Harry Whittaker
Judges And Ruth

12. The Abominable Abimelech (8:29-9:57)

For the next forty years there was tranquility in that part of the Land. Gideon was a good judge, but not without his faults. He multiplied wives to himself (Deut. 17:17), he tolerated (in Shechem) the Baal-worshipping Canaanites (Deut. 20:17,18), and he did little to prevent the divorce between the northern tribes and the tabernacle at Shiloh, which his new sanctuary at Ophrah encouraged. And in spite of Gideon’s continuing insistence that “the Lord (and not Gideon) shall rule over you”, thankfulness to God for deliverance from the buccaneers of the desert waned. Also, they quite ceased to be grateful to Gideon — Jerub-Baal! — for delivering them from spiritual thraldom.

“And it came to pass, as soon as Gideon was dead, that the children of Israel turned again, and went a whoring after Baalim, and made Baal-berith their god” (8:33).

This immediate apostasy after the death of Gideon seems to have been entirely local in character. Apparently it had its centre in Shechem. It was, indeed, the worst kind of apostasy in that there was in it a large element of truth. It esteemed the holy associations of Shechem with Abraham and Jacob (Gen. 12:6,7 and 33:20). The deity it worshipped was called El-berith, the god of the covenant, with allusion to the Fathers just mentioned or to the covenant which, at the instigation of Joshua, the people had made there at Shechem with the God of their Fathers (Josh. 24:25). In later days Zephaniah had to castigate the people of Judah because “they swear (loyalty) to the Lord, and they (also) swear by Malcam.” Here, at a much earlier date, was the same thing in different dress.

Nor was this the only seed of evil growing up after the death of Gideon. Besides his enormous family, he had left also Abimelech who was his son by a Canaanitish concubine (NIV: slave girl) in Shechem. This Abimelech had all the ambition that his father had lacked. Realising that the sons were hardly as popular as their father had been, he began to scheme how that leadership might become his.

The name given him by his father commemorated Gideon’s unbudgable principle: “God is king” (8:28) — Ab, father, was commonly used in an idiomatic way for God. But now that Gideon was dead, Abimelech gave his own name a different twist: “My father was king”, with the implication: “and therefore I have the same right also”.


Next, he began a clever propaganda campaign in Shechem, where Canaanites still predominated. Working through his Canaanitish relatives on his mother’s side, he cunningly discredited his brethren, the sons of Gideon, and at the same time commended himself to the Shechemites as one of their own folk. Why should they put up with rule from seventy people, Israelites all of them, when instead their interests would be better served if they were governed by one of themselves?

The coup d’etat proceeded on quite normal lines. Funds for the hiring of a gang of desperadoes were supplied from the temple treasury of Baal-berith, the flat rate for the job being one piece of silver per murder! Choosing an appropriate time (one of the feasts of the Lord?) when all Gideon’s family would be gathered together at Ophrah, Abimelech and his hired assassins descended on them, and slew them in their own town — “upon one stone”. The reference is surely to the stone in Ophrah which had been hallowed by Gideon’s sacrifice when he was first commissioned by the angel to lead Israel against the Midianites. Thus Abimelech showed his cynical contempt not only for his father but also for his father’s faith.

The grim contract was not fully carried out, for Jotham, the youngest of the family, was able to hide from the murderous onslaught, and so escaped. He must have been not only very young but also a lad of exceptional character and ability, for he determined that even at the risk of his life he would utter his curse against those who perpetrated such a foul deed.

With the same brazen cynicism that he had already shown, Abimelech chose, as the place of his coronation, the very place sanctified by the covenant made with the Lord by Israel at the time of Joshua (Josh. 24:25,26). It was at that place also where the blessings and curses of the Law had been recited (Deut. 27:12ff; Josh. 8:30-34). In this desperate coup d’etat Abimelech brought upon himself a surprising number of those Deuteronomic curses!

Jotham’s parable

It was whilst the ceremony was in progress that Jotham stood forth on a projecting ledge of Mount Gerizim to denounce those who had imported gangster rule into Israel. Gerizim was the place whence the Blessings of the Law had been proclaimed to the people under Joshua (Josh. 8:33), but now the burning words of Jotham turned even these into a curse. Travellers say that there is a projecting crag on the face of the mountain that would make a fine natural pulpit for Jotham’s denunciation. His words rang clear and loud in the valley below, and the stiff climb facing any who might seek to pursue him ensured freedom from capture.

Jotham’s parable of the trees of the forest, quite without parallel in Scripture, is full of interest.

When the trees decided that they must choose themselves a king, first the olive and then the fig-tree and then the vine declined the honour emphatically on the grounds that they had more profitable work to do than merely spend time lording it over their fellows, which egotistic activity was — so they all implied — a particularly futile way of life; they had much more important things to do, fulfilling their responsibilities both to God (in His sacrifices and drink-offerings), and also to man.

So in desperation the rulership was offered to the bramble, a trailing spiny plant of the wall of thicket, having neither fruit nor shade nor timber; it could only be a nuisance to its fellows and to men. The bramble, aspiring after the honour and wishing to make its position secure against those who doubted its qualifications, reinforced its persuasions by threat and bombast. By all means “Put your trust in my shadow (the shadow of the bramble, forsooth!); and if not let fire come out of the bramble, and devour the cedars of Lebanon.”

Jotham then proceeded to expound at least in part his own parable. The olive, fig and vine represented Gideon and his sons who had served the community faithfully and despised the transient rewards of royal status at the expense of the rest. Whereupon these men of Shechem had chosen one who could be likened only to a bramble, destitute of fruit, shade, and timber, and having only nuisance value, especially n starting a forest fire. Jotham went on: ‘Did you men of Shechem show good faith with Gideon? Then what prospect is there of realisation of Abimelech’s hopes that you will be true to him? Let me wish you joy of your new monarch!’

With that, he uttered his solemn curse on them all: “Let fire come out from Abimelech, and devour the men of Shechem, and the house of Millo; and let fire come out from the men of Shechem, and from the house of Millo, and devour Abimelech.”

Then Jotham ran for his life from the men who were even now scaling the mountain side to take him.

The story of the outworking of Jotham’s curse is sordid, but fascinating as a realistic record of what undisciplined human nature gets up to.

King Abimelech has problems

For three years Abimelech reigned as undisputed despot in that region. Then by degrees because of the character of his regime there sprang up a serious disaffection among the Shechemites who had first acclaimed him so enthusiastically. At first there was no open resistance in the city, but some of the wilder spirits took to the mountains and plundered the caravans that used the busy east-west and north-south roads through Shechem. Doubtless a good deal of Abimelech’s revenue came from the tolls paid by these traders; so he could not afford to have them scared away by marauders.


Whilst he was away from Shechem (seeking to extend his “sphere of influence” in other parts of Ephraim and Manasseh?), a number of these guerrillas, led by Gaal, the son of a Hittite slave, came to Shechem at the time of grape-harvest. When the harvest festival was in full swing in the temple of Baal-berith, Gaal — now more than half-tipsy through over-indulgence — began to say openly and boldly what all the town had been whispering for a good while. He reviled Abimelech to his fellow-Hittites as an upstart Israelite (see how the usurper’s mixed parentage now turns to his disadvantage!): ‘If only I had the chance to give these fine people of Shechem the lead they really need! Why doesn’t Abimelech gather his forces, and come and fight me and my men? Is it because he dare not?’

Zebul, mayor of the town and Abimelech’s deputy, was a cautious and astute man, who hoped to profit from a collision between these violent factions. He knew on which side the real strength lay. Nevertheless he realised that immediate strong measures against Gaal would only bring out the entire population in open rebellion. So, instead, he sent a message to Abimelech urging him to make a speedy return during the night. By placing his forces advantageously, he could seize the opportunity to cut off Gaal and his fighters from their base in the city when they came out to do battle next morning.

Civil war

Abimelech saw the wisdom of this suggestion, but carried out the maneuver so clumsily that his men were picked out moving about on the hillside in the early light of dawn. Even so, by clever sarcastic words uttered before many of the people, Zebul succeeded in goading Gaal to attempt a trial of strength with Abimelech: ‘Where is your boasting now? Didn’t you say only last night that you’d be glad of a chance to fight Abimelech?’ Gaal dare not draw back, or his prestige would be utterly gone, although, in the sober light of morning with the wine no longer inflaming his brain, the overthrow of Abimelech appeared a much tougher proposition altogether.

So he and his men marched out to battle — and defeat. Within a short while they were driven back towards the city demoralised and disgraced. But Zebul had shut the gates of the city against them, so they fled for safety where they could.

Doubtless the Shechemites thought their disturbances were now over. But Abimelech was not the forgiving sort. Next morning the people, thinking that hostilities were now concluded, went forth in considerable numbers to resume their work in the fields. This was Abimelech’s opportunity to repeat the stratagem of the previous day, only this time it was done more efficiently and against unarmed unsuspecting people. Thus many, being quite unable to offer resistance, were slain. There followed an assault on the city itself, and at length in the evening Abimelech took it and put the rest of the population to the sword. He symbolically sowed the city with salt, in token of its utter subjugation.

Abimelech’s sudden end

On the shoulder of the hill — Mount Zalmon (it means “image”; v. 46) — only a short distance from Shechem, was the tower of Shechem and the temple of Baal-berith. The priests and people here were known to be against Abimelech. So when they learned of the fall of Shechem, fearing that trouble was in store for themselves, they all crowded into the tower for refuge.

Abimelech led his men against them with great bravery and resource. He set the example by carrying a bough of a tree to lay against the door of the tower. His men responded in like fashion, so that firing the pile, they soon had the building a mass of flames. All the wretched fugitives within were either destroyed in the conflagration or cut down as they sought to escape.

There was similar trouble at Thebez, a town about twelve miles north of Shechem and near to Gideon’s town Ophrah. Probably the people, having kinship with the family of Gideon, had never taken kindly to Abimelech’s dictatorship and were glad of what seemed to be a good opportunity to throw off his yoke.

The scene at the tower of Shechem came near to being re-enacted. Again the people took refuge in their strong tower; and again Abimelech led the assault, following the same tactics. But this time as he drew near to the door of the tower, hoping to set a blaze going, a woman — remembered in history (2 Sam. 11:21), although nameless — threw a millstone from the top of the tower. Just as the original quarrel in Shechem was stirred up by an evil spirit from the Lord (v. 23), so now it was angelic control doubtless which guided the casting of that millstone so that it cracked Abimelech’s skull. Tough in spirit to the very last, he cried out to his armour-bearer: “Draw thy sword, and slay me that men say not of me, A woman slew him.” So he died, and in spite of his last desperate contrivance he was remembered more than a hundred years later as the man who was slain by a woman.

In this way the curse of intrepid young Jotham found complete fulfilment: “Thus God rendered the wickedness of Abimelech, which he did unto his father, in slaying his seventy brethren: and all the evil of the men of Shechem did God render upon their heads: and upon them came the curse of Jotham the son of Jerubbaal.”


Chapter 8

Why is this verse here?

Chapter 9

Jerub-Baal. Since they were mostly Hittites, this name played on their prejudices. Here Gideon’s principle (8:23) is roughly set at nought.
Upon one stone, as though it were a judicial execution, or as though there were sacrifices to Baal for past sacrilege. Not improbably, this was the inscribed stone of Josh. 24:26,27, pushed over in contempt and used as a slaughter stone. This slaughter set the pattern for the extermination of five dynasties in the northern kingdom begun by Jeroboam at Shechem.
This temple and pillar and a large flat stone were found by archaeologists in 1963.
Olive, fig, vine intended perhaps to suggest Gideon and his son, and his son’s son; 8:22.
My fatness: wherewith they honour God: the holy lamps, sacrifices, and anointing oil.

Be promoted means “sway about over”.
Cheereth God, by cheering God’s men; Matt. 26:28,29; John 2:8-10; also, the drink offerings.
All the trees. But there is no “all” in v. 8,10,12, implying that the bramble had not joined in the urging of the other three.
Trust in my shadow. How does one crawl under a bramble? And once there, stir an inch and there is only torment and laceration.

Devour the cedars of Lebanon. A prophecy of all coming to ruin.
King over the men of Shechem implies non-acceptance by the other tribes.
Fire....from the men of Shechem. Not in Jotham’s parable. Nor did it so happen.
Gaal the son of Ebed means near-kinsman, the son of a slave, which by an irony exactly describes Abimelech. Now it is bramble against bramble.
Son of Jerub-Baal. Abimelech’s Israelite blood is now against him; contrast v. 2.
LXX: And I would say to Abimelech. Big mouth! v. 38.
The plain of Meonenim. Better: the wizard’s oak; s.w. Deut. 18:10,14. The same oak as in Gen. 35:4.
Gaal and his followers only, not the general populace.
Three companies; i.e., two of the four companies (v. 34) joined together to secure the city gate. The other two massacred the people in the fields.
Fire, thus fulfilling Jotham’s curse literally (v. 20).

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