The Sensational Faith of Gideon

We’re still talking about faith, one of the weightier matters of the law. Today we move on to the story of Gideon and ask ourselves the question: Do we confirm our faith with our senses? Must our faith be underwritten with some kind of a physical or natural sign?

The context for the story is that the Israelites were oppressed by the Midianites as a punishment from God:

Then the sons of Israel did what was evil in the sight of the Lord; and the Lord gave them into the hands of Midian seven years. … Now it came about when the sons of Israel cried to the Lord on account of Midian, that the Lord sent a prophet to the sons of Israel, and he said to them, “Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel, ‘It was I who brought you up from Egypt and brought you out from the house of slavery. I delivered you from the hands of the Egyptians and from the hands of all your oppressors, and dispossessed them before you and gave you their land, and I said to you, “I am the Lord your God; you shall not fear the gods of the Amorites in whose land you live. But you have not obeyed Me.”’” (Judges 6:1;7-10)

The story unfolds as a demonstration of faith. And the demonstration of faith is in relationship to a sensory confirmation of faith. It’s also laced with its juxtaposition to some good old fashioned doubt:

Then the angel of the Lord came and sat under the oak that was in Ophrah, which belonged to Joash the Abiezrite as his son Gideon was beating out wheat in the wine press in order to save it from the Midianites. The angel of the Lord appeared to him and said to him, “The Lord is with you, O valiant warrior.” Then Gideon said to him, “O my lord, if the Lord is with us, why then has all this happened to us? And where are all His miracles which our fathers told us about, saying, ‘Did not the Lord bring us up from Egypt?’ But now the Lord has abandoned us and given us into the hand of Midian.” The Lord looked at him and said, “Go in this your strength and deliver Israel from the hand of Midian. Have I not sent you?” He said to Him, “O Lord, how shall I deliver Israel? Behold, my family is the least in Manasseh, and I am the youngest in my father’s house.” But the Lord said to him, “Surely I will be with you, and you shall defeat Midian as one man.” (Judges 6:11-16)

If the story ended here, and Gideon were to say: “God, I understand what you want me to do, and I see it your way. I’m all yours. Tell me what you want me to do. I’m all in…” it would be a nice story of faith, of faithfulness. We could easily see Gideon having a rightful place in the “Faith Hall of Fame” (Hebrews chapter 11). But the story doesn’t end here. It continues:

So Gideon said to Him, “If now I have found favor in Your sight, then show me a sign that it is You who speak with me. (Judges 6:17)

This is the condition of fallen man. We seek a sign. We seek to have our faith confirmed with a sensory experience. We must see, we must hear, we must taste or feel or smell something to confirm and to give confirmation to our faith. As we will see, Gideon seeks or (more accurately) insists on all five of these senses being stimulated. And interestingly enough, God gives all five as a confirmation:

Please do not depart from here, until I come back to You, and bring out my offering and lay it before You.” And He said, “I will remain until you return.” Then Gideon went in and prepared a young goat and unleavened bread from an ephah of flour; he put the meat in a basket and the broth in a pot, and brought them out to him under the oak and presented them. The angel of God said to him, “Take the meat and the unleavened bread and lay them on this rock, and pour out the broth.” And he did so. Then the angel of the Lord put out the end of the staff that was in his hand and touched the meat and the unleavened bread; and fire sprang up from the rock and consumed the meat and the unleavened bread. Then the angel of the Lord vanished from his sight. (Judges 6:18-21)

Here again are the multiple sensory experiences we seek in the quest to determine God’s will… or maybe not in this case, because it seemed to be fairly straightforward. What God intended for Gideon to do was not really ambiguous. But it seemed that multiple sensory experiences were needed to overcome Gideon’s doubt, to buttress his faith. It took these signs simply to put God’s will in his life into action:

Then Gideon said to God, “If You will deliver Israel through me, as You have spoken, behold, I will put a fleece of wool on the threshing floor. (Judges 6:36-37)

Gideon now turns to science to continue and to confirm his faith; still, of course, relying on his senses to see if he can make certain of God’s plan for his life. He puts a fleece of wool on the threshing floor, and says:

“If there is dew on the fleece only, and it is dry on all the ground, then I will know that You will deliver Israel through me, as You have spoken.” (Judges 6:37-38)

Notice that he says twice: “as You have spoken.” It is very clear that he heard and understood what God has said. It’s not a question of his trying to nuance “Did you mean this or did you mean that?” It’s very clear that he knows what God wants him to do, but he doesn’t have the faith to do it, he doesn’t have the strength of will to do it. The story continues:

And it was so. When he arose early the next morning and squeezed the fleece, he drained the dew from the fleece, a bowl full of water. Then Gideon said to God, “Do not let Your anger burn against me that I may speak once more; please let me make a test once more with the fleece, let it now be dry only on the fleece, and let there be dew on all the ground.” God did so that night; for it was dry only on the fleece, and dew was on all the ground. (Judges 6:38-40)

The passage reads “And it was so.” Perhaps the fleece was wet and the floor dry because of natural properties of wool and water. Wool soaks up water and retains it. The ground could quite likely be dry and the wool still wet—not really a miracle at all, just a natural consequence of the relationship between wool and water. But can the ground be wet while the wool remains dry? Indeed, this is what happened. So the comparison is between “And it was so” in the first experiment, and “And God did so” in the second experiment.

Gideon stands up an army of 32,000 men, but God whittles it down to 300 men so that no one could ever claim that victory was assured through man’s power. It took only 300 men to defeat an army of 135,000 Midianites. Before the battle, God passes the final test, giving Gideon the final sensory experience that affirms his faith:

Now the same night it came about that the Lord said to him, “Arise, go down against the camp, for I have given it into your hands. But if you are afraid to go down, go with Purah your servant down to the camp, and you will hear what they say; and afterward your hands will be strengthened that you may go down against the camp.” So he went with Purah his servant down to the outposts of the army that was in the camp. Now the Midianites and the Amalekites and all the sons of the east were lying in the valley as numerous as locusts; and their camels were without number, as numerous as the sand on the seashore. When Gideon came, behold, a man was relating a dream to his friend. And he said, “Behold, I had a dream; a loaf of barley bread was tumbling into the camp of Midian, and it came to the tent and struck it so that it fell, and turned it upside down so that the tent lay flat.” His friend replied, “This is nothing less than the sword of Gideon the son of Joash, a man of Israel; God has given Midian and all the camp into his hand.” When Gideon heard the account of the dream and its interpretation, he bowed in worship. He returned to the camp of Israel and said, “Arise, for the Lord has given the camp of Midian into your hands.” (Judges 7:9-15)

Gideon’s story shows faith underwritten by four distinct sensory experiences: Fire consumes the food; there are the two experiments with the wool and the fleece and the water; and then the visual and auditory experience of overhearing the dream predicting the defeat of the Midianites. How can this requirement for sensory underwriting of faith qualify in any way for the Faith Hall of Fame?

This is not just innocent doubt. When Gideon faces the second fleece experiment he says, in effect: “Let me put the Lord to the test.” We want to test the Lord. Then Gideon said to God: “Do not let your anger burn against me, but let me make a test once again.” (The idea of burning anger was used when Moses expressed doubt to God, and Gods responded that his anger was burning against Moses.

We always seek a sign from God. We want to test God. We want to be real certain about what it is that God wants us to do and where he wants us to go and what direction he wants us to take. How can faith require such certainty? How can it demand this kind of sensory experience of the natural world? It brings us back to definition: What is faith? And what should we expect the end product of our faith to be? Is it a commodity, something that can be held, cherished, and used like currency? How? Have we misunderstood the meaning and the message of faith?

As with Abraham and Jacob and Moses, in Gideon we see deep and fundamental doubt about what God wants him to do and about God’s plan for his life. And like Moses at the burning bush (seeing a sensory experience with the rod and the snakes and the leprous hand and then the ten plagues of Egypt) we see time and time again the overwhelming sensory experience that’s required (it seems) to bolster the faith of mankind.

So I have a multiple choice question for you: Which of the following statements about faith and the senses is true?…

  1. Faith is independent of the senses. In fact, they’re really opposite.
  2. Faith is not dependent upon the senses, but the senses may be used to bolster faith.
  3. Faith is dependent on the senses since fallen man cannot know God and his will without sensory confirmation.

We not only can but we must seek a physical sign, to see and to understand what God’s will for us would be. What, in your mind, is the relationship among faith and God and the natural world?

Donald: If I pick up a pencil and it doesn’t write, then I start questioning whether it is really a pencil. If I put my hand on the paper, and that paper is harder than it should be, I start questioning. So senses are methods by which we endorse what we believe. Gideon asks for specific senses to go beyond normal. So if I said: “Tomorrow it needs to be 95 degrees here or else I’m going to lose faith in God” that would be pushing it pretty hard. But on a day-to-day basis, I’d go about using my senses to confirm what I truly think is a reality.

Testing God is a scary notion. Who am I to test God? And is it necessary for faith? I don’t want to test God. I don’t want to say: “It had better be 95 tomorrow, Lord, or I’m going in a different direction.” I want to believe in God. I can ask God for his direction in my life, but if I already know, then I don’t need faith. So I should be good to go if it’s 95 tomorrow, because it’s been confirmed. Faith has been endorsed. Your test has been answered. But if it’s not 95 tomorrow, and I say “God, sorry. I gave you the chance…” that’s scary business.

David: You can’t rely on 95 degrees tomorrow as any kind of a sign because it could be global warming that’s causing it, some errant thing in the atmosphere. You cannot know that. So I would say that the senses cannot possibly play any part, Gideon notwithstanding, in true faith, because our senses are not reliable; which science of course recognizes.

Donald: I would respond that your senses are different tools. If I hear a thump on the roof, I wonder what might be causing it (as happened this morning when nuts began dropping from the trees.) So we use senses to continue to endorse something. But if it’s 95 tomorrow and it’s 36 degrees everywhere else, or my house doesn’t burn down while all my neighbors’ houses do, I will believe that my faith carried me through.

Jay: We use senses to validate or endorse the physical world. If I touch something that’s hotter than it should be, then I doubt it is what it is. It seems as if those are the things in Gideon’s story that are initiated when there isn’t faith. So Gideon is told what to do, and requires a physical, worldly manifestation in order to move forward in faith. Faith would have just been “Do what you’re told, believe in the supernatural, believe in God, believe in that connection to something greater than you.” This is probably why God is so angry when we require physical manifestations in order to endorse faith.

The burning bush was a sensory experience. And so God provides a sensory experience yet there’s no faith. Gideon demands sensory experiences because he doesn’t have faith to act. And so I would say that need for a sensory connection to faith is probably an indicator of lack of faith—not that God is trying to build faith.

David: Every week we begin class with a little prayer asking God to bless our discussion. Don’t we have faith enough to assume that God will bless our discussion? Do we have to ask? Is prayer necessary?

Donald: If Sabbath School class began without prayer, I would have doubt in the teacher. God doesn’t need a prayer to be a part of this conversation. But to me, it endorses my faith. So when a family prays before they eat, they are committing to taking a moment and thanking God for the food that’s being provided. But it’s not strictly necessary, I think.

Chris: That prayer, for me, is an exercise of faith. Because it takes faith in order to even say that there’s a God to pray to.

Jay: The flip side of that is that prayer is a sensory experience and you’re doing it because you lack faith. Do we really think that we need to ask God to bless our conversation? Do we think that God doesn’t want to bless our conversation and therefore we need to petition him for it? Or that we need to acknowledge the existence of God in order for him to want to be with us and provide for us? We do that because we want God to be there, we want God to bless our conversation, and our lack of faith results in our begging for it.

I think there’s a difference between what’s said versus the action that’s being done.

Donald: Muslims pray five times in a day, and as I understand it, it’s very disciplined and regulated. Our own little prayer at the beginning and end of class is a little bit of a routine. Is that the same thing in Islam? Does daily prayer become so routine that it loses something?

Ahmed: This becomes an issue sometimes because when you pray, you want to put your heart into it. You to have to make an effort to really concentrate. You should pray as if you are seeing God, as if he’s in front of you, as if you are talking to him though you cannot see him but you know that he can see you. Yes, it can become a routine over time. But not observing the requirement for daily prayer will eventually change your heart. Making a connection five times a day, where you’re able to talk with God, is really amazing. It results in a sense of calmness and a state of mind of peace and happiness.

I think we need to define faith before we ask if the senses are important to solidify or justify or give evidence to us to believe. For me, faith is belief in God and in the relationship between God and me. I think Moses had to believe in God. He believed—he didn’t doubt—that God was there and that he was talking to him. But I think these sensory experiences (the rod/snake, the leprous hand, etc.) were intended as evidence for the people he would be meeting later on in his story, to prove that he had a miracle that was beyond what they could see.

So it really depends on who you are and what you believe in. It differs from one individual to another, how much sensory input they need in order to believe in something. Keep in mind that our senses are very limited. We cannot see the coronavirus with our eyes, yet it is there. So sometimes our senses are just not able to perceive the whole truth about everything. They are limited in their abilities.

Jay: I agree. I think our senses are extraordinarily limited in our abilities, especially when it comes to our abilities to discern or understand God and spiritual things. A reliance on senses likely results in misunderstanding what is happening, rather than a clear understanding. I don’t mean to sound anti-prayer, though.

If you had a mustard seed of faith, you could move mountains. If you had the ultimate faith—not just a mustard seed—if you’ve achieved the pinnacle of faith, would you need to pray? Would you need to try to build the connection that we build with prayer? Again, I would say because we have less than a mustard seed of faith, prayer and study and conversations like the one we’re having now are critical to the human experience.

I don’t think we should not be doing these things. We do them because our faith is so imperfect, so miniscule compared to what it could be, that we are encouraged and even commanded by God to do them. But perfect faith would seem to confer monumental power on either the individual or on God, such that whatever happens doesn’t matter anymore.

Ahmed: I tend to agree. It really depends on which part of the journey you are on. I think regular prayer is a good way to solidify the relationship between you and God. But as you move on and you continue your journey of faith and reflect on what is going on around you all over the world and in your life, after a while you sometimes long for prayer. Especially when you have something that is worrying you or making you sad, you pray because you find much peace and you find this connection very, very beautiful. If you are really in a spiritual state of mind where you can really feel God around you, prayer becomes such a source of joy and happiness and immense peace. So I think you are right. We are all different in our long journey to find the truth. It really depends on where you are.

Donald: I was with a group last week talking about the one thing in our lives that we were most grateful for. We went around the circle and everybody said different things. I said home was the thing I was most grateful for. I didn’t say house, I said home. My house is one thing, My home is quite a different thing. My home includes prayer, my home includes time with my wife, my home includes comfort food.

Don: But aren’t those all sensory experiences? Even Ahmed’s ideas about God enveloping me and reaching out to me and being with me are all highly sensory experiences, it seems to me.

Donald: I would completely agree. As a career photographer, vision is a very important thing to me. I am tied tightly with what I see. Some people see just to navigate, so they don’t bump into something. I’m sorry for them, because seeing is a blessing. Looking out the window this Fall morning, I remarked to my wife that no store-bought bouquet of flowers could match the trees in their Fall finery. That, to me, is a gift from God that makes home home. All these things come together.

I don’t think you can say you’ve got a good relationship with your spouse if you never spend time with her or him. Relationships require these moments, they require prayer, They can become routine, but without them, that also says something that’s quite the opposite. So if you neglect God in your life, I think that’s saying something.

Is sensory experience necessary for building up faith? Walking through the parted Red Sea would have been quite a sensory experience for the Israelites—one they would never forget. Yet just a few short days later, when there was no water, they were doubting God, they didn’t have faith that God could provide water. God gave Gideon sensory experience to make sure that he would lead those people into battle.

Kiran: In trying to define fate, are we trying to put God in a box and limit the way he acts? Each person is different but we treat individuals as averages and stereotypes and presume to know what each wants and needs. Because we don’t have much faith, we need to pray and fast more, as Jesus said. But Jesus was the perfect example of faith. He prayed a lot more than all his disciples, even though they too had near-perfect faith. So it doesn’t make sense at all.

Suppose we knew all the micro and macro nutrients and the vitamins needed for sustaining life. We could put everything we need to live in a pill. Why add spices and salt for taste? Why does food have to be tasty? Why can’t we just take the plain pill? Was God wrong to create taste buds and give us smell and other sensations?

Some of us take these experiences and then say “This is how God should behave” and we expect him to do so. That’s an extreme, but at the same time I can’t say that these experiences are not from God. It’s up to him whether to give these experiences to people or not, and I know the experiences I got from God—I cannot mistake them.

Now I tried to get the same thing done again and again for different situations, which he refused. Then I learned the lesson. But that does not mean he doesn’t give experiences. When he talks about faith, he talks about the way he led Moses and Jacob and all these people throughout his life, about the way he gave experiences to these people. So if you look at all these things, we have so many contradictions. I guess one reason is because maybe we can’t define faith.

Jay: It’s very intriguing to me that in the couple of examples we’ve looked at, God seems pretty annoyed with the sensory experience. We want this sensory experience so bad to validate something, and God seems pretty annoyed with it in the end. It also is very intriguing that we need to pray yet we neglect God. Is God neglectable? What happens to God if we neglect him? Is he like a plant, such that if we don’t water him he withers and dies?

I don’t really know what it means to neglect God, but neglecting God is an issue when you have little faith. When you believe that God is in control of everything that’s happening, or that faith is our acknowledgment of our inability to understand God and his will, then how can you neglect God? I don’t know. I don’t even know what that means. And if faith is our acknowledgement that God is perfectly in control and does what God he wills, then it shows you why God wants us to pray, because in prayer, it says: “Thy will be done.” Part of prayer is saying: “I acknowledge that you are in control of what’s taking place here and that I really don’t have much power to sway the conversation.” If that’s the case, the sensory stuff is all about us, and really has nothing to do with God.

Jeff: I completely agree. At times (at least from the biblical narrative) God definitely answers prayer in the affirmative, sensory condition that we ask for. Yet at other times he shows flashes of anger: ”Who am I that I have to answer to you?” In Job 38 and 39 God basically dresses down Job: “Who are you to ask me why I’m not doing these things? Why do you have to attest to my greatness? What does that mean to me?” I keep thinking of prayer as being not about asking God to solve a problem (which we do so often) but about humbling ourselves, about acknowledging our insignificance.

Donald: I’m going to stand up for the senses again. How do I neglect God?—by not saying that God is my personal savior. But it is not enough to say that God is my personal savior; it must come with appropriate behavior, just like a marriage. It wouldn’t be much of a marriage if you didn’t behave appropriately. Senses endorse the first step, and the first step is, “I believe in Christ as my Savior.”

One thing we haven’t talked about is personality, which I think makes a huge difference. God has given us personality. We were born with personality. How is that going to play when God judges me? Some people would say, “I don’t need to pray. I believe in God.” And other people say “I need to pray all the time to stay close to God.” I think that personality plays a role in how we respond to these questions.

David: When the prodigal son left home, it seems to me that his father ceased to exist for him. He completely forgot about his father. But then he gets into trouble, his life is in danger, he’s at the end of his tether, and his father comes back to his mind, he comes to his senses as I think the Bible puts it. But here’s the thing: He tried to compose a sort-of prayer to his father, asking for forgiveness and so on. But none of that mattered to his father, who shut him up in rejoicing his son’s return.

Isn’t that what faith is? Simply believing in God? That’s all it took for the Prodigal Son. There was no sensory experience. Prayer was pointless. All he needed was belief in his father (in God). Yes, prayer doesn’t hurt—it may indeed help. But at the end of the day, the definition of faith is belief in God. There are no gradations. There’s no continuum. It’s on or off. You leave home, you put your father out of your mind, your belief is gone. And then for some reason you remember him, and he then exists. That’s faith, to me.

Don: But religious rituals are sensory experiences. We light candles, we sing songs, we say prayers, we fast. Ritual is deeply embedded in the senses, so it’s hard to just walk away from them and argue that sensory experience is inconsequential or even undesirable, when it seems to be a natural need of humankind in its fallen condition.

Jay: I wouldn’t argue against the importance of those things. Again, I don’t want to appear as anti-sensory or anti-prayer, but I do want to acknowledge that sensation and prayer result from our fallen condition. We do those things as religious communities, because we have little faith, because we are fallen people. We are sinful people and we need sensory things. I’m not saying that it’s sinful that we need them. It is what it is, we are who we are. Even though God may be annoyed with these things, he does it. It’s not that he’s not doing it.

Therefore, we need sensory experience to build connection. We need sensory experience to change a house into a home. But I think it’s important to acknowledge that that’s because we’re fallen and because our faith is very tiny. There’s no doubt that God is using Nature as his second book to reveal his power and dominance and love and so on, but he’s doing that because our faith is so tiny. Our belief that he’s in command of everything, that I want his will to be done and not my will to be done, is really, in the scope of things, less than a mustard seed.

That means that sensory experiences are now the tools, the avenues, the ways in which we connect with God and God connects with us. Again, I don’t want to come across as if they don’t have positive results. But when you acknowledge that you need your senses to show you something, to feel something, to be connected to something, then this is really a show of tiny faith, not great faith.

Jeff: I agree. I think this is all about the disconnect between humanity and Divinity. We search for ways to try to connect ourselves to God. We search for ways to try to understand God. We search for ways to give ourselves meaning within the universe, within God’s creation, and as a result all of these sensory things that Christianity and other religions do are essentially a human way of trying to bridge the divide.

That is why I think faith is that connection. It’s there. It’s not something that we can acknowledge or not. In the pre-Fall condition in the Garden of Eden there was no prayer, there was basically just conversation between God and humans. I’d be interested to know where our concept of prayer began, in the Biblical narrative. When did we start to approach God through prayer? Because initially, it was God approaching us.

Donald: In studying Genesis, I am shocked how, from one verse to the next, it skips over so much information that you really wish you knew a little bit more about. But we know that when Adam and Eve fell, they hid from God. They recognized that a separation had occurred and that the relationship whereby they could have a conversation with God was over.

Jeff: Except that right after they fell, it was God who came looking for them, questioning them: “Where are you? Why are you hiding? Why do you say you are naked?” It was God, it wasn’t them, who initiated that conversation. They ran away, yet he came after them.

Jay: In the garden of Eden, there were two sensory things taking place that show the senses are a result of our fallen nature. One is that the apple looked good to eat. It wasn’t, but it looked good. The senses got it wrong. Now that you’ve fallen, you see that you are naked, you know that you’re naked, your senses have kicked in. Now your senses have become an issue.

Donald: The Apple was beautiful, but they were told not to eat it. So we have a disconnect.

Jay: Exactly. What I see isn’t necessarily what is. I may perceive beauty that isn’t beauty. I use my senses, instead of subjecting myself to God’s will, to make an interpretation about what is good and what is evil. So if we’re going to use our senses to decide what is connected to God and what isn’t connected to God… hmm. We may be making some mistakes here.

Donald: We will notice if an element is left out from our church service, but a visitor would not notice. It’s only we who feel that all the pieces are necessary to confirm it as a valid religious experience.

Don: What puzzles me is why Gideon should claim to be a man of faith. He was riddled with doubt. Every time God approached him, he had an excuse, in a sense like Moses. He demanded—not once, not twice, not three times, but at least four times—that God prove that what he was saying was true. What is it that makes Gideon a man of faith? Is our working definition—how we think about faith—way off the mark from what God means when he says we should have faith?

Reinhard: We realize, we acknowledge, our separation from God, our fallen nature. We are not perfect. Moses and Gideon are men of faith because they have been given big tasks to undertake for their country, for their people. Moses didn’t ask God to show him miracles. Gideon did. I think he knew that God got mad at Moses, because he didn’t want to do what God asked But Gideon was willing enough; he just needed some kind of confirmation that God would follow through.

All these people, from Moses and the prophets all the way to Christ, exemplify lives lived in relation to God. In our human nature we are short of perfection. God’s miracles show that we need the senses to see beyond the intellect. Intellect—rationality—and faith go hand in hand; they are complementary, each serving as a check and balance on the other. There are times when the intellect confirms our faith. There are times when it causes us to question.

God gave us the examples of these men of faith so that we don’t have to question, we don’t have to rely on our intellect, to know that God will take care of things. Life is a miracle. Every breath we take is a miracle. When extreme experience takes us to the brink, we see that God comes through and helps us. In our lives, our senses and our intellect confirm our faith through the things we experience in our life.

Don: Well said.

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