Understanding Gideon and the Fleece

The story of Gideon’s fleece is well known. For a long time I didn’t really understand it, because it seemed like Gideon was testing God. But I recently re-read the account, and noticed an earlier encounter between Gideon and the Lord that provides valuable context for the later episodes of the fleece.

Backing up a little, we find that the Israelites were in a tough place. They were being attacked by Midianites because of disobedience, and so cried out to the Lord. He sent a prophet who spoke of their sins. In Judges 6:10 God states through the prophet that the Israelites “have not obeyed Me”. Because of their sin, God had given them into the hands of Midian for seven years (6:1).

To understand their sin better, we need to know that the literal Hebrew reads “you have not listened to My voice”. Right after being delivered from Egypt, God told the Israelites to carefully heed His voice (Ex. 15:26) . So in effect, Israel was disobeying one of God’s first and most basic commands to them. After all, one cannot love the Lord with all one’s heart, soul, and strength, and at the same time not listen to Him.

Following the account of the prophet’s message, Gideon was visited and given his commission. After the Lord spoke to him, Gideon asked for a sign, which he received when he prepared a sacrifice and it was miraculously consumed by flame. The fleece events came later, but this episode gives us a clue into Gideon’s motives. Let’s look at it more closely.

When God told Gideon that he would defeat Midian, Gideon at first expressed doubt because of his own place in life. However, God explained that it would be possible because the Lord Himself would be with him. This addressed Gideon’s concern, but then Gideon faced one more doubt: he wanted to make sure that it was truly God speaking. In verse 6:17 Gideon said: “… show me a sign that it is You who speak with me”. In effect, Gideon asked for assurance that he was hearing God’s voice, and not something else. Gideon was testing his own perception, not God.

Compare this to the prophet’s pronouncement against Israel as a whole — that they were not listening to God.

This paints a very clear contrast between Gideon’s faithfulness and Israel’s disobedience. While they were ignoring God, Gideon was doing everything he could to make sure he was hearing Him correctly. Once convinced that it was God speaking to him, Gideon wasted no time in obeying. The rest, as they say, is history.

Is there a lesson here? I think so.

We can error in testing God and constantly asking for signs, if this is acting from unbelief like the Pharisees (Matt. 12:38-39). Allowing something else to take the place of a personal relationship with God in this way can become a form of idolatry. But we’re told to “test the spirits”, and that seems to be exactly what Gideon was doing. Obviously, we should always test against the Word, but the Word is full of signs that are used to point to God. Instead of being dogmatic with either approach, let’s be discerning and let God reveal Himself according to His will, not ours.

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