Becoming What We Worship
The book of Judges poses many interpretive challenges for any student of Scripture. Filled with stories of the grotesque and the tragic—the rape and subsequent division of the Levite’s concubine into twelve pieces in Judges 19, the undoing of mighty Samson, or the story of Jephthah and his vow to offer up one of his own children as a burnt offering in Judges 11—the contents challenge any contemporary reader's sensibilities.
Despite these interpretive difficulties and challenges, the book of Judges reveals the all-too human story of our propensity towards fashioning gods to our liking, and the consequences that ensue from these misplaced affections. Perhaps no story is more poignant, in this regard, than the story of Gideon. Born the youngest son of the smallest tribe of Israel, the half-tribe of Mannaseh, Gideon grew up in a land oppressed by the Midianites, the Amalekites and the "sons of the east" (Judges 6:3). The text tells us these enemies were so numerous that they "would come in like locusts...both they and their camels were innumerable; and they came into the land to devastate it" (6:5-6).
It is for this reason that we find Gideon threshing wheat in a wine press, hiding from his innumerable enemy. After all, he is the youngest son of the smallest tribe. Despite his youth and his seeming insignificance, Gideon is visited by an angelic visitor who addresses him as a "valiant warrior." Gideon is to be the deliverer of Israel. Sure enough, as the text tells us, Gideon and a mere three hundred men defeat the innumerable armies of their enemies. Gideon is the unlikely hero and the Israelites are so impressed by his military leadership that they seek to make him king. "Rule over us, both you and your son, also your son's son, for you have delivered us from the hand of Midian" (8:22). But Gideon rightly persuades the Israelites that God is their king and deliverer. Had the text ended there, we would never see the clay feet of our story's hero.
The narrative doesn't tell the reader why Gideon does what he does next, but rather than be rewarded by becoming king over Israel, he instead opts for a monetary remuneration and exacts a spoil from the men who came to make him their ruler: a gold earring from each one totaling 1,700 shekels of gold. Today, that amount is roughly the equivalent of three million dollars. But these earrings were in addition to all the spoils of war Gideon had already collected from the slain Midianites: crescent ornaments, pendants, purple robes, and even bands from the camels’ necks. And he used this gold to craft a monument of sorts to himself—a golden ephod or decorative vestment—which he then had placed in his home city, Ophrah. While the text is not explicit about the reasons for making this costly and precious vestment, the outcome was disastrous. "Gideon made an ephod, and placed it in his city, Ophrah, and all Israel played the harlot with it there, so that it became a snare to Gideon and his household" (8:27).
While there are many applications to be drawn out of the story of Gideon, one cannot help but see the warning about the perils of misplaced affections; a desire for honor became the snare for all of Israel and perpetuated their propensity towards giving worship and honor to that which was nothing more than an idol. Subtle and seemingly innocuous, human desires can quickly become entities we worship. It is a reminder to ask: What are our desires, and what do they tell us about what we love?
Ralph Waldo Emerson once said, "A person will worship something, have no doubt about that. We may think our tribute is paid in secret in the dark recesses of our hearts, but it will out. That which dominates our imaginations and our thoughts will determine our lives, and our character. Therefore, it behooves us to be careful what we worship, for what we are worshipping we are becoming." Human beings all have the potential to form ephods, just as Gideon did. But the things we worship and revere are far from innocuous, as Emerson warns. Indeed, long before Emerson, the prophet from Galilee warned that "where our treasure is, there will our hearts be also" (Matthew 6:21). Eventually, what dominates our innermost thoughts and imaginations comes forth as that to which we give our allegiance and devotion. Do we love what ensnares, or what liberates?
Margaret Manning Shull is an adjunct speaker with RZIM based in Washington.