The LORD said to Gideon, “The people who are with you are too many for Me to give Midian into their hands, for Israel would become boastful, saying, ‘My own power has delivered me.’
“Now therefore come, proclaim in the hearing of the people, saying, ‘Whoever is afraid and trembling, let him return and depart from Mount Gilead.’” So 22,000 people returned, but 10,000 remained.
Then the LORD said to Gideon, “The people are still too many; bring them down to the water and I will test them for you there. Therefore it shall be that he of whom I say to you, ‘This one shall go with you,’ he shall go with you; but everyone of whom I say to you, ‘This one shall not go with you,’ he shall not go.” So he brought the people down to the water. And the LORD said to Gideon, “You shall separate everyone who laps the water with his tongue as a dog laps, as well as everyone who kneels to drink.” Now the number of those who lapped, putting their hand to their mouth, was 300 men; but all the rest of the people kneeled to drink water. The LORD said to Gideon, “I will deliver you with the 300 men who lapped and will give the Midianites into your hands; so let all the other people go, each man to his home.” – Judges 7:2-7 (NASB)*
The rest of the story goes on to tell of Gideon leading these 300 men to victory over a much larger Midianite army.
This is a well known Bible story, and I have heard a number of explanations for God choosing those soldiers who “lapped like a dog” over those who knelt.
John Wesley wrote the following explanatory note for this passage:
“By this farther distinction it was proved, that none should be made use of, but, 1. Men that were hardy, that could endure fatigue, without complaining of thirst or weariness: 2. Men that were hasty, that thought it long, ’till they were engaged with the enemy, and so just wetted their mouth and away, not staying for a full draught. Such as these God chooses to employ, that are not only well affected, but zealously affected to his work.”
Wesley’s take away from this passage would then be: when choosing people to accomplish God’s work, it may be beneficial to choose people who can endure through difficulties, and who are eager to pursue the work. I have to admit that it is hard to find these people who are simultaneously patient in the face of struggle and anxious to accomplish God’s will; when you do find these people, as a leader, it is important to take advantage of their desire. However, I suspect that Wesley is being charitable to those soldiers who were selected in this passage.
A more common explanation I have heard is that a good soldier would never lie down at the stream’s edge and put his lips to the water. A river or stream is usually an excellent place for an enemy to attack. To drink by “lapping like a dog” would mean that the soldier is unaware and unable to see any dangers which may be lurking near the water. Rather, a good soldier would kneel at the waters edge and drink from his hand; thus allowing the soldier to keep a constant watch on his surroundings.
So, why did God get rid of all the good soldiers?
It is important to note that God had first sent home all those who were “afraid and trembling”. This would suggest that God only wanted to use those soldiers who would be confident. In whom were these soldiers confident: themselves or God? It seems likely that the well trained experienced soldiers (those who knelt to drink) would have more confidence in their knowledge, skills, ability, and training. The green, untrained soldiers would be more likely to have their confidence in God.
God got rid of all the good soldiers because God wanted to use people who placed their confidence in God. It did not matter if the soldiers were well skilled or experienced. It did not matter if the soldiers knew the proper way to conduct themselves during a war. All that mattered was that the soldiers be confident in God leading them to success. God first got rid of those who had no confidence (who feared and trembled). Then God got rid of the good soldiers because they believed that they could lead the army to victory. God kept the rest because they believed that God would lead the army to victory.
- Write down the fears you have that keep you from doing something.
- Face a fear this week.
- Write down the areas of your life where you trust your own knowledge more than you trust God.
- Trust God, over yourself, in one new area this week.
- Is your confidence in your own knowledge, skills, and abilities; or in God?
- Does your church put people with skills in positions of authority, or people who are confident in God?
- What makes you fear and tremble? How can you be confident in God in the face of these fears?
*The Hebrew text is unclear which group was actually excluded. See the NIV for an alternate translation. While this alternate reading suggests a difference in nuance, I think the main point holds true regardless.