STUDIES IN JUDGES No. 12
October 10, 2004
We have completed the account of the life of Gideon, of his victories and of his subsequent spiritual failure and its consequence in the life of the nation. Chapter 9 is really something of an appendix to the Gideon narrative, concerning as it does the career of the son he had by a concubine, a Shechemite woman whose identification as such, we said, seems to indicate that she was a Canaanite woman. Abimilech is not a judge in the sense of the word as it is employed in the Book of Judges; he does not deliver Israel from a foreign oppressor as all the judges do. Rather the account of Abimilech is connected to the narrative of Gideon and completes it. It amounts to the end of the “tale of the house of Gideon.” [Wenham, Story as Torah, 125]
v.1 Jerub-Baal is Gideon’s name throughout this chapter and seems to be a means of the author conveying his viewpoint. Israel has been completely Canaanized so Gideon is referred to by his Canaanite name. “God” (elohim) is mentioned three times in the chapter, but “Lord” (Yahweh) is not mentioned at all. In fact, it has been pointed out that the chapter, with all of its attention to violence and intrigue, reads like a page from a Canaanite history book.
v.2 Abimilech had a plan carefully worked out. He sought the help of the family of his mother and her fellow citizens in Shechem. His appeal to the citizens of Shechem would be made through his relatives.
v.4 In other words, the Shechemites finance his campaign to wrest local control from the legitimate sons of Gideon expecting that they will get preferential treatment from one of their own. The temple was the center of economic life and received income of many kinds (the payment of sacrifices, vows, etc. was a kind of taxation). The pagans of Shechem took money from its treasury and gave it to Abimilech to hire hit men, one shekel to be paid for killing each of the sons of Gideon.
v.5 It is not entirely certain what “on one stone” means or why it is important but the point is made again in v. 18. It bears mentioning that Abimilech dies himself from one stone dropped on his head, as we will see.
v.6 Abimilech succeeded with his plan and was crowned king, of how much territory it is hard to say. There was but one fly in the ointment. One of Gideon’s sons had escaped.
v.7 Jotham’s name, unlike Abimilech’s, is an expression of the pure faith of Israel. It means “The Lord is honest or trustworthy.” That the Lord is so will be proved by the following events. Mount Gerazim overlooked Shechem from the south. The top or the higher slopes of the mountain were the best place, acoustically speaking, for delivering a message to the citizens of Shechem.
What follows is the most perfect example in Holy Scripture of the use of fable, a short story that teaches a moral lesson and typically involves creatures or plants or inanimate objects that behave like human characters. [Block, 316]
v.13 The first three plants – the three prized plants in ancient Palestine – decline the offer, each because it was too busy with productive activity to be bothered with the relatively worthless job of being king.
It is worth noting how negative a view of kingship Jotham has. He seems to be saying, and history has too often proved him right, that those who aspire to power are precisely those who are least fit for it – those who are not really committed to the welfare of people – and that those who might best serve are precisely those who are already doing much for mankind and would not leave their fruitful work for politics. Rule often falls to those in a society much less likely to serve the common interest and much more likely to serve their own. What is more, as events unfold, the men of Shechem will prove true another adage: people usually get the leaders they deserve.
v.14 Finally, out of alternatives, the kingship is offered to the bramble or thornbush which was of no particular use to anybody for anything.
v.15 The notion of trees taking shade under a thornbush is intentionally absurd. The bramble’s grotesquely high estimation of himself is further indicated by the threat he makes to the trees. Fire will come from him. As it happens, of course, that is what will happen by the will of God. This story thus both anticipates events and gives them a moral interpretation.
v.16 Now Jotham interprets his fable, lest anyone miss his point.
v.19 The first part of Jothan’s explanation attacks the integrity of the Shechemites. They have violated their obligations to Gideon’s house in the worst possible way.
v.20 The second part of Jotham’s explanation is the pronouncing of a curse upon the Shechemites if they have not, indeed, acted in good faith, which, of course, Jotham understands they have not.
v.21 The narrator lets us know what happened to the one surviving son of Gideon. He obviously expected Abimilech to do everything he could to kill him as well. The rest of the chapter is taken up with the fulfillment of Jotham’s prophecy.
v.24 The rest of the chapter is noteworthy in the Book of Judges for its attention to detail. We will be given an account of every thrust and parry in this battle between Abimilech and the Shechemites. But the narrator wants us to know at the outset that, though the course of events seems to be governed by the free choices of individuals, in fact God has determined the outcome and things transpire as they do to fulfill his purpose. He sets the affair in motion by using a spirit to poison relations between Abimilech and the citizens of Shechem. Instead of the Spirit coming upon a deliverer, now an evil spirit works to destroy these sinful and rebellious people.
v.25 Apparently, the leaders of the town began to practice highway robbery, robbing presumably passers-by. This amounted to a complete discrediting of Abimilech’s rule. Not only was the ill-gotten revenue not going to him, but all of this was done without his knowledge or consent.
v.26 Now another man appears on the scene who senses an opportunity for himself.
v.29 Gaal appeals to ethnic pride. Why should proud Shechem be subject to an outsider, this son of Gideon? Hamor, remember, was the “father” of Shechem, according to Gen. 33:19. We today would call this speech an instance of playing the “race” or “ethnicity” card. The world hasn’t changed much, has it? It would be like someone in California today saying, “Why should we be ruled by an Austrian, particularly an Austrian married to a Massachusetts blue-blood?” Gaal of course, claims to be representing the true Shechemite heritage.
v.33 Abimilech did not necessarily live at Shechem, in any case he wasn’t present when the city rose up against his rule. But his deputy sends word of the situation and requests that Abimilech act swiftly and make a no-nonsense response.
v.37 What seems to have happened is this: Zebul was with Abimilech, perhaps leading one of the four companies. Gaal tries to distract or frighten him by making him think that reinforcements are coming to the aid of the Shechemites. But Zebul doesn’t bite.
v.41 Abimilech wins the skirmish and succeeds in driving out of Shechem the leader of the opposition to his rule. But Abimilech was not a man to leave matters there. He was going to crush his opposition.
v.45 Now the victims of Abimilech’s violence were the ordinary townsfolk, most of whom had little to do or nothing to do with the organized opposition to Abimilech’s rule. Abimilech, a man who had killed 69 of his half-brothers, was not a man concerned with the niceties of just war theory. Scattering salt over a town would not, of course, prevent crops from growing as they were not grown in the town. It was probably a symbolic act, putting a permanent curse on the city.
v.46 It was not the entire city that had been conquered, but the lower, larger part, where the shops and homes of the town were located. The acropolis on which the temple fortress stood now held the citizens who had fled before Abimilech’s advancing forces.
v.49 No one knows precisely where Mt. Zalmon was. Obviously it was a nearby source of wood. As Jotham had predicted, knowingly or unknowingly, the Shechemites died by fire that came from Abimilech, their own choice for a king.
v.50 Desiring to extend and solidify his rule, Abimilech went next to Thebez, probably a satellite town of Shechem. Once again he took the town quite quickly and easily and now was faced with assaulting the fortress. Thinking to do the same thing he had done at Shechem he approached the tower with wood in order to burn it.
v.54 Abimilech retained consciousness long enough to ask his armor-bearer to kill him so that it couldn’t be said that he was killed by a woman.
v.55 The Israelites were the men who had been following Abimilech. Upon the death of their leader they went home.
The great question posed by this material – a substantial chapter of the book – is, of course: why include it at all? Abimilech isn’t a judge. He doesn’t deliver Israel. The land doesn’t enjoy peace for a generation because of anything he did. He wasn’t called by the Lord and the Holy Spirit did not come upon him to equip him for some great work. Abimilech is unlike any of the other principle characters of the Book of Judges. So why include all of this material about him? There may be several reasons. His story certainly demonstrates that, by this time, the character of the people of Israel has been set, the nation has been thoroughly Canaanized. They are behaving like any other Canaanite people.
But the narrator has more to say than that. Certainly one of his points is that the sins of Gideon are writ large in the career of his son. [Wenham, 125] “The ethical and spiritual seed sown by Gideon…came to full bloom and fruition in the life of his son Abimilech.” [Block, 308] As one commentator put it, “The apple has not fallen far from the parental tree.” It is an instance of God’s promise to visit a father’s sins upon his children.
There are a number of demonstrations of this point. Think of just these connections. 1) The story is all about Shechem which enters the picture only because Gideon took a concubine from there, which he should not have done, but which he did in violation of the law of God as written in Deuteronomy [both the law prohibiting rulers from taking many wives and the law forbidding intermarriage with Canaanites]. 2) Gideon names his son, Abimilech which means “My Father is King,” even though Gideon with a kind of hypocritical piety refused to become Israel’s king, when asked; though he acted like a king and used his position to get great wealth for himself and to sponsor a shrine in his town, the sort of things that kings did in those days. Abimilech will aspire to be a king in chapter 9 and prove Gideon’s hypocrisy on a grand scale. His son thought his father a king and therein lay the seeds of the disaster that was to come. 3) Gideon killed the male inhabitants of a town that did not show him proper deference. Abimilech would do worse, killing men, women, and children. The violence that stained Gideon’s life bears a still more bitter fruit in the life of his son. 4) You may have noticed yourselves the close similarity between the speech of the Lord’s prophet at the beginning of the Gideon narrative, in 6:7-10 and Jotham’s speech here in 9:7-20. The prophet brings a lawsuit against the Israelites in the name of the Lord; Jotham brings a lawsuit against the Shechemites in the name of God and Gideon. [Webb, 155] In each case what follows demonstrates the spiritual betrayal of the Lord that had been described in each speech. So the situation is a bad or worse in Abimilech’s day as it was in Gideon’s. 5) At the end of the battle with the Midianites, Gideon asks his son to kill the two Midianite kings with his sword. At the end of the Abimilech battle, Abimilech must ask a lad, his armor-bearer to kill him with his sword. There are other parallels between Gideon’s history and Abimilech’s that you can look for and find yourselves. (e.g. Gideon kills the Midianite kings because they had killed his brothers and God kills Abimilech because he had killed his brothers; two towns; etc.)
What we have in the material of chapter 9 itself, as the author makes clear, is an account of divine retribution. Two explicit explanations of the author’s theme are provided in chapter 9: the first in vv. 23-24, the second, at the end in vv. 56-57. Twice the narrator says that what happened was God’s way of punishing Abimilech for the murder of his half-brothers.
So this history is about divine retribution, the punishment of wickedness, and, in particular, how that punishment is executed in such a way that the evil that Abimilech does and that the men of Shechem do rebounds upon their own heads. [Webb, 154] This is the first time that God does not act in mercy to deliver his people, but only in justice to punish them. There is, in fact, a precise symmetry to the events as they are reported: “act answers to act, and evil to evil.”  We are to note the precise parallels.
1. Abimilech’s going to Shechem to persuade its leaders to conspire with him against the sons of Jerubbaal is answered by Gaal’s arrival in Shechem to persuade its leaders to conspire with him against Abimilech.
2. The ambush set by the men of Shechem in 9:25 – in their rebellion against Abimilech – is answered by the ambush set by Abimilech against Shechem.
3. Abimilech, who killed the 69 sons of Gideon on one stone is himself killed by one stone dropped on his head by a woman of Thebez.
This is a familiar theme in the Bible. I’ve commonplaced my Bible on this point at Psalm 7:16:
“He who is pregnant with evil and conceives trouble gives birth
to disillusionment. He who digs a hole and scoops it out falls
into the pit he has made. The trouble he causes recoils on himself;
his violence comes down on his own head.”
That is, divine justice secures the punishment of wickedness often in that way in which the wicked fall prey to the very kind of trouble that they caused for others. For example, as the adage has it: “he who lives by the sword dies by the sword.” Here the parallel between sin and punishment is more precise still. The subverter is subverted; the man who murdered in order to secure power for himself is killed in the most humiliating way while seeking to hold on to that ill-gotten power; the violent man dies violently.
But we add to this the fact that the sins of the fathers are also, in this history, demonstrated to have been visited upon the sons. Abimilech imitates his father’s sins and they become still more sinister in the second generation than even they were in the first.
The entire book of Judges is, in a way, an extended treatise on the nature, the working, and the power of sin. We are reminded again here, as so often in the Bible, of sins power to despoil and to ruin. We are also reminded of its generative power. Sin yields more and more of itself. Sin is both fatal and fertile. As someone has said, it is like a man with AIDS who at one and the same time infects and impregnates a woman: he reproduces and kills at the same time. Or it is like cancer. It kills precisely by reproducing. It is lethal because of its fertility. [Plantinga, Not the Way its Supposed to Be, 54-55] Now in Judges 9 this fact about sin is elaborated in two ways. One way is that we cannot contain it within ourselves, within our own generation. The sins of the fathers are visited upon the children, like it or not.
“Children not only look but often act like their parents. Alcoholics, for
instance, often spring from alcoholic parents and tend, in turn, to
marry alcoholic spouses and to produce still more alcoholic children….
Similarly for racism, ethnic hatred…and many other bigotries.” [Plantinga, 55]
Angry husbands often had angry fathers. Silent husbands, silent fathers, and the like. Controlling mothers often imitate their own mothers. Abused children are often the product of abuse; they also often abuse their own children. But it is still more complicated than that, of course. In many profoundly mysterious ways the sins of the fathers are visited upon the children. Children who grow up feeling victimized – either because of a sense of victimization harbored in the hearts of their parents or because they were the victims of parental sins – often grow up not only embittered, angry, and vengeful, but feeling they are entitled in a way that others are not. Pride, in a kind of strange reversal, is the result of humiliation. In any case, there is no doubt here in Judges 9 that Abimilech is the son of his father Gideon and reproduces in his own behavior what he has seen and known in the behavior of his father.
But there is a second way in which the generative power of sin is illustrated in Judges 9. It is not only that sin springs from generation to generation but there is a principle of growth, of gathering strength from generation to generation. The second law of thermodynamics does not apply to sin. There is no increase of entropy from one generation to the next. Sin rather organizes itself as it moves from one generation to the next; it gathers strength; it consumes more than it did before and turns its food to muscle. In Abimilech’s case, the man is more cruel than his father was, who was cruel enough; he is more uncaring of what is right and just; he is more ready to violate the most sacred bonds of human life; he is less hindered by conscience; he is more violent.
One of the very best reasons any of us who is or will be a parent has for walking in humble obedience with God, for killing our sins, for putting on holiness in the fear of the Lord, is that our sins are visited upon our children. Gideon was a believing man, but look what his sins did to and became in the life of his son, Abimilech. See the spiraling downward. I don’t say, of course, that this connection is never broken. It is, by the grace of God, and the Bible says it is. But far too often the connection remains. Our sins are the curse our children bear. We see it in our society, of course. How difficult it is for children to escape the net that was woven around them by the sins of their parents. I see children in my neighborhood whose lives are over, one fears, before they are scarcely begun. It breaks your heart to see them and it frightens you to think of what they will become, how they will treat the women and children in their lives, and so on. The sins of their parents have ruined them before they had even the hope of a good start. But it can be so in Christian lives as well. How many times have we seen children imitating the sins of their parents and finding those sins even more corrupting and deadly in their effect than they were in the lives of their parents.
Christ, the Scripture tells us, he himself tells us, “sanctified himself” for our sake [John 17:19]. He walked in holiness because his holiness was essential for our salvation. Well every Christian parent and parent-to-be must do the same. Mothers and fathers must sanctify themselves for the sake of their children. Our children need nothing so much from us as their parents as a holy life, a life of love, of purity, of goodness, of selfless interest in the welfare of others, of worship, of faith, of hope. Rooting sins out of our own hearts and lives roots them out of the lives of our children as well.
And we will do this with even greater zeal when we take care to notice the severity of God’s wrath visited upon these sinful characters of chapter 9. God would not permit those sins to remain unpunished and he was severe in his punishment of them. Violent death all around. It is not as if the worldliness that Israel chose for herself was some kind of benign life, benighted only because God disapproved of it. As we see here, it was a life that engendered bitterness, hatred, cruelty, violence, and the death of a great many people – men, women, and children.
We are constantly tempted to think that somehow our sins are going to escape such a severe punishment. They may, at least in the near term. They may in our entire life escape direct punishment. They did in Gideon’s case. They did not, however, in the life of his son. God’s patience has limits and his wrath, we see here, is a consuming fire. That text – that God is a consuming fire – is cited from Deuteronomy 9. At the end of Hebrews 12, a letter written to Christians. The book of Judges with its warnings is also written to believers. Its warnings are for us, not in the first place for some community of people who don’t read the Bible and don’t care what it says. To us it is written, “our God is a consuming fire!”
I said last week that we are to learn from such texts to fear sin. Here we are given two more reasons to fear it and, for that reason, to kill it whenever we see it in our hearts and lives. God will not be mocked. Whatsoever a man sows he shall reap; if not in his own life, in the life of his children. And it is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.