Vanquishing the Hosts of Midian, One Post at a Time
A nostalgic manifesto
“Hello, it’s me — again!”
That’s a line my wife and I like to quote to each other. It’s something her niece said when she was thirteen or thereabouts, the button to a line of speculation on what she might want to do when she grew up. She was musing about what it would be like to have a talk show of her own, and that line is what she imagined the experience would be like.
I’ve never been a talk show host (neither has she), but I was a fairly regular blogger on politics and culture for fifteen years, at a variety of outlets from 2002 through 2017, first on my own site, then at The American Scene, and finally at The American Conservative, and that’s kind of what blogging is like. It’s also a pithy synopsis of what distinguishes blogging from other kinds of writing that I’ve done.
When I write a column, as I do regularly for The Week, I’m always conscious that I need to give people a reason to read it — connect it to something that might already be on their minds because of other things they are reading or hearing or seeing right now. As well, writing for an editor, I’m always conscious of that editor’s responsibility for the audience the publication already has or hopes to attract.
When I blogged, by contrast, I was creating, or attempting to create, my own audience, a group of people that was there specifically to hear me and participate in my thinking process. It was very direct and spontaneous, and very free. I could natter on about Anna Karenina and the counting of the omer between Passover and Pentecost, or about the relationship between the Coen Brothers’ film, A Serious Man, Terence Malick’s film, Tree of Life, and the biblical Book of Job. I didn’t need a topical hook. I didn’t need to cater to a publication’s audience. I didn’t need to meet any house requirements related to style or length or anything else. I could write whatever interested me — and leave it to the world to decide whether what interested me also interested them.
That’s a dangerous thing in many ways. Writers benefit from editing, both because good editors help them make their arguments clearer, and because good editors keep them from making fools of themselves. I wrote plenty of self-indulgent twaddle as a blogger, and made a fool of myself more times than I can count.
But it’s also a wonderful setup, not only because of the freedom not to chase the news cycle, but because it’s a rare way for a writer to escape the sometimes-harrowing solitude of the occupation. The blog world felt like a community having a conversation, and that was a precious thing to me, one that helped me think better and write better and feel less alone as I did both.
I want a place where I can think out loud in the the kind of ruminative way that a publication can’t ever really afford to indulge in, and engage in deliberative debate of a kind that Twitter is practically engineered to undermine. I want to discover, once again, what interests me, and share it with the world to discover, once again, whether it interests you.
Hence Gideon’s Substack.
But why “Gideon’s Substack?”
Well, my first solo blog was called Gideon’s Blog, partly because my middle name is Gideon, and because I remembered a fictional alter-ego I had created as a pre-teen named Alex Gideon who was a kind of interstellar secret agent who I wanted to pay homage to. Similarly, this Substack does honor to that blog by carrying on its name. But I also chose the name because of a pair of episodes involving the biblical Gideon.
In chapter 6 of Judges, Gideon is preparing to make war against the Midianites, and he has raised a mighty host for the purpose. But God says: you have too many people with you; if I deliver you victory by means of such a great host, they will think that they won it by their own might. So he tells Gideon to bring the army to the water, and see how the men drink. Those who put their hand to their mouth and lap water like a dog will be chosen, while those who kneel down to drink will be sent home. By this means, the host is reduced to only three hundred souls.
But then, when it comes time for battle, Gideon does an interesting thing. He divides the group into three smaller companies, gives them noisemakers — horns and empty pitchers — and torches, sends them to different sides of the camp. And he instructs them that, when they get the signal, they should make a great noise by blowing the horns and smashing the pitchers, and they should wave the torches and shout: For the Lord and Gideon! And by this means, they should terrify the Midianite enemy that they faced a far larger army than in fact they did, and cause them to run away. Which, according to the text, is what happened.
Why do I find this interesting? And what does it have to do with this blog?
First, I should explain what I think is going on with the business about drinking like a dog versus kneeling. Human beings can’t actually lap up water like dogs — our tongues don’t work the way dogs’ do — and besides, the text makes it clear that the ones who lapped put their hands to their mouths to drink, something dogs cannot do, while those who did not lap, and who were sent home, knelt to drink. So what were these two different groups actually doing? I think the distinction isn’t between those who drink like animals and those who drink like human beings, but between those who knelt down and used both hands to bring a full measure of water to their faces, and drink deeply, and those who reached down with one hand and had to slurp what little water they could gather up quickly. And why would some have tried to drink one-handed in this fashion? Because they were keeping the other hand at the ready to grasp their sword should the group come under attack. (I am not the only person to favor this interpretation, btw.) So Gideon wasn’t told to choose for his elite army those who most desperately lapped up water, but those who were most vigilant even while drinking.
Now, what I find interesting about the story is that God makes it clear that He wants Gideon to field a smaller army precisely to make their victory more obviously miraculous so they will give God proper credit. But then Gideon goes and achieves his victory by means of a trick, fooling the Midianites into believing his army is, in fact, enormous. God never has the opportunity to deliver a stunning, miraculous victory, whether by means of the sword or by means of some natural or supernatural wonder, a well-timed plague or the splitting of the sea. God is supposed to be the force-multiplier, but if so He is operating through Gideon’s own intelligence, and the superior discipline of his carefully-chosen force.
That’s very much how I think about this blog, and how I’ve always thought about my work. While I like the casual, conversational style of blogging, I’m not particularly well-suited to an era that emphasizes quantity and repetition as a way of building an audience. So I’m going to have to bet on other qualities, and hope that a few, well-chosen posts can vanquish the hosts of Midian better than a vast but unselected horde.
There’s another layer to the Gideon allusion, though.
Years ago, when I was more religiously observant, I wrote a series of parables of teshuvah (repentance) for the month of Elul, the month leading up to Rosh Hashanah, the beginning of the season of repentance that culminates in Yom Kippur. But what is interesting about those parables is that they are all fundamentally skeptical rather than zealous. Even at the height of my determination to become a pious and observant Jew, some part of me always knew that whatever that determination was based on, it wasn’t the kind of conversion experience that leads to certainty, or even confident faith.
Hence the following parable, which I wrote in 2003, about Gideon and his chosen few:
A man is marooned in the desert, and wanders for many days. He learns, perforce, to draw water from the thick-leaved plants while eluding the thorns; to capture the dew that settles on his cloak at night; to travel in the early dawn and late evening, and hide from the mid-day heat that would suck the moisture out of his open mouth.
Many times, he has seen pools of shimmering water on the horizon — especially when he has travelled too far into the morning, and the sun has risen to its full white power, and the rock and sand begin to bend under the blows of the sun. And sometimes he runs out to taste the waters, hoping they are sweet and not bitter, only to find that they are neither sweet nor bitter, for there are no waters to taste, only the laughing sunlight.
Then, one day, he comes upon an oasis. There are palm trees here, and the rocks and sand that ring the pool are darkened with moisture, not shining, and the pool lies just below the surface of the land, and the air above is still, not shimmering. This is no mirage.
And yet the man hesitates. Not because he has been fooled before, though that is part of it. But because he is afraid. So long wandering in the desert, he fears what he would do if he immersed himself wholly in these cool waters, whether he would go into shock from the sudden change in environment — or whether, worse, he would so love the deep that he would hold his head below the surface too long, and drown.
And so the man stands at the edge of the pool, and cups his hand, and raises a portion of the water to his lips, and drinks from his hand, just so much as one can drink in a single swallow. Perchance he takes two drinks, or three, or more, until he first senses the fading of thirst, then pauses, lest he forget to be thankful.
Perhaps of this man, too, one might say: by [those] men who lapped will I save you. [Judges 7:7]
I’ve reversed the apparent meaning of the story entirely. God has Gideon dismiss those who kneel down to drink, and keep the ones with their hands on their swords. That sounds like he wants to keep the men who are most ready for a fight — presumably on God’s behalf. But Gideon’s band keep their hands on their swords specifically while they drink. In a biblical context water is frequently a symbol of learning, of spiritual nourishment, of God’s own presence. This is what they restrain themselves from taking deeply of, and instead only lap shallowly like dogs, lest they leave themselves vulnerable.
So it is with me, and I think so it has always been. I have always had my hand on my sword, not to defend my faith but to defend myself against believing too deeply. Yet I want to believe that this makes me a better battler for truth, and therefore more likely to be of service to a Gideon, than one who would dive in heedlessly head first.
And with that — let’s take the plunge.
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