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Gideon’s Testing

May 12, 2014
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One of the things most of us know from reading the Bible is that it’s not good to test God. In fact, this phrase even appears in the Bible: Deuteronomy 6:16 says, “Do not put the Lord your God to the test as you did at Massah.” That last bit, “at Massah”, is frequently left off the quote probably because Jesus does so when he quotes this passage to Satan in Matthew 4:7 (and, let’s face it, far more people read Matthew than Deuteronomy). All of this makes for relatively clean theology: don’t test God. This is sometimes said to those who doubt God and would really like a sign: be careful, don’t put the Lord to the test!

Problematically, one other figure in the Bible says he will not put the Lord to the test. This is Ahaz, King of Judah, in Isaiah 7:12. However, instead of being commended for his care Ahaz receives a strong, negative response: the prophet Isaiah chews him out, claiming that he is annoying God. This isn’t actually the only case in which testing God seems to be considered OK: Gideon does so without negative consequence. Indeed, Gideon does so and is given far more than that which he requests.

The story of Gideon occupies chapters 6 and 7 of the book of Judges. It begins in the way a number of the stories in Judges begin: Israel sins and God allows them to be oppressed by their enemies. In this case the enemies in question are Midianites. Israel cries out to the Lord and the Lord gives them a judge, Gideon. However, Gideon is unsure of his call. He asks for a number of signs – he puts the Lord to several tests.

The first test occurs when an angel appears to tell him of his call. Gideon asks that the angel wait for him until he returns with some food, in this case bread and meat (the meat means it is probably pretty good food fit for a guest). The angel not only waits (as Gideon had requested) but then actively directs a sign for Gideon. Gideon is told to put the food on a rock and the angel touches the food with his staff at which point the food is consumed by fire from the rock. The angel also disappears.

Gideon’s reaction is about what we should expect: he is badly frightened and worried that he will be struck dead. However, the Lord reassures him that he will not be struck dead and Gideon goes on to tear down his family’s idolatrous altar and replace it with one to God.

If our story ended here we’d have a little to worry about when it came to testing the Lord. Gideon did test the Lord but when he realized what he’d done it scared him into obedience. However, after Gideon calls up an army to defeat Midian he asks for another sign. He puts a fleece on the threshing floor and asks that the fleece be wet in the morning and the ground dry. When this happens Gideon does not go and obey. Instead he asks for a second test in which the ground will be wet and the fleece dry. (This demonstrates a better grasp of experimental controls than some of my freshmen students have.) After this test comes out the way he wants Gideon finally gathers his army and goes to attack the Midianites.

However, while the tests are over, the signs are not.   The Lord whittles Gideon’s army down quite a bit and then tells Gideon to attack the Midianites – but first if he is worried he can scout the Midianite camp with his servant. When he does so he hears a Midianite soldier recount a dream in which a loaf of bread rolls down into the camp and flattens a tent. The soldier’s friend (another Midianite) explains that this dream represents the doom of the Midianite camp at the hand of Gideon.

If we were following along with “do not put the Lord your God to the test” all of this is very confusing. Gideon tests the Lord three times and gets an additional sign thrown in for free. It appears that the Lord not only tolerates Gideon’s tests but even encourages them. What is going on?

I think the most important part of this story is that Gideon is a coward. When the angel first arrives to call him to his status as judge he is very unsure. When he destroys his family’s altar he does so at night so that no one will know. Gideon needs some signs to reinforce his courage and the Lord gives these to him.

Similarly, Ahaz of Isaiah 7 is told to ask for a sign because he needs one. Isaiah tells Ahaz that the Lord would like to give him a sign and he should ask for one. Ahaz says he won’t – that he won’t test God – and Isaiah is furious. God told him to ask for a sign and he didn’t.

The issue, I think, is one of language. We say “test the Lord” for a number of events all of which involve asking God for something. Some of them appear to be tests in the English sense: “Do X to prove Y to me.” However, the important thing appears not to be how “test-like” these tests are but what sort of motive there is to ask for the test. In the case of Gideon the motive is a morally good one – Gideon is scared and worried and he needs confidence. In the case of Massah (“Do not put the Lord your God to the test as you did at Massah”) the motive appears to have been mere complaining.

Given the importance of Massah to this case it is worth turning our attention to that story (Exodus 17) for a minute. As some background, at this point the Israelites have experienced the Ten Plagues, the crossing of the Red Sea, an incident in which a miracle detoxified some poisonous water for them, manna from heaven and a “storm” of quail for meat, and are now complaining about water. In fact, this complaint follows immediately upon the story about manna and quail. I think it is fair to say that the Israelites do not have legitimate doubts about God’s power at this point. In fact, this is reinforced by God’s words to Moses. He is told to take some of the elders of the people with him and strike a rock with his staff. However, his staff receives some additional description: “the staff with which you struck the Nile”. This presumably refers to Exodus 7:20 where Moses had taken this same staff and struck the Nile turning it into blood. Interestingly, there Moses’ witnesses were Pharaoh and his court. At Massah Moses’ witnesses are the Israelite elders standing in, in some way, for the pagan king and his court. At the end of all of this Moses names the place Massah and Meribah (Testing and Quarreling) because they picked a fight with God.

Ultimately, I think this is what “do not test the Lord” is about. It doesn’t mean “don’t ask the Lord for a sign when you really need one” but “don’t tell the Lord you need a sign every other day or you’re going to quit”. This is why Ahaz is wrong. Ahaz is actually testing God by refusing to test Him. God tells Ahaz to ask for a sign so that Ahaz can see that God is in control. Ahaz says, essentially, “No, that’s fine, I don’t want to be reminded that you are in charge.” Much as the Israelites at Massah said in essence, “We don’t want to be a new nation brought out of slavery for your awesome and divine purposes, we would rather go about life as we knew it,” Ahaz is saying that he would prefer to sit on the sidelines of God’s plan.

I think this is also why Jesus quotes, “Do not test the Lord your God,” to Satan during the temptation. Jesus does not need a sign. Jesus knows what God is about and is fully committed. For him to adopt the false posture of a doubter would be very much like the Israelites at Massah who, only recently overawed by God’s power, now act as if they forget it and ask for more miracles (and make it quick!).

So what does this mean in our lives? It means that it is a lot harder to avoid being on the wrong end of this command. So, for instance, I think it is quite possible to ask God for a sign correctly – to test God in the way that Gideon did with correct motives. It’s also possible to ask God for a sign incorrectly with wrong motives and so we can’t just ignore the issues of testing. However, it’s also possible to test God by remaining quiet and asking, in essence, that God plan around us because we don’t want to be involved.

However, I ultimately think this is a rather hopeful way to understand these passages. These are not passages about people blundering into saying the wrong thing to God but people expressing themselves honestly to God. When they honestly express motives that are good then God listens to them. When they honestly express petty, selfish motives that are uninterested in God then God responds predictably. While it’s not easy to say, “Really love what God is doing and Who God is,” it is better to know that God is responding to what we really think of him than it is to believe that saying the wrong thing with pure motives to God might land us in trouble.

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