Saturday, May 17, 2014

How Lord Tests Gideon’s Ranks to Choose the Few

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1 Then Jerubbaal, who is Gideon, and all the people that were with him, rose up early, and pitched beside the well of Harod: so that the host of the Midianites were on the north side of them, by the hill of Moreh, in the valley.
2 And the Lord said unto Gideon, The people that are with thee are too many for me to give the Midianites into their hands, lest Israel vaunt themselves against me, saying, Mine own hand hath saved me.
3 Now therefore go to, proclaim in the ears of the people, saying, Whosoever is fearful and afraid, let him return and depart early from mount Gilead. And there returned of the people twenty and two thousand; and there remained ten thousand.
4 And the Lord said unto Gideon, The people are yet too many; bring them down unto the water, and I will try them for thee there: and it shall be, that of whom I say unto thee, This shall go with thee, the same shall go with thee; and of whomsoever I say unto thee, This shall not go with thee, the same shall not go.
5 So he brought down the people unto the water: and the Lord said unto Gideon, Every one that lappeth of the water with his tongue, as a dog lappeth, him shalt thou set by himself; likewise every one that boweth down upon his knees to drink.
6 And the number of them that lapped, putting their hand to their mouth, were three hundred men: but all the rest of the people bowed down upon their knees to drink water.
7 And the Lord said unto Gideon, By the three hundred men that lapped will I save you, and deliver the Midianites into thine hand: and let all the other people go every man unto his place.
8 So the people took victuals in their hand, and their trumpets: and he sent all the rest of Israel every man unto his tent, and retained those three hundred men: and the host of Midian was beneath him in the valley.
(Judges 7:1-8)

In these verses, we see that the Lord considers the 32,000 Israelite soldiers to be too many and wants Israel to know by their miraculous deliverance that it was God that saved them and not their own strength.

The Lord has Gideon put the Israelite army through two tests to eliminate the majority of the people.  Gideon could perfectly well have asked to know how many he should keep at the beginning and then he could have asked for help to pick those men out of the army, but the Lord uses a series of tests to make clear who should be chosen.  Not only that, but we see these are self-administered tests and the men eliminate themselves.

This suggests a preliminary lesson about life and its purpose of testing—we are the ones who eliminate ourselves from being chosen for eternal life.

That Gideon is to test the Israelite armies to find the men who are best suited to help him deliver Israel suggests that he will be selecting according to desirable qualities.  The first test—selecting those who are not fearful or afraid and sending the others back home seems pretty fitting.  It requires courage and valor to deliver Israel.  (We must give credit to the ones who leave, though, for being honest about how they felt.)

The second test seems odd though, and it doesn’t quite make sense why the Lord would want men who drank water one way over those who drank another way.  It seems arbitrary, as if he just separated into two groups and chose the smallest group.  Not only this, but choosing men by how they drink water doesn’t make logical sense for fighting.  Today, armies would put cadets through rigorous physical challenges and choose those who succeeded, so how would choosing by drinking method be helpful at all?

Because it is the Lord who declares the conditions of the test, we must make the assumption that the test is not a pretext for arbitrary choice, but a designed test that in some way relates to qualities the men will need to deliver Israel.

So let’s look at this second test.

…the Lord said unto Gideon, Every one that lappeth of the water with his tongue, as a dog lappeth, him shalt thou set by himself; likewise every one that boweth down upon his knees to drink.  And the number of them that lapped, putting their hand to their mouth, were three hundred men: but all the rest of the people bowed down upon their knees to drink water.  And the Lord said unto Gideon, By the three hundred men that lapped will I save you…

This bit about how people drink has always been kind of confusing to me because it sounds like there are three ways of drinking, not just two.  I have a hard time seeing how lapping with the tongue like a dog is the considered the same as putting one’s hand to their mouth.  I also have a hard time seeing how that might be done without kneeling.

When I envision a dog lapping with their tongue, I initially visualize someone with their mouth in the water, but after some thought, it came to me that the text wants us to think of a dog standing up as they lap, not kneeling.  So for a man to stand up and drink, they would have to bend over and carry the water to their mouths with a hand, whereas if a person kneels down to drink, they can stick their mouth in the water and suck in all they want.

Now, what does it mean?

I have read other people’s views that the 300 who lapped demonstrated vigilance because they kept their heads up.

I have also read that those who knelt to drink demonstrated too much love of luxury and a lack of self-restraint.  I’m not sure what I think about this.  Too much water is harmful and people generally drink the amount of water they need at the time. 

So what was the quality the Lord wanted in the men?  We might look at what Gideon did with the men and see if we can detect something in them that the water-drinking test might select for.

Gideon didn’t actually need them to fight in that first foray.  They didn’t carry weapons; instead they carried a trumpet and a pot with a burning lamp in it.  They were to follow his lead in shouting, they were to break the pots, they were to blow the trumpets, they were to let their lamps be seen, and they were to just stand still and let things happen.  

What qualities would that require?  Fearlessness, especially with their outnumbered group and being without weapons.  They’d have to be obedient.  They’d have to be really comfortable with being a different kind of army.  They’d have to be comfortable with not being exactly sure what would happen, and they’d have to be really comfortable with being seen (being a clear target) with all those lamps in the dark.

Now let’s look again at that water-drinking test.  The ten thousand men have already seen a separation occur and now they are led to the water and told to drink.  They must have seen that they were being watched and separated by how they drank.  Do they know what the purpose is?  They might guess from the previous separation, but there is no way to be sure.  Do they know what quality is considered desirable?  No, and will they make assumptions anyway?  Probably.

Notice that the final count is 300 men who lapped and 9,700 who knelt to drink.  1 out of every 32 men had that way of lapping to drink.  How might they have felt about being separated from everyone else and so few of them? 

How many men coming to drink made the assumption that the biggest group was going to be the main army and thought it was a safe decision to drink like those in that group, by kneeling down?

How many people lapped because they just had a different way of doing things?

How many lapped because they weren’t bothered by the strange scrutiny or the unaccountable separation?

At the beginning of the test it may have been difficult to see that there was that ratio of different ways of drinking, but as more men were tested, it would become more and more tempting to do what everyone else was doing, for lack of any other clue about what the desired criteria was, especially on something that seemed so trivial and didn’t seem to matter.

The 300 men the Lord chose ultimately were men who did one thing differently.  They were not afraid of scrutiny.  They weren’t bothered by being outnumbered.  They may have felt they would be targeted next for removal from the army, but they still did their thing.   These qualities were what was needed for Gideon’s army.  They had to be unafraid of being a different kind of army with trumpets, lamps, and pots in their hands instead of a sword and shield.  They had to be unafraid of scrutiny to hold lamps up outside an enemy camp where they were outnumbered 450 to 1.

These qualities are instructive and we still need them today in order to be valiant members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.  We have to be comfortable with being different (in good ways) and doing things differently than the people around us, even in the simple things, like what we drink, what we watch, how we talk, what we talk about, what we wear, etc.  A majority of us live in places where we are clearly outnumbered and we have to be comfortable with that.  We have to be unafraid and undeterred by scrutiny from others, especially when we may be targets of persecution.  We are asked to be lights to the world and to spread the gospel, to lift up our voices, to make a joyful noise, instead of hiding.

Perhaps the Lord hoped that the Israelites could learn from this sifting process that He wanted Israel to be different from the world and to not be afraid of being watched by others.

We learn something too from this strange but simple assurance the Lord gave Gideon.  “I will try them for thee.”  This one test seems so simple, so illogical, and yet it was effective. 

We are still being tested today, not just in the big things, but in the small things.  Commandments large and small test us.