Walter Brueggemann: Profiles in Cowardice

Most of us are aware of the book by John F. Kennedy, Profiles in Courage. Kennedy wrote the book in 1955 while still a college student. It was a collection of vignettes concerning individual persons who acted boldly and bravely for the sake of the common good with a readiness to take risks away from an easier path. Now, I suggest, we are in need of a counter-collection of “profiles in cowardice,” an account of individual persons who have refused to take risks or to act boldly for the sake of the common good. Just now our common good urgently needs such risk-taking agents to act in the midst of gun violence. An amorphous fear feeds the crowd. In turn the amorphous fear by the crowd feeds the fear of would-be leaders. What we witness, recurringly, are those who play it safe and give in to fear. Just now, with raging gun violence, there is need for courage; but what we see all around is cowardly fear.

I could readily identify two such moments of astonishing courage in the life of ancient Israel. The first case I cite concerns the Israelites in Judges 6-8. The Israelites mightily feared the Midianites, who were predators who seized Israelite produce and so reduced Israel to poverty (Judges 6:3-6). In response to the pressure of the Midianite threat, the Israelites provided for themselves hidden places in mountains, caves, and strongholds (Judges 6:2). More than that, when it came time to the threshing of their grain, they did it covertly “in the winepress” (6:11). The result of such hidden action is that the Israelites had to “eat the dust” of their beating of grain that was normally done in fresh air, but in their fear it was now done in an enclosure. Their air was suffocating!

It is characteristic of the Bible that the God of emancipation intervenes on behalf of Israel to rescue them from the threat that evokes their fear. In this case God dispatched “a prophet” (2:7; that is, an angel in 6:11) to remind Israel of the Exodus and to chide Israel for not heeding the will of the God who emancipated them (6:7-10). The messenger declared that God is among Israel as a “mighty warrior” (v. 12; see Exodus 15:3). In response to this divine rebuke Gideon speaks on behalf of cowardly Israel. He avers that none of these remembered “wondrous deeds” is now operative for desperate Israel, because God has “cast off” Israel. Israel is now on its own without resources, he judges, and cannot cope with the threat of Midian; hence, fear!

In response to that consuming fear, the messenger “commissions” (sends) Gideon as the one who is to deliver Israel from Midian. But the fear continues. Gideon refuses the divine commission as being too small and insignificant against such odds:

But sir, how can I deliver Israel? My clan is the weakest in Manasseh, and I am the least in my family” (6:15).

What Gideon receives in response to his abdicating fear is an assurance of divine accompaniment (v. 16). That is all he gets. Gideon, in his fear, remains unconvinced. He asks for a sign to confirm the assurance. Even then, however, Gideon is still fearful, and he acts out his new obedience to YHWH in the dark of night:

So Gideon took ten of his servants, and did as the Lord had told him; but because he was too afraid of his family and the townspeople to do it by day, he did it by night (v. 27).

(For a parallel in cowardice, see Nicodemus in John 3:2.)  Note well: Gideon is not here afraid of the Midianites, but of his own people! After the public agitation of his action in destroying the symbols of Baalism, it is reported that, 

The spirit of the Lord took possession of Gideon, and he sounded the trumpet, and the Abiezrites were called out to follow him. He sent messengers throughout all Manasseh, and they too were called out to follow him. He also sent messengers to Asher, Zebulon, and Naphtali, and they went up to meet them (6:34-35).

Now beyond his fear, Gideon mobilized his people for risky action. But again, Gideon still hesitates. Once more he asks for a sign. Because a sign had been given to him, he asks now for a reverse sign; first he wanted dew on the fleece with dry ground all around, then dry fleece and dew all around. YHWH goes to great lengths to reassure Gideon. This long, lingering narrative is the slow process by which a cowardly man comes to courage. In this rendering the trigger for Gideon’s transformation is the insistent work of YHWH who patiently but finally brings Gideon to bold action. After chapter 6, the narrative unfolds as Gideon acts boldly and at great risk, solely assured by divine accompaniment: “For the Lord and for Gideon!” (7:18). It is the power of God that converts this coward into an agent of courage. And along with a cowardly Gideon, there is cowardly Israel that eventually runs risks on the basis of YHWH’s assurance. 

In a second case of cowardice, Israel is confronted by the Philistine “giant,” Goliath (I Samuel 17:1-51). In this case the threat of the Philistines is ominously embodied in this one out-of-size warrior:

And there came out of the camp of the Philistines a champion named Goliath, of Gath, whose height was six cubits and a span. He had a helmet of bronze on his head, and he was armed with a coat of mail; the weight of the coat was five thousand shekels bronze. He had grieves of bronze on his legs, and a javelin of bronze slung between his shoulders. The shaft of his spear was like a weaver’s beam, and his spear’s head weighed six hundred shekels of iron; and his shield-bearer went before him (vv. 4-7).

 The response of Israel to this bodily threat is not a surprise; they were afraid:

When Saul and all Israel heard these words of the Philistine, they were dismayed and greatly afraid (v. 11).

With the appearance of David in the narrative, the entire scene of threat and fear must be reiterated. David is a nobody, not unlike Gideon, an eighth son among the children of Jesse. Again, now in the presence of young David, Goliath speaks “the same words as before” (v. 23). Again, Israel responds in fear:

And the Israelites, when they saw the man, fled from him and were very much afraid (v. 24).

David, in his youthful ambitious innocence, asks questions that evidence his trust in and commitment to YHWH, and his own ambition:

What shall be done for the man who kills this Philistine, and takes away the reproach from Israel? For who is this uncircumcised Philistine that he should defy the armies of the living God (v. 16)?

David has no doubt that he is linked to “the living God”!

In this dramatic scene Israel is unchecked in its cowardice. It cannot think of any way to counter this awesome Philistine. It cannot imagine anyone capable of meeting the challenge. In the midst of the fearfulness of his people, David is different; he is unintimidated by the Philistine. He has no doubt of YHWH’s rule, or of his own capacity. He answers the cowardice of King Saul:

Your servant used to keep sheep for his father; and whenever a lion or a bear came, and took a lamb from the flock, I went after it and struck it down, rescuing the lamb from its mouth; and if it turned against me, I would catch it by the jaw, strike it down and kill it. Your servant has killed both lions and bears; and this uncircumcised Philistine shall be like one of them, since he has defied the armies of the living God…The Lord, who saved me from the paw of the lion and from the paw of the bear, will save me from the hand of this Philistine (vv. 34-37).

David draws a ready parallel between his previous risks that were successful to the present risk he is prepared and willing to undertake.

King Saul was no doubt relieved to find a man of such courage amid his assemblage of cowards, as he had no alternative for the dangerous task at hand. The king commissions him and seeks to equip him for battle (vv. 37-38). But David refuses such armaments. The Philistine mocks him. But David is unwavering in his confidence, trusting as he does in the “Lord of hosts.” He declares to the Philistine:

You come to me with sword and spear and javelin; but I come to you in the name of the Lord of hosts, the God of the armies of Israel, whom you have defied. This very day the Lord will deliver you into my hand and I will strike you down and cut off your head, and I will give the dead bodies of the Philistine army this very day to the birds of the air and to the wild animals of the earth, so that all the earth may know that there is a God in Israel, and all this assembly may know that the Lord does not save by sword and spear; for the battle is the Lord’s and he will give you into our hand (vv. 45-47).

David is thick with Yahwistic grounding. It is his confidence in YHWH (not in himself) that sustains him in the face of his awesome enemy. Given his extended posturing oration, the action is quick and decisive:

So David prevailed over the Philistine with a sling and a stone, striking down the Philistine and killing him; there was no sword in David’s hand. Then David ran and stood over the Philistine; he grasped his sword, drew it out of its sheath, and killed him; then cut off his head with it (vv. 50-51).

Only belatedly, at the close of this “fog of war,” does King Saul learn the identity of this savior of Israel (v. 58). All of his grand oration turned out to be true. David’s work matched his oratorical bravado!

These two narratives concerning Gideon and David have much in common. Both feature a fearful, helpless people. Both celebrate a man of courage who lived beyond the fears of his people. But the difference between the two narratives is also striking. Gideon had to be carefully nurtured out of his cowardice into courage. By contrast, knew no cowardice from the outset.  He is from first to last filled with effective courage. That narrative, of itself, does not tell us why David has courage. We can, however, remember that in the previous chapter we have already been told concerning his anointing:

The spirit of the Lord came mightily upon David from that day forward (I Samuel 16:13).

The parallel form of the empowerment of Gideon is also striking. It is said, eventually, of Gideon:

But the spirit of the Lord took possession of Gideon; and he sounded the trumpet (Judges 6:34). (Here I follow LXX in the verb.)

In both instances it is the empowerment of YHWH’s spirit that emboldens their courage for brave, risky action. In the end, it does matter to the narrators that Gideon had to be nurtured and that David was always at the ready. Both men act in courage.  Both are mobilized by God’s resolve. Both refuse the fear of their people. Both make a decisive difference. Both are remembered for their courage and their risk-taking that change the course of their history.

I was led to this theme as I have watched in dismay the political responses and political posturing after the mass murders in Uvalde, Texas, beginning of course with the governor of Texas, followed by the senator, and then many others. Everyone knows that guns kill people. Many believe that there are too many guns and we as a society are out of control with gun violence. Many also believe that disaffected young males, at the peak of their testosterone, should not have guns so readily available. At the same time, a significant number of our country’s leaders continue to prattle about hardening schools and arming teachers. Such formulae are simply good-sounding mantras without any serious substance.

So why the denial and inaction? Because these leaders are as frightened as were the Israelites. They are as frightened as were the Israelites before the Midianites:

Thus Israel was greatly impoverished because of Midian; and the Israelites cried out to the Lord for help…because he was too afraid of his family and the townspeople to do it by day, he did it by night (Judges 6: 6, 27).

They are as frightened as were the Israelites before the Philistine giant:

When Saul and all Israel heard these words of the Philistine, they were dismayed and greatly afraid… All the Israelites, when they saw the man, fled from him and were very much afraid (I Samuel 17:11, 24).

These cowardly leaders are as frightened as were the Israelites before their enemies. They are frightened, immobilized, and unable to act as were the ancient Israelites. In this case, as with Gideon, they are frightened of their own political base, so they give in to the fear, and settle for the self-denigrating work of denial and inaction. As Kevin Cramer, senator from North Dakota, said out loud that if he voted for gun control his voters would “probably” dismiss him from office. What is the point of leadership if it is only cowardly following the frightened mass? In response to this self-debilitating posture, we have a collection of “profiles in cowardice” that would certainly be a larger, far more extended volume than JFK’s Profiles in Courage. I have wondered if the word “coward” is etymologically linked to the verb “cowed,” as “He was cowed by his base.” Maybe not, but it is a thought worth pondering. One could become a coward by being “cowed” by one’s base!

In our social crisis concerning gun violence and gun control, so far fear prevails. So far these “leaders” refuse to step outside the fear of their base in order to provide leadership. Those who have the clout to change our social reality lack the courage to do so. That leaves us, for now, in a poor circumstance. We may, however, hope and anticipate otherwise. The reason we may continue to hope is that from time to time a practicing coward moves into courage. So it was with Gideon; so it was with David who was never afraid. We never know when God’s emancipatory Spirit may evoke new agents of courage who will act against fear and against perceived personal interest for the sake of the common good. 

In the famous chapter concerning “by faith” in Hebrews 11, we have a roster of those who have become agents of the common good. In these “profiles in courage,” both Gideon and David made the list, even in the same verse!

And what more should I say? For time would fail me to tell of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, of David and Samuel and the prophets (v. 32) (emphasis added).

This lyrical attestation to them continues with a summary of their brave courage:

Who through faith conquered kingdoms, administered justice, obtained promises, shut the mouths of lions, quenched raging fires, escaped the edge of the sword, won strength out of weakness, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight. Women received their dead by resurrection. Others were tortured, refusing to accept release, in order to obtain a better resurrection. Others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were stoned to death, they were sawn in two, they were killed by the sword; they went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, persecuted, tormented—of whom the world was not worthy. They wandered in deserts and mountains, and in caves and holes in the ground (vv. 33-38).

Gideon and David, in their courage, joined the roster of those who ran great risks for the common good of their people. That is why we may hope and expect. The roster of the courageous continues:

…It is the work of the gospel to empower ordinary individual persons to such risks;

…It is the intent of the good news to assign fresh agency to erstwhile cowards.

…It is, derivatively, the work of the church to invite individual persons away from complacent followership to risky leadership.

The gospel is the news that the world is not and cannot finally be shut down in fear. It is the Spirit of the creator God who recruits those who are fearful to embrace the “things hoped for,” who act in a “conviction of things not seen” (v. 1).

This amazing chapter on “profiles in courage” ends on a sober note:

Yet all these, though they were commended for their faith, did not receive what was promised, since God had provided something better so that they would not, apart from us, be made perfect (vv. 39-40).

This is an astonishing affirmation. The work of faith is not yet finished. Imagine, the brave work of Gideon and of David is not perfect “apart from us.” It depends on “us” to complete the perfection of their brave work. Specifically, in our current circumstance, some who are cowardly may indeed step up to do the right thing, to “make perfect” the work of Gideon and David. Such good work will not be the work of cowards. It may indeed be the work of former cowards who are moved afresh by the spirit of God who leads us out beyond our fear to faithful transformative action.


Walter Brueggemann is surely one of the most influential Bible interpreters of our time. He is the author of over one hundred books and numerous scholarly articles. He continues to be a highly sought-after speaker.



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