“And Gideon said to God, ‘If you are there, save Israel by my hand, as you have said. Behold, I am placing a fleece of wool on the threshing floor. If the dew is on the fleece and it alone and all the ground around it is dry, then I will know that you will deliver Israel by my hand as you have said.’ And it was so. Early on the next day he wrung out the fleece. And he drained out the dew from the fleece — enough to fill a bowl with water.”
This passage always seems a bit out of place…unless the miracle is for the people and not for Gideon. Here we have Gideon, shaking off his initial doubts, pulling down the altar to Ba’al and the Asherah pole that was beside it and being given the name: Jerubba’al: “Let Ba’al contend for himself.” Then, we are told that the Spirit of God descends on Gideon — much like we would later see with Samson or King David, and in boldness Gideon calls not only his own tribal people, but also the tribes of the surrounding regions to prepare for war. Then, after such a bold call to war, we have this passage.
Many times, when reading this, we see this as another instance of doubt in the life of Gideon. And while I have no objection to such a depiction of Gideon, the placement of this event just does not seem to fit the man who has just prior been filled with the Holy Spirit and who has rallied the armies to him.
So, perhaps, put your preconceived ideas to the side for a few minutes and imagine the sign that Gideon is calling for as a sign not for Gideon, but for all of the tribal leaders who have been rallied to his call. Remember, Gideon has already received his sign (the Angel and the sacrifice that had earlier taken place. So now, filled with the Holy Spirit, Gideon calls on God to give that same confidence to the tribal chiefs and warriors. So, he calls on God to make a public display of his power to show the people that God will deliver Israel by Gideon’s hand.
Not only does that reading better fit the larger context of the Gideon narrative, but it also helps explain Gideon’s first words here in verse 36 — literally he says, “If you are” or “If there is a you.” Most English translations blend these words with the language of savior, but the cantillation marks (the accents that bind words and ideas together in the Hebrew) separate the words, making the “If you are” stand apart. In other words, the text is indicating that Gideon (arguably in a public way) is stating, “God, if you are really there…do this to prove to them that you will deliver by my hand.” This is not unlike to cry of Elijah to God that he would put the idolatrous people to shame on the mountain.
And God does. And not only does God make the fleece wet, but a bowls-worth of water is collected in it. Again, this is suitable for a public wringing out — something visible to all who were there to watch.