While even today it is common to talk about "putting out a fleece," we as believers need to ask what we should make of Gideon's attempt to find God's will this way, and if indeed he was even in the will of God to seek to do so. Was he engaged in faith or presumption?
That is, is it ever appropriate for Christians today to say something like this? "God, if you make someone knock on my door in ten minutes time, inquiring about our house, I will then know it is your will to sell this house." Is this a valid method? Or is it improperly putting God to the test?
Indeed, is this a valid and spiritually-acceptable method of determining God's will? Was Gideon right to employ it? May we do the same today? These are all good questions, so in order to properly answer them, it is of course necessary to look more closely at the Judges passage.
The full story is found in Judges 6-8, and needs to be read in context. The Midianites and others had come to challenge Israel. We are told in 6:11-12 how Yahweh had appeared to Gideon. It is actually a bit humorous. The angel of the Lord appears to him and says, "The Lord is with you, mighty warrior".
Yet Gideon had effectively been hiding from the Midianites in the threshing room. Not much of a warrior there! God often graciously condescends to our lowly and humble estate. The first thing Gideon says is, "Hey, if the Lord is with us, then why are we in such a pickle" or words to that effect (v. 13).
The Lord says he will use him to defeat the Midianites. In response Gideon asks for a sign (v. 17). Yahweh agreed and performed a clear revelatory sign for him. Emboldened by this, at God's command, he tore down some pagan altars which never should have been there.
The locals made a stink about this but Gideon stood his ground. It is after all this that we read about the Midianites and others crossing over the Jordon, as they had done before (v. 33). It is at this point that Gideon asks for the sign of the fleece.
He tells Yahweh: If this fleece will be dew-soaked while the rest of the ground stays dry, then I will know that you have sent me and will be with me. And sure enough, the next morning he finds the fleece soaking wet, while the ground next to it is dry.
But the story does not stop there. In vv. 39-40 we read: "Then Gideon said to God, 'Do not be angry with me. Let me make just one more request. Allow me one more test with the fleece, but this time make the fleece dry and let the ground be covered with dew.' That night God did so. Only the fleece was dry; all the ground was covered with dew."
In chapters 7 and 8 we read about how Gideon defeated the Midianites, after of course he greatly pared down his numbers so that God would get the glory, not him. So his original army of 32,000 men was shrunk to just 300. There are of course wonderful spiritual lessons to be drawn from that as well.
But the fleece episode, and the earlier sign which Gideon asked for, can now be more properly assessed. Were these requests legitimate? Were they acts of faith or maybe indications of unbelief? Are they something which believers today should emulate?
A few things seem to be clear about this episode. First, this was actually not about discerning God's will, or discovering what God wanted. Yahweh had already clearly told Gideon what he was going to do. All Gideon had to do was agree with God about this and get on with the job.
But instead Gideon had to go through three different tests before he actually does what he is supposed to do. So he was not exactly acing in faith here. So if we take this as an example for us today, we can only use it as far as it is used there. That is, God's will has already been revealed, and we are just wanting confirmation about it.
Also, it seems this whole episode is one about a lack of faith – even unbelief. Simply having the angel of the Lord appearing to him should have been enough. Then he got another miraculous sign from Yahweh: the divine fire consuming the meat and the bread.
Yet he still wanted another, double, confirmatory sign. He was probably aware of how this may not have been pleasing to God when he said, "Do not be angry with me…" If he was doing something patently acceptable in Yahweh's sight, there would have been no need to make such a statement.
Indeed, twice Gideon says that God had promised that he would deliver Israel through himself (vv. 36, 37), but in spite of this promise which he was fully aware of, he still puts God to the test by demanding more signs. This was not an act of faith but of unbelief.
Lastly, we of course have no clear New Testament example of, or command for, such a test. Instead, we have Jesus and the apostles downplaying this, and at times getting upset when people asked for a sign. As Jesus complained, "A wicked and adulterous generation looks for a miraculous sign, but none will be given it except the sign of Jonah" (Matt 16:4). Or as Paul said, "Jews demand miraculous signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles" (1 Cor 1:22,23).
In sum, as K.L. Younger remarks, this fleecing "is nothing short of a pagan divinatory test of the deity." He continues, "The fleece incidents are far from a model for the discernment of God's will. . . . His problem is his lack of willingness to trust the lord, to take him at his word. Thus the fleece incidents are about Gideon's unbelief and stubbornness in response to God's call. In such cases, God is not obligated to respond, and if he does, it is only by grace. Those who use this passage as a means of discerning God's will are simply misapplying Scripture."
Of course all this is not to say that God cannot and does not provide signs. Indeed, in biblical times miracles were primarily used as confirmatory signs of divine revelation. Today however Christians are not to depend on signs and wonders as they seek God's will. Thus we need to be careful here.
As Herbert Wolf comments, "If this 'fleece' consists of a careful observation and interpretation of God's leading through circumstances, the procedure can be a healthy one. But Gideon's method was to make purely arbitrary demands of God, and insist on immediate guidance. Such an approach can hardly be recommended for Christians today."
Instead, like most aspects of the Christian life, there is the long hard slog of doing what is right, having strong faith, and persevering, even when things are not always perfectly clear as to the way ahead. There are no short cuts to spirituality, in other words.
Daily trusting God, denying ourselves, and remaining obedient and faithful, that is the stuff of the normal Christian life. And that is the stuff of seeking God's will. God may well choose to confirm his will with a sign of some sort, but that tends to be the exception to the rule.
Learning how to trust God, walk with God, and depend on him, even in the darker times or when things are not always crystal clear, is how God is mainly glorified and how we mainly are to follow him today. So it seems that putting out a fleece to discover God's will is not what believers today should be doing.
Adapted from Bill Muehlenberg's weblog at www.billmuehlenberg.com.
Bill Muehlenberg lectures in apologetics, ethics and theology at several Melbourne theological colleges. Bill used to work with the Australian Family Association, Focus on the Family, and other pro-family and pro-faith organisations.