The best thing the judge Gideon ever did and the worst mistake he ever made came within moments of each other.
The best was when the Israelites asked him to be their king, and he turned down the invitation. Like the prophet Samuel years later, he knew that the only true king the Israelites would ever have was Yahweh, and he told them so. If he had any secret hankerings for personal power, he managed to squelch them. It was a noble move, and when you consider all the trouble Israel had with kings when it finally got them, it showed amazing wisdom and foresight.
And then the mistake. All the boys were wearing gold earrings that season, and when Gideon asked them to contribute them to the cause, they cheerfully agreed. Somebody laid a coat on the ground, and as soon as the earrings were all tossed in, Gideon added some more golden gewgaws he'd taken from the enemy, things like crescents and pendants and collars for prize camels. By the time he was through, he had a great glittering pile out of which he made an ephod. Nobody's quite sure what an ephod was in this case, but it was apparently some sort of religious objet d'art that Gideon thought would remind everybody who their true king really was. Only that's not the way things worked out.
Gideon's mistake was to forget that the second of the Ten Commandments is "Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image" (Exodus 20:4) and that it's not by accident that it stands that high on the list. As soon as you've got a golden god you can shine up and deck out and push around like a doll in a baby carriage, you start thinking God himself is somebody you can push around too. The next step, of course, is that you think the graven image is God, and by that time it has about as much genuine religious significance as a rabbit's foot or a charm against the evil eye.
Instead of looking at the ephod and thinking about Yahweh, the Israelites started kowtowing to the ephod and hardly giving Yahweh the time of day. After Gideon died, they started kowtowing to the kinds of things you win tossing hoops at a carnival, and Yahweh was all but forgotten.
Poor Gideon. He might almost have done better to let them make him king when they wanted to. At least he would have been able to keep them on the right track that way, and they would have been able to keep their earrings, and Yahweh would have been able to keep in closer touch with his people than for their many long, sad years of god sampling was possible again.
~originally published in Peculiar Treasures and later in Beyond Words