Did a Faithless Gideon Use a Fleece to Test God’s Will? (Judges 6)

This article is part of the Tough Passages series.

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36Then Gideon said to God, “If you will save Israel by my hand, as you have said, 37behold, I am laying a fleece of wool on the threshing floor. If there is dew on the fleece alone, and it is dry on all the ground, then I shall know that you will save Israel by my hand, as you have said.” 38And it was so. When he rose early next morning and squeezed the fleece, he wrung enough dew from the fleece to fill a bowl with water. 39Then Gideon said to God, “Let not your anger burn against me; let me speak just once more. Please let me test just once more with the fleece. Please let it be dry on the fleece only, and on all the ground let there be dew.” 40And God did so that night; and it was dry on the fleece only, and on all the ground there was dew.

Gideon’s Calling

Judges 6:11–24 records Gideon’s call to serve as Israel’s next judge. The angel of the Lord has arrived to call and commission Gideon to serve as the instrument through which the Lord will deliver his people from the Midianites. Gideon is identified by his father and clan from the tribe of Manasseh. The scene is the terebinth at Ophrah. A terebinth is a large tree, perhaps an oak. There Gideon is beating out wheat in a winepress in order to hide from the Midianites. The translation “to hide it” could also be rendered “to flee.” Gideon has fled in order to hide the wheat and himself from the Midianites.

As the account unfolds, it becomes clear that the calling of Gideon follows the pattern of the calling of Moses in Exodus 3. Just as the Lord saved Israel in Judges 4–5 in the pattern and likeness of the exodus and the crossing of the Red Sea, so now will he raise up Gideon in the pattern and likeness of the calling of Moses.

The Calls of Moses and Gideon

1. Reference to Midian (Moses—Ex. 3:1; Gideon—Judg. 6:11)
2. Angel of the Lord Appears (Moses—Ex. 3:2; Gideon—Judg. 6:11–12)
3. Promise of Divine Presence (Moses—Ex. 3:12; Gideon—Judg. 6:12, 16)
4. Deliverance from Egypt (Moses—Ex. 3:7–8; Gideon—Judg. 6:13)
5. Objection of the Person Called (Moses—Ex. 3:11; Gideon—Judg. 6:15)
6. Commission to Deliver (Moses—Ex. 3:10; Gideon—Judg. 6:16)
7. Confirming Sign (Moses—Ex. 3:12; Gideon—Judg. 6:17)

In verse 11 the angel of the Lord was described as sitting under the terebinth tree, perhaps watching Gideon from a distance. Now the angel manifests himself to Gideon and speaks with him. His opening speech comprises two parts. First he confirms the divine presence: “The Lord is with you.” This statement accords with the nature of the office of judge as described in Judges 2:18: “Whenever the Lord raised up judges for them, the Lord was with the judge.” Second, the angel delivers what is typically treated as a vocative expression describing Gideon: “O mighty man of valor.” It is perhaps better, however, to understand the second portion of this speech as an adverbial modifier, describing the manner in which the Lord has presented himself to Gideon. In other words, when the angel of the Lord appears to Gideon, he does so as a man of war ready to deliver Israel (cf. Josh. 5:13–15).

This interpretation is to be preferred for at least three reasons. First, in the previous verse Gideon is described as hiding from the Midianite army—not the activity of a mighty warrior. Second, in the accounts of deliverance recorded in Judges it is the Lord who gives the enemy into the hand of the judge and goes out to lead in battle as the divine warrior (e.g., Judg. 4:14–15; 5:4–5, 20–23). Third, the defeat of the Midianites in chapter 7 is achieved by the Lord alone in the presence of three hundred Israelites who never raise a sword (Judg. 7:22), so that Israel could not boast by saying, “My own hand has saved me” (Judg. 7:2).

Gideon answers the angel of the Lord by asking about the reality of the divine presence. “And Gideon said to him, ‘Please, my lord, if the LORD is with us, why then has all this happened to us? And where are all his wonderful deeds that our fathers recounted to us, saying, ‘Did not the LORD bring us up from Egypt?’ But now the LORD has forsaken us and given us into the hand of Midian.’” (Judg. 6:13). The Lord responds simply by commissioning Gideon. The author now refers to the angel of the Lord as Yahweh himself when he turns to Gideon. The commission comprises three parts. First is the statement that Gideon is to “go in this might of yours.” This statement is frequently misunderstood as referring to some inherent strength in Gideon, but nothing could be further from the truth. Given the context, the strength of Gideon is the promise of the divine presence that appears in verses 12 and 16, bracketing this statement. Gideon’s strength is the Lord himself (cf. Ex. 3:11–12; 2 Chron. 20:6). The second part of the commission is the promise of victory over Midian by Gideon though the strength of the Lord. The final part is a rhetorical question used to express certainty. In other words “Do not I send you?” is to be understood as “I have indeed sent you!”

In response to the Lord’s commission, Gideon states that he is not qualified to lead Israel or to defeat Midian, due to the status of his clan and his position in the family. It is, however, this very condition that qualifies Gideon for service, due to the fact that “God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong” (1 Cor. 1:27; cf. 2 Cor. 12:9). The selection of Gideon and the nature of the battle in the following chapter highlights the strength and power of the Lord, not the strength of Gideon or Israel’s army. Gideon’s objection parallels the objection of Moses in Exodus 3:11 (cf. Ex. 4:10–12), and the response to both is the same: “I will be with you.” The promise of the divine presence is what qualifies Gideon for service—nothing else.1

Following the promise of the divine presence is the giving of a confirmatory sign. With Moses this would be Israel’s worship at the mountain of God (Ex. 3:12). With Gideon this will be the acceptance of a meal as a gift. The sharing of a meal symbolizes the favorable relationship between two parties (cf. Gen. 18:1–8; Ex. 2:20–21).

Rather than the meal’s being eaten, as would be expected, it is set out on a rock and taken up in fire. The consuming of the gift in this fashion turns the meal into a sacrifice on an altar. When the Lord ascends in the flame of the offering, Gideon comes to understand the identity of the person with whom he has been speaking, and he responds with appropriate fear. The Lord responds graciously to Gideon’s fear with three words of comfort. “Peace be to you. Do not fear; you shall not die.” (Judg. 6:23). In response Gideon builds an altar to memorialize the event. The name of the altar, “The Lord is peace,” reflects the first word of assurance given to Gideon, “Peace be to you.”

Signs of the Lord’s Power

Later in chapter 6, warriors assembled from Gideon’s own clan, the Abiezrites (Judg. 6:34), are sent out as messengers to assemble warriors from four tribes: Manasseh (Gideon’s tribe), Asher, Zebulun, and Naphtali. According to Judges 7:3, approximately thirty-two thousand warriors answer the call of Gideon. With the army of Israel before him, Gideon will ask the Lord to perform two signs in order to provoke faith and encourage those assembled.

In the presence of the assembled forces Gideon asks the Lord to perform two signs before entering into battle with the Midianites. These signs are not employed in order to determine the will of God. God has spoken clearly to Gideon, and Gideon understands what God desires him to do: to “save Israel by my hand, as you have said.”2 Additionally, the request for a sign before entering into battle does not necessarily constitute a lack of faith on Gideon’s part. He is now clothed with the Spirit of God and serving as God’s instrument of deliverance.

We have already seen how the call of Gideon connects him with Moses in the tradition of Exodus 3. In the same way, the signs of Gideon correspond to similar signs given to Moses in Exodus 4.3 There the Lord gives Moses two signs, the sign of the staff changing into a serpent and the sign of a leprous hand being made clean. The elements of the sign are symbolic of the events to which they point. For example, the staff that becomes a serpent represents Pharaoh, who wears the image of a serpent on his crown. Moses is then commanded to take the serpent with his hand, and it turns back into a staff. This sign demonstrates that the Lord will indeed give Pharaoh into the hand of Moses. These signs are to be performed so that the Israelites will believe that God has raised up Moses to deliver his people (Ex. 4:1, 30–31). In the same way, the fleece signs of Gideon are intended to demonstrate that the Lord has indeed raised up Gideon to deliver Israel from Midianite oppression. Once again, these signs do not reveal the will of God; rather, they are signs coming after the revelation of God’s will to provide his people with the courage to do that which he has revealed to them.

. . . the Lord chooses weak human vessels clothed with the Spirit as the instruments of his deliverance.

The ground of the threshing floor represents the land of Israel. The expression “all the ground” occurs three times. The word for “ground” in Hebrew also means “land,” and a Hebrew reader would have made the connection. The fleece of wool represents the Midianite army and their hordes of camels that have crossed the Jordan to consume Israel’s crops and livestock. The dew symbolizes the blessing of God (Gen. 27:28; Deut. 33:13 ESV mg.; Ps. 133:3), the crops and livestock produced from God’s gift of the land to his people. In the first fleece sign the land is dry and the fleece is wet with dew, symbolizing Israel’s current situation, as the Midianites consume what God intended for Israel in the form of blessing. In the second fleece sign the fleece is dry and the land is wet with dew, symbolizing that God is about to reverse the situation and return the conditions of blessing to his people.

By the time we arrive at the end of this chapter, the Lord has sent his prophet to rebuke Israel for her idolatry, raised up a Spirit-empowered deliverer, destroyed the altar of Baal and Asherah, assembled the army of Israel, and performed two signs to encourage the faith of those assembled for battle. Now the Lord is ready to fight for Israel against the Midianites and purge them from the land.

Victory in Weakness

Idolatry, subjugation, suffering, and then the Lord’s merciful deliverance is the well-established pattern of the judge narratives in Judges. Gideon’s questions in Judges 6:13 set the stage for the Lord’s deliverance of Israel: “Please, my lord, if the Lord is with us, why then has all this happened to us? And where are all his wonderful deeds that our fathers recounted to us, saying, ‘Did not the Lord bring us up from Egypt?’” In the tradition of the exodus, the Lord raises up a new Moses figure in Gideon and delivers his people from the hand of the enemy yet again. As with the exodus, so will the Lord’s deliverance from Midian serve as a pattern or paradigm for future acts of deliverance. For example, when the Lord through Isaiah promises deliverance from Assyria, he does so by recalling his past victories over Egypt and Midian: “The Lord of hosts will wield against them a whip, as when he struck Midian at the rock of Oreb. And his staff will be over the sea, and he will lift it as he did in Egypt” (Isa. 10:26; cf. Ps. 83:9–12). With both Moses and Gideon the Lord chooses weak human vessels clothed with the Spirit as the instruments of his deliverance. It is always in the context of human weakness that the Lord achieves his greatest victories, even the weakness of his own Son’s death on the cross.


  1. For the significance of the divine presence in previous accounts cf. Genesis 26:3; 31:3; Exodus 3:12; 4:12, 15; Deuteronomy 31:23; Joshua 1:5; 3:7.
  2. Block writes, “Contrary to popular interpretation, this text has nothing to do with discovering or determining the will of God. The divine will is perfectly clear in his mind (v. 16)” (Judges, Ruth, 272).
  3. For this interpretation of the fleece signs cf. Gordon P. Hugenberger, “Knowing God’s Will—Put Out a Fleece?,” June 20, 2010, sermon preached at Park Street Church, Boston, MA, audio, 51:21, https://www.parkstreet.org/sermons.

This article is by Miles V. Van Pelt and is adapted from the ESV Expository Commentary Series: Deuteronomy–Ruth (Volume 2) edited by Iain M. Duguid, James M. Hamilton Jr., and Jay Sklar.

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