The Rise & Fall of Abimelech (JUDGES 9)

“Then Abimelech the son of Jerubbaal went to Shechem, to his mother’s brothers, and spoke with them and with all the family of the house of his mother’s father, saying, ‘Please speak in the hearing of all the men of Shechem: “Which is better for you, that all seventy of the sons of Jerubbaal reign over you, or that one reign over you?” Remember that I am your own flesh and bone.’ And his mother’s brothers spoke all these words concerning him in the hearing of the men of Shechem; and their heart was inclined to follow Abimelech, for they said, ‘He is our brother.’ So they gave him seventy shekels of silver from the temple of Baal Berith, with which Abimelech hired worthless and reckless men; and they followed him. Then he went to his father’s house at Ophrah and killed his brothers, the seventy sons of Jerubbaal, on one stone. But Jotham the youngest son of Jerubbaal was left, because he hid himself. And all the men of Shechem gathered together, all of Beth Millo, and they went and made Abimelech king beside the terebinth tree at the pillar that was in Shechem” (Jud. 9:1-6).

Jerubbaal (Gideon) had many sons, and Abimelech in particular was exceedingly power-hungry! Not only would he use the influence of his mother’s brothers to help persuade the men of the city to make him their king, but he would then use idol-money to hire wicked scoundrels who would help him eliminate any competition for the throne from his brothers. Although there is no evidence that the position of judge was to be passed down in one’s family, the idea had been suggested previously (cf. 8:22). Abimelech, with the help he hired to do dirty work, executed all of his brothers except Jotham who hid himself. To murder anyone is bad enough, but to murder nearly 70 siblings is unthinkable! This act shows the depth of Abimelech’s depravity and his lust for power. Technically speaking, Abimelech is the first king in Israel. However, he is generally not considered the first king since he forced himself into the position and his reign was not necessarily embraced by all twelve tribes (as Saul’s reign was).

Jotham, the youngest son of Jerubbaal, had escaped and would not remain silent about the tragedy that had occurred. While in a safe location (on Mt. Gerizim), he shouted down to the men of Shechem a fable about trees. The trees want a king to rule over them. They ask the olive tree to be their king, but he declines; he has other work to do. They ask the fig tree to be their king, but he rejects their offer; he has other work to do. They ask the vine to be their king, but he refuses; he has other work to do. Finally, they ask “the bramble” (which is basically a shrub with long, sharp thorns). He is willing to be their leader! Why? Because he has nothing else better to do than to boss others! Those who aspire to be king are generally tyrants at heart. The bramble invites the other trees to “come and take shelter in my shade” (9:15). What a joke! The bramble promises much but provides very little shade because it is so close to the ground. It makes no sense for a tree to seek shade from a position that is lower than it is! The worthless bramble would make a terrible king for the trees, and likewise the worthless Abimelech will make an awful king in Israel.

Jotham continued:

“Now therefore, if you have acted in truth and sincerity in making Abimelech king, and if you have dealt well with Jerubbaal and his house, and have done to him as he deserves–for my father fought for you, risked his life, and delivered you out of the hand of Midian; but you have risen up against my father’s house this day, and killed his seventy sons on one stone, and made Abimelech, the son of his female servant, king over the men of Shechem, because he is your brother–if then you have acted in truth and sincerity with Jerubbaal and with his house this day, then rejoice in Abimelech, and let him also rejoice in you, but if not, let fire come from Abimelech and devour the men of Shechem and Beth Millo; and let fire come from the men of Shechem and from Beth Millo and devour Abimelech!” (9:16-20).

Jotham knows they have not treated his family fairly. Even if the men of Shechem were only indirectly involved, they had a role to play in the murder of his brothers. Jotham closes by cursing both Abimelech and the men of Shechem in that they would destroy one another. As fire spreads fast in bramble and destroys many good trees, so it would be with Abimelech and Shechem.

“After Abimelech had reigned over Israel three years, God sent a spirit of ill will between Abimelech and the men of Shechem; and the men of Shechem dealt treacherously with Abimelech, that the crime done to the seventy sons of Jerubbaal might be settled and their blood be laid on Abimelech their brother, who killed them, and on the men of Shechem, who aided him in the killing of his brothers” (9:22-24).

The men of Shechem grow tired of Abimelech and, after several years, they seek to remove him from his position. God had allowed a spirit of bitterness to develop between the two parties. A man by the name of Gaal rose to prominence and gained the confidence of many of the men of Shechem. But, Abimelech was warned of this and encouraged to come to Shechem secretly at night and then storm the city in the morning.

“So Abimelech and all the people who were with him rose by night, and lay in wait against Shechem in four companies. When Gaal the son of Ebed went out and stood in the entrance to the city gate, Abimelech and the people who were with him rose from lying in wait. And when Gaal saw the people, he said to Zebul, ‘Look, people are coming down from the tops of the mountains!’ But Zebul said to him, ‘You see shadows of the mountains as if they were men.’ So Gaal spoke again and said, ‘See, people are coming down from the center of the land, and another company is coming from the Diviners’ Terebinth Tree.’ Then Zebul said to him, ‘Where indeed is your mouth now, with which you said, “Who is Abimelech, that we should serve him? Are not these the people whom you despised? Go out, if you will and fight with them now'” (9:34-38).

Gaal turns out to be more of a talker than a fighter, and Abimelech defeats him. But, Abimelech isn’t satisfied with that. He then seeks vengeance against the city itself. He kills the inhabitants, demolishes the city, and sows it with salt. He proceeds to then destroy the tower of Shechem. He sets the tower on fire and kills approximately 1000 people who were seeking safety within it.

“Then Abimelech went to Thebez, and he encamped against Thebez and took it. But there was a strong tower in the city, and all the men and women–all the people of the city–fled there and shut themselves in; then they went up to the top of the tower. So Abimelech came as far as the tower and fought against it; and he drew near the door of the tower to burn it with fire. But a certain woman dropped an upper millstone on Abimelech’s head and crushed his skull. Then he quickly called to the young man, his armorbearer, and said to him, ‘Draw your sword and kill me, lest men say of me, “A woman killed him.”‘ So his young man thrust him through, and he died. And when the men of Israel saw that Abimelech was dead, they departed, every man to his place. Thus God repaid the wickedness of Abimelech, which he had done to his father by killing his seventy brothers. And all the evil of the men of Shechem God returned on their own heads, and on them came the curse of Jotham the son of Jerubbaal” (9:50-57).

Why did he attack Thebez? Likely they had tried to help Shechem in some way. Although the plan of attack is similar, Abimelech’s vengeance is cut short this time–and by a woman! Nothing says victory like a large stone dropped on the enemy leader’s head! God repaid Abimelech and those of Shechem for what they had done (cf. Gen. 9:6). It is interesting to note how the entire effort died with Abimelech. Bravery and plans often perish with their leaders. This is true for both good and evil efforts.

#judges