John H. Paterson

IT is just 30 years since the death of my father, George Paterson. He left behind him many warm memories but few possessions. Among these, however, were two notebooks which I have kept, and which contain the outlines of Bible studies.

My father was an infrequent preacher, in the formal sense. His talks to children were memorable, and he always seemed to have a brief and telling word for special occasions, but preaching was not his particular gift. During the 1930s, he regularly led a Bible class on a Sunday afternoon, and it is from this period, now almost half a century ago, that these talks date whose outlines are before me as I write.

One of his series in those far-off days attained a kind of local celebrity. It was a study of the Old Testament peoples with whom the Children of Israel came into contact — the ‘ites’ of the Bible narrative. The line of argument in this series was straightforward and, to the student of the Bible, perfectly logical. He drew attention to the fact that Israel was surrounded by many other nations, some actively hostile and others anxious to be friendly but, in their very friendship, a threat to God’s people. Each of these nations had its own character, posed a particular problem or temptation; and was dealt with, in the providence of God, by a particular weapon in the hand of an individual leader.

Taken together, then, they may be seen to represent the obstacles and pitfalls upon the believer’s way. It is therefore important firstly to be able to identify them — to ‘know your enemy’ — and, secondly, to use the right weapon to combat them.

In such a study the critical point, obviously, is the identification of who-represents-what. Unless that can be clearly established, the history of Israel’s conflicts in the Old Testament remains little more than a bald, not to say bewildering narrative. My father agreed that, despite the excesses of some ‘spiritualisers’ of the text, a fair identification could be achieved by tracing the story of each ‘-ite’ from the earliest reference in the Bible to the last, so that history and character might emerge together.

The kind of question he asked was: What do we know of this nation’s ancestry, whereabouts or occupation? With whom were they actually allied? What methods did they employ to harass Israel? What weapons did they habitually use? What language does the Bible use in speaking of them? To a remarkable degree, in fact, each of these people remained constant in character throughout its dealings with Israel.

The power of each study, then, was to raise the same question: ‘What is it that poses this kind of threat, or temptation, or obstacle, to the believer in his walk with God and his occupation of the “land” of God’s promise and purpose?’ From among the case studies contained within my father’s notebook, I have chosen as an example his analysis of the Midianites .

The Story of Midian

The Midianites were descended from Abraham and his wife, Keturah (Genesis 25:2): they were, in fact, near relatives of Israel. Although there are some references to a “land of Midian” (Exodus 2:15) they seem to have been a nomadic people, turning up in unexpected places, for trade [91/92] or for war, so that nowhere was safe from them. Yet they were by no means without a knowledge of God, for Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law, was their priest (Exodus 2:16; 3:1; 18:9-10) and, through him, a good deal of Midianite counsel and opinion seems to have found a place in Israel (Exodus 18:14-27). They seem to have known of, if not shared in, the faith of Israel; in this respect they were inside rather than outside the sphere of the knowledge of God. At the same time they periodically allied themselves with such patently hostile tribes as Amalek (Judges 6:3) and Moab (Numbers 22:4).

What else do we know of them as a people? The Bible goes out of its way to stress that the Midianites came in swarms, like locusts (Judges 6:5; 7:12). Periodically, they overran the land of Israel. In between their raids they were merchantmen, like other desert-dwellers (Genesis 37:25), trading in commodities which, in the fullness of time, were to be particularly associated with Christ — spices and balm and myrrh.

The Midianites as Israel’s Enemies

Israel suffered from the attentions of Midian in two different ways. Firstly, Midian “beguiled” Israel, and “vexed them with their wiles” (Numbers 25:18). Without coming into open conflict with God’s people, they tried to divert them from faith in God and a pure attachment to Him. Not only were they mixed up with their allies, Moab, in the attempts to bribe Balaam to curse Israel, but immediately afterwards a Midianitish woman was introduced into Israel’s camp in the most blatant manner possible (Numbers 25:1-15). They were hard to keep out!

And then, in the second place, there were the deliberate military attacks, especially those during a seven-year period which culminated in the call of Gideon (Judges 6:1). Like a swarm of locusts they devoured the food supplies. By the end of the seven years the people of God were starving and homeless, robbed of food and rest. This was the situation which Gideon was summoned by God to put right, and summoned, interestingly enough, while he was in the act of making some small, personal effort to keep the food supply flowing.

What kind of enemy was this? One answer to the question of identification and an answer which, as his notes make clear, my father had considered and discarded, is that ‘Midian’ means ‘strife’ or ‘brawling’, and that it is strife among[92/93] God’s people which robs them of nourishment, deprives them of spiritual rest, and leaves them perplexed and “beguiled”. But, taking all that into account, my father’s notes record his own answer to the question, which was that what Midian most characteristically stands for is the spirit of busyness in God’s work.

That this is an enemy can be disputed by no-one who has experience of spiritual activity. That it is possible to be busy with God’s work, yet in the wrong spirit, is all too evident. That Christian activity often hinders, and only sometimes helps, God’s interest is a sad fact. There is activity which is produced by men who think that they are helping God but may, alas, merely be drawing attention to themselves by what they do.

Keeping Midian Out

Strife or busyness: whichever of these we may feel most accurately reflects the character of Midian, the question at once arises as to how best to get rid of it! And to answer the question we must turn to the story of Gideon, the man God chose to rid His people of this particular problem.

In the familiar, yet paradoxical, tale told in Judges 6 and 7, the first thing that strikes us is what not to do, and that is to try to match the Midianites, man for man or weapon for weapon. If they came in swarms, like locusts, then God’s man is sent out against them not with 32,000 Israelites, nor yet an army of 10,000, but with a mere 300, “lest Israel vaunt themselves against me, saying, Mine own hand hath saved me” (Judges 7 .2). And if they come armed, then Gideon is to meet them not with swords (for we cannot even be sure that he owned one!) but with a trumpet, a torch and an empty pitcher.

This is not an enemy to be met on his own terms, but by that divine law of opposites that becomes so familiar to us as we read the New Testament. God chooses the weak things of the world to put to shame the things that are strong (1 Corinthians 2:27). Gideon himself is what we would nowadays call an ‘anti-hero’, with no qualifications and no confidence. The prescription for dealing with this enemy becomes clear:

1. Keep the food supply flowing at all costs;

2. Shine the light!


*    *    *    *    *

At this point in my father’s notes I looked expectantly for a reference to a New Testament passage, but there is none. It may have been so obvious to him as not to have required a cross-reference, but let us for our own part take no risks! In 2 Corinthians 4 is a passage which, surely, provides a perfect match for the story of Gideon, light, pitcher and all. In the Corinthian church was a situation of total disorder. There was certainly strife (“I am of Paul; and I of Apollos”) and there was equally certainly a great deal of activity, which left untouched the appalling moral disorder within the church.

When Paul first wrote to rebuke the church, its members evidently responded by asking, in effect, ‘Who does he thinkhe is?’ (Gideon, as it happens, met with a rather similar reaction in Judges 8:1-3.) The second epistle was Paul’s response. “You seem to think,” he said, “that for a person to be an apostle he must look or sound like one. But being an apostle is not a matter of strength of personality. I do not claim the right to speak to you because of what I am. All I can do — all any apostle does — is to let the light of God shine through him. It’s not the man that counts; it is the light.”

Whether or not Paul was thinking of Gideon at this time we shall never know, but his words strongly suggest that he was (2 Corinthians 4:6-7): “God … shined in our hearts, to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, that the exceeding greatness of the power of God may be of God, and not from ourselves”. The answer to strife or busyness among God’s people is not the accumulation of force or the cult of personality but rather the breaking of the pitcher so that the light may shine out.

Gideon and the Fleece

My father’s notes on the Midianites close with a reference to the fleece which plays a rather baffling part in the story of Gideon (Judges 6:36-40). What was the point of all that? To my father it provided both a warning and an encouragement. He saw the dew-wet ground and the dry fleece on it as a reminder that, when there is outward prosperity and plenty in the world, there is likely to be dryness and leanness among God’s people, for there is nothing in the world to sustain or refresh them. But by contrast he would encourage us to realise that, in a world starving for spiritual food, or life, or hope, where there is nothing but dry ground, the dew of heaven can and does fall on God’s children to refresh and enliven them.




Vol. 10, No. 5, Sep. – Oct. 1981 EDITOR: Mr. Harry Foster

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