Although the Lord did a mighty deed in freeing His people from the Canaanites through the work of Deborah, Barak, and Jael (Judg. 4–5), the Israelites did not learn their lesson and return wholeheartedly to the Lord. Instead, they fell once more into evil. So, God handed them over to the people of Midian for seven years (6:1).
The Midianites were a nomadic people who came from territory southeast of Canaan. During their seven-year oppression of Israel in the era of the judges, they came into the land annually and stole its produce and the Israelites’ livestock. This left the people hungry and exhausted, so they cried out to the Lord for relief (vv. 2–6). But as we see in today’s passage, God’s first response to this cry was not to deliver them. First, He sent a prophet to remind them of their unfaithfulness to the One who saved them from Egypt (vv. 7–10). Thus we see that the fundamental problem for Israel was not their suffering at the hands of foreign peoples. That suffering, rather, was the consequence of the real issue—idolatry. For there to be any lasting relief, the people would have to return to the Lord.
As our God is gracious beyond measure, He does not always wait for our hearts to be in the right place before He brings us relief. This was true when He called Gideon to rescue Israel from their Midianite oppression. We meet Gideon in today’s passage, and by the end of his story, we will see him as the least exemplary of the judges so far. Though the angel of the Lord Himself appears to Gideon to call him to the judgeship, he does not believe the word from God. He questions God’s presence with Israel as well as the Lord’s identification of him as a “mighty man of valor” (vv. 11–15). Moreover, he asks for a miraculous sign to confirm the word of the angel. God gives him such a sign, consuming Gideon’s sacrifice through supernatural fire (vv. 16–24).
Before the Midianites can be defeated, however, the worship of the false god Baal must be purged from Israel. The Israelites have become so corrupted that even the family of Gideon, God’s chosen deliverer, has built an altar to pagan deities. Gideon’s first task is to destroy this altar. Yahweh, the one true creator God, will tolerate no competitors. Israelites can have Yahweh as their Savior or they can have Baal as their “deliverer,” but they cannot have both (see also Matt. 6:24). Gideon tears down the altar in the dark of night, for his fear of men is still greater than his fear of the Lord (Judg. 6:25–32).