In the Bible, there is a phrase that angels of the Lord say, either in their first or second line, in their dealings with the people God sends them to:
“Do not be afraid.”
Think of all the angels who appear to people in the Christmas story: Zechariah, Mary, Joseph, the shepherds. Each of them is told not to be afraid, either of the angel itself or of the situation they find themselves in.
Zechariah is punished for asking “how can it be?” while Mary is not, but usually, the people visited by angels go forth in faith. We praise those who quickly respond with Mary’s attitude, “I am the Lord’s servant. May everything you have said about me come true” (Luke 1:38 NLT). We teach our kids these stories in hopes that they’ll emulate that faithful response.
But how about those who are visited by an angel of the Lord, or by the Lord himself, and come right back with a cranky challenge?
I’m not talking about those like Moses and Jeremiah, whose objections are the personal, “Who am I to do this?”
I’m talking about Gideon.
When the angel appears to Gideon (in Judges 6), the Israelites have been living under the cruel thumb of the Midianites for seven years. The “marauders from the east” have trampled all the crops they could find, and stolen all the animals that produced food. The Israelites are starving. Gideon’s family has managed to harvest some wheat, and he’s threshing it in a wine press to keep it hidden from the Midianites.
Normally, threshing wheat is a public event. The wheat stalks are spread out on a flat, open place, and oxen or donkeys pulling a sledge are driven back and forth until the wheat kernels have been separated from the chaff and the straw. Then the chopped-up mess is tossed in the air so the lighter bits are blown away in the breeze and just the wheat kernels are left. But Gideon couldn’t afford to give such a public sign that they’d managed to harvest a crop, so he went into a wine press.
Many wine presses at that time consisted of a flat place hewn into rock where they piled the grapes, with a channel that led to a lower hewn hole into which the juices would flow. Gideon was most likely crouched in this lower area, threshing his wheat by gathering the stalks into bunches and beating the heads against the stone floor or walls of the hole (“Gideon was beating out wheat in the wine press, to hide it from the Midianites,” [Judges 6:11 NRSV]).
Let’s imagine that his family managed to harvest five armfuls of wheat stalks, and that there were twenty handfuls in each armful. So 100 times, Gideon grabbed a handful of stalks and whacked it as hard as he could 20 times before all the kernels had fallen to the floor. Let’s further imagine that he’s doing this at the safest time: the heat of the day, when most people (including their enemies) would take a break from heavy physical activity. The wheat harvest happened during our June and July, when temperatures reached the mid-80s(F) and there wasn’t a cloud in the sky. This was painstaking, tiring, sweaty work.
And lonely. Usually, in the Bible, harvest is a time of celebration, of community togetherness. But they can’t afford to tip off their enemies, so Gideon is alone in a hole, working hard in the heat of the day.
Along comes an angel of the Lord: “The Lord is with you, you mighty warrior” (v.12).
Gideon is not impressed.
“But sir, if the Lord is with us, why then has all this happened to us? And where are all his wonderful deeds that our ancestors recounted to us, saying, ‘Did not the Lord bring us up from Egypt?’ But now the Lord has cast us off, and given us into the hand of Midian” (v.13).
I imagine Gideon not even raising his head, and his tone being much more, “Oh yeah? What’s God done for us lately?” than “excuse me, sir.” That is gutsy.
But Gideon doesn’t stop there. When the angel commissions Gideon to lead the fight against the Midianites, Gideon objects that his family is the least in their clan and he is the least in his family. The angel of the Lord is clear that God will be with him and he will be successful, and Gideon responds by giving him a test.
The angel passes the test, successfully incinerating a soaking wet sacrifice, and finally Gideon has the usual angel-reaction:
“When Gideon realized that it was the angel of the Lord, he cried out, ‘Oh, Sovereign Lord, I’m doomed! I have seen the angel of the Lord face to face!’
‘It is all right,’ the Lord replied. ‘Do not be afraid’” (v.22-23).
Even after the Spirit of the Lord has “clothed Gideon with power,” the man goes on to test the Lord two more times before he’ll totally commit to fighting the Midianites. That is beyond gutsy, but the Lord lets him do it without comment.
One could say that the Lord’s comment was to make Gideon winnow down his army of 32,000 men to 300 so they’d all know that the victory was the Lord’s, but Gideon gets no punishment for his cranky, wary response to the Lord. He leads the people to overwhelming victory, and there is peace during his lifetime.
So what do we do with this cranky, wary hero of the faith?
Do we feel emboldened to challenge the Lord? To design tests for God to pass before we do anything? I don’t feel comfortable with either of those as recommendations.
But I do feel encouraged that God had so much compassion for this exhausted and besieged Israelite who had no hope and no direct experience with God’s rescue, that God let this man test Him again and again and again and still followed through on His promises and blessed the entire nation because of Gideon’s faithful actions.
Because sometimes I feel stuck and hopeless, which makes me cranky and wary, and skeptical about the promise of help. And it’s good to know that God can have compassion for His children when we’re in that state, and that He will still use us, and still bless us.