Here at the end of Gideon’s story, when he very easily could have taken the kingship of Israel because it was offered to him by the people, he refuses and says that Yahweh is the rightful king of Israel. So even in the degraded time of the judges, there was still a knowledge of Yahweh and the uniqueness of Israel as a nation under his rule rather than under human rule. This is also reflected in the other judges in that they are not referred to as kings, but rather as judges. The word for “judge” and “judging” is the same word used in Exodus 18.13 to refer to Moses deciding cases that the people of Israel would bring to him. The picture I get is that the judge was a person who would be a conduit through which God’s rule over the people would be administered. Someone had to make decisions when there were disputes.
But the irony is that while the existence of judges (rather than kings) points to this tacit acceptance that they were a nation under Yahweh, there is still a constant looking to the gods of the Canaanites that oppress Israel throughout the book (the baals). And here at the end of Gideon’s story, something similar takes place. But rather than being a local deity, it is the ephod that Gideon makes out of the earrings that are given to him from the spoil of the Midianites.
In the same way, as the people of God in the New Covenant, we can often give lip service to being the people of God who look to Jesus Christ as our King and Lord, but who begin to in reality serve the gods of our age rather than being completely faithful to Jesus as our only Lord.
But what is the place of Gideon’s ephod in this subtle falling away from serving only the true God–Yahweh.
The golden earrings are rightful spoils of battle that came from a victory that God gave Israel. But rather than dedicating these to God and putting them in the treasury of the Lord (something we see David doing in 1 Chron. 26.27) Gideon makes an ephod of them, which becomes a snare to Israel. It is not clear what Gideon intended this ephod to be used for (an ephod was something that a priest would wear when doing religious ceremonies), but the fact that Israel “whored after it” shows that it is looked to in the place of God. Whoring is a word that is used throughout the Old Testament to refer to service to idols in the place of God.
We know that the tabernacle existed and the sacrificial system was active in the time of the judges because it is mentioned in 1 Samuel 2.22 in the story of Samuel (it was at Shiloh. It is also referred to as “the temple of the Lord” in 1 Sam. 1.9, 3.3), but there is only a passing reference to it in Judges 18.31. So it appears that in the time of the judges, while there were some (like Elkanah, Samuel’s father, 1 Sam 1.3) who would worship at the tabernacle, the majority of the Israelites, rather than seeking Yahweh exclusively, would look to the baals and things like this ephod as sources of help and blessing. We are not told in what specific manner these things were served.
But when you get to v. 33, you can see that the ephod of Gideon was a stepping stone back to serving the baals, after an initial return to the Lord under Gideon. Perhaps the lesson to be drawn them from the story of Gideon’s ephod, then, is that idolatry or turning away from the true God in spiritual adultery (whoring) can be an incremental process. There can be a subtle shift from full devotion to God to a devotion to something that looks like it is devotion to God but is actually devotion to something else. In this case, it was the ephod that symbolized the victory that God had given Gideon over the Midianites. I want to be careful not to read too much into the story and to start describing what this service to the ephod actually looked like because we are not told those details. But I wonder if the application to us as the New Covenant people of God is that there can be a similar subtle shift from serving God to looking to other things that look like service to God but are actually only stepping stones to full idolatry and serving the gods of the world around us.
An example that I wonder about is the way we often begin to rely more on the thinking and values of the world rather than on the Word of God in the way we plan and carry out our ministry in the church. We depend on human management insights and marketing techniques. We look to make our ministry more attractive and appealing to people in ways that appeal to their fleshly desires rather than exalting the God of the Bible. This eventually leads to a situation where the gospel of Christ is obscured and people are attending church and enjoying it, but whose lives are not at all different from those of the broader society around them. They are serving the same baals that the society around them serves and the church (as a people) has no distinctive identity in the broader society.
For a time, there may be a distinctiveness in terms of belief systems. In other words, there may be an intellectual assent to the historic doctrines of the Christian faith, but eventually even these will be abandoned.