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Corporal Jones: ever the man for a crisis

God is an idiosyncratic manager of the resources at his disposal, but then again, perhaps he has to be, as the numbers often don’t stack up in our favour

Reading the Book of Judges is an unsettling experience for it contains the kind of casual, gratuitous violence normally associated with a modern American film. The Hollywood phenomenon of ear-splitting, body-eviscerating special effects has been dubbed post-human cinema, presumably because subtle human emotion doesn’t get a look in. If the modern blockbuster is post-human, there are grounds for describing Judges as pre-human as the same principles seem to be at work. Samson symbolises this tendency, with his Die Hard prequel aimed at the Philistines.
This was an especially gory period in the history of ancient Israel prior to the emergence of the charismatic and itinerant prophet Samuel. There is a succinct ending to Judges where the narrator says: ‘in those days Israel had no king; everyone did what was right in their own eyes’. The lack of a unifying leader ruling in the character of God led to moral anarchy, where people decided for themselves what was right and wrong – a tune with strong echoes of our post-modern world. This moral relativism led to terrible abuses in Judges which make it painful reading.

Yet in the heart of this blood-fest lies the story of Gideon, whose ineptitude is both endearing and oddly encouraging. Having raised up a series of warriors to defend Israel, God chooses Gideon, who fits into the mould of superhero as readily as Dad’s Army’s Corporal Jones fits into the SAS. He is first encountered threshing corn in a winepress, which immediately raises questions. To thresh corn, the free flow of wind is needed, which cannot be obtained in a closed space. Then we realise Gideon was trying to hide from the raiding Midianites, who were plundering the land. He was rather like Milhouse from the Simpsons, a weedy kind of nerd who is always being picked on by the neighbourhood bullies. Until, that is, an angel of God appears, calling Gideon a mighty warrior.

Gideon’s response is characteristically self-effacing, claiming he is from the weakest clan of the weakest tribe in Israel. This is typical of how we view our contribution to the work of God. While humility is called for in Christians, it is not served by a lack of trust which impedes the strengthening power of the Holy Spirit. For the angel to describe Gideon as a mighty warrior looks tongue in cheek, as if the reader is invited to collude in humiliating a fearful and cowardly man. Yet we have been given the same unambiguous message:
‘we are more than conquerors’ in Christ, according to Romans 8. Either God is having a laugh at our expense, or we need to absorb a sure promise. We don’t embrace promises of power easily in the Church, as if it doesn’t fit with being our English traits of irony and self-depracation. Yet who we are in Christ should transcend our national culture.

Before he can take the fight to the Midianites, Gideon is invited by God to prove his worth closer to home. His father had built an idolatrous altar to the Canaanite god, Baal, and Gideon was tasked with tearing it down. His response to the challenge was in keeping with his character: he took some of his own servants and demolished the altar under cover of darkness, for fear of reprisal. He also showed his tactical naivety by using ten other men, because one of them was bound to talk in the morning when the act of vandalism became known. When the vigilante mob comes for Gideon, he is found cowering in the family home, leaving his father to defend Gideon for the action his son had taken against him. It can’t have been a pretty sight.

Often in spiritual formation, we have to show we are capable of winning small battles before being tasked with larger ones. Jesus himself spoke of people needing to show themselves faithful in small things before God will trust them with more. The notable thing about these first steps is the way they are often barely won. We scrape by with our fingernails, wondering how on earth God could use us on a bigger stage. Gideon should have been left with the photocopying after this incident. Instead, he is put in charge of Israel; an outcome we should remember when we next screw up.

This leads us to the incident for which Gideon is famed: the tactic with the fleece. We sense a man woefully ill at ease; a rookie sinking in the deep end of the pool while others swim around him. Even as he marshals troops for war, he begins desperate last minute negotiations with God. Are you really asking me to do this or am I imagining it? He clumsily puts a fleece out overnight, saying to God, if you want me to lead Israel into battle, let the fleece be wet and the surrounding ground dry in the morning and at daybreak it is just so. Like some comic book ditherer, Gideon tries the reverse trick the next night, requesting God that by next morning the fleece would be dry and the ground wet. Once again it is just so. Frame by frame, Gideon is backed into a corner by God.

His use of the mat looks crude and manipulative and speaks of Gideon’s desperate wish to be relinquished of this role. Yet in defence of him, he did not have written scriptures to help him in his task, as we do. At least Gideon consulted the mat; many of us do
not bother to consult the Bible to discern God’s will, relying on the unsteady clichés of modern life in its place.

Gideon might reasonably have thought his fear would now be assuaged, but God’s sense of mischief was only just underway. Gideon would have prided himself on raising an army of thirty-two thousand men and found some solace in numbers, yet God calls him to whittle this number down, stage by stage, to a laughable three hundred. It is common today for conflicts to be managed by small numbers of elite troops in what is called the light footprint. This was no forerunner of modern warfare, however, because these men were untrained and arbitrarily selected; this footprint was so light it would have taken a forensic scientist to uncover. It was like the England football manager selecting a team of three men – one goalkeeper, one midfielder and one forward – to play Spain. It is fair to say that God is an idiosyncratic manager of the resources at his disposal, but then again perhaps he has to be, for the numbers so rarely stack up on our side.

Finally, using a tactical cunning he had previously lacked, Gideon struck at night in the heart of the Midianite camp and, using the weapons of noise and confusion, put his enemies to flight.

The story surrounding Gideon usually ends here, but he has more to tell us. On his return, the people lobby him to reign over them as king. Gideon commendably refuses the request to make himself the figurehead for a battle won by the Lord, but succumbs to a related temptation which diminishes him. As a consolation for turning them down, he asks the people to give him the ear-rings claimed as the spoils of war and proceeds to make an ephod (a garment worn by a priest) out of them. Scripture says: ‘all Israel prostituted themselves to it there, and it became a snare to Gideon and his family’.

This ephod became the material representation of their victory and, subtly, the people transferred their trust in an invisible God to the veneration of a posh frock. This remains a clear warning not to put our trust in the accessories of faith but in the author of faith himself. It is a sobering example of how some people achieve great things for God, only to stumble over a stupid mistake afterwards, which tarnishes their reputation in God. St. Paul asked the Ephesians to ‘take up the whole armour of God...and having done everything, to stand firm.’ It’s the lap of honour in athletics where the legs often turn to jelly and the hurdler can no longer clear hurdles he could breeze past only moments earlier.
Gideon took on impossible odds because he understood, in the spirit of the Nike slogan, that ‘impossible is nothing’ when God enters the equation. Our world is dominated by risk assessment, where the goal is to eliminate conceivable threats. The history of God’s involvement with the world concerns people who were prepared to defy palpable risks because they trusted in the goodness and guidance of God. Does our faith transcend this process of risk assessment? Or does it only find expression when we have eliminated risk? There is a mature debate to be had around this question in our churches today.



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