Tag Archives: Abimelech

Judges 9 The Brief Bloody Reign of Abimelech

The Death of Abimelech By Gustave Doré – Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=5305603

Judges 9: 1-6 Abimelech’s Violent Rise to Power

Now Abimelech son of Jerubbaal went to Shechem to his mother’s kinsfolk and said to them and to the whole clan of his mother’s family, 2 “Say in the hearing of all the lords of Shechem, ‘Which is better for you, that all seventy of the sons of Jerubbaal rule over you, or that one rule over you?’ Remember also that I am your bone and your flesh.” 3 So his mother’s kinsfolk spoke all these words on his behalf in the hearing of all the lords of Shechem; and their hearts inclined to follow Abimelech, for they said, “He is our brother.” 4 They gave him seventy pieces of silver out of the temple of Baal-berith with which Abimelech hired worthless and reckless fellows, who followed him. 5 He went to his father’s house at Ophrah, and killed his brothers the sons of Jerubbaal, seventy men, on one stone; but Jotham, the youngest son of Jerubbaal, survived, for he hid himself. 6 Then all the lords of Shechem and all Beth-millo came together, and they went and made Abimelech king, by the oak of the pillar at Shechem.

It is important when we come to these ancient stories of the tribes that will become Israel to remember that we are entering a violent world of strongmen who rule by might. Jerubbaal (or Gideon) is given a prominent position due to his military prowess and his ability to ward off threats both external and internal to Israel, including in his conflicts within Israel in Shechem and Penuel. It is likely that the son of a concubine that is acquired in Shechem did not receive much attention or support from his father. Family dynamics in the ancient world were different, especially in polygamous relationships like we see in the case of Jerubbaal but a modern frame that may be helpful is to think about families where there are children from multiple marriages and the children of a previous marriage are neglected to give attention to the children of the latest marriage. Abimelech likely grew up distant from his father, envious of his half brothers and desiring affirmation as the son of a concubine.

Abimelech’s narrative begins with his gathering his mother’s kin to lobby the lords of Shechem (literally ba’als of Shechem but it clearly refers to those who have authority and influence) to place Abimelech in power. These lords may view Abimelech as pliable, it may be the closer kinship bonds, or they may desire revenge against the family of Jerubbaal who previously humiliated the leaders of the community. They pull seventy pieces of silver from the temple of Baal-berith[1] which allow Abimelech to attract a group of ruffians to follow him. Then the violence of this chapter begins when he proceeds from Shechem (in Ephraim) to Ophrah (in Manasseh) and kills seventy children of his father on a stone like a sacrifice, and in the aftermath of the bloody parricide emerges as the anointed king of Shechem and Beth-millo. The oak of the pillar at Shechem is likely a worship site for Canaanite deities (NIB II:816) and is one more indication of the embrace of idolatry and the turn away from who these Israelites were set aside to be. They have chosen a murderer who leads a violent gang to lead the people in this dark period of Israel’s story. His father took revenge on Israelite communities that had refused him hostility, now his son who emerges from one of these communities eliminates his brothers as potential competition in his quest for power. Abimelech is a regional leader who likely was viewed as a raider beyond the region in Ephraim he controlled, but his brief time with the title of king is bathed in blood.

 

Judges 9: 7-21 The Parable of the Trees and Jotham’s Curse

7 When it was told to Jotham, he went and stood on the top of Mount Gerizim, and cried aloud and said to them, “Listen to me, you lords of Shechem, so that God may listen to you.

8 The trees once went out to anoint a king over themselves. So they said to the olive tree, ‘Reign over us.’ 9 The olive tree answered them, ‘Shall I stop producing my rich oil by which gods and mortals are honored, and go to sway over the trees?’ 10 Then the trees said to the fig tree, ‘You come and reign over us.’ 11 But the fig tree answered them, ‘Shall I stop producing my sweetness and my delicious fruit, and go to sway over the trees?’ 12 Then the trees said to the vine, ‘You come and reign over us.’ 13 But the vine said to them, ‘Shall I stop producing my wine that cheers gods and mortals, and go to sway over the trees?’ 14 So all the trees said to the bramble, ‘You come and reign over us.’ 15 And the bramble said to the trees, ‘If in good faith you are anointing me king over you, then come and take refuge in my shade; but if not, let fire come out of the bramble and devour the cedars of Lebanon.’

16 “Now therefore, if you acted in good faith and honor when you made Abimelech king, and if you have dealt well with Jerubbaal and his house, and have done to him as his actions deserved — 17 for my father fought for you, and risked his life, and rescued you from the hand of Midian; 18 but you have risen up against my father’s house this day, and have killed his sons, seventy men on one stone, and have made Abimelech, the son of his slave woman, king over the lords of Shechem, because he is your kinsman — 19 if, I say, you have acted in good faith and honor with Jerubbaal and with his house this day, then rejoice in Abimelech, and let him also rejoice in you; 20 but if not, let fire come out from Abimelech, and devour the lords of Shechem, and Beth-millo; and let fire come out from the lords of Shechem, and from Beth-millo, and devour Abimelech.” 21 Then Jotham ran away and fled, going to Beer, where he remained for fear of his brother Abimelech.

In the book of Joshua, the people are gathered in the valley between Mount Ebal and Mount Gerazim and this becomes a site where the people of Israel are blessed, the book of the law is read before the people and they are recommitted to their identity as the people of God. [2] Now Mount Gerazim becomes, ironically, the mountain where the people of Shechem (which lies between the two mountains) is cursed for their actions against the sons of Jerubbaal (Gideon). Curses in the ancient world are considered powerful and this parable and accompanying curse foreshadow the destruction in Shechem and the fall of Abimelech. The generic use of god (Elohim) by Jotham may indicate that Jotham is also cursing not in the name of the God of Israel, but he may have also adopted the practices of the Canaanite gods which his father initially opposed.

The parable of the trees involves three well known tree species and one which is a challenge to identify. The olive tree, the fig tree, and the grape vine are all critical parts of the agricultural produce of ancient Israel. The olive tree being the first tree which the parable points to for kingship makes sense due to the association of olive oil with the act of anointing a king. (1 Samuel 16: 1, 13) The fig tree is often associated with Israel in both the prophets and the gospels. (Jeremiah 24, Matthew 21:18-22 and parallels) The grapevine also has a long association with Israel. (Isaiah 5: 1-7, Matthew 21: 33-46 and parallels) Yet the form of the parable also indicates a polytheistic slant where both the oil of the olive and the wine of the grape is used for ‘gods and mortals.’ The monotheistic worship of the God of Israel seems to be alien to the world of the parable and the reality of this portion of Israel in this troubled time. The identity of the ‘bramble’ is harder to determine. It may be a buckthorn which is a wild plant that would produce little shade and (importantly to the parable) would be vulnerable to wildfires. Yet, the point of the parable is to label Abimelech as a worthless and unreliable sort who is a danger to those who he reigns over.

Even though the follow up to the parable is framed as conditional blessing or curse, it is quickly clear from the conditions that this is a curse upon both Abimelech and the people of Shechem. Although Jotham neglects his father’s previous revenge upon the leaders of Shechem. He views his father’s actions towards Shechem and Ephraim in a positive light: he liberated them from their oppression under the Midianites. In Jotham’s view their support of Abimelech and his ruffians which enabled the killing of his siblings is not justifiable and the blood rests on their heads. His curse that Shechem and Abimelech both go down in the flames of their internal conflict will play out during Abimelech’s brief reign as a tyrant and strong man in northern Israel as Jotham hides out in Beer (a place David will later seek refuge in from King Saul).[3]

Judges 9: 22-33 The Unrest at Shechem

22 Abimelech ruled over Israel three years. 23 But God sent an evil spirit between Abimelech and the lords of Shechem; and the lords of Shechem dealt treacherously with Abimelech. 24 This happened so that the violence done to the seventy sons of Jerubbaal might be avenged and their blood be laid on their brother Abimelech, who killed them, and on the lords of Shechem, who strengthened his hands to kill his brothers. 25 So, out of hostility to him, the lords of Shechem set ambushes on the mountain tops. They robbed all who passed by them along that way; and it was reported to Abimelech.

26 When Gaal son of Ebed moved into Shechem with his kinsfolk, the lords of Shechem put confidence in him. 27 They went out into the field and gathered the grapes from their vineyards, trod them, and celebrated. Then they went into the temple of their god, ate and drank, and ridiculed Abimelech. 28 Gaal son of Ebed said, “Who is Abimelech, and who are we of Shechem, that we should serve him? Did not the son of Jerubbaal and Zebul his officer serve the men of Hamor father of Shechem? Why then should we serve him? 29 If only this people were under my command! Then I would remove Abimelech; I would say to him, ‘Increase your army, and come out.'”

30 When Zebul the ruler of the city heard the words of Gaal son of Ebed, his anger was kindled. 31 He sent messengers to Abimelech at Arumah, saying, “Look, Gaal son of Ebed and his kinsfolk have come to Shechem, and they are stirring up the city against you. 32 Now therefore, go by night, you and the troops that are with you, and lie in wait in the fields. 33 Then early in the morning, as soon as the sun rises, get up and rush on the city; and when he and the troops that are with him come out against you, you may deal with them as best you can.”

Abimelech’s rule is probably one of continual conflict and raiding and although they may be a time free of external threats they are not peaceful. Even the lords of Shechem who enabled his bloody rise to power are now in conflict with him. It is possible that the lords of Shechem set the ambushes on the mountains surrounding Shechem on behalf of Abimelech (furthering his policies of raiding) or they did it to attempt to remove him, but regardless the result is a condition where trade in Shechem is difficult and this likely contributed to the destabilization of Abimelech’s power in the region.

The emergence of a competitor for power with the arrival of Gaal son of Ebed is ominous for the continued reign of Abimelech. Even though his name is unimpressive in Hebrew (vomit son of a slave) (Hattin 2020, 99) Gaal’s ability to claim lineage back to the founder of Shechem undercuts Abimelech’s previous claim as a brother to the Shechemites. Gaal’s appeal to the lords of Shechem does attract the attention of Zebul who is ruling the city for Abimelech. The drunken words spoken in a temple to a god other than the LORD are reported to Zebul and forwarded on to Abimelech along with advice on how to regain control of Shechem.

Abimelech’s father, Jerubbaal, was the first judge to punish other Israelites. In Abimelech we see the beginning of open conflict within Israel. The greatest threat to Israel’s ultimate survival will be internal rather than external in the book of Judges. Here the heat of the curse spoken by Jotham is beginning to catch in the undergrowth and will soon threaten life in the valley of Shechem. Abimelech’s short reign over Shechem and the surrounding region is about to catch fire.

Judges 9: 34-49 The Fire Consumes Shechem

34 So Abimelech and all the troops with him got up by night and lay in wait against Shechem in four companies. 35 When Gaal son of Ebed went out and stood in the entrance of the gate of the city, Abimelech and the troops with him rose from the ambush. 36 And when Gaal saw them, he said to Zebul, “Look, people are coming down from the mountain tops!” And Zebul said to him, “The shadows on the mountains look like people to you.” 37 Gaal spoke again and said, “Look, people are coming down from Tabbur-erez, and one company is coming from the direction of Elon-meonenim.” 38 Then Zebul said to him, “Where is your boast now, you who said, ‘Who is Abimelech, that we should serve him?’ Are not these the troops you made light of? Go out now and fight with them.” 39 So Gaal went out at the head of the lords of Shechem, and fought with Abimelech. 40 Abimelech chased him, and he fled before him. Many fell wounded, up to the entrance of the gate. 41 So Abimelech resided at Arumah; and Zebul drove out Gaal and his kinsfolk, so that they could not live on at Shechem.

42 On the following day the people went out into the fields. When Abimelech was told, 43 he took his troops and divided them into three companies and lay in wait in the fields. When he looked and saw the people coming out of the city, he rose against them and killed them. 44 Abimelech and the company that was with him rushed forward and stood at the entrance of the gate of the city, while the two companies rushed on all who were in the fields and killed them. 45 Abimelech fought against the city all that day; he took the city and killed the people that were in it; and he razed the city and sowed it with salt.

46 When all the lords of the Tower of Shechem heard of it, they entered the stronghold of the temple of El-berith. 47 Abimelech was told that all the lords of the Tower of Shechem were gathered together. 48 So Abimelech went up to Mount Zalmon, he and all the troops that were with him. Abimelech took an ax in his hand, cut down a bundle of brushwood, and took it up and laid it on his shoulder. Then he said to the troops with him, “What you have seen me do, do quickly, as I have done.” 49 So every one of the troops cut down a bundle and following Abimelech put it against the stronghold, and they set the stronghold on fire over them, so that all the people of the Tower of Shechem also died, about a thousand men and women.

Abimelech’s violent response to the threat posed by Gaal son of Ebed begins exactly as Zebul advises. Abimelech moves his ‘troops’[4] into position around the city overnight. When Gaal and Zebul stand before the entrance to the city in the morning the movement of troops is underway. Zebul reveals his knowledge of Gaal’s rash boast and indicates that these are the soldiers he bragged he could overcome. Gaal rallies the lords of Shechem and goes out to fight only to flee in disgrace and is expelled from the city by Zebul along with his kin. Two interesting textual notes: there is no indication of casualties in this brief narrative, only many wounded and this may indicate that the forces Gaal is able to command rapidly surrender but it is also intriguing that Abimelech does not enter the city and retake control and instead retires to Arumah. Perhaps the presence of Zebul and forces loyal to Abimelech make his occupation of the city unnecessary or perhaps the closing of the gates made a quick occupation more challenging but the violence against Shechem will shortly move from the fields into the city.

The following day when people go out into the fields the violence resumes. The timing indicated by the harvest of grapes indicates that the people would likely be beginning to harvest the produce of the fig and olive trees (along with other fruits) in another parallel with the parable of the trees. This time Abimelech’s strategy isolates these people outside the city and slaughters them. Abimelech’s forces fight against the city and consigns the area to desolation. The action of sowing a city with salt in the Hebrew Scriptures indicates perpetual ruin.[5] It also continues a theme that begins with Adam of the consequences of rebellion upon the soil making it unable to be fruitful. Abimelech’s revenge is not only intended to cause the blood to flow upon the earth but also to deny the city a future after Abimelech’s revenge is completed.

The lords of Shechem have avoided the slaughter initially and are gathered in the temple of El-berith.[6] The Mount Zalmon (mount of darkness) that Abimelech ascends is likely either Mount Gerazim (the mountain where the curse was uttered) or Mount Ebal which are the two mountains around Shechem. The action of Abimelech and his forces cutting down branches and bundling them against the temple stronghold where the remaining leaders of Shechem are gathered enacts the fiery condemnation of curse of Jotham as all those who enabled the reign of this violent son of Jerubbaal are now consumed by his fiery nature.

Judges 9: 50-57 Abimelech’s Fire is Extinguished

50 Then Abimelech went to Thebez, and encamped against Thebez, and took it. 51 But there was a strong tower within the city, and all the men and women and all the lords of the city fled to it and shut themselves in; and they went to the roof of the tower. 52 Abimelech came to the tower, and fought against it, and came near to the entrance of the tower to burn it with fire. 53 But a certain woman threw an upper millstone on Abimelech’s head, and crushed his skull. 54 Immediately he called to the young man who carried his armor and said to him, “Draw your sword and kill me, so people will not say about me, ‘A woman killed him.'” So the young man thrust him through, and he died. 55 When the Israelites saw that Abimelech was dead, they all went home. 56 Thus God repaid Abimelech for the crime he committed against his father in killing his seventy brothers; 57 and God also made all the wickedness of the people of Shechem fall back on their heads, and on them came the curse of Jotham son of Jerubbaal.

The destruction of Shechem also denies Abimelech a place where his power can be enacted. The exact location of Thebez is uncertain but most suspect it is one of the surrounding communities and may have been connected to Shechem for its livelihood. Abimelech quickly captures the city, but the people flee to a stronghold (tower) inside the city. Instead of only the lords of Shechem remaining in the stronghold at the temple of El-berith, now men and women and leaders are all gathered together in this fortified structure. Abimelech has grown bold in his previous successes at conquering the city of Shechem and the stronghold of El-berith, but now his approach to the door of the stronghold results in his ignominious death when a ‘certain woman’ drops an upper millstone on him. The upper millstone is the smaller millstone, but it still may have taken multiple people to ‘throw,’ yet the casting of this stone by a single woman fits the narrative well and the strongman is humiliated by an unnamed woman. In warrior cultures it is only honorable to die at the hands of a formidable opponent, but now Abimelech’s death is tied to an anonymous woman. In an attempt to regain his honor, he asks for his armor-bearer to end his life, but the narrative continues to mock the end of Abimelech’s brief violent reign. The ‘one man’ who put himself forward by killing his seventy brothers on ‘one stone’ now is killed by ‘one woman’ with ‘one stone.’ (Webb 2012, 293)

Israel has continued to lose its identity as the covenant people of the LORD the God of Israel. In the absence of a judge who can deliver the people and lead them in a faithful direction the people turn to a strongman who embodies the opposite of what a judge should be. In times of uncertainty people are often drawn to the strong and violent ones who seem to offer protection, but that protection often comes at a steep price. The book of Judges would indicate that no judge is better than a strongman like Abimelech. This dark time of internal conflict among the cities and groups in Israel is a prelude to open conflict as the people continue to fall further away from their identity.

[1] As mentioned previously Baal-berith or El-berith means Lord (baal) or god (el) of the covenant. This is likely a synchronistic attempt to blend elements of Canaanite Baal worship with elements of Israelite worship of the LORD the God of Israel.

[2] Joshua 8:30-35

[3] 1 Samuel 22:2-4

[4] The people who Abimelech commands are experienced fighters and raiders but troops in modern contexts assumes uniformed and trained soldiers. These are ruffians loyal to their strongman leader.

[5] Although it would be logistically impractical to sew fields with enough salt to remain infertile there is a strong association with salt and judgment. Salted lands indicate a wasteland (Deuteronomy 29: 23, Job 39:6, Jeremiah 17:6, Zephaniah 2:9)

[6] El-berith and Baal-berith are almost certainly the same, El is the general title for a god and Baal is the general title for ‘lord’ associated with the Canaanite gods. See previous notes on Baal-berith.