Gideon’s Cellphone (Judg. 6-7)

As we have already discussed, the Book of Judges contains the stories of the Israelites’ leaders (termed “judges”). One of them, who possesses a more memorable name (at least to this blogger), mostly thanks to the Supreme Court case and Anthony Lewis book, is Gideon.

From the tribe of Manasseh, Gideon is called by God again—why else?—to bring the Israelites’ away from their wandering ways. Not having witnessed enough miracles, perhaps, the Israelites have fallen away from God’s ways, and need someone to help them back into goodness.

Although Gideon is an unlikely choice—he demurs when God first asks him, claiming his clan is the “weakest” and he is “the least in [his] family” (Judg. 6:15), God nevertheless pushes him into leadership. His initial recruitment effort is conducted via an angel, who visited Gideon and “sat down under the oak in Ophrah that belonged to Joash the Abiezrite” (Judg. 6:11) while Gideon was threshing wheat. At first Gideon doesn’t recognize the angel—does this sound familiar?—but eventually he sees God’s presence.

What happens next is not entirely clear—at least as far as how Gideon and God keep communicating. Evidently there is still a conversation going; even after the angel leaves, Gideon and God, in fact, seem to be having a continuous, rapid-fire chat throughout chapter 7 of Judges. So how does Gideon keep up his divine conversation? He apparently needs a lot of instruction and evidence, as God’s first miracle with a dewy fleece (don’t ask) requires a little further divine busywork. He also has to follow God’s rather counterintuitive commands—God requires him to bring less men to a battle—for God’s own self-serving glorification.

In the relative terms of the Old Testament, this is an otherwise unremarkable story. But let’s focus on what happens here a little close; and let’s just imagine, practically, how this story would have gone. For, unlike some other Old Testament prophets, Gideon acts not with a grand vision of God’s will, or from singular inspirational meetings—say, with a burning bush or like Abram was inspired, in a “vision”—but he rather (and I’m only being slightly facetious here) seems to interact with God as if they were texting or chatting on the phone. The exchanges, after the ostensible departure of the angel, are frequent; God is handling battlefield management in a rather heavyhanded manner.

So perhaps, then, was Gideon texting God? Or maybe he got on Gchat? (Perhaps God’s status, like mine, is always set to “busy,” too.) I know this seems stupid. Of course Gideon would not have a cellphone. You’re right, but it doesn’t take much of a leap of faith, either, to imagine Gideon with a cellphone than in some kind of direct-line communication with the divine. Was God entering his thoughts? Was the angel still there, invisible, talking to Gideon? After initial angel visit, the book doesn’t even bother to tell us how God is communicating with his prophet; even if we are under the assumption that Gideon was acting with “divine inspiration,” why so many specific commands and quotations? If we follow the general rubric of the prophets acting under divine inspiration—and I’m not arguing against that—we must then be a little fudgy with how we treat these explicit commands.

Maybe I can be clearer with an example. At one point in the story God tells Gideon “You have too many men. I cannot deliver Midian into their hands, or Israel would boast against me, ‘My own strength has saved me.’” Are we to take God’s words as they are exactly rendered here? Or are we to assume that somehow Gideon got the gist of what God was saying? And how then to deal with God’s reason for wanting fewer men? This seems awfully a lot like jealousy to me. Is this how God should really be? Or is this Gideon’s interpellation?

Gideon’s story, like many stories of divine “inspiration,” raise many uncomfortable questions, which are easy to miss—perhaps because they could be asked with many passages. A critical eye should catch them for what they are, though: holes.

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