Thus far in our study of Judges, we have dealt with the background information given in 1:1-3:6, the first major period of the judges in 3:7-5:31, which was the period of Othniel, Ehud and Deborah, and most of the second major period, that of the Midianite oppression, 6:1-10:5.
In the last two essays we have studied the judgeship of Gideon. In this essay, we will complete the portion of the book of Judges on Gideon’s family. In 8:33-34 we see the classic pattern of the period of the Judges being repeated. After the death of the judge, in this case Gideon, the people slide back into idolatry. In chapter nine we find the story of Abimelech and Jotham. We learned last week that Gideon had 70 sons by his many wives, and that he had another son by his concubine in Shechem. That son’s name was Abimelech.
After the death of Gideon, Abimelech decided to establish himself as king in the land by killing all of Gideon’s other sons, Abimelech’s half-brothers. There is no indication whatsoever that any of Abimelech’s brothers had given any thought to setting up a monarchy; but they would have been the only other possible claimants.
Abimelech began by persuading the Shechemites, his mother’s people, to finance his effort (vv. 1-3). Apparently Abimelech had some of his father’s leadership skills, but not his father’s scruples. They gave him 70 pieces of silver from the temple to Baal in Shechem (v. 4). It was not uncommon in those days to use temple treasury for political purposes.
Abimelech used the money to hire a crew of armed men; and he marched on Ophrah, where he evidently met with little resistance. He captured and executed all of the sons of Gideon, with one exception. The fact that the sons were killed “on one stone” is the indicator that it was an execution. Somehow Jotham, the youngest of Gideon’s sons was able to hide; and thus to escape (vv. 4-5).
Then Abimelech was proclaimed king by the Shechemites (v. 6). It would appear that Abimelech’s kingdom was quite small. Verse 22, which says that Abimelech ruled over Israel for three years, must be understood to mean over just a small portion of western Manasseh. And its weakness can be seen in the fact that it did not survive his death. Abimelech cannot, and is not, given a place among Israel’s judges. He was not called by God to deliver Israel. On the contrary, he was a murderer who carved out a little kingdom for himself.
In the next paragraph, verses 7-21, we find an interesting fable and challenge proclaimed by Jotham, the one surviving son of Gideon. Jotham was imaginative. He climbed Mt. Gerizim and used it as a pulpit to denounce the shameful actions of Abimelech and the Shechemites. You will recall that it was precisely here about a century and a half before that Joshua had divided the people according to the instructions of Moses, half on Mt. Ebal and half on Mt. Gerizim (Deut. 27-28), and taking advantage of the natural acoustics, renewed the covenant (Josh. 8:30-35). Now Jotham took advantage of the same natural amphitheater to expose Abimelech by telling the fable and to denounce him.
The fable was easy to understand. Notice that Jotham didn’t condemn the idea of a monarchy. He simply pointed out that a worthless person had been chosen. The bramble was totally worthless in comparison to the various trees. And for the bramble to invite the trees to take refuge in its shade was, of course, ridiculous. However, the bramble certainly was a threat to burn up the trees with fire, because in summer the dry brambles were ideal fuel for scrub fires fanned by the wind. Jotham’s point was obvious. Abimelech could offer no security to the people of Shechem. To the contrary, he would bring destruction on them.
In verses 16-19 Jotham applied the fable directly to the Shechemites; and then in verse 20 he predicted that their lack of good faith and honor would end in they and Abimelech destroying one another. Then Jotham fled. ?
In the next paragraph, verses 22-25, we learn that Jotham’s prediction began to come true. During Abimelech’s three-year reign, the lords of Shechem became hostile to him. And then they betrayed him by setting up ambushes in the mountains to rob all of the travelers. Apparently the purpose of this was to deprive Abimelech of the revenues he would normally extract from the travelers. Obviously they would not pay Abimelech if he could not guarantee safe passage through his territory.
In verses 26-33 we find a new player on the scene. His name was Gaal. Nothing is known about Gaal except what we see in this chapter. We are told that he moved to Shechem with his family. And evidently Gaal was a slick talker like Abimelech; and he made a big impression on the lords of Shechem. Therefore, “they put confidence in him” (v. 26). Gaal began to talk about what he would do if he were in charge, and one of the things he would do would be to remove Abimelech.
Well, that was enough for Zebul, the ruler of the city, who was loyal to Abimelech. He sent a message to Abimelech to alert him to the situation (v. 31), and he suggested a plan for dealing with it (vv. 32-33). In verses 34-41 we see that Abimelech followed the suggested plan (vv. 34-35), and with Zebul’s help (vv. 36-38), he defeated Gaal, whose forces were driven behind the city gates (vv. 39-40). Then Zebul drove Gaal out of the city (v. 41).
Although Zebul’s action had brought things in Shechem under control, Abimelech was not satisfied. He was angry with the people for their rebellion. Verses 42-49 tell us that Abimelech at this point gave up any pretense of governing Shechem. He was determined to punish the city severely, so the next day he went against the city with his army. In a surprise attack he killed all of the people and razed the city to the ground.
Next he turned his attention to the city’s fortress, called the tower of Shechem, or the temple of El or Baal-berith (vv. 46-47). He dealt with that group of about a thousand people by burning them to death (vv. 48-49).
Verses 5-57 tell us that Abimelech then went to the city of Thebz and its tower. As you can see, his strategy was the same as with Shechem. He took the town; and then he began to burn the tower fortress (vv. 50-51). But Abimelech was not cautious enough; and when he went up to the base of the tower to place wood for its burning, a woman threw down an upper millstone, which would have been 2-3 inches thick and about 18 inches in diameter; and it hit Abimelech on the head. In order to avoid the embarrassment of being killed by a woman, he had his armor-bearer finish him off with a sword (vv. 52-55).
And then the author applied the moral. “Thus God repaid Abimelech for the crime he committed against his father in killing his seventy brothers; and God also made all the wickedness of the people of Shechem fall back on their heads” (vv. 56-57)
The section ends with a reference to two unimportant judges; namely Tola and Jair. We are told that Tola “rose to deliver Israel, and that he ruled Israel for 23 years. But the story of Tola’s deliverance is not told. And nothing said about Jair other than the fact that he had thirty sons and ruled Israel for 22 years.
When we turn to what we can glean from today’s lesson by way of application, the first and main lesson is the necessity of acting in good faith and honor. Abimelech failed to act in good faith and honor in several ways
—He was full of guile (his approach to Shechem).
—He was religiously unfaithful (willing to use money from a Canaanite temple to
advance his own personal cause).
—He was a traitor to his family.
—He was a brutal murderer (the execution of his brothers and the people of Shechem).
Not only do we learn the necessity of acting in good faith and with honor. We learn, second, that God is ultimately in control. Notice that the author attributed the downfall of both Abimelech and Shechem to God, even though the agent of Shechem’s demise was Abimelech, and that of Abimelech was an anonymous woman. God’s judgment does not always come within this life, as it did with Abimelech. But it always comes.