IN MANY WAYS, Gideon was a great man. Cautious when the Lord first called him, he took the first steps of obedience at night (Judg. 6). Then, filled with the Spirit of God (Judg. 6:34), and convinced by two extraordinary signs that God was with him (Judge. 6: 36-40), he led his divinely reduced band of three hundred men in an extraordinary victory over the Midianites (Judg. 7).
Yet for all his greatness, Gideon represents something of what is going wrong with the nation. Deep flaws of character and inconsistency multiply and fester, so that by the end of the book the entire nation is in a very bad way.
In the first incident of Judges 8, Gideon comes off well, the Ephraimites pretty badly. No one was willing to fight the Midianites before God raised up Gideon. Now that victory under Gideon has already been so stunning, the Ephraimites abuse him for not inviting them into the fray earlier. He responds diplomatically, praising their efforts in the latter part of the operation, and they are appeased (Judg. 8: 1-3). At the towns of Succoth and Peniel, neither the towns nor Gideon appear in a very good light (Judg. 8:4-9, 13-17). The townspeople are cowardly, unprincipled, and willing to sit on the fence until they see which way the winds are blowing.
For all the justice of Gideon’s response, however, he seems more than a little vindictive. When it comes to the execution of the Midianite kings Zebah and Zalmunna (Judg. 8:18-21), his decision is based less on principles of public justice or on the Lord’s commands regarding the cleansing of the land than on personal vengeance: his own brothers had been killed in the war.
On the one hand, Gideon does not seem to be power hungry. He turns down the popular acclamation that would have made him king on the grounds that the Lord alone is to rule over this covenant nation (Judg. 8:22-23). But then he stumbles badly. He makes his request for gold earrings, and ends up with such a hoard that he constructs an elaborate ephod, an outer vestment adorned with more than forty pounds of gold. The state of religion in Israel is so deplorable that soon this ephod has become an idolatrous object of worship, not only for the nation but even for Gideon’s family (Judg. 8:27). The covenantal allegiance he maintains in the nation is partial.
There is worse trouble brewing. He takes not two or three wives, but many and has seventy sons. Upon his death, the nation returns to unrestrained paganism and displays ugly ingratitude toward Gideon’s family (Judg. 8:33-35). And one of his sons, Abimelech, turns out to be a cruel, power-hungry butcher (Judg. 9).