CultureWatch

Bill Muehlenberg's commentary on issues of the day...

Difficult Bible Passages: Judges 6:36-40

May 20, 2011

The difficulty of this text really lies in its application. Are Christians today to make use of this method when they seek to discover God’s will? The passage is the familiar story of Gideon using a fleece to find out if Yahweh would be with him in battle.

While even today it is common to talk about “putting out a fleece,” we as believers need to ask what we should make of Gideon’s attempt to find God’s will this way, and if indeed he was even in the will of God to seek to do so. Was he engaged in faith or presumption?

That is, is it ever appropriate for Christians today to say something like this? “God, if you make someone knock on my door in ten minutes time, inquiring about our house, I will then know it is your will to sell this house.” Is this a valid method? Or is it improperly putting God to the test?

Indeed, is this a valid and spiritually-acceptable method of determining God’s will? Was Gideon right to employ it? May we do the same today? These are all good questions, so in order to properly answer them, it is of course necessary to look more closely at the Judges passage.

The full story is found in Judges 6-8, and needs to be read in context. The Midianites and others had come to challenge Israel. We are told in 6:11-12 how Yahweh had appeared to Gideon. It is actually a bit humorous. The angel of the Lord appears to him and says, “The Lord is with you, mighty warrior”.

Yet Gideon had effectively been hiding from the Midianites in the threshing room. Not much of a warrior there! God often graciously condescends to our lowly and humble estate. The first thing Gideon says is, “Hey, if the Lord is with us, then why are we in such a pickle” or words to that effect (v. 13).

The Lord says he will use him to defeat the Midianites. In response Gideon asks for a sign (v. 17). Yahweh agreed and performed a clear revelatory sign for him. Emboldened by this, at God’s command, he tore down some pagan altars which never should have been there.

The locals made a stink about this but Gideon stood his ground. It is after all this that we read about the Midianites and others crossing over the Jordon, as they had done before (v. 33). It is at this point that Gideon asks for the sign of the fleece.

He tells Yahweh: If this fleece will be dew-soaked while the rest of the ground stays dry, then I will know that you have sent me and will be with me. And sure enough, the next morning he finds the fleece soaking wet, while the ground next to it is dry.

But the story does not stop there. In vv. 39-40 we read: “Then Gideon said to God, ‘Do not be angry with me. Let me make just one more request. Allow me one more test with the fleece, but this time make the fleece dry and let the ground be covered with dew.’ That night God did so. Only the fleece was dry; all the ground was covered with dew.”

In chapters 7 and 8 we read about how Gideon defeated the Midianites, after of course he greatly pared down his numbers so that God would get the glory, not him. So his original army of 32,000 men was shrunk to just 300. There are of course wonderful spiritual lessons to be drawn from that as well.

But the fleece episode, and the earlier sign which Gideon asked for, can now be more properly assessed. Were these requests legitimate? Were they acts of faith or maybe indications of unbelief? Are they something which believers today should emulate?

A few things seem to be clear about this episode. First, this was actually not about discerning God’s will, or discovering what God wanted. Yahweh had already clearly told Gideon what he was going to do. All Gideon had to do was agree with God about this and get on with the job.

But instead Gideon had to go through three different tests before he actually does what he is supposed to do. He was not exactly acting in faith here. So if we take this as an example for us today, we can only use it as far as it is used there. That is, God’s will has already been revealed, and we are just wanting confirmation about it.

Also, it seems this whole episode is one about a lack of faith – even unbelief. Simply having the angel of the Lord appearing to him should have been enough. Then he got another miraculous sign from Yahweh: the divine fire consuming the meat and the bread.

Yet he still wanted another, double, confirmatory sign. He was probably aware of how this may not have been pleasing to God when he said, “Do not be angry with me…” If he was doing something patently acceptable in Yahweh’s sight, there would have been no need to make such a statement.

Indeed, twice Gideon says that God had promised that he would deliver Israel through himself (vv. 36, 37), but in spite of this promise which he was fully aware of, he still puts God to the test by demanding more signs. This was not an act of faith but of unbelief.

Lastly, we of course have no clear New Testament example of, or command for, such a test. Instead, we have Jesus and the apostles downplaying this, and at times getting upset when people asked for a sign. As Jesus complained, “A wicked and adulterous generation looks for a miraculous sign, but none will be given it except the sign of Jonah” (Matt 16:4). Or as Paul said, “Jews demand miraculous signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles” (1 Cor 1:22,23).

In sum, as K.L. Younger remarks, this fleecing “is nothing short of a pagan divinatory test of the deity.” He continues, “The fleece incidents are far from a model for the discernment of God’s will. . . . His problem is his lack of willingness to trust the lord, to take him at his word. Thus the fleece incidents are about Gideon’s unbelief and stubbornness in response to God’s call. In such cases, God is not obligated to respond, and if he does, it is only by grace. Those who use this passage as a means of discerning God’s will are simply misapplying Scripture.”

Of course all this is not to say that God cannot and does not provide signs. Indeed, in biblical times miracles were primarily used as confirmatory signs of divine revelation. Today however Christians are not to depend on signs and wonders as they seek God’s will. Thus we need to be careful here.

As Herbert Wolf comments, “If this ‘fleece’ consists of a careful observation and interpretation of God’s leading through circumstances, the procedure can be a healthy one. But Gideon’s method was to make purely arbitrary demands of God, and insist on immediate guidance. Such an approach can hardly be recommended for Christians today.”

Instead, like most aspects of the Christian life, there is the long hard slog of doing what is right, having strong faith, and persevering, even when things are not always perfectly clear as to the way ahead. There are no short cuts to spirituality, in other words.

Daily trusting God, denying ourselves, and remaining obedient and faithful, that is the stuff of the normal Christian life. And that is the stuff of seeking God’s will. God may well choose to confirm his will with a sign of some sort, but that tends to be the exception to the rule.

Learning how to trust God, walk with God, and depend on him, even in the darker times or when things are not always crystal clear, is how God is mainly glorified and how we mainly are to follow him today. So it seems that putting out a fleece to discover God’s will is not what believers today should be doing.

[1370 words]

10 Responses to Difficult Bible Passages: Judges 6:36-40

  • Good article, Bill. It brings my mind back to another article you wrote recently where you referred to Elijah’s feats on Mt. Carmel. All the miracles that happened that day had absolutely no effect at all on the attitude of Queen Jezebel who issued the following day a death threat against Elijah, obviously not cowed by the show of God’s might the day before. In this lies the fallacy of great signs. Some people follow around after signs (Even though the Scriptures say signs will follow believers, not the other way around!) and other people who need more the evidence of the sign completely ignore them.

    The moral of the story? I suspect we should not be putting faith in signs. They will follow, but if we wait for them we might never get started…

    John Symons

  • Quite so John.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  • A very helpful article is The Spiritual Life and Divine Guidance by Hebrew Christian scholar Dr Arnold Fruchtenbaum.
    Jonathan Sarfati, US

  • Thanks for the 3 articles Bill with sound advice. My church shall be doing 4 talks on the will of God starting on Sunday the 5/6/11. These will be based partly on the book you recommended “Just Do Something: How to Make a Decision Without Dreams, Visions, Fleeces, Open Doors, Random Bible Verses, Casting Lots, Liver Shivers, Writing in the Sky, etc. by Keven De Young. Talks will be available at http://www.scpc.org.au/ to listen to or download, and I will post a link to them via my Facebook wall as well.
    David Roberts

  • I think the most important point out of the Gideon example to take is God’s attitude. God was willing to stoop down and use such a coward and was gracious to his unbelief. It is a good example for those of us Christians who are timid to know that God will work with our weakness and perform mighty acts despite our unwillingness to follow immediately.
    Aaron Downs

  • Thanks Aaron

    Yes I agree, but believers should not press your point too far. There is no doubt that God graciously deals with us all the time, even despite our cowardice and unbelief. But both these traits are in fact sins, and Gideon was clearly being sinful as he displayed these two characteristics. So while we can rejoice about how gracious God is to us, none of us should take that as a green light to continue in the sins of unbelief and cowardice.

    BTW, lest someone ask if cowardice is in fact sinful, note how it tops the list of these sins in Rev. 21:8. Interestingly, the next sin mentioned is unbelief.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  • Having been personally guilty of do just this thing in the past, I have to agree with you, Bill, on your assessment of it. Both times I did this, I knew what I was being called to do, but lacked a confidence to do it. Basically I was lacking in faith. It was all about what I did not think that I could do, rather than simple obedience.

    In putting out a fleece, all I really learnt was that God won’t let you get away with excuses for not doing as you have been called to do, and that he has grace to those who need to grow in their faith. If you keep applying this method of confirming, or discerning God’s will then you are clearly not growing in faith. Whatever is not of faith is sin (Rom 14:23), so yes it is a sin issue rather than a spiritually acceptable method of knowing God’s will. It is not something a spiritually mature Christian ought to be doing.

    Mark Bachelor

  • Thanks for sharing Mark

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  • I have to admit that I put out a bit of a fleece just today and God graciously responded so emphatically just in the way I had requested. It was a confirmation that God wanted me to do something uncomfortable and once He had made His will abundantly clear, there was no easy way out but to obey. I agree that it’s not the most ideal plan to be expecting God to respond to fleeces before you do things but I love that He will come through and keep you on track if you need confirmation sometimes.
    Dee Graf

  • I think there is a difference between wanting a confirmation of God’s will for you when you are not sure about something and putting out a fleece, asking for dramatic confirmations when you are clear about God’s will, but are lacking faith and courage to obey.

    Gideon already had a direct word and a confirmation before he set out the fleece, as Bill points out.

    Mark Bachelor

Leave a Reply