“And Yahweh said to Gideon, ‘Too great are the numbers of the people who are with you for me to give the Midianites into your hand, lest Israel boast against me, saying, ‘My hand has saved me.’ So now call out in the hearing of the people and say, ‘Whomever fears and trembles, let him turn and depart from Mount Gilead.’ And of the people, twenty-two thousand departed and ten-thousand remained.”
Human standards and divine standards are so radically different. Here is Gideon’s army, made up of 32,000 men and God is stating that it is too large to be victorious over the Midianites. Looking ahead to Judges 8:10, we discover that the Midianite army numbered 135,000 soldiers. That means that Gideon’s army was only about a quarter of the size of the Midianite hordes. By human terms, Gideon better rally more troops! But, by God’s standards, Gideon’s army was large enough that were he to give them victory, the soldiers would have gone to their homes bragging about their might. God chooses to whittle the number down.
The first step is that God tells Gideon to allow those who feared and trembled to turn and depart. This should not be seen as a merciful act. He is not giving them an “out” if you will, that will allow them to return to their homes with dignity. He is basically saying, “All of you who are here but are too fearful and cowardly to fight, return to your homes quickly!”
The phrase about Mount Gilead is a bit troubling as the army is nowhere near the mountain (located on the east side of the Jordan while these armies are all encamped on the west side). Note too, that it also does not make sense to translate the term, “to Gilead,” as the soldiers originate from the west side of the Jordan. The most logical answer seems to be that this was a term of relative derision that the soldiers leaving would have understood. As to the origin of the derisive phrase, that is open to speculation, but it may be a reference to Judges 5:17 when Deborah chastises the people of Gilead and Dan for not coming out and fighting alongside of her. Here then, once again, those who will not fight with Gideon are essentially being called Gileadites because of their cowardice. Either way, two-thirds of his army departs and makes for the hills.
This of course, is only the first step in God’s work to reduce the numbers of Gideon’s army. He will not share his glory with any man or portion of the creation. And he will be glorified for this deliverance of his people.