Gideon's Fleece by Daniel I. Block
Practices that appear in the Bible may at times seem very strange to us. When we encounter them we may at times supply our own intuition to what they mean as we seek to interpret the passage. In a case such as Gideon’s use of a fleece, we may even infer that since his strategy was successful, that it can stand as an approved procedure today. Before we draw such conclusions, it would be wise to examine the ancient world to see if we can understand more about this procedure. Daniel Block offers these thoughts in his Judges contribution to ZIBBCOT.
In our day "to put out the fleece" has become idiomatic for expecting a sign from God by which he reveals to us the course of action one should take. At the outset, we should recognize that Gideon’s putting out the fleece does not represent an act of faith by which he seeks knowledge of God’s will. He already knows it—he is to lead the Israelites in throwing off the Midianite hordes (6:14). Instead, the fleece turns out to be an act of unbelief, an effort to get out of doing that will. The method adopted represents not only a clear violation of Yahweh’s prohibition on testing him (Deut. 6:16), but also an effort to get Yahweh to change his mind through a means that comes extremely close to the forms of pagan divination (forbidden in Deut. 18:20–22).
Gideon’s demands have much in common with divination.
As in many extrabiblical contexts, a military crisis precipitates the present ritual performances.
Even more so than in the reading of omens, like the liver of a sheep (extispicy), Gideon’s demand that Yahweh treat his fleece different from the environment around it operates on simple binary principles—it can only yield a yes or no answer.1
In keeping with a common purpose of Mesopotamian divination, Gideon’s aim is to reassure himself of divine support for the venture against the Midianites.
Like many ancient diviners, Gideon is not confident in the verdict of a single sign; he needs reinforcement through a second performance of the test. Indeed, the results of his first test could be explained as a purely natural phenomenon: When soft and absorbent material is left overnight on the hard ground or the rocky surface of a threshing floor, in the morning it will feel wetter than the ground around it. So Gideon demands reiteration through a reversal of the phenomena: wet fleece, dry ground followed by dry fleece, wet ground. His request that Yahweh do something that will be regarded as abnormal2 is analogous to diviners seeking reinforcement through signs of a different genre and involving a different realm. Hepatoscopic messages (based on marks on a liver) could be reinforced by rhabdomantic (observing the pattern arrows create when they are tossed or dropped) or hydromantic (observing the patterns of substances dropped in water) signs.3
But the relationship between Gideon’s test of Yahweh and ancient Near Eastern divination may be explored in several additional aspects.
As was often the case in the Mari prophecies, Gideon sought to verify a divine oracle through another mechanism. The will of God was clear, but he appears to have hoped that Yahweh’s intentions would change.
As in the case of extaspicic divination following a prophetic or celestial omen, the form of divination here is provoked rather than passive. Whereas most forms of divination involve the observance of phenomena over which the observer has no control, Gideon prescribes for Yahweh both the method and the meaning of the results. In this respect, the present case differs significantly from the Urim and the Thummim, which were inaccessible to Gideon. In the Urim and Thummim Yahweh both provided the instruments and prescribed the method whereby the high priest could establish his will in such contexts (Num. 27:21).
Unlike prevailing custom, according to which kings or generals engaged professional diviners to determine the will of the gods, Gideon takes matters into his own hands. The fact that Gideon, an ordinary citizen from a minor clan of Israel, even thinks about demanding signs suggests that common people may have had their own ad hoc divinatory practices by which they sought to determine the will of the gods in their own domestic affairs. However, since Yahweh is calling on him to deliver the nation from the Midianites, the stakes are much higher here.
The outcome of Gideon’s testing of Yahweh is most remarkable. Despite previous prohibitions on testing Yahweh, despite Gideon’s faithless disposition, and despite the questionable strategy, Yahweh responds favorably and reassures Gideon of his support.4
Thus information from the ancient world helps us to recognize that Gideon’s procedure represents the common thinking of the day whereby people sought to manipulate deities in order to get the information that they wanted. Though Yahweh responded in grace, we should not think that today we can use similar strategies to back God into a corner and force him to respond on command in our way on our schedule.
Bible Backgrounds is a series of weekly blog posts leading up to the fall 2009 release of the Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary: Old Testament. Each post is written by John H. Walton, the general editor for the five volumes. ZIBBCOT is the product of thirty international specialists; their work and expertise will also be represented throughout this series.
1 Inasmuch as any given liver could simultaneously yield more than one binary response (it could have different markings relating to different issues), extispicy involved a complex binary mechanism.
2 See J. H. Walton, V. Matthews, and M. Chavalas, The IVP Bible Background Commentary: Old Testament (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 2000), 255.
3 Cf. Ezekiel’s report of Nebuchadnezzar’s triadic divinatory efforts in Ezek. 21:21–22.
4 For an excellent discussion of the nature, methods, and philosophical underpinnings of ancient Near Eastern divination, see Walton, Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament, 239–74.
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