During the period of the judges in the 12th century BCE, Midianite raiders attacked Israel from the eastern desert (Judges 6:4). Their advances were made during summer (Judges 6:3), near harvest time, and impoverished Israel (Judges 6:6).
With the nation in peril, Gideon reluctantly agreed to God’s request to lead the Israelites against Midian (Judges 6:11-39). Gideon called in reserve units and Israel rallied around their new commander until God informed Gideon that he had a problem - he had two many soldiers (Judges 7:1). God opted for a less is more strategy.
The army was drastically reduced through two tests (Judges 7:3-7). The first test, comparable to modern psychiatric screening and in accordance with mandates in Deuteronomy (Deuteronomy 20:1-8), slashed Gideon’s army from 32,000 to 10,000 (Judges 7:3). The second test, a drinking manners test which differentiated between “lappers” and “kneelers”, whittled Gideon’s army down to its final tally of 300 soldiers (Judges 7:5-7). In contrast, the Midianites were as numerous as locusts (Judges 6:5, 7:12).
Fewer numbers being beneficial is counterintuitive. Military historian Richard A. Gabriel (b. 1942) notes that Gideon intentionally minimized his numbers from the outset. Though the Midianites had camped in Endor, land endowed to the tribe of Issachar, Gideon did not enlist Issachar. Gabriel rationalizes, “Gideon made no attempt to bring Issachar under arms. To do so would have immediately alerted the enemy. Gideon seems to have chosen to forego the additional manpower to preserve the element of surprise in mobilizing his army (Gabriel, The Military History of Ancient Israel, 171).”
Gabriel contends that the small army was simply strategy - “Given Gideon’s plan...the force was too large (Gabriel, 172)”. This is seen particularly in the second test that dwindled his numbers. Though its rationale is not stated many have viewed it not as arbitrary but rather as a means of choosing quality over quantity. Gabriel explains, “Gideon devised an ingenious method of selecting his best warriors for the attack...he watched the hot and thirsty soldiers drink their fill. He then chose his best soldiers...Gideon chose only the men “that lapped putting their hand to their mouth,” that is, the men who drank silently and remained vigilant with their weapons at the ready (Gabriel, 172).” As such, at the rest stop, 9700 were discharged leaving only an elite force of seasoned warriors prepared for battle.
Whatever Gideon’s reasons for preferring the smaller unit, he used his 300 wisely. He divided his soldiers into three companies (Judges 7:16), attacked at midnight which concealed the small size of his force (Judges 7:19), confused and scattered the enemy into attacking one another (Judges 7:19-20) and forced them to retreat into a convoy of waiting Israelites (Judges 7:23). Gideon ultimately executed two Midianites kings (Judges 7:24-25).
How would you have reduced Gideon’s army? When is a smaller force advantageous? Why do you think God reduced the size of Gideon’s army?
While Gideon’s smaller army was effective, a strategic explanation does not fit the theme of the text. Five separate references are made to God’s promise to save Israel through Gideon (Judges 6:36, 7:2, 7, 9, 14-15). Joseph R. Jeter (b. 1943) contends, “The story of Gideon’s victory over the Midianites is less about the battle than it is about who is to get credit for the victory (Jeter, Preaching Judges, 78-79).” God’s reduction of the army’s numbers leaves no doubts as to who won the battle. This is evident from the text’s outset:
The LORD said to Gideon, “The people who are with you are too many for Me to give Midian into their hands, for Israel would become boastful, saying, ‘My own power has delivered me.’” (Judges 7:2 NASB)Susan Niditch (b. 1950) explains, “The outcome of the battle depends not on Israelite expertise, but upon the prowess and goodwill of the divine warrior, protector of Israel. The fewer the number of human soldiers, the greater the victory of God (Niditch, Judges: A Commentary (Old Testament Library), 97).” As such, the story of Gideon is really a story about the sovereignty of God.
Are there any areas of your life where it would serve you well to incorporate a less is more approach? Where do you need to become less so that God can become greater (John 3:30)? Has God’s power ever been perfected in your weakness (II Corinthians 12:9)?
I asked God for strength, that I might achieve.
I was made weak, that I might learn humbly to obey.
I asked for health, that I might do greater things.
I was given infirmity, that I might do better things.
I asked for riches, that I might be happy.
I was given poverty, that I might be wise.
I asked for power that I might have the praise of men.
I was given weakness, that I might feel the need of God.
I asked for all things, that I might enjoy life.
I was give life, that I might enjoy all things.
I got nothing that I asked for—but got everything I had hoped for.
Almost despite myself, my unspoken prayers were answered.
I am, among all people, most richly blessed.
- The Prayer of an Unknown Confederate Soldier