1898. Boscobel, Wisconsin. Two businessmen, John H. Nicholson and Samuel E. Hill, arrived in town looking for a place to spend the night. However, the Central Hotel was so crowded that there was only one room left available. Nicholson and Hill, who had never met one another before, agreed to share that room with a double bed for the night. These men soon discovered that they were Christians. They prayed and read the Bible together. As these men were on their knees, they soon realized an idea that would eventually become the Bible distribution ministry of the Gideons.
If you stay at nearly any hotel these days, pull open the bedside drawer and chances are that you will find a Bible placed there by the Gideons. Over a hundred years after Nicholson and Hill met that evening together, first as strangers, then as brothers in Christ, the Gideons International has placed over 1.9 billion Bibles all over the world, in multiple languages, at an average rate of two copies of the Bible per second. The Gideons record countless stories of changed lives through people picking up a Gideon distributed Bible. Astrophysicist Hugh Ross had grown up in a completely secularized environment until he took the time to read a copy of the Bible given to him by the Gideons in his school, which eventually led him to place his faith in Christ. I myself remember getting my own green copy of the New Testament as a freshman in college.
But have you ever seen a sticker placed by an atheist on a Gideon Bible?
Stickers on the Gideon Bible?
The Gideons are a very low-profile ministry. Professional or retired businessmen in good standing in their church may join, going across the world to hand deliver copies of God’s Word in prisons and hospitals, along with the more traditional hotels and schools. Historically, the Gideons have favored the King James Version, but now in a global age, they distribute a number of different versions, the popular English ones including the New American Standard Bible (NASB), the New King James Version (NKJV) and the New Living Translation (NLT). The Gideons may include a brief invitation to receive the Gospel in their literature, but aside from that, they mainly only print and distribute the Bible text itself.
The Gideons work is indeed noticeable, and some reactions are negative. The Beatles songwriter, Paul McCartney, immortalized a casual reference to “Gideon’s Bible” into popular culture in the song “Rocky Raccoon,” on The White Album. The openly gay British actor Ian McKellen, who plays Gandalf in the Lord of the the Rings and Hobbit movies, regularly rips a page out of Leviticus of every Gideon Bible he finds in a hotel containing what he sees as offensive hate speech. From a different angle, other groups find inspiration in the success of the Gideons, as you find more and more copies of the Book of Mormon, and even other sacred scriptural works (Bhagavad-Gita, Buddhist texts, etc.), next to the Gideon-placed Bible in hotels. These days, you never know what you might find lurking in a hotel bedside table.
Not too long ago, I heard a story from a pastor that some atheist groups are placing stickers on Gideon-placed Bibles. These stickers protest that Gideon is not someone you would want to emulate. Ironically, these same stickers encourage you to actually read the Biblical text:
The Gideon Society places Bibles in hotel rooms for your edification. Just who was Gideon? One would assume that he was a person of exemplary character and great worth to have a world-wide society named after him. Here are some of Gideon’s accomplishments:
Gideon slaughtered thousands in battle by plotting with the “Lord” to use treachery.
Gideon murdered thousands more for worshipping “false Gods.”
Gideon tortured and killed still more for daring to taunt him.
Gideon plundered the bodies of his victims (to fashion a jeweled priestly vestment).
Gideon fathered an offspring who killed 69 of his stepbrothers.
Read the Bible for yourself. You will find the story of Gideon in Judges, chapters 6-9. The tale of Gideon is just one of many horror stories in the Bible, a book that glorifies behavior you abhor. Millions of people have been hoodwinked and bamboozled by what their clergy and leaders have told them of the Bible. Make up your own mind about the Bible – read it for yourself.
This is quite shocking when you first read the sticker. But the sticker has a great idea. Go read the Bible! Strangely though, the criticisms on the sticker do not exactly line up with a careful reading of Scripture.
Who Was Gideon? A Positive or Negative Role Model, or Both?
First, the Book of Judges shows that the Midianites were oppressing the Israelites with scathing brutality. The angel of the Lord meets Gideon hiding in a winepress, for fear that the Midianites would steal or destroy his wheat. Gideon was absolutely scared to death because of the tyranny of the Midianites, who regularly raided Hebrew farms and destroyed their livelihood. Gideon was therefore very reluctant to trust the counsel of this angel of the Lord in the face of overwhelming odds. Nevertheless, God was able to use this fearful young man to eventually overthrow the oppressive yoke of Midian with comparatively meager resources. So the idea of the sticker that Gideon “slaughtered” and “murdered thousands” for dubious reasons is simply misinformed.
However, the anti-Gideon sticker does raise a good point. When the Bible gives us a story like Gideon’s, does it mean that we are to blindly emulate that person? No. Instead, the Bible gives us numerous examples and warnings in the Scriptures in both positive and negative ways. Simply because the Bible records a story does not automatically imply the blanket endorsement of every action of the story’s characters. When we consider that the New Testament offers us a portrait of Jesus Christ, as the God-Man, as the only person to have lived a sinless life, it puts the stories of the Old Testament within their proper perspective. The Bible consistently reveals to us that God alone is worthy of complete emulation, whereas to some degree or another the human characters are all flawed by sin. How does this play out in the life of Gideon?
When Gideon and his army were pursuing the Midianites, the men of Succoth refused to feed Gideon and his army with bread. Were the men of Succoth merely trying to stay out of the way, or were they secretly in some form of alliance with the Midianites? So after Gideon had finished chasing down the Midianites and returned to confront those who were “taunting” him (8:15), he did “teach the men of Succoth a lesson” (8:16). Was Gideon justified in his response? Perhaps the next incident gives some clarity.
Gideon then plundered the spoil of battle and fashioned for himself a jeweled priestly vestment. But the Bible clearly notes that this became “a snare to Gideon and to his family.” The moral of the text is while he rose to prominence because of his victory over the Midianites, Gideon let things get to his head. Slowly, but surely, pride welled up within Gideon, and Israel as a nation suffered for it. For just after Gideon died, the people did yet again turn in rebellion from God, and they once again became victimized by their enemies all around them. Though it would not be fair to place the full blame on Gideon himself, the fact that his son Abimelech killed so many of his stepbrothers in yet another act of sinful rebellion against God should not surprise us. The Bible is very honest in exposing the universal sinfulness of the human condition, even among supposed “role models” like Gideon.
So contrary to the claim of the sticker that the Bible “glorifies behavior you abhor”, reading the story of Gideon demonstrates the powerful truth of God’s Word. When there are many obstacles in our life, we can go to the Lord, and put our trust in Him that He might deliver us from these obstacles. Nevertheless, the flawed character of Gideon also warns us not to allow any success we experience with God to become a pretext for haughty arrogance. God’s goodness towards us is a sign of His grace, not a license for doing whatever we want.
This is why the Gideons International clings to Gideon as their namesake. In facing the reality that millions are indeed perishing, God has given the Gideons International a ministry to distribute God’s Word in countries all around the world, and they do it in a quiet way that exemplifies the call to humility in the Gideon ministry. The many stories of people coming to faith after reading a Gideon Bible demonstrates that God is continually delivering people from the tyranny of sin.
We should all remember the example and warning of Gideon not to allow spiritual pride to take over and attribute any wonderful accomplishments of God to ourselves. So the next time you see a sticker from an atheist encouraging you to read the Bible, perhaps you should take their advice!