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To obey is better than sacrifice, and to heed is better than the fat of rams.
1 Samuel 15:22
When Illinois Republicans nominated Abraham Lincoln to run for the U.S. Senate, he gave his notable “House Divided” speech. “I believe this government cannot endure, permanently half slave and half free,” Lincoln said. “I do not expect the Union to be dissolved, I do not expect the house to fall, but I do expect it will cease to be divided.” Lincoln understood the fragility of a nation that was divided on core beliefs.
As we discussed earlier, one telltale sign of Israel’s growing moral dissolution throughout the book of Judges is its increasing disunity. In today’s reading, this fragmentation becomes apparent after Gideon’s victory over Midian. Though Israel should have been celebrating Yahweh’s victory over the oppressors—a rout that sent Midian scuttling back over the Jordan River—instead they were squabbling over bragging rights. The tribe of Ephraim wanted to know why they were excluded from battle (v. 1). And Gideon, rather than recounting that God Himself had whittled his army and delivered the victory, tried instead to soothe the Ephraimite egos (v. 3). When Gideon looked for help from Sukkoth and Peniel and asked for bread for his weary, hungry soldiers, he was refused, a betrayal that he later avenged with torture and death (vv. 5, 17).
Israel’s twelve tribes hung together by fragile threads of loyalty. Some leaders proposed to make Gideon king. Gideon refused, and at first glance he appears to give pious reasons for his reluctance to accept the crown: “The LORD will rule over you” (v. 23). But this was actually a shield for his own selfishness, and Gideon chose compromise over holiness. In a scene reminiscent of the Israelite worship of the golden calf, the people collected an offering to make an idol—this time, for an ephod, or priestly garment (vv. 22–27; see Exodus 32).
Apply the Word
Neither the golden calf nor the golden ephod was presented as a different god. Both Aaron and Gideon offered idols as symbols of Yahweh worship; perhaps the people reasoned that they weren’t rejecting God outright but making worship a little bit easier. We should beware when pragmatism is elevated above obedience to God.