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Shofar, So Good

by Tim O'Hearn

The shofar (trumpet made from the horn of a kosher animal) holds an important place in Jewish life and history. When it is blown over 100 times on Rosh HaShanah (September 9 in 2010) it stands as a warning of the coming of Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement (September 18 this year). Ezekiel (chapter 33) uses the trumpet in this way. In time of danger, the shofar became a signal for impending danger. Yet the sound of the instrument could also be used as an offensive signal (that is “signal for the offense”, not “objectionable signal”) in time of battle. Perhaps the most famous example of that is its use by Gideon.

Gideon was a nobody. “My family is poor in Manasseh, and I am the least in my father's house.” (Jdg 6:15) When we first meet him, he is hiding. “Gideon threshed wheat by the winepress, to hide from the Midianites.” (Jdg 6:11) (Some versions add “it,” referring to the grain, after the word hide. Perhaps Gideon wanted to hide the grain, but most certainly he wanted to hide himself.) This is no soldier; some would call him a coward.

The Midianites had oppressed the land. Somebody should have done something about it, but somebody didn’t, so God picked a nobody instead. The remainder of Judges 6 recounts Gideon’s attempts to establish that he is indeed God’s choice, unlikely though it may be, to lead Israel.

Gideon is a bundle of insecurities. He wants proof that the messenger that calls him is from God. When he gets the proof, he wants more proof. When told to tear down an idol, he has to do it at night because he is afraid of his father. He is afraid of the Midianites; he is afraid of his own people. He even has to sneak into the Midianite camp to hear a dream before he is sure that he is the one to lead God’s people. And God seems determined to increase his insecurity. When he calls together a small army (in comparison to the Midianite army), God reduces the army by over ninety percent. (If to decimate is to reduce a population by ten percent, what is a word for this situation, where only that percentage were left?) When God has Gideon tell the fearful and timid to go home he probably had to specifically tell Gideon that he was exempt from that order. God needed him to stay.

Gideon was insecure. Then God put a shofar in his hand. The plan was to surround the mighty Midianite army with three hundred men. Each man was to wait for Gideon to blow his shofar, and then break a jar that concealed a flame and blow their own shofarim. As the watch was changing (an example followed by the Japanese at Pearl Harbor), the formerly timid Gideon blew a mighty blast on his shofar. The people followed their assignment and shouted. The Midianites lashed out in the dark, killing themselves. God and Gideon gained a victory through the sound of the trumpet.

At Rosh HaShanah perhaps we can learn some lessons from Gideon and his shofar. The scriptures are written for our learning, so let us learn.

God and a trumpet are all we need to give us courage to live for God. We may even be able to do without the trumpet, but cannot do without God.

God’s word may be a warning to us. God’s word may also be used to defeat his enemies. That is not to say we should beat them into submission with the scriptures. Sometimes just hearing the shofar of God’s word is enough to cause them to stumble over themselves in flight.

Gideon should have listened to the warning of the shofar while he was using it as a weapon. Meek Gideon suddenly became Arrogant Gideon. As a result of this battle, Gideon created an idol that led Israel astray. Had he listened to the warning note, instead of the clarion note, he would have saved himself, and his son, much trouble. At Rosh HaShanah the shofar warns the Jewish people to repent of the sins of the past year, in preparation for atonement. It is important to listen to that note of the trumpet, and not follow Gideon into even greater sin.