Judges 6 and the Sign of the Fleece

If you have spent any time around churches, you likely have heard the phrase “I just felt led to do this.” And it’s true, God does confirm our steps or guide our path from time to time (Proverbs 16:9, Psalm 37:23-24). But what happens when He doesn’t? More so, what happens when we have big questions we’d like God to answer but don’t sense any sort of divine confirmation?

Enter the “sign of the fleece.”

The sign of the fleece, also commonly known as a fleece prayer, is a type of prayer modeled after Gideon’s actions in Judges 6:36-40. They involve asking God to do something specific, and often out of the ordinary, to remove any doubt about His will just like Gideon did in asking God to make dew collect on the wool fleece but not on the ground around it (and then again but opposite).

In fact, a few years back, a pastor friend explained to me that, after praying to confirm a decision he’d like to make, he was awoken at 2:22 in the morning two nights in a row. He felt that this was the confirmation he asked for. And if you were to type this phrase into Google, several similar stories will pop-up. I found a Christian blog post[1] that details a discouraged teacher’s search for clarity on whether she should continue teaching. She prayed to the Lord asking Him to allow two students to write encouraging notes to her. If they did, she would continue to teach. If she did not receive notes, she would quit. And as she explains, two unprompted students did write. Her “sign of the fleece” was answered.

God works in mysterious ways. And certainly, the Lord’s makes his guidance rather clear to us at times, and this clarification can definitely come from out-of-the-ordinary circumstances (remember Balaam’s donkey?).

However, is this what we are actually supposed to get from the Gideon narrative? Is praying a fleece prayer appropriate for Christians today? Let’s explore Judges 6:36-40 a bit more to find out.

Gideon the Judge

In the opening verses of Judges 6, we see that the people of Israel have begun lusting after foreign nations and foreign gods.

This all too familiar cycle that’s repeated over-and-over in the book of Judges has happened again. God had just led his formerly enslaved people out from the land of Egypt just a few generations before this. He had miraculously saved Israel with great signs and plagues. And now, the Lord has led the nation into the Promised Land to become his Torah-observant kingdom of priests who, through their unique actions and beliefs, were to bear witness to His love and peace.  But, as it’s often repeated in this book, “the Israelites did what was right in their own eyes” by turning from God to worship in the way foreign nations did.

Nevertheless, each time Israel abandoned God, God would not abandon them. When they fell into the trappings of idolatry and syncretism, the Lord would hand them over to their desires and Israel would find itself controlled by the foreign nation they were copying. But when they would cry out in pain, the Lord would raise up a judge to save them both from their sin and the nation that was oppression them.

This time it was Midian. And the judge that God raises up to deliver His people from their subjugation is Gideon.

And at first, Gideon has great success. He, through the power of the Lord, is able to defeat the large Midianite army with only a few troops. He also successfully destroys an altar to a foreign god within the land of Israel. But, interwoven throughout his narrative, we do catch glimpses of a glaring character flaw: Gideon was very prideful. He really liked getting his own way.

When certain cities do not support Gideon in a battle not mandated by God, he terrorizes them. He takes the elders of these cities and beats them with thorns. He even knocks down a tower in a fit of rage (Judges 8:10-21).

And a bit later, his people offer to make him their king. They had witnessed how effective Gideon was at saving them and wished to honor him for that protection. But Gideon refuses at first stating that it wasn’t he who saved them but God, so only the Lord should be king. However, after stating this, the judge begins to act very much like a king. He demands that their gold earrings be melted down into a garment. And, after presumably wearing this garment himself,[2] the people then begin to worship the judge himself like an idolatrous object (Judges 8:22-28) and he does nothing to stop it.  

The “Sign of the Fleece” as Ancient Pagan Magic?  

So, was this fleece business a good thing or a bad thing? Well, when we weigh the evidence, I am not so sure that Gideon had the best intentions.

Reading Gideon’s narrative straight through, Judges 6:36-40 is kind of surprising. Why would God’s judge want another assurance when he’s been given so many thus far? He was visited by an angel in 6:11-14 who tells him that God will give him victory over Midian. He is clothed in God’s Spirit in 6:34. And he was offered the full support of the Israelite armies in that area which should also have been a great reassurance.  

God’s will was absolutely clear to Gideon. The “sign of the fleece” was not about confirmation. He already knew what God wanted.

But there’s even more if we dive a little bit deeper. If you look closely, Gideon doesn’t use God’s actual name in 6:36-40. In English, the name “YHWH” (God’s divine name) is typically rendered as “LORD.” But the generic name for God, “Elohim,” is often written as “God” in English. Often, biblical authors will use a combination of the two,[3] but interestingly, Gideon has no problem saying YHWH elsewhere but only uses the Elohim title in 6:36-40 and when arguing against the Ephraimites in 8:3. This isn’t insignificant. It’s as if the author of Judges wants us to notice that Gideon is attempting to use YHWH similar to the way foreign nations worshipped their Elohim/gods.

Actually, this fleecing action is very similar to ancient Near Eastern pagan divination.[4]

Canaanite sorcerers would look for anomalies in the liver of a sacrificed sheep for confirmation from their god. It was also often the case that these sorcerers would not base their conclusions on a single sign. If a sheep’s liver had an anomaly, they might also drop it in water to read the ripples it created on the surface or throw it on the ground to observe the splattering.[5] Gideon requested that his fleece, and the ground around it, be dampened in several different ways similar to that of a pagan magician.

So, with all of that being said, I think that the interesting part of Gideon’s fleece prayer isn’t that it was miraculously answered by God, giving him confirmation. He already had confirmation. Instead, what’s interesting is that YHWH God was still willing to work through such a backwards and manipulative pagan ritual conducted by His judge.

This fleece narrative is merely another example of God’s faithfulness to His people in a time when they refused to be faithful to Him.

Conclusion

So, should believers today follow the example of Gideon by praying “fleece prayers?” No.

It’s true that the Lord does confirm our path in miraculous ways from time to time, but more often than not, do we really need that confirmation in the first place? God has called each of us into faithful obedience. If we’re honest, and if we are taking seriously the witness of Scripture and allowing a body of believers to pour into us, it is often already clear which path we should take.

Frankly, fleece prayers are sometimes just excuses to postpone the things we know God’s already calling us to, or a way to find the “divine answer” we are looking for within something the Lord isn’t actually leading us toward.

Unlike Gideon, we should not worship YHWH in a syncretistic way.

It’s inappropriate to put him to the test like an idol. Instead, we should rest in the fact that the God of the Bible does divinely guide our steps whether we are aware of it in the moment or not. Our job is to be obedient and faithful with what we know and trust Him with what we don’t.


[1] https://www.bjupress.com/resources/articles/t2t/putting-out-the-fleece.php

[2] An “ephod” was a priestly garment of some sort. In other ancient Near Eastern cultures around Israel, these garments were made out of gold and would be worn by both cultic priests and placed on the statues of their gods. It seems like this was what Gideon had made. It was likely an ephod honoring YHWH but worn by him so that he could also receive worship. See: Daniel Bock, Judges, Ruth, The New American Commentary: An Exegetical Theological Exposition of Holy Scripture, (Nashville, B&H Publishing: 1999), 300.

[3] When we pray, we do the same. We often say “Father,” “God,” “Lord,” and so on but we’re still talking to the same God.

[4] Specifically, this is similar to impetrated magic where a sorcerer would attempt to use different methods of communicating with a divine being hoping to see the same response within each. See: K. Lawson Younger Jr., Judges and Ruth, NIV Application Commentary, (Grand Rapids, Zondervan: 2002), 188.

[5] J. H. Walton, V. Matthews, and M. Chavalas, The IVP Bible Background Commentary: Old Testament, (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 2000), 255.

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