The first reading for today’s liturgy (Judges 6:11-24a), about Gideon being commissioned by the angel of the Lord to destroy the Midianites, is one of those texts that doesn’t sit well with our modern sensibilities because of the violence it has God demanding, but it is also a powerful and important text. The background of the story is that Israel is under the rule of the Midianites, and Gideon is using the wine press to thresh his wheat, so the Midianites don’t see it and force him to give it to them as tribute. The angel of the Lord shows up and hails Gideon in language reminiscent of that used with Mary in LK 1: “The Lord is with you, O champion!” Gideon doesn’t bite the hook, though, saying, “My Lord, if the LORD is with us, why has all this happened to us? Where are his wondrous deeds of which our fathers told us when they said, ‘Did not the LORD bring us up from Egypt?’ For now the LORD has abandoned us and has delivered us into the power of Midian.” This is Jewish theodicy at its best, and something that Christianity has largely lost. The Christian “tri-omni” God-image (omniscient, omnipresent, and omnipotent) tends to make God seem unchanging, which doesn’t leave us with much room to be angry with God, to vent our anger and grief, since God can’t be to blame. The Old Testament tradition, though, denies neither the reality of God nor the reality of their sufferings. This God is wild, unpredictable, changeable, and may well need to be called back to keeping God’s promises, as Jeremiah (“You have duped me, O Lord, and I have allowed myself to be duped”) and the lament psalms (“How long, O Lord?”), among other texts, so well point out.
The angel’s only response is to tell Gideon to do something about it – “Go with the strength you have and save Israel from the power of Midian.” Whereas the angel addresses Gideon as “champion,” however, Gideon turns the image around and asks how this can be (again reminiscent of Mary’s interaction with the angel in LK 1) since his family is “the lowliest in Manasseh,” (itself a half-tribe) and he is “the most insignificant” in his father’s house. If he had read his Old Testament, he would know that this is how God works – always choosing the underdog: the barren woman, the enslaved nation, the younger son. David would be chosen the same way: the youngest son in a family from the tiny tribe of Benjamin.
What happens next is interesting, if confusing: As a sign, the angel has Gideon prepare an offering of unleavened bread and a kid goat, and the angel accepts it, burning up the offering and then disappearing. Gideon apparently only now realizes that he had been speaking with the angel of the Lord, and is terrified that he would die for having seen such a being face-to-face (as was the common belief in that time – see EX 33:23), only to be told, “Be calm, (literally, “Shalom,”) do not fear,” again, just as in Mary’s encounter with the angel. Memory is important for hope, because it roots hope in God’s saving actions in the past – who God is for these people is disclosed by what God does, and what God does is save, usually via the underdog.
On a side note, it is noteworthy how much of this follows Joseph Campbell’s “monomyth” – his term for the standard thread of themes that appear across cultures and eras in stories of heroes, shamans and prophets, as laid out in his classic work The Hero With a Thousand Faces. Campbell’s “normal world” here is Gideon as a nobody in the middle of nowhere, working on the family farm in a quiet, if unsatisfying, situation. Think Luke Skywalker dreaming about adventure and fighting the Empire while being stuck living on his aunt and uncle’s farm on a planet in the middle of nowhere. When the “call to adventure” (as Campbell calls it) comes, whether as “Go with the strength you have and save Israel from the power of Midian” or “You must come with me to Alderaan,” neither young hero is ready to step up, despite all the brave talk; Gideon responds with, “Please, my lord, how can I save Israel?” while Luke’s version is, “I can’t go to Alderaan – I have work to do.” This motif, which Campbell calls the “refusal of the call,” is the same kind of thing we see with Moses (the burning bush and Moses’ objection that he doesn’t speak well) and Jeremiah (the word of the Lord coming to him, and his response that he is too young), among numerous others in and out of the Bible. The hero isn’t let off the hook so easily, though, and is convinced (or, more likely, forced) to fulfill the role chosen for him.