowing there to be dew on the fleece in the morning, even though the ground is dry.”

Well, we know that the threshing floor was clean, since just a day or two earlier we found Gideon fearfully threshing his small amount of grain in the winepress instead of at the threshing floor. Gideon said to God that if in the morning the dew was on the fleece but not the ground, he would know that God would save Israel by his hand.

The following morning, the fleece was so saturated with dew that Gideon was able to wring a bowl full of water out of it. But apprehensive Gideon was still unsure.

“Do not be angry with me,” Gideon said to the Lord. “Let me speak just once more. Please let me test just once more with the fleece. This time, please let it be dry on the fleece only, and on all the ground let there be dew.”

So it happened the next morning when Gideon stepped outside, the dew was heavy on the ground all around. However, when he checked the fleece, it was still dry from yesterday’s sun. Apparently, these two tests were enough to give Gideon confidence that God was indeed with him, and that he intended to rescue Israel by his hand. 

A New Army
Gideon’s call to arms was well heeded by the Israelites. Tens of thousands of men gathered at a well-known spring, the spring of Harod. The camp of the Midian lay in the valley to the north, near enough so that the Midianites knew of their presence.

Gideon was no doubt heartened by the large force of men that was gathered to battle the Midianites. He must have had some sort of organization to his military, and he and the leaders from the other tribes had probably put some thought into a battle plan. But the Lord had other ideas.

“You have too many men,” the Lord told Gideon.

God knew that if the Israelites should defeat Midian with a strong military, the people would boast in how mighty they were. They would say that the victory was accomplished by their own strength.

God did not want this. He wanted there to be no doubt that it would be he alone who gave the victory. The Lord instructed Gideon to make an announcement to the entire army that anyone who was afraid would be allowed to return to their homes. This of course, is no way to run a battle campaign, but this is what Gideon did. An astonishing number of twenty-two thousand men left! It was more than two-thirds of their total forces. It left the army with only ten thousand.

“Still too many men,” God told Gideon.

He next instructed Gideon to take the remaining ten thousand down to the water for a drink from the spring. Most knelt down to the water to sip directly from the spring, but a very small percentage of the men scooped the water up in their hands and raised it to their mouths, lapping the water up with their tongues, just as a dog would.

Some Bible teachers have suggested that these men showed by their manner of drinking that they were more guarded than the rest, thus made better warriors. Most of the men bent down to drink, leaving themselves vulnerable to attack. It was only these who lifted the water to their mouths who remained vigilant, even when drinking.

But this interpretation misses the whole point of the lesson. This was a battle that could not be won by such few men, vigilant or not. This was a battle that could only be won by God. Who the men were was almost unimportant. God meant to demonstrate his own power, not the vigilance and abilities of the men. God was simply looking at ways to reduce the number of Gideon’s army. He did it by this water-drinking test.

Who drinks water from a stream by lapping it like a dog? Despite all of the cowboy movies I have watched, I have never seen anyone do this, and I certainly wouldn't drink from a stream in that way! Nevertheless, three hundred guys did.

“These are the men that you should take with you,” the Lord told Gideon. Only three hundred. The rest, some nine-thousand, seven hundred men, returned to their homes.

“Hi honey, I’m back. They told me that I should just come home—what’s for dinner?”

Some New Insecurities and Some New Assurances
With the original thirty-two thousand man force, Gideon had no doubt been again emboldened, but now he had only three hundred. Those former insecurities were probably coming back to him.

That night, the Lord said to him, “I am going to give the Midian camp into your hands. If you are afraid to attack, go down to the camp with your servant Purah and listen to what they are saying. Afterward, you will be encouraged to attack the camp.”

At the camp of the enemy, along with the Midianites, there were also Amalekites, as well as other people from the east. These great forces were settled throughout the valley of their camp, “as thick as locusts,” the Bible tells us.

Gideon’s forces, even at their greatest, were able to be numbered—about thirty-two thousand. But the number of enemy soldiers was beyond number. The text also tells us that even the number of their camels could no more be counted than the sand on the seashore.

As Gideon and his servant Purah arrived at the outpost of the camp just as a man was telling a friend about a dream he had just had. He told a comrade, “A round loaf of barley bread came tumbling into the Midianite camp. It struck the tent with such force that the tent overturned and collapsed.”

It was a simple and perhaps meaningless dream, but in the mind of the comrade it had great significance. “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,” the campmate responded.

With little doubt, the interpretation that the man gave was a reflection of some his inner fears. This man was undoubtedly one of those whom God would have called “fearful,” and had he been in Gideon’s army, he would have already been allowed to return home.

But these fears were also put there by God, and even though they may have been a reflection of the fears of one man, his words were again a confirmation to Gideon that the Lord was with him. They were also fears that must have spread throughout the enemy camp. Gideon worshiped God right on the spot for this confirmation.

Gideon returned to the 300 Israelites and called out, “Get up! The Lord has given the Midianite camp into your hands.” 

A New Way to Win a Battle
How Gideon came up with the strategy that he would use to battle the countless Midianite forces, I do not know. However, it seems to me that even this must have been directed by the Lord, since it was a most unusual battle tactic. Gideon divided the three hundred remaining men into three groups, giving each man a shofar, which was a trumpet made from a ram’s horn. Every man was also given a clay jar, each containing a torch.

Gideon now seemed to be growing in confidence as he said to the men, “Watch me, and do likewise. When I come to the outskirts of the camp, do as I do. When I blow the trumpet, the one hundred men who are with me will also blow their trumpets. That will be a sign for the rest of you in the other two companies on every side of the camp to also blow your trumpets. Then we shall all shout, ‘For the Lord and for Gideon.’”

It was well into the night and probably about midnight when the three hundred men stealthily moved into position around the camp of the Midianites. Since today we do not know the exact location of the valley where the Midianites had their camp, it is not possible for us to lay out the precise battle scenario. However, from the words of Gideon, his three hundred men were able to work their way around the camp of Midianites, sleeping in the valley below. The Israelites were able to position themselves in the hills “on every side of the camp.”

I also have to wonder about the jars and the torches. I always think about the practicalities of these things and I am wondering how the men managed to keep the torches alight while inside the clay jars. The torches had to be burning, since the element of surprise at the breaking of the jars was imperative. The light of the torches also had to be shielded very well when the men were moving into position, since the Midianite guards would have surely noticed even small specks of light moving in the hills around the camp.

These perhaps are small details in the story, but I wonder about them nonetheless. Perhaps Gideon had designed a special type of jar to be made just for this purpose, or perhaps the Lord blinded the eyes of the guards. Whatever it was, the Israelites were able to move into their positions around the camp.

Once they were in place, Gideon began a series of events that threw the entire Midian camp into great confusion. First, he and the one hundred men who were with him blew their trumpets and smashed clay jars, revealing the light of the torch inside.

When the other two companies of one hundred men each saw the lights of the torches, and when the sound of the trumpets reached their ears, they followed suit—they blew their trumpets and smashed their jars. After the blast from the trumpets, all the men cried out, “A sword for the Lord and for Gideon!”

The effects on the Midianite soldiers were instantaneous. The blast from the three hundred trumpets probably echoed back and forth between the hills surrounding the valley that held the Midianite camp, and the shouting sounded like more than just three hundred men. When the Midianites saw the torchlights on every side of their camp, their immediate impression was that they were surrounded by a great force of enemy warriors.

This may have been the reasonable impression, but what follows in the camp is far from what would be expected. The Israelites did nothing more, at least at first. They simply stood in their places. There may have been more shouting and more blowing of the trumpets, but they did not run down the hill to attack the Midianites. God took care of that small matter.

At the sound of the horns and the shouting, the Lord set every sword of the Midianite men against their own comrades. The men drew their swords and began fighting amongst themselves. The entire Midianite army was in battle with itself and with the soldiers of their allies! And then they all fled. The text tells us the names of the places where the men fled, but those names mean little to us. I will simply say that the army ran for many miles and did not stop. In short, the Midianites and the others were all headed back for their homes. They were frightened! 

God is Still With Us
As the Midianites fled, the Israelites pursued, but there was no doubt that it was God who had given the victory in this battle. The victory in battle had nothing at all to do with the fighting abilities of Gideon and his 300. It had everything to do with the power of God.

Do you remember the words of Gideon when the angel of the Lord appeared to him at the winepress? Gideon said to him, “Please, where are all the wonderful deeds that our fathers told us about when they said, ‘Did not the Lord bring us up from Egypt?’ But now the Lord has forsaken us and given us into the hand of Midian.”

This battle was the answer to Gideon’s question. The Lord was still with his people and he was still ready to perform acts of wonders to free them from oppression.

But there are other words that should also be remembered. These were the words of the Lord brought by the prophet to Israel even before the angel appeared to Gideon: 

Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel: I led you up from Egypt and brought you out of the house of slavery. I delivered you from the hand of the Egyptians and from the hand of all who oppressed you, and drove them out before you and gave you their land. At that time I said to you, “I am the Lord your God; you shall not fear the gods of the Amorites in whose land you dwell.”
But you have not obeyed my voice. (Judges 6:8-10) 

These words of the Lord still apply today. God still stands ready to help his people. In the days of Gideon, the people of God were known as the Israelites, and it is through how God dealt with the Israelites that we learn how God works among his people.

The Israelites of those days are an example or even a pattern for us. However, since the days of Jesus Christ, the people of God are not identified by nationality, but by faith in Jesus. The Apostle Paul tells us: 

In Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise. (Galatians 3:26-29 NIV) 

These words tells us that there are absolutely no distinctions among whom God calls his people. There is no race of people that is more distinct than another, no social standing, nor is gender important. God’s people today consist of all of those belonging to Christ, baptized into him and clothed with him.

Who is it today who are the chosen people of God? If you are in Christ, you are a chosen one of God.

Jesus said to us, “You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you so that you might go and bear fruit—fruit that will last—and so that whatever you ask in my name the Father will give you” (John 15:16 NIV)

God is still waiting to intervene in our lives to free us from the things that oppress us, but the conditions that the prophet said to the Israelites in the days of Gideon still apply today. God told the people of that day that they had become oppressed by the Midianites because they had not obeyed his voice.

We have the same problem today. We still have not learned to obey the voice of God.

After Jesus told us that we have been chosen in him, he added one more phrase. It is his commandment to us. Will you hear it? Will you obey it?

Jesus says to us, “This is my commandment—love one another.”

How are you doing with that commandment?

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