Idolater

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Offer a prayer of worship to God, acknowledging who he is and what he has done.

Bible passage

Judges 8:22–35

Gideon’s ephod

22 The Israelites said to Gideon, ‘Rule over us – you, your son and your grandson – because you have saved us from the hand of Midian.’

23 But Gideon told them, ‘I will not rule over you, nor will my son rule over you. The Lord will rule over you.’ 24 And he said, ‘I do have one request, that each of you give me an earring from your share of the plunder.’ (It was the custom of the Ishmaelites to wear gold earrings.)

25 They answered, ‘We’ll be glad to give them.’ So they spread out a garment, and each of them threw a ring from his plunder onto it. 26 The weight of the gold rings he asked for came to seventeen hundred shekels, not counting the ornaments, the pendants and the purple garments worn by the kings of Midian or the chains that were on their camels’ necks. 27 Gideon made the gold into an ephod, which he placed in Ophrah, his town. All Israel prostituted themselves by worshipping it there, and it became a snare to Gideon and his family.

Gideon’s death

28 Thus Midian was subdued before the Israelites and did not raise its head again. During Gideon’s lifetime, the land had peace for forty years.

29 Jerub-Baal son of Joash went back home to live. 30 He had seventy sons of his own, for he had many wives. 31 His concubine, who lived in Shechem, also bore him a son, whom he named Abimelek. 32 Gideon son of Joash died at a good old age and was buried in the tomb of his father Joash in Ophrah of the Abiezrites.

33 No sooner had Gideon died than the Israelites again prostituted themselves to the Baals. They set up Baal-Berith as their god 34 and did not remember the Lord their God, who had rescued them from the hands of all their enemies on every side. 35 They also failed to show any loyalty to the family of Jerub-Baal (that is, Gideon) in spite of all the good things he had done for them.

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God is sovereign, but the liberated Israelites can’t see God for Gideon (v 22)! Perhaps his ‘ephod’ (v 27) was intended to correct their vision – to provide a symbol of God’s victory and his enduring reign over Israel. Whatever Gideon’s original intentions, it was the ephod – rather than God – that became the object of Israel’s worship (v 27). The judge who began by tearing down his father’s altar to Baal (6:25–27) ends up replacing it with another idolatrous shrine. False gods need not be foreign gods; they can be of our own making.

It is no accident that these verses recall Aaron’s casting of the golden calf at the foot of Mount Sinai (Exodus 32:1–6). Gideon was surely aware of this episode in Israel’s history (6:13), begging the question of his wisdom in fashioning the golden ephod. We may also wonder why the man who wouldn’t be king apparently lived very much like a king (vs 29–32). Nevertheless, overall the narrator judges Gideon favourably (v 35), and he is included in the New Testament ‘faith hall of fame’ (Hebrews 11:32–34). Scriptural heroes of faith are not without their flaws. Is it not likely this will also be true of contemporary players in the continuing divine drama?

Author
Nigel Hopper

Respond

Ask God to reveal anything in your life (or the life of your church) that has become a barrier to true worship. Commit to act in partnership with him to set things right.

Deeper Bible study

‘For the Lord Most High is awesome, the great King over all the earth … sing praises to our King, sing praises.’1

In West Africa, the lorries, buses and taxis that constitute public transport are often adorned with slogans, hand-painted in bold colours. One example I have seen on numerous vehicles is the enigmatic ‘A good beginning makes a poor ending’. That could describe this final episode in Gideon’s life. After his famous victory, he makes the disastrous error of instigating the ephod project. Presumably the gold was used for the ostentatious adornment of a garment2 or was cast to form a gold statue with religious significance. Whatever its precise form, the ephod became an object of worship (v 27), demonstrating clearly that defeating the Midianites was less difficult than overcoming Israel’s incurable tendency to idolatry. 

However, Gideon may be guilty of more than simply a naive lack of foresight about the possible use of his ephod. His words in verse 23 seem to show a proper awareness that the Lord, not Gideon, is Israel’s king, but his actions in verses 30 and 31 suggest that something different is going on in his heart. To have many sons, borne by many wives is the behaviour of a king, and the name ‘Abimelek’ means ‘son of a king’. A former bank employee told me that the most common reason for returning a cheque would be stamped across it, ‘Words and figures differ’. My friend added that similar words could frequently be stamped across the lives of Christians, as for Gideon: ‘Words and actions differ’.

Like Gideon, successful Christian leaders are prone to crash spectacularly when they begin to believe, perhaps unconsciously, either that they really are super-Christians and so not liable to fall, or that their effective ministry means that private sin no longer matters.

In which areas of your life do you appear successful or have a reputation for effectiveness? How do you need to guard against the dangers outlined above?

1Ps 47:2,6  2 See Exod 28:6–14  

Author
Paul Oakley

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